The manor house in Manor Road is long gone, replaced now by a
supermarket (TQ678890). A blocked door in the cellar was supposed to
give access to a tunnel which led about 1km north-east to the church of
St. Nicholas (TQ687895), emerging at a door behind the altar steps.1,2
The manor house later became Great Gubbins Farm, moated and allegedly
once the site of a monastery – though there’s no evidence for it. The
fact that water from a spring constantly ran through the cellar accounts
for the fact that a local man’s attempt to brave the tunnel was stopped
because it was partially blocked by water.3
3. St. Nicholas Church, Laindon, Parish
Magazine, May 2011, p.34-5.
The Devil’s Drink Bowl
On the Langenhoe peninsula – now mostly a firing range, lying between
Geedon Creek and the Pyefleet Channel – there was a field called
‘Hoppin’ Tom’s Piece’, and within that field, a pond known as the
Devil’s Drink Bowl. It’s said that, back in the early 20th century, a
dozen men were using scythes to harvest in that field, when a
mysterious-looking stranger arrived in the afternoon. Apparently a
master mower, he helped the men, but kept going by himself all through
the night, and by next morning half the crop was done.
Some of the men called him a devil, and thought to fool him the next
night by standing iron bars upright in the hay – but his scythe sliced
through them as well, and by morning the whole crop was finished. When
the men all went to Langenhoe Hall to receive their pay, the lord of the
manor saw the stranger’s cloven hoof and refused to pay him, saying
‘You’re old Hoppin’ Tom’. At that, the Devil shrieked and vanished in
flame, but on his way back to Hades threw his drinking bowl into the
field, drowning the crop and creating the pond.
This story bears many similarities to the folk-tale of ‘the mowing
contest’, known in East Anglia from
Sea Palling in Norfolk,
and from counties such as Cornwall and Radnorshire.
Source: James Wentworth Day:
‘Essex Ghosts’ (Spurbooks, 1973), p.25-6.
Leigh on Sea:
In the High Street at TQ838857, the Peter Boat Inn is first mentioned in
1757. When the original building burned down in 1892, a tunnel was
supposedly found linking the extensive cellars with the waterside at
Alley Dock. The town was well-known to be a haunt of smugglers, with a
path from the dock leading up to Daws Heath at Thundersley, a wild and
The Cutlass Stone
Not too far east is the church of St. Clement (TQ841858) on a hill. Just
outside the south porch is an old ‘altar’ or ‘table’ tomb, inscribed
with the details of a spinster called Mary Ellis, who died in 1609 at
the great age of 119. Score-marks on the top of the tomb are said to be
where press gangs sharpened their cutlasses, giving the grave the local
name of the ‘Cutlass Stone’. (Press gangs were used in the 17th, 18th
and early 19th centuries to ‘impress’ or conscript men into the Royal
Navy). The deep cuts in the stone are more likely to have been caused by
workmen sharpening their scythes in order to cut the grass!
Leigh Conservation Area Appraisal & Management Plan 2008.
Leigh-on-Sea Town Guide 2008-2010.
Derek Johnson: 'Essex Curiosities' (Spurbooks,
1973), p. 33.
Alice at Grace’s Bridge
Sir Henry Mildmay (1578-1637) lived at Great Graces, the big house of
one of the three manors of Little Baddow. After the death of his first
wife, he married in 1609 the 21 year old Alice, daughter of Sir William
Harris. The marriage lasted for six years, at which point Alice drowned
herself in the nearby Sandon Brook, “by reason of her husband’s
unkindness”. Since that day, poor Alice’s ghost has been said to haunt
the footbridge over the brook at TL756065, as well as the long straight
footpath called Grace’s Walk.
‘Navigation Walks along & around the Chelmer & Blackwater’ (Essex County
Council, 2005), p.11.
‘Coate’s Cuttings’ (The Chelmer Canal Trust Newsletter, August 2008),
Issue 39, p.10.
Colam Lane pond
A ghost of unspecified type is said to haunt a pond beside a bend in the
road at Colam Lane. This would be the pond hidden amongst trees at
The unfillable hole
From a genuine event has arisen an odd little legend. In 1806 the
Cameron Highlanders were stationed in barracks at nearby Weeley. At the
St. James’ Day Fair (on July 26th) a fight broke out outside the Blacksmiths Arms between
villagers and some of the soldiers, with some of the latter being chased
along the street. A soldier named Alexander McDonald had hurt his foot,
and was caught, struck and slain. On the spot where his head hit the
road, it was said that a hole appeared which could not be filled, no
matter how hard people tried. His gravestone can still be seen in Weeley
churchyard, with the inscription “late soldier in the First Battalion
79th Regt who in the prime of life was inhumanly murdered near Little
Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’
(Countryside Books, 2001), p.142.
