Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
The 15th century mansion of Faulkbourne Hall is said to be connected via underground passageway to the church of St. Nicholas (TL817154), over a mile away on Chipping Hill in Witham.
The coffin field
Several stone coffins of the Roman period were found in about 1890 in the southern part of the parish, between the B1023 and the edge of Kelvedon. A correspondent to the ‘Essex Naturalist’ in that year noted another discovered earlier “in a meadow at the opposite end of the parish”. This one contained female bones, and may be the same exhumation as that found at about TL875205, a little east-north-east of the church. The correspondent stated that “A singular legend appertains to the field in which this coffin was found. Even now the common people avoid this meadow by night”. Frustratingly, he gave no details of the “singular legend”, so I hope a reader of this site might be able to shed some light on it.
Source: ‘Essex Naturalist’ (1890), Vol.4, p.156.
The Felsted Hag
On the corner where Chelmsford Road meets the B1417 in the centre of the village is the 16th century Boote House, now a restaurant (TL676203). A series of exterior curved and carved brackets help to support the overhanging first floor, but the one facing the junction is rather more elaborate. The wooden effigy of a woman, bent over with her back and neck supporting the overhang, is affixed to the bracket, looking a bit like a rather small ship’s figurehead. The ‘official’ description is “a carved grotesque female with cloven hoofs”.1
As an inscription along one wall states, the house was built by George Boote in 1596, with many of the timbers coming from old sailing ships, and it may be that the ‘Felsted Hag’ was intended to ward off evil. She is now painted white, with black hooves and hair, green banding around her, and hideously red lips, fingernails and nipples. Some like to think that she represents George Boote’s wife who was supposedly cursed into ugliness by a witch, and whom he wed out of pity. Some once thought the figure to be evil and would avoid it.2 Nowadays, a local urban legend has arisen that the Hag comes to life on Halloween and walks the streets of Felsted.3
2. Terry Johnson: ‘Hidden Heritage: Discovering Ancient Essex’ (Capall Bann Publishing, 1996), p.91.
On the opposite side of the road to Boote House is the Swan Inn where, until the early 20th century, could be found a block described thusly in 1887: "In the 'Swan Inn' yard at Felstead there is a large boulder of soft limestone, measuring three feet by two feet six inches by two feet, which is very much weathered, the rain and frost having deeply wrinkled the sides: this is a glauconitic limestone, and doubtless belongs to the Greensand beds".1 At some point it was moved to a position in front of the Almshouses, and now sits in the gardens of the old house called Ingram's Close. Local historians have speculated that it could have been an erratic boulder shaped into the base of an old market or wayside cross, especially since it has recently been discovered that the square 'socket hole' in its upper surface still has traces of it being lead-lined.2
In 1971 the story was recorded that, in a time of plague in the village, the socket would have been filled with vinegar for locals to dip cloth into, for use as a disinfectant.3 This is a common story both in East Anglia and around the country (see Bury St. Edmunds, Stuston, Feltwell, Rickinghall Inferior and Thetford), although the usual idea is that coins would be washed in the vinegar to stem the spread of infection. This has never really been a satisfactory explanation for such tales, as the vinegar would have soon have evaporated, or been diluted by rainwater.
1. Rev. A. W. Rowe: 'Some Essex Boulders' in the 'Essex Naturalist' (1887) Vol. 1, p.118.
3. Adrian J. Herbert: "An Essex market cross is saved" in 'Essex Countryside' (1971), p.42.
In the 1920s and 30s, tales were current that subterranean passages emanated from Pond Park [TL69471946], Bridge House [TL70281657], and possibly Leighs Lodge [TL70631915] - all 15th to 17th century houses south-east of the village - to Leez Priory [TL70071852.] The remains of this 13th century house of Augustinian canons can be found in the grounds of the Tudor mansion of that name, right on the border with the now-merged parishes of Great and Little Leighs. For other tunnels from the Priory, see also Great Leighs and Little Leighs.
Source: 'News from the Greens' in 'Felsted Focus' (October 2020), p.11.
