Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
St. Mark’s College at Audley End is built on the site of almshouses that were attached to a hospital, part of a Benedictine abbey that once existed here. An underground passage is alleged to run from the college (TL524377) to St. Mary’s church (TL537386) in the town.1
All that remains of the 12th century Walden Castle (TL539387) is the flint core of the keep and some earthworks. Some rumour of secret tunnels linked to the castle were evidently known in 1881, when old buildings on the site were being demolished and cleared away: “After a large quantity of earth, consisting of some hundreds of loads, had been removed for the purpose of tracing, if possible, the existence of any subway to or from the ruin, nothing was discovered that would in any way strengthen the tradition that such underground passages existed”.2
1. W. J. Chambers: 'Secret Tunnels' in 'Lantern' No.3, Autumn 1973, p.3.
2. Essex Field Club: ‘Journal of Proceedings’ Vol.4 (1884), p. lxxxviii.
In ‘Notes and Queries’ for May 31, 1856, can be seen the entry: "HANGMAN STONES.--Some years ago there was still to be seen in a meadow belonging to me, situate near the north-western boundary of the parish of Littlebury, in Essex, a large stone, the name of which and the traditions attached to it were identical with those recorded by your correspondents, treating of 'Hangman Stones.' This stone was subsequently removed by the late Mr. Jabez Gibson to Saffron Walden, and still remains in his garden at that place”.
There are at least 25 ‘Hangman Stones’ scattered across Britain, and in almost every case – including here – the legend is the same: Having caught one, a sheep stealer tied its legs together, but became very tired carrying it home. He lay down to sleep against a boulder, resting the sheep on top of it, but during the night the animal tried to get away. In its struggles, the sheep fell off the far side of the rock, the rope slipped over the thief’s head, and strangled him to death. A deep groove across the surface of the stone, worn by the rope, is always shown as evidence of the tale.
The one at Saffron Walden, a sarsen, is actually now in the private grounds of Elm Grove sheltered housing, on land once owned by Jabez Gibson, at TL540383.
Source: Gerald Lucy: 'Essex Boulders: A Gazetteer', in 'Essex Naturalist' (New Series, No. 20, 2003), p.131.
The Lady Well
The narrow Ladywell Lane heads east from Molram's Lane, terminating next to Ladywell House. The current Ordnance Survey map shows three springs in the area, two just north of Ladywell Lane, and one in Bluebell Wood east of the House (TL740044). The earliest OS maps actually marked this latter as 'Lady Well', a term usually applied to wells named after the Virgin Mary or a female saint. It exists now simply as a trickle emerging from a pipe, building into a little stream through the woodland. While local history records nothing about this spring, the researcher Ross Parish learned from the owner of Ladywell House that locally, the name was said to have come about because a woman drowned there.
The Old Red House (TQ942855) stands at the junction of Wakering Road and Elm Road, was built in 1637, and is haunted by the ghost of a girl who cut her own throat. A tunnel is said to have led from here to the 17th century Suttons Manor House, about three quarters of a mile away at TQ947857. In 1948, a paving stone was dislodged at the Red House, revealing the shaft of an old well where the tunnel was supposed to have begun – but the well was filled in without further investigation.1
Shoeburyness (or South Shoebury as it’s often known) was very much a garrison town from 1845 until the 1970’s. Rumours abound of secret goings-on during World War Two, including the construction of a tunnel from the Red House to Rampart Terrace, to allow the clandestine movement of troops to and from the seafront.2 Some say that this was actually an extension of the passage to Suttons.3
1. Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.40.
3. Dee Gordon: 'The Secret History of Southend-on-Sea' (The History Press, 2014; ebook version).
Monk's (TL759352) is a somewhat isolated 17th century house at Delvin End, north-west of Sible Hedingham. There's no real tale here, but a man who lived at Monks in the early 1950's was told of an underground passage which supposedly ran from the house to a nearby field. And that's it.
