A collection of short stories of the ghost sightings in Lavenham based on true accounts but names and places have been changed to maintain anonymity
We begin with three stories about a Lavenham ghost named ‘Boy’.
I sat before the fire, drifting off to sleep in front of the comfort of its flickering flames. The world around me slept – even my two dogs had decided to turn in for the night. I, myself, had spent the last few hours making the finishing touches to the decorations, wrapping the last presents in preparation for the morning, then placing them around my Christmas tree, and putting the turkey into the Aga to roast slowly over night.
The candles were gutting in their sconces, a sure sign it was well past time for me to retire to bed, yet still something kept me at my vigil by the fire. Thus, it was that alone and in the half-light of Christmas morning, I first encountered “Boy”.
The wind changed … and blowing now from the east, it howled in the chimney pots and began to blow smoke back into the room where I was drifting off to sleep. I watched as the smoke began to take shape, as clouds will often take on the appearance of animals in the sky, and let my imagination take control of me, until I saw the faint shadow of a young boy – sad of demeanour as he looked wistfully towards the colourful tree, its lighted candles, gay ribbons and glittering baubles, and the many presents beneath.
Then the boy walked from the shadow of the smoke, and the blood drained from my limbs leaving me paralysed and unable to move from my seat before the fire. I struggled but eventually found what voice I had to ask:
“Who are you?”
“A chimney boy, ma’am, long dead now. Me body be still stuck in your chimney here. Just admirin’ the tree ma’am, forgive the intrusion.”
He delivered his sorry tale with quiet dignity and without any emotion. Nonetheless, I felt the prick of tears rising, as I thought of this poor child, who had been left to die forgotten in years gone by.
“Have you a name, my child?” I asked.
“They would call me “Boy”. I never had a proper name – never merited it according to them. But “Boy” will suit well enough for me now.”
At that I cried openly and for a few minutes could not speak again until finally I regained the composure to offer:
“Whichever present you wish from the tree is yours with my blessing. I would be honoured if you would take this gift from me.”
“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but I only want one gift from you and that is my release” replied the ghost at which I felt my heart stop beating as I feared perhaps the chimney boy had returned for revenge on those who had used him so abominably. As the new mistress of this house, was it to be my lot to die in payment for the torture that an earlier generation had inflicted on this poor young man?
“You know I am already dying and if this releases you then I am ready to die” I told the ghost who, to my intense surprise, laughed in response.
“Find my body, miss. That is all I ask” and then a log fell hissing from the fire and rolled onto the rug before me. I leapt up to trample the cinders with my bare feet before they should catch on the silk of the rug, and then turned back to see that I was alone once more in the room.
So on Christmas day I attempted the impossible and hunted high and low through yellow pages and then rang round my friends in the village in quest for a chimney sweep who would come out at short notice on a public holiday. Eventually, a delightful young man named Charles Hogg agreed to come to the house that evening. I spent the afternoon after lunch clearing the fire of all embers so that he would be able to climb in safety into the chimney stack then sat with my bemused friends and prayed for the rescue of “Boy”.
Mr Hogg arrived, suitably sooty, having just helped put out a chimney fire in a nearby hotel and then listened to my story in polite disbelief. He could see however I was genuinely distressed and so undertook to take a peep up my chimney. It was an old arrangement with many stacks and cross passages.
“I cannot guarantee being able to get into them all but at least I can send my camera down the more narrow passages for you” he had offered kindly.
My friends and I huddled around the inglenook in the dining room as he clambered into it and began his hunt through the labyrinth above. Then ten minutes into his exploration, we heard him call down: “I have something!”
He carefully carried his finds across to the dining table, already cleared of the detritus of our meal and ready to receive this last Christmas gift. He placed the ragged remains of a young boy’s cap and a single shoe on the table then said sadly: “There is more. This is all I could reach. I have heard stories: of boys forgotten when cleaning the chimneys and unable to get down past the roaring fires so left to starve. Best to leave him up there though now … you won’t be able to get him down without taking a wall down.”
“Show me where!” is all I said.
He took me up to the study next to my bedroom and pointed to where you could see from the shape of the wall that a narrow passage ran between the fire places in my bedroom and the guest bedroom next door. I nodded, walked resolutely downstairs and out to the stable, and returned with the largest sledge hammer I could find then launched into that wall with all my strength.
