WEIRD SUFFOLK: The faceless ghost that haunts Suffolk’s Russian Doll church
PUBLISHED: 18:00 29 August 2020
What is more terrifying than a ghost appearing in a graveyard? A faceless ghost appearing in a graveyard – Suffolk’s terrifying church wraith.
Within the 15th century crumbling shell of St Andrew’s church in Covehithe nestles a more modest 17th century church – and outside both, there’s a faceless horror. A female ghost has been seen at this spectacular church-within-a-church by an off-the-beaten-track stretch of the Suffolk coast. Erosion is claiming the land here at an alarming pace, the golden crumbling cliffs the only defence Covehithe has from the relentless march of the North Sea. A study of erosion at Covehithe which took place for 20 years from 1978 to 1998 discovered that almost 400 feet of cliff was losts: in one year, 76 feet disappeared in 12 months.
When the sea claims more land for itself, secrets are uncovered: medieval well shaft and pits have been discovered at Covehithe and large blocks of peat are a window into the time when East Anglia was connected to the European mainland. And there have been treasures unearthed by the waves: wooden bowls, leather buckets, a small bronze cauldron, pins and needles, lead amphora that once contained holy water and would have been used by pilgrims and cremation burial urns. Inside a Bronze-age pot, the skeleton of a child aged around 14-years-old was found.
And Covehithe boasts another claim to fame: in 1908, shortly before the beginning of the First World War, it is thought that it was the site of the first aeroplane flight in Suffolk.
Captain Haydn Sanders built an aeroplane powered by a Brooke engine that had been made in Lowestoft and managed a few short flights before hitting some telegraph wires and crashing to the ground, narrowly avoiding death. A field close to the village was used as an airfield and the grass on it was maintained by a herd of cows. When the cows began to lick the fabric on the aircraft, it was swiftly realised that the glue used to fix the fabric caused the cows to become somewhat drunk.
The impressive shell that surrounds the current church at Covehithe was funded by the great wool industry in East Anglia and was built at around the same time as the huge churches at Blythburgh and Southwold. By 1672, public worship had dwindled and the congregation in the village could not afford to maintain such a showboat of a church. Permission was granted to remove the roof and a much smaller church was built inside the earlier walls up against the original tower, which was retained as a sea mark for nearby ships. Masonry from the original church can be seen within its more modest sibling, the doors at both the north and south side of the building are from the original building and the font that had been defaced by the Puritans can still be seen.
Little is known about the faceless ghost that can be seen patrolling the graveyard on dark, moonless nights, but her presence is also felt in the tower, where strange sounds can be heard in the dark. The Japanese have a ‘species’ of ghost called the Noppera-bo or ‘faceless ghost’. Harmless but terrifying, the ghosts often appear in human form, often as someone who is familiar to their potential victim and it’s only when the person they are haunting is feeling comfortable that they reveal they are faceless.
One story of the Noppera-bo is that of a fisherman, warned away from a pond by locals but keen to fish in the clear waters. After dropping a line in the water, the fisherman hears footsteps and looks up to see a beautiful woman walking towards him who, as she grows nearer, asks him not to fish in her sacred pond. As he started to argue, the woman suddenly wipes away her face, leaving a flat, featureless expanse of flesh instead. The man stops fishing – as you would.
We don’t know why Covehithe’s faceless ghost is waiting at St Andrew’s: perhaps she is guarding it from the incoming waves and a fate that has already swept away so much of this beautiful corner of Suffolk.
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