‘Mum laid her own ghost to rest when we researched our new book, Suffolk Ghost Tales’
- Credit: David Wilkinson
East Anglia has a long association with spooky happenings and Suffolk perhaps more so than anywhere else, says Kirsty Hartsiotis, one of the authors of a new collection of ghost stories associated with the county. She told Sheena Grant more.
We’ve all got a ghost story to tell, whether it’s one of our own or one we’ve heard from someone else.
In Suffolk, that may be especially true, says Kirsty Hartsiotis, who, along with her mother, Cherry Wilkinson, has written Suffolk Ghost Tales, a newly-published book telling 30 spooky stories ranging from the chilling to the hauntingly sad and even slightly comedic, taking in numerous places from Lowestoft to Felixstowe, Sudbury, Newmarket and Mildenhall.
The county is, says Kirsty, who grew up in Suffolk and Norfolk, a “little bit special” when it comes to ghosts. Not only was it home to MR James, one of the greatest ever tellers of ghost tales, whose father was rector of Great Livermere, but there’s an ethereal quality to the landscape in places that lends itself to the abundance of recorded spectral happenings.
In fact, when it came to selecting stories, their hardest task was deciding what to leave out, such was the wealth of tales from which to choose.
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For Kirsty, who has been an oral story teller for 20 years and has previously written Suffolk Folk Tales, and Cherry, who lives in Wenhaston, the book was a labour of love.
Many of the stories included are well known, but not all. They include the tale of Toby the Black Dragoon, after whom the Toby’s Walks picnic area at Blythburgh is named. Toby Gill was sentenced to death in 1750 for the murder of Anne Blakemore, from nearby Walberswick. He was hung in Ipswich and his body brought back to Blythburgh, where it was displayed on a gibbet.
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Toby was a drummer in a dragoon regiment based locally to combat smugglers and was black so would have stood out in Blythburgh at that time. Anne’s body was found without a mark on it and Toby protested his innocence of any crime.
“Because of all this there was always a question mark about whether he was actually guilty and perhaps that is why this story lingered in people’s minds,” says Kirsty. “Annie’s ghost is said to have been seen walking across what is now the A12 and Toby is said to haunt the heathland.”
The Blythburgh gibbet was among a large number of gibbets in the county and the remains of one, at least, still exist.
That gibbet is at Potsford, near Wickham Market, and concerns the unsettling tale of Jonah Snell, put to death in 1699 for the brutal double axe murder of a father and son, both named John Bullard.
“I have not been unnerved by many of the places we have visited relating to stories in the book but that is one place where both Cherry and I felt quite spooked,” says Kirsty. “Jonah Snell was the last person to be hanged there. The gibbet post was re-discovered in more recent times and its remains have been re-erected, railings put round it and a plaque attached.
“There are stories of his malevolent presence and we did find it to be a scary place - even though we were there in the middle of the day. We came out of the woods quite quickly actually.”
Kirsty is quick to point out that neither she nor Cherry are ‘ghost hunters’ and she has never actually seen a ghost herself. Their interest is in the stories and the people behind them.
“I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, even though I have been telling ghost stories one way or another for a long time now,” she says. “But one thing I have noticed is that wherever you tell a ghost story, you get one back from someone. I am now a lot more agnostic about whether ghosts really exist than I used to be. I don’t think you can say for sure there is nothing behind these stories - people are definitely experiencing something.”
Kirsty’s favourite story in the book is that of a ghostly cat, whose mummified remains can still be seen at the Mill Hotel in Sudbury. The cat, thought to have been originally bricked up in a 17th Century part of the building for ‘luck’, was discovered during renovations in the 1970s and moved elsewhere but returned to the hotel after, so the story goes, a series of misfortunes befell its new resting place and the hotel.
But the most personal moment in their research undoubtedly concerns Sizewell, where Cherry, who attended St Felix school in Southwold, spent family holidays before either of the two power stations was built.
“In all these years living in East Anglia, mum never went back to Sizewell - but one of the stories in the book - A Gift from the Sea - was set there so we had to go,” says Kirsty. “So one of the lovely things about doing the book was the laying, as it were, of that ghost. She was able to see that despite - or perhaps because of - the power station, Sizewell was unchanged and we got to talk to people who remembered the family with whom she’d stayed and we even got a creepy ghost story from one of the residents.”
:: Suffolk Ghost Tales by Kirsty Hartsiotis and Cherry Wilkinson is published by the History Press and is available now.