WEIRD SUFFOLK: The dancing ghosts of Saxmundham

PUBLISHED: 18:00 13 June 2020

Weird Suffolk: Harpers Lane, Saxmundham Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Weird Suffolk: Harpers Lane, Saxmundham Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN


The ghostly dancers seen by two young boys in Saxmundham who appeared from nowhere and disappeared before their eyes.

Weird Suffolk: Harpers Lane, Saxmundham Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNWeird Suffolk: Harpers Lane, Saxmundham Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

By any measure, a group of eight dancers silently weaving their way in a circle in a meadow is an unusual sight: and then if they simply vanish as you watch…

In Joan Forman’s third edition of Haunted East Anglia, published in 1985, she told the curious story of the dancing ghosts of Saxmundham. A Mr B Waterman, who lived in Ipswich, spoke to Ms Forman about his boyhood in Saxmundham and the strange scene he and his brother had witnessed when they were nine and seven. Leaving their home to play in Carlton Park, half an hour from their home, they walked along Harper’s Lane, passing a row of stables and a stretch of open meadowland. As they passed the stables, they suddenly “pulled up dead in their tracks”.

“In a meadow about 30 yards away, they saw seven or eight figures dancing in a circle,” wrote Ms Forman.

“Each was dressed in a white, luminous muslin garment which covered the wearer from head to foot.

“The dancers moved with natural movements of the limbs and now, remembering the occasion many years afterwards, Mr Waterman describes the dance as being similar to a ballet.

“‘A kind of follow-my-leader, in a circle’. There was no music accompanying the scene, neither were the dancers’ faces visible.”

As they stared in wonder at the strange dance taking place in front of them, the figures simply disappeared: shocked, the pair looked at each other and ran back down the lane. They didn’t mention the incident to their parents, forgetting it in the excitement of meeting friends from town and as neither were aware of what ghosts even were, it seemed they didn’t realise they’d seen something deeply strange. As men, however, both realised that what they’d witnessed that day was very much out of the ordinary and when they recollected the incident separately, agreed about every detail. Mr Waterman knew of no story that was associated with this ghostly corner, although he went on to live in the building there, an ancient inn called the Bottle and Glass, long since demolished. He never saw the figures again.

Saxmundham is a veritable magnet for the paranormal. Weird Suffolk has already told a handmaid’s tale with a difference (a minister’s servant who was ‘bewitched’ and taken spectacularly ill as she served her master dumplings) and other ghosts haunt the area. There are phantom monks who have seen walking close to St John’s Church while a man who drives a horse and car has been seen along the dirt track close to St Peter’s. But what were the figures that Mr Waterman saw with his brother? Some believe they could be fairies, mainly based on the fact that fairies love to dance, particularly around fairy rings.

Writer Richard H Fay believes there are links between fairies and the souls of the dead – traditionally some fairies are seen as harbingers of death and the spirits of the dead could behave like fairy folk. Harper’s Lane is still a quiet, narrow thoroughfare – once surrounded by fields, it is now an area filled with houses. Could the stables have belonged to nearby Fairfield House? And could the “white, luminous muslin garment(s)” have been burial shrouds? Such shrouds were used to wrap the dead before burial and gave rise to the classic ‘bedsheet’ ghost image we all bring to mind when thinking of ghouls.

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