Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
The Devil’s House
Once occupied by a witch named Mother Redcap, and haunted by a demon, the Devil’s House on Wallasea came to be there because the Devil took up a beam, threw it in the air, and told the labourers to build wherever it fell. An old ramshackle farmhouse, the Devil’s House (also known as Tyle Barn) was actually once occupied by a man named Davill. It used to stand at TQ974925, but was bombed during World War Two, then swept away by the floods of 1953.
J. Westwood & J. Simpson: ‘The Lore of the Land’ (Penguin Books, 2006), p.273.
Eric Maple: ‘Witchcraft & Magic in the Rochford Hundred’ in ‘Folklore’ Vol.76, No.3 (1965).
From the 12th century abbey church (TL382006), a subterranean passage (actually a large drain) was once believed to lead to the nunnery of St. Mary's Priory at Cheshunt, the site of which lies a little over two miles to the north just into Hertfordshire (TL369039.) Unfortunately, the tunnel would had to have been excavated beneath the river Lee, and along its length.1
Another tunnel from Waltham Abbey (though I don't know if it was from the abbey itself) was said to run to the cellars of the Great House at Cheshunt (TL34530272.) Little remains of this 15th century manor house, which burned down in 1965.2
1. C.R.B. Barrett: 'Essex: highways, byways and waterways' (2nd series, Lawrence & Bullen, 1893), p.98.
I suspect that all the stories currently told about Hangman's Hill (near the hamlet of High Beach) were invented in recent times to 'explain' or add colour to a peculiarity of the road here. They certainly don't appear to be recorded in any of the older folklore or historical records. The name itself seems to be modern, and is applied to a by-road that curves off from Avey Lane to join Pynest Green Lane, just north-east of its main junction (TQ401983). The road is one of several so-called 'gravity hills' in the UK (and there are many more around the world) where the curve of the land and an obscured horizon create an optical illusion. YouTube has many films of people sitting in their car, switching off the engine, releasing the handbrake, then marvelling as their vehicle apparently rolls uphill all by itself. It's actually rolling downhill of course, but people love to invent fantastic reasons for the apparent weirdness of the place - which is of course the origin of most legends, ancient or otherwise.
Some say that three witches were killed here; others, that an innocent man was wrongly convicted and hanged here (or, that there were actually three innocent victims). The most commonly told tale is of a murderous hangman who caught lonely wayfarers at night, put a noose around their necks, then dragged them by the rope to a tree at the 'top' of the hill and killed them. Screams and the dark ghostly figure of a man have allegedly been experienced at night on this road, and in the wooded triangle beside it. Cars going 'uphill' by themselves are supposedly being pulled by the ghostly hangman!
The haunted battlefield
During excavations in the 1970's around the little (Norman or possibly Saxon) chapel of St. Helen's (TL511334), more than 200 bodies were uncovered, dating from the Middle Saxon period. Nowadays, it's often said that 'many' of the skeletons bore signs of severe battle injuries, but I haven't found any official evidence of this. Nevertheless, the legend is now told locally that these were warriors who fell in a battle near this spot - and their ghosts can appear to those who are about to die.
The Seven Sisters
This was the name given to elm trees planted by, or for, seven sisters who at one time lived at Moat Farm nearby. Long since chopped down, they were once to be found on the grassy triangle where the road south from Gestingthorpe divides and meets the B1508, at TL816367. Apparently six of the trees grew straight, but one, echoing one of the sisters who was crippled, grew twisted.
Source: Jack Lindsay: ‘The Discovery of Britain’, (Merlin Press, 1958), p.205-6.
With part of its 16th century structure remaining as Broadoaks Farmhouse (TL590334), a large mansion once known as the Broadices or Braddocks stands some way south of Wimbish village. It was said to have a tunnel running from a ground floor room to Horham Hall several miles away in Thaxted(TL588294). This is supposed to have been an escape route for Catholics during their persecutions in Tudor times. (See also under Tilty.)
Source: ‘East Anglian Miscellany’ (1917-19), Note 5115.