The Devil Steps
A long, steep run of stone steps can be found between Mount Road and Mount Crescent, at about TQ785878. They form part of a footpath heading north through a wooded area from Lime Road towards Bread and Cheese Hill on the A13 near Thundersley. According to folklore, if you go down the steps and reach the twelfth one, the Devil will appear.1 They are known locally as the Devil Steps (or sometimes, the Devil’s Steps), after a tale that the Devil one night knocked at the doors of Jarvis Hall (see the entry following). He was apparently looking for shelter from the Winter gales that he himself had made, but he fled when the doors opened and he saw priests inside (hiding from persecution), fleeing down the slope via the old steps.2 Others say the macabre reputation of the spot is linked to the death of a young woman, who tumbled down the steps from the top.3
2. Jessie K. Payne: ‘a Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.12.
Not far from the Devil Steps, beside Thundersley Park Road, is Jarvis Hall (TQ783879). Although there have been many later alterations, the heart of the house dates from about 1400. Once again, smugglers were here, supposedly using a tunnel that runs from the Hall to the church of St. Mary the Virgin at TQ778861, a little over a mile to the south.1
Another tunnel is rumoured to run from the church to the 15th-16th century Hoy and Helmet pub not far away in the High Street, at TQ777860;2 and another –far less likely – from Jarvis Hall to Benfleet railway station (which wasn’t even opened until 1855).3
Tucked away in the heart of Southend at TQ886858, in the angle where the A13 meets the A1160, is the impressive 16th century house called Porters. On the site of an older mansion, it now serves as a civic venue and mayor’s parlour. As usual in this part of the world, smugglers are given credit for creating a subterranean route from the house to somewhere on the seafront. People have remembered playing in the tunnel as children, but as happens so often in these tales, they couldn’t go far, and it might well have been a large medieval drain.
Not on the seafront, but to the east in Wakering Road, is the late 18th century country house (haunted by a lantern-bearing ghost) now host to Alleyn Court Preparatory School (TQ914872). Again, a smugglers' tunnel is supposed to terminate here after originating at Porters.
A reader of this site has now told me of another tunnel said to lead from the school to the nearby Rose Inn (TQ914873). When he was at school there, the gardener showed him the well, complete with hand rungs leading to the passage, but neither of them climbed down to explore any further. Apparently another lad had done so in the past, but the way had been blocked.
Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.69.
Dee Gordon: 'Haunted Southend' (The History Press, 2012; ebook version)
Information gratefully received from Tim Neobard.
Founded in the 12th century, the Cluniac priory at Prittlewell (TQ876873) has extensive park grounds, including a large duck pond with a small island in it. In days past a bride is said to have drowned there, and her shade now haunts the pond. A ghostly monk walks there also, his presence heralded by a disturbance among the ducks.
Source: Dee Gordon: 'Haunted Southend' (The History Press, 2012; ebook version)
The breeding stone
It was once a common rural superstition that certain types of stone, especially puddingstone, had the ability to grow (see under Magdalen Laver and Blaxhall) or to breed other stones. The Reverend Dr. Isaac Taylor recalled that, back in the 1840s, he was "taken by a man of the upper labouring class to see a well known breeding stone which lay on the sward by the side of a lane in the parish of South Weald, Brentwood. It was seemingly a water worn block of sandstone, or possibly, I have since thought, of pudding stone, which would explain a great deal. It was larger than a man's head, with a cup shaped cavity the size of a small orange, in which lay a pebble about as big as an acorn. I was told that this pebble continually grew larger, and that if it were removed the breeding stone would begin to breed another. It was evident that the man firmly believed what he told me, and he got quite angry when I ventured to cast a doubt upon the story".1
This may or not be the same puddingstone that Dr. Rudge saw in a low wall beside a path near the church at South Weald (TQ572938),2 and which is now in the churchyard itself.3
1. 'Notes & Queries' Vol. s-8 VII Issue 182, 22/6/1895.