When Mr Hogg could see I was serious, he took the hammer off me – I was making more mess than actually achieving anything – and with better aim and more strength than I, broke through to where Boy had been held prisoner all these years.
I paid for the funeral and for the stone and to this day believe that it is the best Christmas present I have ever given. Boy still visits me occasionally but now he comes to play with me in preparation for the day when I will join him.
Bath time with a ghost
The ghost ‘Boy’ returns in this his second story. A different house, a different family, and most unusually we see the same ghost appear in different locations.
To the south of the village is an isolated farm house called Crows’ Farm that used to be let out to tenants or as a holiday let but now is a family home. The house has an uninterrupted view of Lavenham’s church tower and the roof tops that make up the High Street and Market Square. It is in a beautiful spot … but be in no doubt it is a lonely place and few tenants have stayed there for long; all have spoken of the ghosts there.
One summer, Heather suddenly became very quiet. This was unusual as she had always been a talkative girl, mature before her years; she was eight, comfortable in the company of adults, and in love with the history of her new home in Lavenham.
Her Teacher noticed the change and at one of the Parents Evenings of the school in the village asked her mother directly if anything had happened at home that she should be aware.
“I do not know what has happened” replied a distraught mother. “Heather will not talk to any of the family and she keeps disappearing. I think she has found some sort of hiding place as when her sister had a party and they played hide and seek, Heather could not be found for hours. With old houses like ours, there could be all sorts of priest holes, secret passages, old cellars, she may have found and I am worried stiff she will get hurt or trapped.”
“Will she talk about it to you?”
“She won’t talk to anyone, not even her sister.”
The Teacher reflected over the weekend and on the following Monday she decided to set her class a project to write about ‘something secret’. She hoped this might encourage Heather to disclose what she was doing. She collected the projects the following week with no great expectations and then she read about ‘Boy’.
My secret frend
I have a Frend called Boy who takes me to places where we play
He is invizabull and I talk to him when my mummy and sister are not looking.
He is afrayed of my dad
We have one speshull place we hide and he plays with me when no one is near us
He is my best ever secret
He says if any one finds him they will make him go away.
I do not want him to go, he is my Frend
He can go invizabull like in a film and also can walk threw walls, he showed me and it is really amazing!
Heather X, age 8.
Invisible friends are quite common at Heather’s age and the Teacher suspected Heather had found some old hiding place and that the rest of her story was fantasy. She shared the project with Heather’s mother who was partly relieved but still concerned Heather might hurt herself or get trapped.
“Keep a watchful eye” advised the Teacher “but also let Heather have her fantasy as it is a sign that she is developing her creative talents and we do not want to suppress this. Rather we should try and encourage but also focus her creativity and inventiveness. See if Heather will take you to the secret place as you need to check it out; these houses can trap the unwary so easily.”
Over the next few weeks, when at home Heather would suddenly leave a room without giving a reason, or start to say something then stop mid-sentence and blush. It was almost as if she wanted to talk to someone but did not wish to give away their presence to the rest of her family. Her family got used to this strange behaviour and as the rest of her family stopped worrying about Heather, so the girl started to blossom and become talkative once more.
Then one day at school, her class were learning about life in Georgian and Victorian times. The Teacher had started to describe life as a chimney sweep. They could be ‘as young as eight years old’ she had told the class.
“Please miss” Heather had interrupted and then she carried on in a rush:
“The master sweep in Lavenham had two boys, one five and one six. They would come down every day from their chimneys with bleeding elbows and knees. By the time they were eight they were too big and risked getting stuck. One of the boys did get stuck when eight and died in one of the chimneys in our village. He says it was terrible work but he had no choice as he was not apprenticed so sweeping was all he could do.”
The Teacher was delighted to see Heather finally coming out of her self-imposed shell of silence but also dumbstruck at what the young girl had said. When she finally regained her voice, she asked:
“Who says, Heather?”
“His name is ‘Boy’ and he was eight when he got stuck in the chimney at The Anchor pub. He died there.”
