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Scary church (c) Craig Cloutier

Discover the darker side of suffolk

You might think that Suffolk, with its fishing villages, quaint Tudor towns and artisan bakeries is a place where life is quiet and pleasant, and nothing ever happens, but you would be wrong. Beneath Suffolk’s picture-perfect surface lies a shadowy world of folk tales, bloody histories and ghost stories that make even the fishermen’s knees knock…
Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk (c) Amanda Slater

Are you ready to explore the darker side of Suffolk?
Photo (c) Amanda Slater

Superstition is a funny thing. In Suffolk, lovers should be particularly wary of bridges, and should you hear the clanging of bells beneath the sea waves, you’d best stay well away from the water. On a howling night in Suffolk it’s easy for superstition to take hold, and for the mind to wander towards the ghostly. The swaying silhouettes of trees twist into grotesque hands, and ghoulish figures lurk in the corner of the eye, just out of focus. Even the shriek of the wind can sound like something it’s not – like the cry, perhaps, of a monstrous devil dog. This is no coincidence.
 
Suffolk is awash with ghosts, or at least with ghost stories, which creep into the mind and lodge themselves in its dark corners. One of these stories that every Suffolk local knows is that of Black Shuck, the demon dog who burst into Blythburgh church one stormy night in 1577 and tore out the throats of two of the congregation, before with a roar the steeple came crashing through the church roof. Known as the Cathedral of the Marshes, it’s said that Blythburgh church still bears the scorch marks left by Black Shuck’s claws on its door, and in 2013 it was even speculated that the dog’s 7ft skeleton had been unearthed at Leiston Abbey.

Could this be the skeleton of the devil dog Black Shuck?
Photo (c) Archant

Another ghost whose presence is still felt in Suffolk is that of Fred Archer, the champion jockey who died tragically at just 29 years old. More than once he has been seen galloping across Newmarket heath atop his grey mare, Scotch Pearl, or visiting the stables he built and frightening the life out of the stablehands. Then there are the myriad ghosts clamouring from inside Landguard Fort, purportedly one of the most haunted places in Britain: among them the Portuguese woman, the suicidal soldier, the artilleryman and the lone musketeer who walks the ramparts with his musket, seemingly unaware that he is dead.

It’s often Suffolk’s oldest buildings that rattle with spirits. Hintlesham Hall Hotel near Ipswich is said to be haunted by the ghost of a murdered boy, and as legend has it his statue, ‘The Luck of Hintlesham’ will bring disasters upon the hall’s owners if removed. Kentwell Hall, the eclectic 500-year-old Suffolk mansion near Long Melford also has its own ghost child, although she only seems to be in search of a playmate. Then there’s Dagworth Hall, the ancient site of which was once haunted by a mischievous but good-natured changeling called Malekin.

Mythical creatures like Malekin are commonplace in Suffolk, from the elves said to lure travellers into their magic dell at Elveden, to the Wildman of Orford, whose image has become emblematic of that little fishing village, and can be seen across Suffolk in the medieval carvings of woodwoses (literally translated as ‘wild men of the woods’). Another myth that has crept into the symbology of Suffolk is that of the Green Children of Woolpit, who some time in the 12th century were discovered in a wolf-trap and claimed to have come from a green subterranean world called St Martin’s Land. Their claims would probably have fallen on deaf ears, were it not for the fact that they were green, too.

Folk symbols are all around in Suffolk, including on the Woolpit village sign
Photo (c) Rod Bacon
The tale of the Green Children of Woolpit is one of many unsolved mysteries in Suffolk’s history. During the Second World War, the residents of the remote hamlet of Shingle Street woke to discover their beach strewn with dead soldiers, yet despite the story being retold and retold until it became local legend, to this day there remains no official record of any soldiers being discovered at all. Perhaps the most famous Suffolk mystery of all is the Rendlesham Forest Incident of December 1980: an alien encounter that earned Rendlesham the nickname, ‘Britain’s Roswell.’

The quiet village of Gisleham near Lowestoft also has a morbid history. As the story goes, a great battle was fought on Gisleham’s Bloodmoor Hill circa 500AD, in which swathes of Romano-Britons were slaughtered by invading Anglo-Saxons. Though there’s no historical evidence for the battle, it has a firm place in Suffolk blood-legend, as does the village of Polstead on the edge of Constable Country. It was here in 1827 that the fraudster William ‘Foxey’ Corder murdered young Maria Marten in the Red Barn, where her body may have lain forever had her stepmother not seen the burial place in a dream.

But of all the criminal stories in Suffolk, none is more fascinating than the true story of Margaret Catchpole. A servant for the wealthy Cobbold family, Margaret Catchpole stole her master’s fastest horse and rode to London in just seven hours – an extraordinary feat – to meet her lover, the infamous smuggler, William Laud. She was caught, and sentenced to deportation to Australia. But before she could be deported, she scaled the prison’s 22ft wall, disguised herself as a sailor and made for the Suffolk coast, where Laud was waiting to elope with her to Holland. The end of their romance, should you wish to read it, was not a happy one, yet it cemented Margaret Catchpole into Suffolk’s historical hall of fame.

So you see, Suffolk is not a picture-perfect place where nothing ever happens – quite the opposite. The darkest events of Suffolk’s history, whether myths, folklore, or true stories are waiting to be discovered everywhere you go. And that’s a good thing. Darkness only makes the light shine brighter.

FASCINATED BY THE DARKER SIDE OF SUFFOLK?

Suffolk is full of dark and mysterious stories, and you can discover them through our film series, #TheOtherSide. If you've discovered a Suffolk tale that scares you, why not share it with us via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?