2. E. A. Rudge: ‘The Statistical Evidence for a Conglomerate Alignment in Essex’ in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (1952), Vol.29, p.186.
3. Gerald Lucy: 'Essex Erratic Boulders: A Gazetteer' in 'Essex Naturalist' (New Series) No.20 (2003), p.122.
The pony in the pond
A pond that used to exist at Rookery Corner (c.TQ674820) was alleged to be haunted back in the early years of the 20th century. The ghostly form of a young woman dressed in a three-cornered hat would be seen at midnight riding through the pond on a white pony. This sounds rather similar to the ‘ghost from the water’ at Clacton.
Source: Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.118.
It used to be said that a tunnel leads from the site of the 12th century Thremhall Priory (TL532215), upon which an 18th century house now stands, to somewhere in Birchanger.1
Another was rumoured to run from Monks Farm (TL534233), now almost swallowed up by the airport, to the Norman castle in the town itself. Of the castle little now remains but fragments of masonry, now incorporated into a wooden reconstruction as part of a visitor attraction. Any such tunnel, running over 2km long, would surely have been exposed by the deep cutting of the M11 that now bisects its route.2 In July 2014, hot weather supposedly revealed the site of the tunnel's entrance, scorched into the grass at the castle. Apparently elderly locals remember this entrance from when they were children, and that it was sealed with an iron grill and covered with earth.3
3. 'Herts & Essex Observer' (online edition), 2/8/14.
Knolls Hill Farm (TQ491948) is on the site of a 14th century manor house, and a bricked-up entrance is shown as evidence of an underground passage leading to the 16th century Blackbush Farm (TQ487951).1 Another tunnel goes from Knolls Hill to the now-demolished High House Farm at TQ500952.2
The Devil’s handprint
One day there was a farmer, ploughing in his field next to an old priory. But the work was hard, and he was tired of it. He cried out that if he would do the work for him, the Devil could claim his soul. Just then, Satan popped up and took the plough from him, but the farmer ran screaming for the shelter of the priory. The Devil pursued, and made a grab for him, but the man entered the priory church just in time, and the marks of Old Nick’s hand were left in the stonework forever after.1
The priory in this story was Stansgate, a Cluniac establishment founded in 1112, on the shore of the river Blackwater beyond Ramsey Marsh. Virtually nothing is left of it now, with Stansgate Abbey Farm occupying the site (TL931058). After dissolution in 1525 the church was used as a barn, with the last of the priory ruins demolished by 1922, leaving only a wall made from reused stone. It’s said that, because of the legend, the field – often still called the Devil’s Field - wasn’t ploughed again until 1946. A variant of this tale states instead that the Devil was cornered inside the priory church and locked in. But when the villagers returned with assistance, they found only the Devil’s finger-marks, Satan having leapt out through a high window.2
2. Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.2.
St. Laurence church (TL934029) at Steeple was only built in 1884, but on the site of the previous medieval structure, destroyed by fire. A tunnel is rumoured to lead here from the cellars of the haunted 17th century Star Inn (TL937031), a little further along the Street.
Source: Former webpage: http://www.karenbowman.co.uk/news27954.html
The Bloody Pightle
Just outside the village, beside the B1054 (the Blois Road) heading for Wixoe, is a field long known as the ‘Bloody Pightle’. The local tale is that the name derives from a man having been burned at the stake there, a punishment for his ‘nonconformist beliefs’.1
Some have said that his name was Butcher.
Henry VIII’s ‘Acts of Supremacy’ weren’t enacted until 1534, but records show several people of the village named Butcher arrested for heresy (probably part of the drive against the Lollards) in 1528. There was Henry Butcher and his wife, and William Butcher and his wife, but they were taken to Colchester on May 11th and there forced to abjure (repent and recant), but were not burned. It is noted, however, that William Butcher’s great-grandfather had been burned for heresy – when, where and why are not recorded.2
1. Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001), p.210.
