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WEIRD SUFFOLK: does a ghostly horse woman haunt Piper’s Vale and the Orwell Bridge?

PUBLISHED: 18:00 01 August 2020

Set beside the River Orwell, the 'Lairs' as it is affectionatley known by locals, is a valley of natural beauty, but behind the facade, a different story begins to unfold.  Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Set beside the River Orwell, the 'Lairs' as it is affectionatley known by locals, is a valley of natural beauty, but behind the facade, a different story begins to unfold. Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Charlotte Bond

A ghostly white figure on a horse, mysterious balls of light that dance around the Orwell Bridge and Piper’s Vale, cold spots and the feeling of being watched…

It is a beautiful green sanctuary close to the busiest bridge in the county where sightings of rare creatures are relatively common and include…a ghostly white figure on horseback. Piper’s Vale, known by some as ‘The Lairs’ on the southern outskirts of Ipswich is a beautiful natural valley overlooked by the Orwell Bridge. Peaceful and home to a diverse variety of animal and plant life, it is also a place where many people report feeling inexplicable cold patches in a particular area and seeing a ghostly white figure on a horse, or hearing the animal’s hooves racing across the ground.

Suffolk Paranormal Investigations decided to look into the strange reports from Piper’s Vale and collected evidence from witnesses who reported ghostly sightings, strange sounds and seeing strange balls of light close to the bridge and the river.The group interviewed a dog walker: “I used to take my dog out for a walk down Pipers Vale, Ipswich. Twice I heard the sound of a horse coming from behind me,” the man said.

“I turned round and was going to wait and let it pass, but there was no one on the open area. I was really surprised, as I had heard it clearly.

“A different time, I was walking in the same place with my wife and son and I heard it again. No one else had. I thought I was imagining things. I do not believe in ghosts, but my wife said that maybe that’s what it was.

“About five years later, a neighbour told me they had heard the same thing close to where I had.”

In World War Two, this area was used defensively by the military and was the site of several pillboxes, trenches and a possible gun emplacement. The site is visible on aerial photographs taken in the 1940s as a series of structures and earthworks surrounding a group of buildings but there are scant records of what once stood close to the River Orwell in this spot. Close to Gainsborough Lane a possible bomb crater has been discovered and the area has also offered up treasure in the form of Neolithic flint sickles and axes, 1st century bronze brooches and arrowheads. It was also the site of a pre-war-built Lido.

But the most common theory as to who the figure on the horse post-dates the Neolithic period and pre-dates the Second World War: some believe the horse rider is Margaret Catchpole, who was deported to Australia after stealing a horse and breaking out of Ipswich Gaol. Born in March 1762, Margaret was a servant girl who worked at several large houses before being taken on by writer Elizabeth Cobbold, who lived on St Margaret’s Green in Ipswich. She became an integral part of the family, reportedly saving the lives of Elizabeth’s three sickly children and learning to read and write during her employment. Locally, she was famous for having ridden bareback into Ipswich in order to fetch a doctor, guiding the horse by its halter alone: some claim that her route took her through Piper’s Vale.

After leaving the Cobbold household, Margaret heard that an old flame, William Laud, was in London. Laud had been a smuggler who had been pressed into service in the navy and who had a price on his head after a gunfight over Margaret. A man called Cook told Margaret that Laud was back and persuaded her to steal a horse and ride it to London to meet him: she went back to the Cobbolds’ house, stole the master’s coach gelding and rode him 70 miles to the capital, disguised in men’s clothing. After nine hours of riding and with a hopeful heart she arrived, only to be arrested for theft when she tried to sell the horse. Taken to the infamous Newgate Prison, she was forced to reveal that she was a woman at which point she made a full confession.

She spent six weeks in Newgate and was then transferred to Ipswich Gaol before being tried at Bury Assizes. Margaret pleaded guilty and prayed for mercy, realising that she was likely to receive the death sentence: she was calm and dignified throughout her trial, until she saw her elderly father crying in court when the judge reached for his black cap. Her sentence was eventually commuted to transportation for seven years after John Cobbold begged for lenience and she was kept in Ipswich Gaol, behaving like a model prisoner until her lover William was arrested on smuggling charges and housed in the same prison. Somehow, Margaret managed to pay Laud’s fine for his release and in return, he promised to break her out of gaol in order that they could marry.

On the night of March 25 1800, Margaret made a daring escape using a rope smuggled into the prison by Laud, scaling a 22ft wall topped with spikes in the process. Dressed as a sailor, she ran for the coast. The couple’s freedom was short-lived: the police surprised them on a nearby beach and during the struggle, Laud was killed and Margaret recaptured. Once again, she was sentenced to death, once again it was commuted to transportation: no chances were taken this time, though, and she was sent to New South Wales for life. After seven months at sea, she landed in Botany Bay and went on to be a respected livestock manager and the first female convict chronicler of Australia’s early frontier history and in January 1814, she was officially pardoned by the British government. She became one of her colony’s most respected midwives and frequently acted as a nurse: as she looked after a shepherd with influenza at the beginning of May 1819, she caught the disease herself and was dead in days.

Whether she returned to Suffolk in spirit and to a place where she had ridden horses so many times is a matter for you to decide: but if the pale rider isn’t Margaret, who is it?


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