An underground passageway is believed to run from St. John’s church
(TL718167), a mile and a half north-west to the site of the 13th century
Leez Priory at TL701185. See also
Source: Federation of Essex
Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001),
Cymbeline’s gold mines
Around the villages of Orsett, East Tilbury, Chadwell St. Mary, and
especially Little Thurrock, are scattered vertical shafts leading to
small caves cut in the chalk, up to 30m deep. Now known as dene-holes,
once upon a time they were commonly called dane-holes, from the notion
that here the Saxon people hid when the Danish Vikings came raiding.1
The largest concentration, 72 of them, have been found within Hangman’s
Wood, upon the eastern edge of Little Thurrock, in the TQ630793 area,
although they are known in Kent also.
Very little dating evidence has ever been discovered for these shafts,
but current thinking suggests they may be medieval in origin, their
purpose being to excavate chalk for agricultural use. Over the
centuries, various tales have grown to explain these mysterious
diggings, such as being used by Cunobelinus (tribal king of the
Catuvellauni in the 1st century AD) as refuges to hide his people from
the rival Trinovantes, or alternatively, as traps for his enemy.
Prehistoric dwellings, Druid temples and smuggler’s hiding-places have
been other common beliefs to account for them.
There is a tradition dating back many centuries that these dene-holes
are the ‘lost gold mines of Cymbeline’ (Cunobelinus), on the basis that
he had them dug either to look for gold, or to hide his gold within
them.2 Supposedly Hangman’s Wood was the subject of a letter
issued by Henry IV in the 14th century to Walter Fitz Walter, commanding
him “upon information of a concealed mine of gold in Essex to apprehend
all such persons as he in his judgment thinks fit, that do conceal the
said mine, and to bring them before the king and his council, there to
receive what shall be thought fit to be ordered."3 These
‘lost mines’ were said to have been rediscovered in the 15th century and
worked for a while, and later again in the 18th century, but all they
found was ‘fool’s gold’.
1. Reader’s Digest: ‘Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain’ (1973),
2. E. C. Brewer: ‘The Dictionary of Phrase & Fable’ (Avenel, 1978),
p.316 (orig. pub. 1870).
3. Charles Dickens (ed.): ‘Household Words : A Weekly Journal’, Jan.
19th 1856, p.541.
T.V. Holmes & W. Cole: ‘Report on the Denehole Exploration at Hangman’s
Wood, Grays, 1884 & 1887’, in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (Vol1, 1887), p.246-7.
The witch’s stone of Scrapfaggots
Trying to sort fact from fiction in this particular tale isn’t easy.
Especially when the primary source is a national newspaper (the ‘Sunday
Pictorial’, the earlier name for the ‘Sunday Mirror’) which treated it
as rather a joke in the first place.
It all began on October 18th 1944, when the ‘Sunday Pictorial’ reported
that the village of Great Leighs (about 3 miles north of Little Waltham)
had been experiencing a spate of extraordinary happenings. Haystacks
tipped over and scattered, church bells ringing of their own accord, a
rabbit found sitting on eggs in a chicken coop, sheep and horses found
dead, cows giving birth prematurely, sheep found outside their secure
pens, scaffold poles scattered about, and a dozen other weird events:
large, small, and often ridiculous.
Locals blamed it on the US Army Air Force, whose 861st Engineer
Battalion (Aviation) were busy constructing Boreham airfield to the east
of Little Waltham. Supposedly, when they were widening an access road to
the airfield, a bulldozer had knocked out of place a two ton boulder
that was covering the grave of a 17th century witch who had been buried
with a stake through her heart, at a crossroads known as Scrapfaggot
(actually Scrapfaggots) Green.
