Explore the Norfolk and Suffolk locations that inspired terrifying ghost stories
- Credit: Archant
The nights are drawing in, the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest and we are entering the season of fire and enchantment :the perfect time for ghost stories.
Montague Rhodes James wrote quietly creepy tales where the most unimaginable horrors lay in wait in the darkness that stretched outside the lamplight.
Born in 1862 in Kent, MR James came to Suffolk at the age of three and his home – if not always the place he lived – was at the Rectory in Great Livermere in Suffolk.
His father Herbert James was rector of the medieval church of St Peter and the family made the village their home from 1865 to 1909.
Additionally, MR James’ maternal grandmother had lived in Aldeburgh and he had visited her often until her death in 1870.
‘Write what you know’, the old adage goes, so it stands to reason that after seeing a terrifying spectre staring at him through a gate, James was destined to become a writer of ghost stories.
It is said his A Vignette, written in 1935 and published after his death in 1936, was based on a real-life experience he had at Livermere when he was a child.
In the story, a young boy is having a dreadful nightmare.
He goes to his bedroom window at the rectory and sees a curious movement in the garden, something moving towards the house -then he hears footsteps on the stairs and a hand on his door. He then wakes up in terror.
The dreams keep coming and the boy begins to wonder if there is an unpleasant story connected to the place where he lives and, when he goes to investigate in the garden, he sees a terrifying face looking at him through a hole in the gate.
Pink, malevolent and with large open eyes, when the boy flees and runs back, he sees a draped figure shambling away among the trees.
Never confirmed or denied as a factual sighting, scholars have long thought that the tale of the horrifying face at the gate moulded the young MR James into a writer of equally horrifying stories that harnessed this dreadful feeling of creeping unease.
This reed-covered corner of Suffolk with its rough pathways and fens was where James wrote some of his most chilling tales, the village graveyard still bears a gravestone with the name Mothersole, borrowed by the author for the ghost of a young woman who haunts the man who executed her for witchcraft.
Local resident Beryl Dyson complied a book about the ghosts of Great Livermere, A Parish With Ghosts, published in 2016, which she believes are attracted to the village due to its Mere.
In her book there are stories of a ghostly figure of a woman near the churchyard wall, a phantom cyclist who haunts the village roads, a phantom woman in red who steps into the path of oncoming traffic before disappearing and a Shuck-like dog.
Dyson believes the ghost she has seen - the figure of a jester near the rectory gates - could have been the same one seen by MR James in the 19th century. In an article for the Ghost Club, Beryl wrote that dogs were frightened in certain areas in the village and seemed scared of a particular clump of trees which grew close to the place that James was said to have seen his ghost.
"By strange coincidence from letters and discussion with two of Rev. Dobree's daughters, who moved into the Rectory after the James family vacated it," wrote Beryl, "I learned that, after a room once used as a nursery in the Rectory was made into a guest bedroom, guests using that room experienced the most horrific dreams and nightmares and would not sleep in that room again.”
Although best known for his marrow-chilling tales, MR James was also a renowned medievalist scholar, a don at King’s College Cambridge and a director of the Fitzwilliam Museum.
His discovery of a manuscript fragment led to extensive excavations in the abbey ruins at Bury St Edmund in 1902: he had successfully led archaeologists to the burial ground of several 12th century abbots who had been lost since the Dissolution.
It was at Cambridge where his ghost stories were brought to chilly (after) life.
He would gather favoured students around the fire in his study in the winter for his ‘Chit Chat Club’ or bring friends to his home on Christmas Eve, and by guttering candlelight, scare the life out of them.
The tradition of Christmas ghost stories led television producers to recreate the midwinter chills with some truly terrifying annual adaptations of some of his scariest works shown in the darkest months during the 1970s.
Sherlock co-creator and Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss is adapting MR James’ The Mezzotint ghost story for the BBC this Christmas.
It will be the fifth Christmas ghost story Gatiss has created for the corporation following Martin’s Close in 2019, The Dead Room in 2018, The Tractate Middoth in 2013 and Crooked House in 2008.
When James lived in Great Livermere’s rectory, the church lay just a few hundred yards away and involved taking a wooded walk through a shaded grove into the graveyard.