That evening, Heather was found crying and as her mother hugged her, she finally opened up to her:
“Boy is very angry. I was meant to keep him a secret but now my Teacher knows. I begged him not to punish my Teacher but I am frightened he will do something terrible. He was like a wall of anger, his eyes were so black.”
“You must not play with Boy any more” replied her mother but Heather shook her head. “I do not think I have a choice any more” said the young girl in all seriousness. “He will punish me if I do not play with him.”
Her mother smiled and wiped her tears away saying: “Do not be afraid. He cannot harm you. He does not really exist. He comes from your wonderful imagination and you can always send him away by just thinking that he must go.”
That night, Heather’s mother put her daughter in the bath and was going to supervise her, and to play games in the water as they often did, when the phone rang. Heather’s mother considered leaving it but the phone was persistent and so in the end she got up off her knees from besides the bath and went down to answer the phone.
There was no one there.
As she went to go back upstairs to play with Heather, the phone rang again. Still there was no one there. After two more occasions Heather’s mother decided to leave the phone ringing in frustration and went back upstairs to find …
… Heather with her head under the water of the bath.
She went to pull Heather upright and had to fight with the girl in order to get her head above water. The casement window of the bathroom burst open, the taps in the wash basin turned on to full and within seconds the basin was overflowing; the cistern above the toilet overflowed and then the screws holding the electric heater above the bath began slowly to unscrew of their own accord.
Heather’s mother screamed but no sound left her mouth. In desperation she tried to scoop water out of the bath with her hands and to her horror saw Heather just staring at her through lifeless unblinking eyes. Then one of Heather’s father’s razors rose out of the glass it had been sitting in next to the wash basin and in a lightning fast movement it snicked Heather’s mother’s cheek. With the blood streaming down the cut on her face, Heather’s mother watched as the naked blade wrote a single word in her blood:
Heather’s mum screamed “No!” and pulled the plug out. The water drained away slowly but now she was winning the battle for her daughter and eventually Heather’s head surfaced as the water levels dropped. Her face was blue but with a cough, suddenly Heather’s eyes flicked open and she woke whilst her cheeks gradually regained some colour.
“What are you doing?” asked her nearly hysterical mother.
“Boy was playing with me and he wanted me to stay with him forever” replied Heather in confused fright.
That night the house was exorcised. Heather showed her mother the small cavity in the side of the main chimney breast that Boy obviously had used as a den when he had been alive and the local priest said the prayers of release. There was no resistance. Boy knew he was no longer welcome.
Boy had seen how frightened Heather had been of him and so returned to where he knew he would be loved, respected and never feared or spoken of openly. Boy had frightened himself as much as Heather and her mother. Boy has not been back to that house, but he has not left the village and still visits me each Saturday night and Christmas Eve to play with me as I prepare to join him in my own death.
The Banquet of the Rowan Tree of the Hill of Clay
Boy was playing with my dogs, Dasher mainly (the Hound of the Dashervilles to give him his full name) whom was a grandfather and had become very docile in his old age. He was easy to tease as he would just open one eye, yawn, wag a tail (supreme effort) then return to warming himself in front of the fire.
My partner on the other hand was not “into” ghosts and whenever Boy started to blow the smoke from the crackling flames of my fire around her, she would head off fast casting the sign of the evil eye. Boy had once chased her into the garden and I had had to put a stop to his mockery of her. When I put my foot down he does not argue, there is too much history between us but also he trusts me and with that trust has come a grudging respect for my authority as head of our household.
Ghosts often have an under-developed moral code, especially the ghosts of children. In part this is due to an incomplete upbringing but as often because their souls are tortured by the event that keeps them trapped in the spirit world on Earth rather than going forwards to eternal life. Not all Ghosts have this fault and at least one Ghost I have met has been a man of courtesy, great politesse and considerable honour both in life and in death.
Ghosts however honourable will cling to a place or a time or to people. Some have this incredible ability to fall in love. Most have been the victim of love. When they do form an attachment to people they can become very jealous of attention but also it can form the hope of their salvation. I often therefore wonder if my own death will be the key to releasing Boy from his captivity? Boy has also considered this but when I offered he take my life so that he could be released he refused.
“Don’t get me wrong ma’am. There are many I know would slay you as look at you. Not all of us want to play. But would be against the code of some.”
“What code is that?” I dared to ask.
