Pagan Pete and things that go bump
Oh mercy me . . . Suffolk has its fair share of spooky legends. Some have been brought together in a new book.
Oh mercy me . . . Suffolk has its fair share of spooky legends. Some have been brought together in a new book. STEVEN RUSSELL takes a peek, and prays the candle doesn't suddenly go out
PETE Jennings - and I think he should be told - has just put the kibosh on my leisurely early-evening cycle rides to the next village. I've just read that Widow Shawe is doomed to wander the streets of Dallinghoo, and she's one troubled lady. Being dead can't help.
As Scooby-Doo and Shaggy would chorus: Yikes.
Apparently she killed herself by cutting her throat, and can still be seen with the bloody wound on her neck. As if this isn't enough to keep me at home, door safely bolted, Pete's also got a traditional tale of a nameless male ghost who guards treasure hidden beneath a tall gate post.
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Tales of the unexpected are meat and potatoes to Mr Jennings.
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He's a guide on monthly ghost tours in Ipswich, telling stories of spine-chilling goings-on. Meanwhile, the collection of books, CDs and videos bearing his name includes Spooky Suffolk and Supernatural Ipswich.
He's intrigued by ghosts, and he's a Pagan, but he's not the kind of man to easily leap to conclusions. He doesn't believe every supernatural story he hears. “I do actually think that tricks of the light, the effects of alcohol and drugs, genuine mistakes, as well as wild exaggeration and tale-telling, play a part in diminishing the power and depth of people's more genuine occult experiences,” he says.
Pete reckons he's seen a ghost himself - but only after 40 years of searching! It was in his next-door neighbour's house.
“After all those years of cold, damp, midnight vigils I saw a ghostly lady at 3 o'clock on a sunny afternoon. Clearly, old buildings do not have the monopoly on ghosts - our semi-detached pair was built on an orchard in 1971.”
It was his mum who's to blame - or to be credited, depending on one's point of view. When Pete was an impressionable 13, growing up on a rough council estate in Ipswich, she told him a tale that he could easily have dismissed had it come from the lips of anyone else. But Phyllis was a totally honest woman - “a very straightforward, down-to-earth and disbelieving sort of person”.
In the 1930s she'd worked as a live-in cook for a branch of the Zagni family. Members of the family had started the Peters' ice-cream empire, but the folk for whom she worked were behind Zagni Asphalt, in Hutland Road.
One day, Phyllis saw a strange man in the long kitchen. He was reading a newspaper, with his legs crossed and resting on a chair. As she got closer, he faded in front of her eyes.
“Of course, she ran yelling into the house and between sobs told the mistress what she had seen,” says Pete. “Calming her, her boss told her that it was an extraordinarily vivid description of her son-in-law. 'I didn't know you had one,' said mother. 'Oh yes, Bonnie was one married, for about a year, before your time here.'”
He had died of tuberculosis.
The mistress concluded Phyllis had the gift of second sight. Sometimes she held a séance in the house; would the cook like to attend one day. “Not blooming likely!” was the reply.
Pete says: “The ghost was not seen again and, a month or two after, mother left to get married to my father.”
Even though he's helped run the ghost tours for a decade or so, and he's penned a new book called Haunted Suffolk, the author doesn't feel it's his job to convince people of supernatural phenomena or spirits. Most folk, he reckons, are perfectly capable of making up their own minds.
Having said that, he does believe that most people have some kind of psychic ability, to a greater or lesser extent, “whether it be seeing, hearing or simply sensing 'things not of this world'. Unfortunately, many suppress it, either because they are frightened or don't want to be ridiculed.”
Some of the people who have passed on tales of strange happenings - who have felt compelled to do so - have been professionals such as doctors and police officers.
Pete hopes Haunted Suffolk will preserve some of the tales that have been handed down over the years. Here are a few examples from the book:
- Jockeys and members of the public in Newmarket have reported seeing the ghost of five-time Derby-winning rider Fred Archer, on top of a galloping white horse. He turned to drink after his wife died a year into their marriage, and shot himself in 1886 at the age of 29.