Witch-burial at the crossroads
North-east of the village of Finchingfield is the little hamlet of Howe Street, and a little further along is a typically English grassy triangle where the roads to Finchingfield, Stambourne and Wethersfield meet (TL700347). At this junction three witches are said to be buried, including Goofy Mumford, a schoolmistress of Howe Street in the late 18th century. Mumford was allegedly caught teaching witchcraft to some of the local girls, then dragged from her cottage – which still stands – and stoned to death by a mob.
Somewhere along the Wethersfield road leading from the junction above, five highwaymen are said to be buried by the roadside. They were believed to have been tried and hanged for their crimes on Justice’s Hill, a little further south.
In the garden of Goofy Mumford’s thatched 17th century cottage at Howe Street was – and presumably still is – a well. Perhaps because of the house’s connection with witchcraft, the spring gained the reputation of being a ‘wishing well’. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the then-owner of the cottage – a descendant of Mumford – used to sell the water to tourists, while some made wishes on the spot. Apparently one man wished that his wife would die, and as she did, very soon afterwards, visitors then had to be warned of the well’s power.
‘Halstead Gazette’ July 18th 1975.
Joan Forman: ‘Haunted East Anglia’ (Fontana/Collins, 1976), p.172.
The smuggler’s oak
Across the other side of Furneaux Lane from the Whalebone Inn at the crossroads in the centre of the village, next to the village pond and close to the churchyard, can be seen the Fingringhoe Oak (TM029203.) Also known as the Highwayman’s Tree, this oak has a girth of over seven metres, and at 600 years of age, is said to be the oldest in Essex. The usual story is that a smuggler was hanged outside the churchyard, and the oak has grown from an acorn placed in the dead man’s mouth before burial on the spot. As the name suggests, some think him to have been a highwayman, and others, a pirate.1,2,3
The tale made it into Baring-Gould’s 19th century novel ‘Mehalah’, adding a little flesh to the bones: “On that coast, haunted by smugglers and other lawless characters, a girl might well go armed. By the roadside to Colchester where cross ways met, was growing an oak that had been planted as an acorn in the mouth of a pirate of Rowhedge, not many years before, who had there been hung in chains for men murdered and maids carried off”.4
1. Roger Frith: ‘Smuggling on the Blackwater’, in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (1960-61), Vol.20, p.534.
4. Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould: ‘Mehalah’, (B. Tauchnitz, 1881), p.23.
Dating back to the late 14th or early 15th century, the White Lion pub (TQ716839) can be found on Lion Hill. It was originally a house that was supposedly a lodging for stone masons building a monastery nearby, and a tunnel was said to connect the two, with part of it still surviving.1 Unfortunately, there’s no record of any such monastery having existed.
Another tunnel is said to connect the White Lion with the former Fobbing Creek (dammed and then drained in the 1950’s), and the 15th century Bull Inn (TQ709833) in nearby Corringham village.2
St. Michael’s church (TQ717839), and the legendary tunnel beneath it to the Creek, are heavily involved in tales of smuggling in the Fobbing area. When the Creek was in full flood, the church was much closer to the waterside than it is now, and smugglers were said to use the church tower as a guiding landmark. When a small boy, a local man was told that once, smugglers were chased up the tunnel by the Devil – but before he could claim their souls, they slammed the passage door shut behind them at the church end. An oaken door in the church supposedly once bore Satan’s claw print burned into the wood.3
Again commencing at the church, a subterranean passage used by smugglers heads for Corringham’s Bull Inn, which is supposed to have had sunken chambers under the yard, as well as other hiding places for contraband.4
3. Former webpage: http://nzghosts.freeforums.org/fobbing-t73.html
A haunted pond
Somewhere on the MOD-owned island is a pond haunted by a serving girl who became pregnant by her master. When he cast her out, she drowned herself in the pond; ever since, her spirit has walked around the pool, and when people walk by it, she goes with them.
Source: Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.121.
Another haunted pond
Fryerning is a little village just outside Ingatestone, and somewhere here is said to be a pond haunted by a witch, and by the ghost of a local man.