The destination for history

Creating ghost stories


Essex, in spite of its friendly and prosperous present, has an ancient history of Roman invaders and Saxon immigrants, Pagan groves and Christian conversions, Viking raiders, Norman conquerors, Civil War battles and sieges, witches, witch-hunts and witch trials, smugglers on its convoluting coast and highwaymen in its extensive forests, not forgetting more recently Zeppelin disasters and bombing raids.

There has been so much personal terror, so much anguish, so much blood soaked into Essex soil, that it is perhaps not surprising that there are so many tales of hauntings, of supernatural sightings and unexplainable experiences. Can you imagine Valkyries or witches riding in such a sky, on such a day?

Like a simmering undercurrent this past lingers on into the present. A writer just has to tap into that flow of evidence and it can read like stories. The lore and traditions are as colourful as any county’s. At least that is how I perceive the tales that I hope to have added to its treasury. A tale may be new, but if it is set in a particular time and place, it - or something rather similar - may well have happened.

Way out in the estuary on a now quiet backwater I found a simple little sign on a post driven into a tussock of blue mud at low tide with a message: ‘Here a witch was swum…’ That is all I remember, but what did it mean? What was the outcome? Few people survived such trials, as either they drowned, which proved them innocent, or they survived, which meant the Devil had saved them and they were guilty and doomed to be hung, even if air collecting in the many undergarments worn at the time had supplied the buoyancy. It doesn’t make much sense to us, but such was the uncertainty in people’s lives that such murder seemed logical. And in an otherwise empty landscape of a tidal marsh with only crustaceans and seagulls for witnesses, the mewing cry of some seabirds might well be mistaken for something more sinister in half-light or mist.

What dastardly crime could be waiting in such a setting? What could be lurking down that path? Could that be where the body was hidden?

You walk in an ancient forest and some of the weathered and pollarded trees have grown into odd shapes. Often, with a little imagination, those trees can show faces, distorted like gargoyles or misshapen animals or humans. Would they frighten you if seen at the right angle and in the right light at a time when your conscience is troubling you?

Much depends on the mood we are in. At times of dread we are more receptive to stories and notions that may seem impossible, just as nightmares will visit more likely at such times. More prayers are said in wartimes and at the same time fortune-tellers, shamans and charlatans are sought out more frequently.

Sometimes we like to be scared by storytellers, or the modern day equivalent of television and films. Most of the Brothers Grimm tales are positively frightening. It is embedded deep within our psyche, that feeling of something outside of our control, lingering in a particular spot. Would you not expect someone or something to shadow you into that uncertain grey distance… some water sprite cling to your boots or leggings to drag you into that damp uncertainty?

I have been a life-long photographer - people and places, but especially landscapes have been my interests. Twisted trees and eerie scenes harbour their own attraction. Today, with the aid of Photoshop, we can add some extra frisson to images that may add a touch of danger or mystery to set the imagination racing. Set in a time research has made familiar, mix scene and story into the cauldron, that’s an interesting formula to me.

By Robert Hallmann

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books