Weird Suffolk: Leiston's devil dog
PUBLISHED: 20:00 13 July 2018
Through the darkness the devil dog of Suffolk came, red eyes glowing like hot coals against fur blacker than the night, a malevolent shadow in the Leiston graveyard whose presence hinted at misfortune in the future.
In a 1961 edition of Country Life Magazine, author James Wentworth Day gave a second-hand account of a beast in Leiston which he had been told about by the then-Lady Walsingham.
It read: “The late Lady Walsingham often told me that she and Lady Rendlesham waited up in Leiston churchyard one night to see the ‘Galley-trot’. They saw it. A huge black dog with glowing eyes suddenly loped up the road, noiselessly, leapt the churchyard wall and vanished among the gravestones.”
An earlier account in the 1954 book Ghosts and Witches saw Wentworth use a more lyrical turn of phrase.
“One night at Leiston in Suffolk, on the coast, where the Dog is known as ‘The Galleytrot’, she and the then Lady Rendlesham sat up in the churchyard to watch. At 12 precisely, a slinking sable shadow slipped among the gravestones like a wraith, leaped the low churchyard wall and slid down the dark lane towards the sand hills like an evil whisper.”
With no dates ascribed to the event, it is believed that the Lady Rendlesham in question was the wife of John, Lord Rendlesham, who died in the 1850s and who had two daughters, one of whom was Lady Walsingham.
Galley-Trots are magical dogs believed to live in hollow hills or fairy hollows and appear in folklore tales from Suffolk and in areas of northern Britain – they are generally large white dogs, often harbingers of misfortune or death, but the name has also been ascribed to black phantom dogs or, as they are commonly known in the East, Shucks.
In legend, the hounds were said to appear when serious disease or injury was about to happen, whereupon the dog would sit outside the house where the stricken person suffered until they died. The dogs were also said to hide on roads, hunting, killing and eating wandering travellers foolish enough to walk the byways at night.
Black Shuck, the ghostly black dog said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia, was first mentioned in print by Reverend ES Taylor in an 1850 edition of the journal Notes and Queries, which described “Shuck the Dog-fiend” and was said to visit churchyards at midnight.
While the ladies in question lived to tell the tale of the monstrous dog they had seen slipping in between the gravestones at Leiston churchyard, there is another giant dog whose story is interwoven into the town’s history.
At Leiston Abbey, during the 2014 archaeology excavation, the DigVentures team unearthed the skeleton of a huge hound which immediately led to speculation that the body of the elusive Black Shuck, known to wander the land around the Bungay area, had been found.
The creature was seven foot in length and was initially found by a member of the public in trenches in 2013 when site managers and chamber music academy Pro Corda teamed up with DigVentures to run a crowd-funded community project to discover more about the history of the site. It was excavated in one of the demolished monastic kitchen buildings at Leiston Abbey sometime after the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1537.
Lisa Westcott Wilkins of DigVentures said at the time: “The dog is huge - about the size of a Great Dane - and was found near where the abbey’s kitchen would have been. It was quite a surprise. We’re all dog lovers and we have a site dog with us on our digs, so it was quite poignant. Even back then, pets were held in high regard.”
There was speculation that the dog could be Black Shuck, although analysis showed the animal had been laid to rest with some ceremony and may actually have been alive in the 18th century but buried in an older plot, a faithful friend given a fitting send-off.
So if Leiston Abbey wasn’t Shuck or the Galley-trot’s final resting place…it must mean he’s still stalking the Suffolk highways, byways and graveyards, waiting to claim his next soul.