“We are all subject to Angelos, of course, she who is daughter of Zeus and Hera, goddess of the spirit world. She has her hound, as big as Dasher, but more like Thea” (Thea was Dasher’s partner and an Alpine Blue Wolf) “that is called the Cu-Sith, Cwu-Sidhe, Cwn-Anwnn and that the English call the Black Dog. Angelos is our Queen and sets the rules. But we Ghosts are not known for our obedience. She is a beautiful lady, kind, gentle, like you ma’am.”
Cu-Sith I knew from the books in my father’s library was a “fairy” dog, sometimes described as dark green but actually more often as white, silver haired (as Boy has described exactly like Thea with the same deep blue eyes). The Cu-Sith is the harbinger of death, and her arrival announces that a soul is to be taken that same night. I prayed often to meet her but my time had not yet come.
“So you have rules then?”
“We must not take the life of a soul chosen by God. It is our only rule. We can scare mortals though” and with a laugh he caught the air in the room and forced my skirts high over my head. I joined in the laughter and the wind died down. Boy grinned because he knew he could not scare me. My partner mind, had she been in the room, would have run out screaming.
I think the worst trick Boy ever played was when I, not my most sensible of moments, held a dinner party in the Grande Hall at the Hall. We sat around the long elm table, one corner curled upwards, warped over the years, where I sat so that when the mood of mischief caught me I could send my silver napkin ring rolling down the length of the table. The planks of the table had cracked, shrunk in places, leaving craters for food to wedge in, gaps for food to fall through to the eager dogs sitting below hopeful of scraps, occasionally chewing my guest’s shoes, as often just lying across their feet for the comfort of company.
Down the centre of the table were silver candelabra, candles guttering in the many draughts, a high wind howling outside, blowing the tapestries on the walls, colourful representations of mythological death, rape and murder brought alive as they rippled in the wind. The force of the rain drove the ivy to tap on the leaded glass of the windows, stain glass, ancient coats of arms and creatures from Hell, shadowed in the dark of a moon-less night, then brought alive by the flicker of the candles in the cast iron sconces on the walls or the iron wheel hanging from chains over our heads.
The fire spat and hissed, the down-draught from the chimney occasionally filling the room with smoke, the log basket sitting across two fire-dogs of flame-breathing dragons full with the log of a horse chestnut, burning green and blue, the fire back glinting, the head of Satan himself, eyes glaring bright red fire, a mocking laugh on his sensuous lips, horns turned white in the heat. The Angel of Light cast down into the fires of Hell yet still ugly and beautiful in his defiance.
Down the walls either side of our table, separating the tapestries and the wall sconces, were the suits of armour, crossed lances, banners and bannerets, swords, flintlocks and muskets, relics of a family whom had fought in wars since Charlemagne defeated the Saracen or Ceawlin defeated the Britons, rumoured even to have been alongside Maximus as he fell before Rome, Macsen, the first to carry the sword Calibarnus that became known as Excalibur, buried then in the tomb of another ancestor in Albion’s finest Abbey, in the place of Kings where the stone of Scotland’s heart is stolen. For my family had once it is said owned Excalibur, gifted it by Artor, the Count of Saxon Shore, as he lay dying at Camlann, handed to BedeVere whom became deVere.
The dinner party had been raucous, fun, the quirkiness of our surroundings helping people relax. We would collapse in laughter as we disappeared behind the smoke, or lost a fork down a gap in the table, saw wine glasses topple over for lack of somewhere level to stand them, had a mock duel with our bread sticks, danced to the music of Vivaldi, took no cognisance of the passage of time until with timidity, the first of my clocks chimed midnight discordantly, the signal for several old timers to then fill the hall with their incandescent announcement of the witching hour.
Before the arrival of my family of ghosts I had not appreciated that the witching hour is an entire hour. I had thought it referred to midnight, a few brief moments of chaos as the spirit world took over then back to normality. How wrong one can be in one’s ignorance! The spirit world, knowing that at midnight they have permission to interrupt the material world, take full advantage. As Boy once said: “It says an hour and so we get an hour, no more … but especially no less.” I had been pleading with him for a chance to sleep but totally in vain.
