The parish of Ramsden Crays can be found on the A129 just west of
Wickford. Beside the road is Crays Hill (TQ714922 area) where, so the
stories say, the village gallows once stood. The spot is said to be
haunted by a ghostly boy all in white.
Source: Federation of Essex
Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001),
Once a manor house of the parish, now just a moated farm, Beeches
(TQ791944) is said to have a field called Ladylands which had a
blackened patch that nothing could eradicate. This was supposed to be
because a woman was burnt there in the 16th century. There’s no evidence
for that particular incident, but it probably came about because Edmund
Tyrrell (1513-76), Justice of the Peace and holder of Beeches manor, was
instrumental in the persecution and burning of heretics.
Source: Philip Benton: ‘The
History of Rochford Hundred’ (A.Harrington, 1867.) Vol 2, p.659.
Only a vague legend here, concerning the 11th century Rayleigh Castle at
TQ804909, of which only earthworks survive. As the source puts it, “The
place has neither history nor legend, except, of course, the usual story
of a subterranean passage leading to some impossible place.” I have no
more than that, for the moment.1
Paul Pry pub in the High Road, a tunnel is said to lead to the
Travellers Joy (TQ804913) in Downhall Road.2 This latter pub
stands roughly on the site of a small prison, with the lord of the
manor's gallows once standing opposite in Hangman's Field. 'Ghostly
occurrences' were told of this spot, probably beginning when the stump
of the gallows was supposedly unearthed in the 19th century.3
1. C. R. B. Barrett: ‘Essex:
Highways, Byways & Waterways’ (Lawrence & Bullen, 1893), p.170.
Rochford Hall (TQ870903) may date originally from the 12th century, but
the current building is of the 16th, and now a golf club house. It was
owned by the Boleyn family from 1515, and said to be host to clandestine
meetings between Anne Boleyn and Henry V111. There was supposed to be a
network of tunnels beneath the house used to facilitate such meetings,
and to enable the lovers to sneak out to a inn.1
An underground link was also rumoured between the Hall and Creeksea
Place (TQ933960) at Burnham-on-Crouch. This was another reputed home
of Anne Boleyn, but the tale here is that her daughter, Elizabeth 1st,
met with her soldiers who had come through the tunnel from Rochford.2
At more than ten miles in length, and passing under the river Crouch,
this is a very unlikely tunnel.
At the junction of Head Street and High Street there used to be the
Three Crowns Inn (TM030218), now a residential house. Like most of the
pubs on the Essex coast it was well-known as a smuggler’s haunt, and had
an obligatory tunnel legend from there to the aptly-named Smuggler’s
Cottage just across the road.
Thieves’ Corner is a name now given to a short stretch of the A1060
between Roxwell and Chelmsford. Originally it was the name of a sharp
corner on the old Roxwell Road, at TL672076. Two versions exist to tell
how this spot got its name: the most prosaic is that a sheep stealer was
once hanged there. The other is that two thieves once assaulted the
owner of Boyton Hall, but he fought back, smacked their heads together,
and threw them into a nearby pond.
Source: Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost
Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.114.
The Devil at the church
A correspondent to ‘Notes and Queries’ in 1857 says that he got the
following story from “the Common-Place Book of an old clergyman, written
some years ago”, and called it ‘The Devil and Runwell Man’:
“The Devil wished the builder to build the church in a particular place;
but the builder would not consent and continued to erect it in another.
The Devil and he fought a pitched battle on the occasion; and the man
beat him. The Devil asked by what assistance he had vanquished him? He
answered, 'Through God and two spayed bitches.' A second battle ensued
soon after with the same success and interrogatories and answers. They
afterwards fought a third battle, in which the man was again successful.
On the Devil asking him who were the combatants, he answered,' Himself
and God.' The Devil finding he could not vanquish the man living, said
he would have him at all events, when dead, whether buried in the church
he was building or out of it. To elude this he ordered himself to be
buried half in the church and half out of it. His coffin, or rather the
cup of it, is to be seen of exceeding hard black stone."
The notion of being buried ‘half in and half out’ of a church occurs in
a number of tales throughout Britain, probably to explain the medieval
tombs found in some church walls. This theme and that of the ‘spayed
bitches’ are very similar to the themes of the Barnhall legend at
Tolleshunt Knights (and indeed that of the well-known Piers
Shonkes tradition in Hertfordshire.)
Source: ‘Notes & Queries’ 2nd
Series, Vol.4, (1857), p.25.
The Devil’s clawmarks
On the inside of the south door of St. Mary’s church (TQ753944), folk
are shown blackened marks which they are told is the burnt handprint of
the Devil’s claws, when he pursued and failed to grab an evil priest
named Rainaldus (rather like the legend told of Stanesgate Priory at
Steeple.) There is much more to the story but I shan't relate it here –
partly because it has been repeated so often in Essex guidebooks, but
mostly because it’s not a genuine folk tale. It was invented by Reverend Bazille-Corbin, rector at Runwell from 1923, and gloriously elaborated
upon in his unpublished book ‘Runwell St. Mary: A Farrago of History,
Archaeology, Legend and Folklore’.
Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry
Publications, 1987), p.2-7.
Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’
(Countryside Books, 2001), p.183-4
Whether arising from genuine tradition or
modern invention, the idea that the Devil has a presence at Runwell
church is reinforced by the tale that walking round it three times will
raise Old Nick once again. This, however, would be awkward when carrying
out the other local ritual, that circling St. Mary's three times on
Christmas Eve will manifest the sound of the phantom coach that haunts
the area of the former Runwell Hall, now a pub.