- A third-floor bedroom at The Nutshell in Bury St Edmunds, the smallest pub in England, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young boy apparently murdered there. “A severe drop in temperature often accompanies his appearance,” writes Pete.
- Two boys playing in woodland off Horringer Road in Bury St Edmunds in 1970 were approached by a man carrying a bag and walking stick, and wearing a bowler hat and dark suit. The lads said there was just a white oval shape where his face should have been.
- Ipswich Corn Exchange is on the site of St Mildred's church, “which may explain the presence of an ecclesiastical figure sometimes seen at the back of the basement film theatre. Of course, it may be more connected with the Court of Common Pleas that also stood there, since churchmen were often used as clerks because of their education.
“The ghost of a young boy has also been seen; and, years after this, a small skeleton was found during alterations to the land.”
- Ipswich, being a busy port in days gone by, has seen its share of diseases. In the 18th Century, Silent Street was characterised by tenement buildings packed with different families - invariably poor.
The conditions, the book says, “were ripe for disease to spread and an outbreak of small pox killed everyone in the street except two children who were sent away to the country early on . . .
“With the buildings empty and people wary of using them, one landlord went broke and the others pulled down the properties and created a new, modern and more hygienic place to live. But the history of the area was too powerful to forget and the name given during that terrible time has stuck - Silent Street.”
- In Martlesham, near Ipswich, a lonely grave lies on the corner of the heath in Dobbs Lane. A shepherd is said to be buried there, having committed suicide in 1722 when his wife died giving birth.
“In 1940, an airman tried to dig at the spot for a prank and ended up running all the way back to his barracks, a very frightened man. He told the astonished guards he had been chased away by an angry ghost of a young man.”
- Pete points out that lights in the dark can be caused by methane gas igniting in the right conditions, and that peat fires can smoulder underground, sometimes sending out flickers into the gloom. “However, one should also be aware of the mischievous Jack O'Lantern (sometimes also known as Will O'Wisp), sprites luring unwary travellers to their doom in marsh and mere with seemingly welcoming lights. One of their traditional homes has been the boggy area around Eastbridge.”
Nearby is Dunwich, home to a ruined abbey. “The monks gave up the site in 1363 after it was frequently flooded, but some of their ghosts remain. After a party of birdwatchers had seen a ghostly woman in white near the ruins, a group of five psychic investigators held vigil there in February 1997, complete with recording equipment which picked up the sounds of a drawbridge being raised.
“At 2.44am they were showered with a number of small pebbles, then witnessed a conical shape, enveloped in green mist, move along the nearby beach for over an hour, before drifting out to sea and returning to a point above the nearby Sizewell nuclear power station.”
Haunted Suffolk is published by Tempus at £8.99. ISBN 0-7524-3844-1
PETE Jennings is known to many because of his involvement in folk music.
He used to play in folk and rock bands, making three albums along the way, and had his own folk music show on Radio Suffolk until the summer of 2003. You can still find him active on the entertainment scene: singing, storytelling and compering, and acting in murder mystery evenings.
Born in Ipswich in 1953, he has worked as a telephone engineer, sales manager and a community support worker and counsellor. Last September he began a three-year degree in social work at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford.
“I am Pagan by religion, and am the ex-president of Europe's largest Pagan organisation, The Pagan Federation. I am of the Northern Tradition of Paganism (Norse/Anglo-Saxon) and hold the position of High Gothi and honorary life member of the Odinshof organisation.”
Pete, a grandfather, lives near Sudbury - though just on the Essex side of the county border. “I am unashamedly patriotic about my home county and have ancestors reaching back at least to the late 1600s buried in it,” he says.
By the way, a belief in spirits is perfectly compatible with paganism.
“Pagans have no set 'take' on ghosts,” he told the EADT, “but, as with other religions, most believe that there is some form of 'life after death'. As we have no overall authority or book, each Pagan makes their own mind up.”
The Original Gemini Ghost Tours began in the autumn of 1997. They are managed by Gemini Travel: 01473 462721. Tickets are also available from Ipswich Tourist Information Centre in St Stephen's Lane. Tours usually leave there on the first Thursday of each month. They generally start at 8pm, cost £5, and last about two hours. www.geminighosts.co.uk