The church of St. Mary at Steeple (TL934029) has a tower, not a spire. Although some like to say the spire was “shot off in the war”, the usual tale is that an angry wizard caused a storm to knock it off. A poem1 written by Elizabeth Fleming in the early 20th century tells the story thus (first two and last two verses only):
Steeple Bumpstead had a Steeple
Steeple once so tall and splendid
were told and heads were shaken
I think this legend has come about from the assumption that the ‘Steeple’ in the village’s name is the same thing as a spire. The two words are often synonymous nowadays, but in fact ‘steeple’ can mean either ‘spire’ or ‘tower’. There may have been a small spire on top of the tower at one time, that was destroyed in a storm – but back in 1259, the village was called ‘Bumstede ad Turrim’: ‘Bumpstead at the Tower’.2
1. http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/137144 (A full copy of the poem can be bought from the post office at Steeple Bumpstead).
According to a source of 1928, “It is said that Queen Boadicea had a stronghold here at Stock – a steep mound at the foot of which there is still what looks like the remains of a moat. The manse garden runs down to this moat, from which the mound looks imposing.” I think the manse, formerly known as Rose Cottage, was close to the current Christ Church in Stock Road, which would put the moated mound in the TQ689988 area.
Source: Charlotte Mason: ‘Essex: Its Forest, Folk & Folklore’ (J. H. Clarke & Co, 1928), p.56.
A contributor to the ‘Essex Naturalist’ wrote in 1893 that “in our late rector's time there was a 'Holy Thorn' in the rectory garden at Stock. It used to bloom on Old Christmas Eve, and the blossom was of pure white, similar to the white bush. No leaves appeared - only the blossom, and it kept on for about three weeks”. This is similar to the tale of the original Thorn at Glastonbury, that grew from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff, and occurs also at Woodham Ferrers and many other locations.
Source: ‘The ‘Holy Thorn’ at Woodham Ferrers, Essex’ in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (1893), Vol.7, p.49.
Now heavily wooded, and a part of Crondon Park Golf Club, a field at TQ691996 was once known as Chapel Pieces. Just beyond the north-east corner of Swan Wood, it stood in the angle between two old roads (now footpaths) called St. Peter’s Way and Crondon Park Lane. The existence of a hermitage nearby (that had gone by 1571), along with two fishponds in the field that had once been part of the Bishop of London’s deer park, seem enough to have convinced people that there was once a monastery here. A mound with traces of a moat around it was believed to be where the monks were buried – and for some reason they believed that a secret tunnel ran from the mound to Ingatestone Hall, more than two miles west at TQ653986.
St. Osyth’s Well
In the year 653 AD, when the village was still known as Chich, the abbess of the local convent was beheaded by the marauding Danes. Known as Osgyth or Osyth, and a member of royalty, this remarkable woman then picked up her head and made it as far as the church door before expiring. On the spot where she was struck a miraculous spring of water gushed forth, resorted to afterwards by many as a cure for a multitude of ills. The spring still exists at TM116166, with a brick covering over it, feeding the nearby Dolphin Pond, in Nun’s Wood, in the private St. Osyth Park outside the village. Even into the 19th century it was believed that Osyth’s ghost walked, carrying her head, visiting “well, wood and church, scaring the traveller who was so unfortunate as to be belated in Nun’s Wood”.
Robert Charles Hope: ‘The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England’ (Stock, 1893), p.73-4.
The impressive remains of the priory founded by Osyth still dominate the centre of the village, in the TM120156 area. A tunnel was believed to run from the priory to The Old House (now two dwellings), at the junction of Spring Road and Chapel Lane (TM123155). The Old House, once known as Priory Cottages, has a cellar dating back to 1300, and may have once been the maltings for the priory.
The general in the mound
A fine bowl barrow (TL688443) on Rowley Hill is said in local legend to be the grave of one of Boudicca’s generals.