Weird Suffolk: The ghosts of Icklingham
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Children would scurry past the gap in the hedge to the east of All Saints Church in Icklingham, through the gap was a path which, according to local legend, belonged to a witch and her ghostly white rabbit – and if you caught sight of her, she would claim your soul.
It was believed that the gap in the hedge would never close and that after dark, shadowy figures and a witch with her white rabbit familiar could be seen walking through it – sometimes, the rabbit would appear alone at dusk and rumour had it that horses would bolt from the path and men died after spotting the hag and her companion.
The village of Icklingham is around seven miles from Bury St Edmunds which, in 1645, saw 18 local people hanged in one day under the supervision of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, 16 women and two men from neighbouring villages. Two women, Anne Leech and Anne Wright, were never traced to a particular village.
It is also an ancient place which stands at a junction on Icknield Way, which was used as a transportation route by the Iron Age Iceni tribe before the Romans came to Britain – in 1871, the remains of a Roman cemetery were found close to All Saints and the pathway and close to the village are ancient barrows, one of which is said to contain Oliver Cromwell’s treasure.
Close by, another strange tale is told about Deadman’s Grave, said to be the burial place of an executed highwayman whose crimes prevented him from being given a Christian burial and whose fury at this fact led him to haunt the hillock on his horse, his headless figure scaring passing horses and cattle.
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Others claim that the burial was of a man and his horse or a John Cambridge who was the prior of Bury St Edmunds’ Abbey during the peasant’s revolt, another claim is that the dead man was actually the Archbishop of Sudbury who was decapitated close to the spot by his enemies and now returns on dark nights to retrace the route of his death.
Simon Theobald of Sudbury, who was a former Archbishop of Canterbury, was beheaded on June 14 1381 outside the Tower of London during Wat Tyler’s revolt – he was buried in Canterbury Cathedral but his head was removed from London Bridge and taken to St Gregory’s in Sudbury, 45 minutes from Icklingham.
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Axe marks can clearly be seen on the back of the skull, which was kept in a cubby hole at the church and in 2011 was removed to West Suffolk Hospital to undergo examinations ahead of a facial reconstruction (“He’s certainly the oldest patient I’ve ever treated at the hospital,” said imaging services manager Nigel Beeton). Could he be haunting Deadman’s Grave?
Today, both Deadman’s Grave – a Site of Special Scientific Interest – is a beautiful and peaceful place and All Saints a fascinating church to visit with its stunning medieval tiles, wonderfully carved font, traces of painted walls, exceptional stained glass and 19th century coffin bearer.
But when our photographer Sonia Duncan visited, she felt distinctly on edge. Her text message sent from within the church to the Weird Suffolk team read: “The church door just slammed...am definitely spooked by this place. It’s not welcoming at all...”