The ‘Sunday Pictorial’ was on the spot on October 6th, and on the 11th
called in the noted ghost hunter Harry Price (of Borley Rectory fame and
somewhat dubious repute.) Among other odd phenomena, Price was shown by
the landlord of the Dog & Gun Inn (about 1.8 miles south of Great Leighs
on the road to Boreham), a 90kg boulder “the size of a beer barrel” that
had mysteriously appeared outside his front door – though no one
supposed it to be the rock from the crossroads. To his credit, Price was
convinced that many of the goings-on were the result of jokes and
hysteria, but suggested that if the villagers wanted them to stop, they
should simply put the original boulder back where it came from, on the
witch’s grave. This they did at midnight on the 11th, and the phenomena
The newspaper followed up with another report on the 15th, then ‘Time’
magazine picked it up as ‘joke’ feature on the 23rd, followed by various
other periodicals – and so the story has spread, grown and become more
elaborate over the years. The stone that appeared at the Dog & Gun Inn
seems to have vanished again very quickly, and plays no further part in
the tale. But just outside the entrance to St. Anne’s Castle Inn at the
centre of Great Leighs is a rock which is often claimed to be the
original ‘witch’s stone’, but can’t possibly be, as it’s only the size
of a bread bin, and can be picked up by one man (TL727171).2
You can see the rather pathetic stone in the foreground of
THIS image from Google Street
Some now say that the witch, whose spirit’s release caused all the weird
happenings, was burnt at the stake, as bones and ash were found under
the stone.3 This rather contradicts the contemporary report
in the ‘Charlotte News’ of North Carolina on October 13th 1944 that “the
townspeople decided, after consulting an expert on witchcraft, that it
was high time to drive a stake through the grave of the witch and roll
the displaced boulder back to its original location on the Green. They
meticulously measured, inch by inch, the ground of the grave and moved
the boulder precisely to where it had been, then drove the stake dead
center into the heart of the last resting place of the village witch.”
There doesn’t seem much point in driving a stake into a few ashes.
The witch, who now supposedly haunts St. Anne’s Castle Inn, has been
identified by some as Anne Hewghes of Great Leighs, accused of murdering
her husband by witchcraft and being burned in 1621.4
Unfortunately for that idea, the Calendar of Essex Assize Records shows
that Anne Hewghes, who was indeed tried (for the death of another man
altogether) at the Chelmsford Assizes on March 12th 1621, was in fact
found not guilty! As the document in Essex Records Office shows:
“Indictment of Anne Hewghes of Great Leighs widow, 24 June 13 Jas.I,
there bewitched John Archer, of which he died on 24 June 14 Jas.I,
Pleads not guilty; acquitted.”5
The name of Scrapfaggots Green is alleged to be a corruption of
‘scratch-faggot’, an old Suffolk word for a witch or hag. However, no
such word is recorded in the seminal works on the subject, Edward Moor’s
‘Suffolk Words and Phrases’ (1823), or Robert Forby’s ‘The Vocabulary of
East Anglia’ (1830). There also seems to be no record of the stone or
the legendary witch before these events in 1944.
As to the location of the Green, Harry Price stated that it was at the
centre of Great Leighs – which is clearly wrong, as it’s nowhere near
the airfield. One writer said that a road called Drachett Lane led over
the crossroads,3 but I can find no trace of this name on any
old or modern map of the area. Another researcher claimed to have
located it at the western end of Drake’s Lane, where it meets Leighs
Road at TL726130.6 Here a small triangle of grass at the
junction is being worn away by traffic, and although unnamed on old
maps, at least it could be classed as on an approach road to the
airfield. This is actually in Little Waltham parish, and makes one
wonder how Great Leighs, nearly three miles away, ever got involved in
The problem with this location is that Little Waltham Almshouses and
Pest House were built at Scrapfaggots Green, as stated by photographic
references in the Essex Records Office.7 While the Almshouses
were damaged beyond repair during a bombing raid in World War Two, and
presumably demolished, the Pest House, which was built in 1765, was
modernised and became a private house, which should still be there. But
there is no sign that any buildings have ever stood near the Drakes Lane
Scrapfaggots Green and the location of the ‘witch’s stone’ (both then
and now) therefore remain elusive – which is perhaps appropriate for a
‘legend’ which may only have come into existence in 1944.
1. Harry Price: ‘Poltergeist Over England’ (Country Life, 1945),
2. Jacqueline Simpson & Stephen Roud: ‘Oxford Dictionary of English
Folklore’ (Oxford University Press, 2000).
The Iron Age earthwork known as Boadicea’s Camp at TQ419975 has long
been said to be the site of Queen Boudicca’s final battle – but then so
has the similar structure at Ambresbury Banks, further north-east within
Epping Forest. And Upshire not far away has Boadicea’s Obelisk at
TL419017, supposedly where she poisoned herself after the defeat at
J. Westwood & J. Simpson: ‘The Lore of the Land’ (Penguin Books, 2006),
Williams Winters: ‘The History of the Ancient Parish of Waltham Abbey,
or Holy Cross’ (1888), p.10.