Weird Suffolk: The naked ghost of Rattlesden “It dropped the sheet and I was horrified to see it was naked, a thing with pale, blotchy skin”
- Credit: Archant
It begins as a textbook haunting: the spirit even looks like a cartoon ghost, draped in a sheet. But the Rattlesden Rectory ghost was hiding a spectral secret: beneath the sheet it was completely naked and as a witness watched in horror, it began to move towards him in “a crouching posture”…
The pretty Suffolk village of Rattlesden is where the River Orwell springs from Orwell Meadow, where the Caen stone, which was brought for the building of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, was landed, where wheelwright Richard Kimball gathered Puritan pilgrims for a new life in a new world and where oak 'whalebones' straddle a stream where once real whalebones stood.
Half-timbered houses watch over the charmingly named River Rat while 60 angels watch over the congregation of St Nicholas Church. But there were no angels watching over the former Rattlesden Rectory in the 1860s when something deeply unpleasant - and naked - scared the living daylights out of a handyman.
John West, writing about the curious case of the Rattlesden ghost in Psychic News, says that the Rectory - since rebuilt - had long been considered haunted by locals who had nicknamed one of the passageways in the building "the Ghost Walk".
He quotes the terrifying account of a handyman called in to repair parts of the crumbling red brick house which overlooked the river in the village who was working on some wooden panelling which had rotted and behind which rats lived. The following account is from the 1860s.
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"As I worked away at the panelling, I noticed a sour, musty smell. It was only the ghost of an odour, but it made me feel a shade depressed," he said, "rats suggested themselves to me as an explanation of that smell, for I was told the old woodwork was full of rats."
Ignoring the smell, the man began work, unnerved by the fact he felt as if he was being watched. From the pantry, he heard a rustling, shaking noise before two hands appeared over the top of the door where he had hung a dust sheet to stop sawdust spoiling food.
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"A moment later there was a whistle, low and eerie; the door opened wide and I got a horrible shock as there came out my white dust sheet with a head lolling on top of it. For some seconds, it remained silent and motionless, just outside the pantry door. Then it whistled again, the same low whistle."
Assuming that a prank was taking place, the man decided to scare away the joker by brandishing a hammer, but felt the figure rush past him towards the stairs.
"As it made this rush, it dropped the sheet and I was horrified to see that it was naked - a thing with pale, blotchy skin of the colour of old parchment," the account continued, "for a few moments, I watched this apparition in a state of benumbed perplexity, and as I watched it, my brain seemed to begin to grow muzzy.
"I felt some force was passing from the thing in the corner to me: it seemed to be some foul influence which was thrusting itself upon my brain and sapping all the powers of my mind and body. I felt that my consciousness was gradually being smothered by a thick, black mist. As I stood there half-dazed, the thing began to move again in a crouching posture.
"I have said it was naked and shaped like a man, but I could not see its face distinctly - only a kind of phosphorescent glow. I wondered if the thing had eyes - I could not see them. Anyway, it appeared to be blind, for it came towards me with arms outstretched, just as a man would advance if he were feeling his way in the darkness.
"I had a sickening, overwhelming feeling of evil and was conscious once again of that sour, musty smell. It was an intense smell now and I was somehow certain that it was the smell of death."
The awful encounter was far from over: the figure suddenly grabbed the man, pressing its face close to his - the man described the skin of the creature as being similar to a pig's wizened bladder and noted that protruding from its mouth was a dried-up blue-tinged tongue.
After a struggle, the man was overcome by the stench and passed out. When he came to, the creature was gone but the smell remained.
He later found out the ghost had been seen before, in the same place - a vicar had arranged for the pantry door to be nailed up, dogs had refused to stay in the house and servants reported feeling as if the door was pushing against them.
Subsequent enquiries established that the ghost was in all probability that of a parson who had once lived in Rattlesden, Robert Bumpstead and - for a reasons unknown, although there is speculation that it was to avoid bodysnatchers - he was buried under the pantry floor rather than in the churchyard.
Apparently disturbed in 1892, when the rectory was demolished, his skeleton was buried at the church and he began to be seen there, to the point where the local clergy staged an exorcism which finally gave Robert the peace he needed to move on. A relief to Rattlesden indeed.
It is extremely rare for a ghost to appear without clothing or a winding sheet, a traditional corpse covering. At the famous island prison of Alcatraz a naked ghost cowers in the corner of an old cell, crying, while in Seattle, a dancing native American wearing only a headdress has been spotted on the Glen Acres Golf and Country Club, fading away if challenged.
Other nude ghosts have been seen in Indiana, North Carolina, Weston Manor in Oxfordshire, Bramshill House in Hampshire, Muchalls Castle in Scotland, a naked Roman soldier in Bath (perhaps he's wearing sandals) and in Cumbria, a terrified group of young women saw 11 naked male ghosts glowing yellow and marching in single file.
In the 1980s, The Sun newspaper commissioned social historian Jeremy Sandford, famous for his book Cathy Come Home, to search the countryside for a series of articles on Haunting Beauties - scantily dressed phantoms that were the spectral equivalent of the paper's page three girls.