The low cliffs, pebble beaches and faded hotels of his home county have become fixed in our minds as subtly dangerous places with a hint of folk horror. All those lost places… Visit Dunwich to see the last grave of All Saints teetering on the edge of the cliff, visit Aldeburgh and see the House in the Clouds bright and distant across the marshes, go to lonely Minsmere and see the ruined chapel, all that remains of a monastery and village abandoned, go to Covehithe … if it’s still there.
Suffolk is, after all, the home county of one of the greatest tellers of ghost tales – M R James. James moved to Suffolk aged three, when his father became rector of Great Livermere, up near the Norfolk border. His family lived there from 1865 until 1909, so James had a foot in Suffolk for much of his life. Several of his tales, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad; A Warning to the Curious; The Ash-tree and more, are set in Suffolk, and develop the disquieting aesthetic we now recognise in the landscape.
These fictions tap into the folk tales of the county, and there is no shortage of tales of ghosts, both true and tall, recorded in Suffolk. Most of the ghost tales still told seem to date back to no earlier than the 17th century – one of the earlier ghosts is Jonah Snell, whose story was possibly revived due to the uncovering of his gibbet post in the 1950s. Likewise, there are ghost stories about 17th century figures associated with the county’s sad history of persecution of witches, such as Amy Denny and Rose Cullender in Lowestoft. But Suffolk does have earlier ghosts recorded in its monastic chronicles. Now off Mildenhall Road in Bury St Edmunds, the site of Babwell Friary is right on the edge of today’s town. Before the friary was founded in the 13th century, Babwell was a marshy, fenny area, and there was found the county’s earliest named ghost: Leofstan, a luckless sheriff in Bury who fell foul of St Edmund.
As a storyteller who has come to specialise in local tales, I’ve been telling ghost stories for a good many years. One of the things I’ve noticed is that it’s these ghostly tales that people most respond to – because they have stories of their own. Of all the categories of local folk tale, it’s ironic that the ghost tale is the most living! Many of us know someone who has had a strange experience of a ghostly nature, or may even have had one ourselves. When I tell local ghost stories to audiences ranging from local WIs to school groups, I generally get some back.
I should say that I’ve never had much in the way of supernatural experiences myself – probably the scariest thing that’s happened in my researches was accidently standing next to a bird-scarer in a wood I wasn’t supposed to be in when it went off… I imagine they heard my shriek a mile away! Although, I will confess that we found there was a distinctly edgy atmosphere in Potsford Wood by Jonah Snell’s gibbet post. But we’ve been a bit naughty – we’ve gone visiting these ghostly locations in the middle of the day. What would have happened if we had visited by night? Probably the only ghost locations we’ve visited at night have been those hotbeds of supernatural activity – pubs!
With the season turning to midwinter and Christmas, there is more night than day, despite the lights being lit in our towns and cities. Christmas trees and other decorations are starting to go up in our homes. So, it’s time to tell these winter tales, these stories of ‘spirits and ghosts that glide by night,’ as Christopher Marlowe says in The Jew of Malta. It’s long been the tradition to tell ghost stories at Christmas, for at midwinter the night holds sway, and in the words of an early 11th century German abbess, Brigid, ‘the night is the domain of the dead.’ It’s a time to gather with friends and family and share stories, and it’s a time to remember those who have gone before, even as we look forward to a fresh new year and new possibilities.
M R James was aware of the tradition of telling ghost tales in the dark of the year, writing in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904: ‘I wrote these stories … and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas…’ So, pull up a chair, stoke the fire, turn on the fairy lights and start telling winter tales of ghost and spirits – and if they are Suffolk tales, so much the better! Did I tell you the one about the man who tried to get buried treasure from the county’s ghosts and met the monk-headed dog? Ah well, that’s another story!
By Kirsty Hartsiotis