That evening Boy had got some friends around. Like me he had decided it was time for a party. Unlike me he had forgotten to forewarn me, and so I had not had the chance to explain some of the less usual aspects of my house to my friends.
The first sign of the trouble we faced was as the food on the table started to rise off the plates.
“No!” I commanded and was ignored as the remains of a trifle landed straight into Clarice’s lap. That was the signal for a food fight as Boy’s young friends took spiritual aim and the guests took cover, the dogs woke up and leapt for the food flying around the Hall, adding to the chaos, their howls only encouraging Boy’s companions to join in with their own banshee-like cries.
“Coffee?” I asked trying to ignore the sight of Jonathan being held upside down whilst Felicity had gone down under a mountain of pavlova. At this point, Boy took possession of one of the suits of armour which started to walk, unsteadily, from its stand, arms held out forwards, like some cursed Egyptian Mummy from a Hollywood film, and making woo woo noises.
“Children” I explained then added sotto voce “and way past their bed time too” as I caught a chicken leg mid air that had been thrown at Penelope. Then I had an idea. Standing up I walked to the centre of the hall and in my loudest voice, essentially a whisper as I don’t have a loud voice, I called out:
There was a pause. Perhaps I could have timed my moment better as unfortunately the soup terrine was directly over Keith’s head when I called Boy’s friends to a halt. It stood still, floating in mid air for a second, then overturned and landed covering him from head to toe in bright orange pumpkin potage. I surveyed the room and it was not a pretty sight.
I myself had got off lightly. I think even the most mischievous of Ghosts know when they may have met their match. I could imagine Boy warning them off “Don’t want to get her mad, is her house and her ancestors are a frightening lot!” a reference to the time I summoned the ghosts of the eighteenth Earl and the young Prince Alfonsino to deal with Boy. The eighteenth Earl and the Prince both owed me a favour after I had cleared the Earl’s name of the murder of Henry Prince of Wales [see “A Courteous Ghost”]
The rest of my guests, my room and my dogs were however a colourful testimony to our meal, wearing each course in their hair, on faces and clothing, covering the walls and the tall vaulted ceiling above us. I would need to get my mountain climbing kit out to get some of the food off which seemed to have lodged in the furthest and most inaccessible farthest reaches of the beamed arches above my head.
“Who did that?” I growled pointing to a stain of jelly that had got onto the tapestry of the Siege of Maastricht, striking my great great great great great great cousin Edward, seen dying heroically before the city gates, smack on the nose. There was a long somewhat guilty silence then a little voice admitted from her place of hiding, sitting on my chandelier: “Me” and then “Sorry”
“I have a suggestion” I continued now having the room’s attention. “Why don’t we all play hide and seek. You Ghosts get to hide first and we non spirits must find you.”
There was the rush of wind as the Ghosts all took off to go and find somewhere to hide and I breathed a sigh of relief then turning to my friends, apologised for not warning them, then set us all to work to tidy up. I knew the Ghosts would get impatient if we didn’t make some effort eventually to find them so after half an hour we went in search, in pairs as most of my guests were still a little wary of ghosts; they had after all not exactly seen them on their best behaviour.
Clarice found the first Ghost or rather it found her. One of Boy’s more adventurous and disreputable friends got bored and tried to hide up her skirt which sent her running, screaming into the dark of the night, with me in hot pursuit as however bad the Ghosts were indoors they were ten times worse outside. In the grounds of the Manor in the Woods of Clay Hill is where the Night Mares, Phantoms, Spectres and Banshee tend to congregate, especially in the dark of the woods around my village.
They found Clarice first of course, cowering under the shade of a Rowan tree, possibly about as bad a choice of tree to find as refuge as one could possibly make since Rowan are notorious for attracting spirits, hence rowan berries are worn as crowns by witches. A Night Mare was trying to persuade Clarice to ride on its back; not a choice I would make but Clarice hadn’t ever read what these spectral horses do with you.
“Clarice. I want you to hold my hand” I whispered and stepped carefully towards her not wishing to spook the black horse, its skull-like head turning to glare at me with shining red eyes, nor to scare the crowd of Spectres that had gathered around us, but also not wishing to frighten Clarice into running again. She looked up, saw my hand reaching towards her and went to stand so that she could grasp it. In terror she realised however she could not move.
