Weird Suffolk: The ghost that passed through a moving car at Great Ashfield

A road runs through a tunnel of trees at Great Ashfield in Suffolk

A strange light passed through a car at Great Ashfield. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

This is a village filled with echoes of the past: a partially decaying airfield, empty runways, redundant buildings repurposed for the modern world.

Great Ashfield has a host of ghostly remnants of its USAFF airbase built in 1942 which has now largely been returned to agriculture other than a small private airfield which remains in use. But while ghosts and airfields are often linked, today’s strange story about this small village nine miles east of Bury St Edmunds concerns a ghostly apparition of a very different kind: a spectral light that passed through a moving car.

In The Folklore of East Anglia by Enid Porter, written in 1974, the curious case of the ghostly light of Great Ashfield is told. The story reads: “One night, some years ago, as a car was approaching a long-deserted farmhouse near Great Ashfield in Suffolk, the driver and his passenger saw a light ahead of them on the road.

“Both thought that it came from a lantern carried by a pedestrian, and the driver gave a warning blast on his horn.

“To his surprise, however, the light continued to come straight towards him although, as it came right in front of him it passed on through the car.

“The passenger was so shaken by the experience that he had to have medical treatment and was unable to work for some weeks.”

Weird Suffolk has mentioned this unusual area in a previous tale we told.

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On Holland’s Hill, now known as Ashfield Hill, a white figure has been seen on dark nights while at The White Horse pub – a coaching inn since the 14th century – a ghostly coach and horses is seen driving from Badwell towards Walsham on New Year’s Eve. Could these sightings be linked?

Or could Great Ashfield’s ghost lantern be the infamous Will o’ the Wisp, who has led Suffolk travellers on a merry dance for hundreds if not thousands of years?

Close by at Badwell Ash, there was another curious case of ‘ghost lights’ close to Ladybrick Barn: couples who parked in a ‘lovers’ lane’ reported seeing what looked like “…a spectral lantern carried by an invisible hand”.

The incident was dismissed as an optical illusion involving house lights, but the proximity of Badwell Ash to Great Ashfield and the similarity of the stories does raise a number of questions.

A little over 25 miles away in the Waveney village of Syleham, there were further stories of ghostly lights that lured the unsuspecting to a watery death - deadly marsh sprites that struck in the dark. Since the 18th century, tales were told of Will o' the Wisps, the flickering lights which appeared to be dancing across the marshes, beckoning those that saw them to move closer to find the source of the light.

Syleham's name derives from the Anglo/Saxon 'sylu', meaning a 'miry place' and it is the village's marshland where the so-called Syleham lights, lanterns or lamps have been spotted, ghostly dancing lights that hypnotise those that see them. Other ‘ghost lights’ have been seen in Westleton, Slaughden, Orford Ness, Sizewell and Dunwich.

Not all Will o' the Wisps are said to be dangerous, some are said to guard treasure or to highlight dangerous ground where travellers should not tread, others are said to be spirits of the dead trapped on earth looking for salvation by claiming other souls.

The scientific explanation for Will o' the Wisps is a far cry from the romance and mysticism of folklore, sadly. It is believed some of the ghostly lights are produced when organic material decays, causing the oxidisation of hydrogen phosphide and methane gas which produce a so-called 'cold flame'.

Others are said to be caused by geological factors (strata with decaying plant and animal material that breaks down into phosphine gases) decomposing bodies or even lightning – but these cannot account for many of the strange lights seen in Suffolk, including that described above in Great Ashfield.

As an aside, Great Ashfield is also famous for one of its incredible former residents: Violet Jessop, who was born in 1887 and died in 1971 was an ocean liner stewardness, memoirist and nurse who survived the disastrous sinkings of the RMS Titanic and her sister shop HMHS Britannic in 1916.

She was also onboard RMS Olympic when it collided with a British warship, HMS Hawke in 1911. Weird Suffolk cannot decide whether this means she was a good person to have travelled with on a ship, or the opposite.

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