At the heart of Spring Lodge Community Centre at Powers Hall End is a building that is often called a barn, but which was originally a late 16th century red brick house (TL814153). From here a subterranean passage is believed to run to the church of St. Nicolas (TL817153), less than 250m away. Unfortunately, it would have to delve beneath the river Brain to do so.
Source: Jason Day: 'Haunted Chelmsford' (The History Press, 2012; ebook version).
There are rumours of a smuggler’s tunnel from the Black Buoy inn (TM039214) to the quayside, and possibly others underneath the hill upon which the pub stands, as well as others linked to the Greyhound pub (TM038216).
The Devil and the church tower
In the churchyard of St. Mary’s (TM163290) at Wix is a detached bell cage containing a single bell. The present cage is a 1975 rebuilding of the 17th century original, with the bell supposedly having once belonged to the convent church of Wix Priory, which was actually attached to the east end of St. Mary’s. The legend goes that an attempt was made to build a tower on the convent church three times, but every time the Devil pulled it down. Only when the bell was put in the cage did he give up.
Source: Jessie K. Payne: ‘a Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.10-11.
The Holy Thorn
In the 1800s, ‘Old Christmas Eve’ was a name that used to be applied to the night of January 5th, after the calendar changed from Julian to Gregorian in 1752 and eleven days were lost. This also meant that 1800 was no longer a leap year, so another day disappeared from the calendar. And so it was that on the evening of January 5th 1893, people gathered to see if a certain bush in this parish would burst into leaf at midnight. According to the London ‘Standard’ later that month, it did. Like many other ‘Holy Thorns’ around the country, this was presumably thought to be an offshoot of the original at Wearyall Hill at Glastobury, where Joseph of Arimathea’s staff was believed to have taken root and flowered. Other such trees existed in Essex at Billericay, Coggeshall and Stock, and elsewhere in East Anglia at Hethel, Leiston and Parham.
Source: ‘The ‘Holy Thorn’ at Woodham Ferrers, Essex’ in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (1893), Vol.7, p.48.
Ghost of the mere
Wormingford Mere, a 12 acre former post-medieval duck decoy, can be found close to the river Stour, at TL925327. Legend says that a nun, the daughter of an English chieftain, was killed by the Danes, and in retaliation the locals threw the invaders into the Mere, whether they were dead or still living. Since that time, the white figure of her ghost walks the Mere whenever the land of the Stour valley is threatened by aggressors.
Source: Winifred Beaumont: ‘The Wormingford Story’ (1958).
The earlier name of the village was Withermundford, but by 1254 it had become Wormingford, which has given rise to several dragon legends in the area. One has the dragon, after marauding around the area of Bures in Suffolk, fleeing into the Mere, never to be seen again. But from time to time, an odd bubbling of the waters reminds people that the Devil in dragon-form still lives down there.1
Another version says that a local knight named Sir George Marney was called in to deal with a ravening dragon – but this has transmuted into Saint George coming to their aid and slaying the beast. A field locally known as Bloody Meadow has been suggested as the site of the dragon’s demise, in the glebe land somewhere near the Grange (TL937322).2 Its body is said to be buried under a mound in the village.3
A possible prehistoric barrow is described at Ash Grove (TL941324), a little north-east of the Grange.4 It’s possible that this is the mound spoken of, or it could have been the large barrow once at TL922326 near the Mere, where hundreds of urns in rows were discovered before the mound was destroyed in about 1836.5
3. ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Dedham Vale Area’ (Dedham Vale & Stour Valley Project, 2010), p.21.
5. ‘Essex Naturalist’, (1887), Vol. 1, p.82.
The Devil and another church tower
In an almost identical story to that at Wix (above), the churchyard at All Saints (TM174318) in Wrabness has a bell in a cage as a result of the Devil's work. When the church tower with its five bells collapsed in the 17th century, the idea was to hang two bells in the wooden cage as a temporary measure. There is only one bell now, dated 1854, but the tower was never rebuilt. Legend, of course, says that every time the village tried to build a new tower, the Devil came along at night and blew it down.
Source: former webpage: http://www.stosyth.gov.uk/default.asp?calltype=nov04essexway