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Rural ghosts – stories of supernatural sightings on the marshes

There are myths and legends aplenty in wildfowling folklore of rural ghosts and other phenomena, and Simon Garnham has often wondered if they hold any truth

“Ghosts undoubtedly exist… Here in Essex, the belief in ghosts is widespread in villages and on the lonely marshlands of the long, indented coastline. That is to be expected.” I was scouring the shelves of an ancient shop in Colchester. A tiny book, more like a pamphlet, was squeezed into a local interest section and these were some of the opening sentences. “Ghosts may be seen when least expected… by people who are certainly not looking for them.” 

This claim set me wondering. Do we indeed encounter the supernatural as we pursue our sport in lonely places? Most of my shooting takes place on the Stour Estuary, scanning for ducks from Manningtree in the west to Harwich and Felixstowe in the east. It’s an area full of echoes of our past. From the saltings where I shot my first ever wigeon, the tower of the church said to contain Anne Boleyn’s heart is visible. The Mistley Thorn can be picked out, where self-appointed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins held and tortured his ‘witches’, and just downriver is the pond in which the unfortunate women were tied to a stool to see if they floated (and were therefore in league with the devil) or sank (and were therefore innocent).   


Dark Age remains

Vikings are known to have raided these parts. Remains from the Dark Ages, such as those at Sutton Hoo, have been found on both banks, and tumuli, burial sites and churchyards are commonplace. At low tide, it is possible also to see the remains of a B-17 American bomber where the pilot, Lt Col Earle Aber, and co-pilot, Lt Maurice Harper, perished, their bravery ensuring that nine crew members were able to parachute to safety as the officers fought to control their doomed plane. 

Anglo-Saxon treasures are unearthed at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939, including this burial ship

At Shotley, the war graves of the hundreds of young naval recruits who perished in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and of British and German sailors from both World Wars can be found. This area, like so much of our coastline, is full of history and perhaps also full of ghosts. 

As fog hovers over the marshes and the dark days of January linger, wildfowlers pick their way along smugglers’ paths recorded by diarists such as Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe. With silent dogs and salt-spattered fowling pieces, Essex and Suffolk Guns hunt out the creeks and rills where they hope to intercept the geese that feed at Mistley or the teal that flit into ancient decoy ponds in Holbrook and Stutton. 

These men and women are surrounded by myths and by legends, and many of us will feel the presence of our forebears. I remember my grandfather taking me as a child to check his traps on these same routes, just as his father had in the 19th century and his father before him. 


Ghoulish apparitions

Tales of the supernatural abound in this part of East Anglia. At Mersea Island, for instance, it was wildfowlers who first told the story of the ghostly Roman legionnaire. Colchester (Camulodunum) was the Roman capital and on Mersea Island there was a garrison and a lighthouse. A soldier in full Roman uniform was seen in the night by Jane and Ivan Pullen. The Pullens were landlords at the Peldon Rose, which sits on the Strood — the causeway to the island. Jane Pullen is recorded by James Wentworth Day — the keenest of all Essex wildfowlers — as having seen and heard the apparition herself.   

Author James Wentworth Day, pictured shooting at his Essex home in 1959, was fascinated in the supernatural

“He came down off the Barrow Hills,” she recalls, referring to Grim’s Hoe, a burial mound on the East Mersea Road. “The steady tramp of a man’s feet, like it was a soldier marching… caught up with me and walked all the way down to the Strood. I could see no one, yet the feet were close beside me, as near as I could have touched him.   

“I bopped down to look along the road in the moonlight, yet no one was there. Still the feet kept on. I walked down the road until I came on a man I knew. He was all a-tremble. He shook like a leaf. ‘I can hear him,’ he said, ‘but where is he? I can’t see anyone.’ 

“‘Keep all along of me,’ I said to the man, ‘and no harm will come to you. ’Tis only one of those old Romans come out of the Barrow to take his walk.’”