“Help” she gasped in horror “the tree is holding me. It won’t let me go”
“Rats” I muttered to myself. Rowan trees have a habit of doing that sort of stuff and it can be pretty annoying. This was also not the best of times for it to decide to play with us as the Night Mare was stamping its fore leg and getting impatient, the Spectre were in danger of possessing one or both of us, which they could do if someone was petrified with fright. If that happens then best is to grin and bear it and eventually they get bored and let you go. The Night Mare however was a different kettle of fish, if that got either of us then we would never be found until the end of time.
The Rowan tree is the Goddess of all trees, the tree of power. It is contrary: a vain tree yet it can be of immense help. Three Rowans hold one of my stables up, the tiled roof years back had proven too heavy for the termite infested wooden frame and the whole block should have tumbled down centuries ago yet was held, admittedly at an odd angle such that no door could ever be cut that will shut, by three Rowan trees all coming to my rescue.
“Eye’s delight, the Mountain’s Ash
Quicken, Sorb Apple, the Roynetree
Witchen and Witchbane, Thor’s Rash
Whitty, Mighty, I have the name of thee”
Now I had the tree’s attention there was only one thing that will persuade a Rowan to release its captive and so I sang. It was winter, early February, cold, my breath as I sang was white mist, I had but one hope. Around me as often found in the company of Rowan was a copse of spruce, and on the ground, sheltered, cleared of snow was a small area of dust, on which each day I set cracked corn from the fields and put aside some of the millet and some of my chicken feed.
The singing, of course, attracted that most timid of birds, black and white plumage, the coif of a crown, as a solitary quail walked into sight. The Rowan’s month, the honour of its naming and now the company of its familiar, the tree released Clarice to watch over the quail and offer it her protection.
“Night Mare’s are attracted to terror” I murmured softly for just Clarice to hear and our hands met and held. “If we hold hands the Spectre cannot possess us, and if we show no fear the Night Mare will seek other prey.”
Clarice just looked at me as if I were mad then asked, voice shaking: “How do you know this stuff?”
“Watch” I replied then I turned to the Night Mare and said simply:
“Autem mea domina mecum est
Autem nemo timet
Non est hic praeda
Haec est mea
At which the Night Mare snorted fire from flaring nostrils, glared once more at both of us, saw our hands were joined however so reared then took off to disappear into the night, the Spectres following, seeking other, simpler and more vulnerable prey. I breathed with relief for we had not encountered any of the banshee and no life, not at least from my dinner party, need now be surrendered.
“Come on, I think you probably need a brandy” I whispered to Clarice giving her a hug then added to myself “and I need to have a strong word with Boy.”
I offered my friends the chance to stay overnight but they were all strangely reluctant and headed off rapidly into the dark night in their cars, saying a hasty goodbye, making strange indistinct half-choking noises when I said “we must do this again”. I had ensured however that none left until the witching hour was over, for I had once driven out into the dark of the night when the Ghosts were still active and frightened myself badly when one had decided to haunt my rear view mirror. I still see his white face occasionally in the glass as I have not had the heart to have it exorcised yet.
“Boy” I summoned him and he came, sheepishly, looking down at his feet. “Next time you have friends round, ask first, alright?”
That had been last February, night of Candlemas, the night when I blessed all of the many candles I make to see me through the year, the night the old candles are taken down and replaced with new and all candelabra and chandeliers must be cleaned of their old wax, the night when throats are blessed and all throat disease is cured, the night when all wool-makers are protected, the traditional end of Christmastide before that was moved to epiphany, once the start of three weeks of Roman festivities to everything from love and purity to the lowly oven. Now Boy and I played before my fire and I asked:
“Can I meet Angelos one day?”
“Reckon so, ma’am. You and she would like each other I believe. Both been kind to me, you have.”
I have forgiven Boy long ago for his party at my expense. I may have lost a few friends because of his antics but gained others as each of his companions have come to see me on the nights that followed to share the stories of how they became spirits, the sadness that means they cannot depart, little moments of personal tragedy that I attempt in my own madness to resolve through my prayer, my love and affection for each of them.
And when people ask me “Have you ever considered having children?” I struggle to explain that I already have a family of children, a riot of ill-discipline made marvelous by our strong sense of mutual love.