Author reveals his top haunted places in Suffolk
- Credit: Denise Bradley
Halloween is just around the corner, making now the perfect time to settle in and get lost in some scary stories. And one man who knows his ghost tales is John West.
The Saxmundham-based author and folklore expert has lived in the county for many years – and certainly has his fair shares of tales to tell.
Hot off the release of his recent film The Ghost of Winifred Meeks, and with his second book, Britain’s Ghostly Heritage, due to come out later this month, he explains what it is that fuelled his love affair with the supernatural – and where some of the most haunted places in Suffolk are.
“My interest in ghosts developed because my mum had lots of books on ghost stories which I used to read as a child. I didn’t tell her I was reading them though as she probably would’ve been worried I was scaring myself – but I was hooked,” he says.
“I loved the covers with the ghostly figures on them, and it really intrigued me. My dad then bought me a book by a chap called Peter Underwood, who was a very famous writer in the 70s and 80s, and that really piqued my interest. I’ve been obsessed ever since.”
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Over the years, John has thoroughly immersed himself in the subject, writing for various magazines before eventually penning his first ghost book – Britain's Haunted Heritage.
Released in 2019, it explores a number of ghostly tales and haunted locations – with many found here in East Anglia including The Red Barn in Polstead, and Borley church in north Essex.
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“I just love researching these stories, almost as much as writing the books themselves. I have around 4,000 books in my study, and several hundred of those are on ghosts so I’ve got plenty of source material to use. I also spent time visiting the locations too.”
His first release was such a success that it inspired him to write a follow-up, Britain’s Ghostly Heritage.
“Once you start writing, you realise there’s an endless number of interesting cases out there. So for this book I picked the ones I felt people might be interested in that they might not know about, such as the Rattlesden rectory haunting, and the Kersey enigma. I thought these sorts of tales deserved a bigger audience.”
A sleepy village just outside of Stowmarket, Rattlesden lays claim to not just one, but two ghostly happenings, as John explains.
“Rattlesden rectory was long thought by locals to be haunted, and one of the passages in the building was even nicknamed ‘The Ghost Walk’ due to the frequent sound of footsteps heard there at night.
“And it was during the 1860s that a handyman from Stowmarket was sent one afternoon to the rectory to carry out some repairs. He placed a dust sheet over a pantry door and soon set to work removing some rotten oak panelling.”
As removed the panelling, he was hit with a sudden and strong odour, alongside the feeling of being watched.
“Suddenly from inside the pantry, he heard a strange rustling and shaking noise. He then saw to his amazement two hands appear over the top of the door and pull the dust sheet into the pantry! The pantry door appeared to be the centre of activity and servants would often find the door held against them as if someone was holding it from the other side. The door was also known to open and close of its own accord.”
The rectory proved so haunted, the vicar at the time had the door nailed up. However, this only seemed to make matters worse.
“He soon found the house plagued with bangs, thumps and the sound of iron pots and pans rattling from within the sealed pantry. Dogs also refused to stay in the house, becoming unnerved by some unseen presence before fleeing in terror. It emerged that a certain Robert Bumpstead, a former inhabitant of the rectory, had died there in 1780.
“He had been heavily in debt and his creditors were hoping to seize his body and, one assumes, sell it to the medical profession who were always on the lookout for fresh corpses for the dissection table. The unfortunate man had been buried under the bricks of the pantry floor in order to thwart their plans and a tell-tale coffin-shaped depression was pointed out to the curious as the site of his final resting place.”
In 1892, the old rectory was demolished and the skeleton of Bumpstead was unearthed and reburied in the churchyard.
“It appears that being interred in consecrated ground did little to calm his soul and locals soon started to report that he now ‘walked’ the churchyard grounds. It was said that his spirit became so troublesome that the local clergy were finally forced to exorcise him using the traditional method of bell, book and candle. After this, his unhappy spirit was never seen again.”
However, the modern-day residents of Rattlesden should not rest too easily in their beds and assume that their sleepy village is now spook-free, as the village is now home to another ghost.
“In 1815 a resident of the village, a Mr Atterwell, was caught stealing. Rather than face disgrace and punishment, he decided to hang himself. Suicides were denied Christian burial at the time and his body was taken to the riverside where a stake was driven through his heart in order to prevent his ghost returning to bother the living. He was then buried at the spot. Unfortunately, this method proved rather ineffective, and his ghost is still said to haunt the river at midnight, splashing about and generally making a nuisance of himself,” he explains.
While John’s book is jam-packed with many more local ghost tales from years gone by, he also has his own fair share of unexplained first-hand experiences closer to home.
During the filming of The Ghost of Winifred Meeks, which he starred in and produced, production was blighted by a number of unexplained experiences behind the scenes.
The feature film, which was released in September, follows the story of a writer tormented by a spirit in a remote Suffolk farmhouse. It was shot on location here in East Anglia, with scenes taking place in Dunwich, Westleton, Saxmundham, and a beach in Norfolk.
“Dunwich is an especially haunted place, and there are tales of people in medieval clothing being seen on the beach, lights dancing around the cliffs and ghostly monks wandering around. Well, when we were filming one night, we were next to haunted leper chapel and we heard children crying in the night.
“And one morning, the film’s lead Lara Belmont looked out of her window and saw a child’s handprint on the glass on the outside. She was on the first floor, so there was no way anyone could’ve gotten up there.”
The coastal village has unsurprisingly become synonymous with all things haunted over the years.
In an excerpt from his upcoming third book, he tells of the Dark Heart of Dunwich – a tale which dates back to the 12th century.
“Eva, a local girl, was due to be married to the son of a local landowner but fell in love with another man who promptly deserted her and fled to sea. She waited in vain for him to return and, in a final act of despair, cut out her heart and tossed it into the waves.
“Her ghost still haunts the beach and the heart itself, now almost wooden-like in appearance, is believed to wash up on the shore from time to time. If you see it, don't be tempted to pick it up as it will bring great misfortune to any who touch it.”
And if that wasn’t enough, John actually resides in what could be arguably be one of Suffolk’s spookiest homes.
“I live in a haunted property that dates back to the 17th century. A medium visited once and said there’s about half a dozen spirits here. The main spirit is a Victorian lady, and when I moved in, I heard knocking sounds and a woman sigh once.
“I once caught a figure out of the corner of my eye, walking down the hall, and I’ve had the duvet pulled off me twice in the night. Weirdly, the chap in the gallery below me also says he can hear someone walking up and down above him whenever I’m out,” he adds.
And when the film’s director Jason Figgis stayed with John, he felt these same ghostly apparitions during his visit.
“When Jason was here, he stayed on the floor of the living room and felt someone lift the duvet off him in the night. After that, he had to sleep with the lights on! I’ve just gotten used to it though, and there seems to be more activity in the house when there’s strangers around.”
John is currently writing his third book, Britain’s Haunted Land, which is due to be released in 2022. “And my fourth one, Haunting Tales, is being written as we speak,” he adds.
The Ghost of Winifred Meeks will be screened at Beccles Public Hall and Theatre on Sunday October 10 at 2.30pm.