Mersea Island is said to have its own Roman legionnaire patrolling the marshes

Similar stories of warriors walking abroad are told by various witnesses, including wildfowler Charlie Stamp of Canvey Island, who reported that soon after the Armistice a Viking woke him and, “looking right sorrowful”, appealed to him saying, “I’m a lost man, mate. Where can I get a ship to take me back to my own country?” To this day, residents can be found who claim to have seen and been protected by their Canvey Island ghost. 

Mersea Island residents say similar things and also speak of a pair of Viking brothers who fought to the death for the love of a local girl and who can still be seen and heard by those with ‘extrasensory perception’.


Flaming eyes

Misty moors are ideal settings for other fictions, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles — a story he based on the East Anglian fable of Black Shuck. The early version of the tale was told by Mrs A M Osborne of Tolleshunt D’Arcy, another remote coastal Essex village. She claimed to be haunted by apparitions of a huge and horrible dog with flaming eyes and a blood-red tongue. She is said to have visited a relative who, in a foul temper, cursed her with ‘second sight’. From that day onwards, as she cycled the remote country lanes she would feel terrifying pursuit and see the presence of the dog, known as ‘Black Shuck’. 

James Wentworth Day, the great fowler, became obsessed with tales of this sort, writing several books about ghosts and ghost-hunting. In them, he tells stories of spectral fox-hunters, priests emerging from priest holes, drowned sailors and many others based around the Essex coastline: smugglers, witches, hauntings and unexplained deaths. For witnesses, he often cited country people — shepherds, wildfowlers, farm labourers and fishermen.  


Loss and devastation

A particular favourite site of his was the ancient Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall near Bradwell-on-Sea, where Vikings, Romans, ghostly riders and wailing women were all reported to him in remote places, including the evocatively named Devil’s Farmhouse. The east coast is particularly redolent with settings of loss and devastation, of course, with Dunwich, Aldeburgh and other coastal towns suffering flooding and destruction in tidal disasters and through rapid and dramatic erosion.   

The Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall was a favourite site of James Wentworth Day

A cynic can imagine local villagers hooting with laughter at the increasingly far-fetched tales they managed to fabricate for their credulous visitor Wentworth Day. He had seen active service during World War I and went on to have a career writing and reporting. One wonders whether perhaps he may have seen too much in Flanders Fields. 

He opens his stories of Essex Ghosts, the book I had found in the Colchester shop, with his own experiences on “the frontiers of Belgium and France in December 1918, [where] dead men of the First World War still lay in the trenches and on the sodden fields around us”. 

He undoubtedly believed the stories. I wonder what the truth is. Sleep deprivation can induce hallucinations, as can extreme cold. Freezing temperatures and weariness are occupational hazards for wildfowlers, along with the fact that longshore gunners spent much of the time staring into darkness with eyes and ears straining. Add in mist and fog and you have a recipe for peculiar visions and visitations. The crying of waders and screaming of gulls take little imagination to convert into something more frightening. 

It’s easy to see or hear something ghoulish when traversing a foggy foreshore alone

Punt-gunners, fellow fowlers, shepherds and fishermen all unobtrusively shared the marsh alongside grazing and wild animals on dark and windy nights, creating an atmosphere very conducive to fancies and to fears. 



Powerful tides, sucking mud, small craft and flickering lights are all part of the foreshore experience, just as easily explained as they can be misinterpreted. Noises alone can be unsettling. On my last outing to a remote area of Hamford Water, a huge seal gave me a start as it jumped entirely out of the water and crashed back with the sort of crack that one would expect of something 2m long and around 300kg in weight hitting the brine. 

Perhaps, though, there is more to the enduring myths than just imagination and fancy. Perhaps there are still unexplained spectres to be seen and ghostly voices to be heard through the darkness on remote marshes. Fowlers should keep looking — and hopefully bag a few ducks at the same time.

Powerful tides and sucking mud are all part of the wildfowling experience, says Simon Garnham