Some of the names on the graves pepper James’ stories, the ash trees close by, Great Livermere Hall, all star in the author’s work, along with the wider landscape of East Anglia that he loved so dearly.
In addition to scholarly tomes and ghost stories, MR James also wrote a travelogue book about Norfolk and Suffolk published in 1930, including an expansive passage on Great Livermore, asking readers to forgive his indulgence.
He wrote: “I have many early associations which endear these two great counties to me, and the attempt to expound some of their manifold attractions to those who live in them and those who visit them has been a very pleasant task.”
Norfolk and Suffolk links to MR James
Story: Oh Whistle and I will Come to You My Lad
Published: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904
East Anglian link: set in the region and filmed in Norfolk and Suffolk for TV
Plot: A professor finds an old bronze whistle while he explores the ruins of a Knights Templars’ chapel. On the whistle are engraved the words: “Who is this who comes?” As the man walks away with it, he imagines something terrible just out of sight. That night, he cleans and blows the whistle and a vision comes to him which will haunt him day and night…
Where? Set in the fictional seaside village of Burnstow, based on Felixstowe, when the story was first filmed in 1968, it was filmed at Dunwich. The beach, groynes, cliffs, heathland and graveyard of All Saints Church are clearly shown. The gravestone shown shortly before the wraith appears has now slipped over the edge of the crumbling cliff. The professor’s terrifying nightmares were filmed in Norfolk at Waxham
Anything else? Apparently James was aware of a piece of East Anglian folklore which meant that hunters would never whistle for their dogs after dark for fear they would call up a fiend or ‘lantern man’.
Published: First published in At Random magazine in 1929
East Anglian link: Set in Suffolk in 1846.
Plot: Set near the Suffolk coast, Rats is about a man who takes lodgings at an inn, only to find that an unpleasant secret hides behind the locked door of a room along the passage from his own. But it’s not rats that are lying in wait in the locked room. It’s something far worse.
Where: Suffolk. There are prints of Bury St Edmunds on the walls of the inn.
Story: A Warning to the Curious
Published: A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories, 1925
East Anglian link: Set in Seaburgh, a disguised Aldeburgh, but filmed in 1972 in Wells-next-the-Sea, Sheringham and Happisburgh.
Plot: Antiquarian and archaeologist Paxton takes a holiday in Seaburgh and while visiting a medieval church, learns the legend about a buried Anglo-Saxon crown that protects the East Anglian Kingdom from invasion. He tracks down the location of the crown, pursued by the ghostly presence of the last member of the family that once guarded it. The Three Crowns motif is seen on churches throughout the region, including Woolpit.
Where? Buildings mentioned in the written story include the Martello Tower, The Bear/White Lion pub, the heath and St Peter and St Paul’s Church.
In the 1972 version of the story, adapted by Lawrence Gordon Clarke, the pine belt at Holkham, the North Norfolk Railway, Weybourne train station, Wells harbour, Happisburgh lighthouse, St Mary’s Church at Happisburgh and the hotel where Paxton stays is the Shipwright’s Cottage on the East Quay Road at Wells.
Anything else? Don’t look up at Happisburgh church expecting to see the gargoyle and the three crown shield – they were added in post-production.
Story: The Stalls of Barchester
Published: More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1910
East Anglian link: Scenes shot in Norwich Cathedral and the Hungate Centre for Medieval Art in Norwich for the 1971 adaptation.
Plot: Archdeacon Pultney of Barchester Cathedral dies mysteriously and the new Archdeacon Haynes takes his place. Haynes is very talented and performs the duties of his office with great zeal, however he is haunted by the carved figures in the stalls of Barchester Cathedral.
Where? Filmed on location in Norwich Cathedral’s cloisters, library, ambulatory, close and inside the main building and St Peter Hungate in the city.
Story: A Vignette
East Anglian link: Livermere Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk
Plot: James’ last ghost story is from an unnamed narrator who describes a ghostly event from his childhood. Widely believed to be based on the experience described above.
Anything else? Look out for the graves of Mrs Mothersole and Mr Gaudy which appear in MR James’ stories The Ash Tree and The Mezzotint.