You don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy a good ghost story. M R James is the master of tales that haunt and this former resident of Great Livermere was often asked if he believed in ghosts. It is understandable that people thought that anyone so utterly proficient at terrifying his readers must have surely done so. In response, all he would say was that he was prepared to consider the evidence. James published a short story just before his death titled A Vignette which was taken as further ‘proof’ of his belief in ghosts by some because, unusually for him, it was narrated in the first person by a young boy from a small village who was being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate. Many readers suspected it was based upon his own childhood experiences in what some have gone on to describe as one of the most haunted villages in England.
M R James understood the importance of setting a ghostly tale against an ordinary backdrop and he used well-known folkloric tropes and characters, mixing the familiar with the strange. Bury St Edmunds has that mixture too, having grown outwards with layers of history forming like the rings of a tree. There’s the medieval grid, secret tunnels and religious buildings of the monks and the town perimeter, beyond which the bodies of outcasts were thrown out with the rubbish. We still have imposing Tudor buildings and the narrow alleys and grand squares of the Georgians and can walk past the almshouses, former mother and baby home, the decorative shop fronts and industry of the Victorians. To walk around the town and, indeed, East Anglia is to slip from century to century and it is not hard to imagine that others, from times past, walk with us, whether they are the phantom monks of Hatter Street or the Grey Lady who seems to be very busy indeed. She’s been spotted inside Tesco’s which is built upon the site of the former St Saviour’s Hospital and also divides her time between the west-front of the Abbey, a former outfitters on Abbeygate Street, various graveyards and Cupola House.
East Anglia as a whole has some fairly epic tales of ghosts and supernatural events which have become world famous. You’ve no doubt heard of the green children of Woolpit and the tale of the Babes in the Wood which appears to have been based upon real children from the 16th century who perished after being abandoned in Norfolk’s Wayland Woods. Country lanes and gorse covered heaths are navigated by headless horsemen driving their carriages at full tilt. The Black Shuck is a canine beast who roams the coastal edges and its red-ember eyes are said to kill all who meet their gaze. If you want to know more about the Black Shuck, history buff and psycho-geographer Nick Stone collates stories on his site: Invisible Works, Black Dog Tales. It has been featured by the BBC and is a very useful resource.
The village of Thurston and nearby Rougham Airfield are home to two ghostly events; one poignant, involving the lost pilots of the Second World War and another downright odd, where a large mansion seems to appear and disappear to surprised locals and passers-by. I read about the airfield in Alan Murdie’s book, Haunted Bury St Edmunds, which details sightings of spectral pilots dragging parachutes towards the control tower and, saddest of all, the ghost of a pilot who crashed after running out of fuel whilst awaiting permission to land. The poor man was heard to cry piteously, “Why wouldn’t you let us land?” a terrible plea which floated across the control tower airwaves.
Locals have heard phantom aircraft noises and, inside the tower, faint snatches of conversation and radio transmissions. They are all a relic of the pilots who came here in wartime to defend, leaving us their airfields and leaving with our gratitude, and also, at the Airmen’s Bar inside the Lavenham Swan, they left behind the remains of something else. Members of the US Army Air Force 487th Bombardment Group were based at the nearby airfield and their signatures are carved onto the wall of the Airmen’s Bar. The boot record is testimony to the memories of men who flew over 185 missions and over 6,000 sorties and challenged each other to drink three and a half pints from a glass boot- leaving a different kind of footprint upon our ancient region.