Hilltop Press Catalogue 2011 and Science Fiction Poetry - Introductory Factsheet by Steve Sneyd Steve Sneyd Delves Into the World of Ghosts of the Fens Steve's Epic Crowland Poem The Poetry of Brian Aldiss by Steve Sneyd
Steve Sneyd Snarls in 1989!


Steve Sneyd Delves Into the World of Ghosts of the Fens



Islands in the Fens were seen as ideal places to escape the temptations of the world, so abbeys and monasteries were established there, isolated in what was then watery wildnerness. And, although the fens themselves were long since drained, ghostly echoes of the monks linger on. This is particularly true of the cluster of monastic sites north-east of Cambridge, where it is said that in the dark of the night the singing of their choirs can still be heard across the flat empty farmland that replaced the fenny marsh. Stories tell, too, of underground tunnels still linking the sites, tunnels filled now with water in which swim eels of immense age, grown huge and bloatedly fat through centuries of feeding on drowned men, beginning with the corpses of those monks whose ghosts, nevertheless, sing on discorporate.

That tunnels of some sort did exist is perhaps indicated by traces of underground workings at Denny Abbey, seven miles north-east of Cambridge. Its onetime island site, just north of Waterbeach, is now farmland, the farmhouse incorporating what was the abbey church, the remains of the domestic buildings now a barn. This abbey's complicated history - taken over from its original monks first by one set of Crusader knights, the Templars, then another, the Hospitallers, before becoming a nunnery from 1336 until Henry VIII suppressed all such religious houses - perhaps included periods when illicit activities could have made good use of a tunnel from to the water's edge where boats could land people or goods who could then reach the buildings unseen. Perhaps those first monks took up smuggling before they were suppressed, or the later nuns had secret male visitors. However, for a tunnel to reach right to any of the other nearby abbeys it would have had to burrow right beneath the wide river Cam, which seems a little unlikely, since the others lay to the East on the other side.

Even between those which were all on the east bank of the Cam, the distances in general seem too great for tunnels to be plausible, though the stories could make sense as garbled memories of secret paths through the Fens that let the monks go from one to another without having to swim, or narrow channels deep and unobstructed enough to let a shallow-draught boat slip through unseen amid the tall concealing reeds. Swaffham Priory and Abbey to Fordham Abbey is some six miles for example, although the Swaffham site to Anglesey Abbey, a distance of about two miles, does sound just about possible for a tunnel. Spinney Abbey, one of those frequently said to be haunted, another former religious site turned farm, is further away still, just north-east of Wicken Fen,so an even less likely tunnel candidate. A good bit further north still, at Elm, just south of Wisbech, the rectory, which is on the site of yet another former abbey, is also said to be still haunted by the ghost of a monk. And, right up nearer Peterborough, St Guthlac, founder of Crowland Abbey, whose impressive ruins include a portion still in use as the town church, when he first settled in his hermitage on the fen island Crowland then was, was haunted by demons, Welsh-speaking ones at that, though no sightings have been claimed in the centuries since that area was drained.


Wicken Fen, already mentioned, the National Trust property, again north-east of Cambridge in the midst of "Abbey country", which preserves the last of the original fen just as it was, is the scene of many stories of supernatural visitations. Here, it is said, is the haunt in dusk and dark of the Lantern Men, manlike forms, emitting a pale, terrifying light, which attack you, treading you down or swallowing you up, particularly if you make the mistake of whistling when they are about, as this is known to attract them. If you are too far away to reach, they try instead to lure you off the paths into the waters to drown. There are also stories of sightings of the Wicken Fen witch, and of the ghosts of Roman soldiers - those determined conquerors had a canal route from Lincolnshire right down through the fens, so it's not as surprising a place for them to appear as it might at first seem.

Wicken Fen, too, is one of the many places a huge supernatural black dog is said to appear. Such creatures are reported from many parts of Britain - elsewhere called by such names as barguests and padfeet, and sometimes described as having just one great eye, and also as being capable of changing shape, from monster animal to white onrushing shapeless clouds and back again.

The one that appears at Wicken Fen could well be the same as what is called the hound of nearby Upware, or the Black Shuck (shuck is another common name for such unnatural dogs) which is said to have its lair in the Devil's Dyke. That is the ancient name, based on a belief that it was His Satanic Majesty who first made it, for the great earth rampart which stretches away south-easterly many miles from the Upware area down across the Cambridge-Newmarket road and on. It is generally thought to be from the Dark Ages, although there is still much dispute as to who built it as defence against which enemy - Britons against incoming Angles, or rival factions among the Teutonic invaders, perhaps. Down towards the Dyke's south-east end, the shuck changes its name, and perhaps its shape, being known thereas the Shug Monkey. Not that it always sticks to the countryside - relatively recently, in the outskirts of Cambridge itself, near the site of the Iron Age settlement of Arbury, a huge dog was seen to leap over the bonnet of a car as it travelled along the Arbury Road, causing extreme terror on the part of the car driver's own dog, sat in the back, and accompanied by a sensation of extreme cold.

Black dog sightings are sometimes associated with memories of terrifying human individuals of the past, as if their spirits after death either turned into such creatures, or summoned them for company.

One such, said to appear as a black dog in and around the ruins of the castle from which he defied the king, is Hugh Bigod, violent aristocrat and serial rebel. He was based in East Anglia, although some way away from the Fens; he was Earl of Norfolk, but the castle where he manifests in monster canine form is just into Suffolk across the river Waveney, in a picturesque market town not far from Lowestoft. Half-admired, half-feared for his defiance of two kings in turn - he rebelled against King Stephen, then several times against Henry II, and his contemptuous reply to a summons to answer for his misdeeds survives as a famous rhyme: "Were I in my castle of Bungay/Upon the Waveney/I would ne care for the King of Cockney." The striking ruins of Bungay, wrecked in 1176 by the king to punish Hugh's latest rebellion, still include the two tall towers of the gatehouse, and, inside, the stump of an immensely thick-walled keep (open at limited times, but easily seen from a nearby small park) and, just down the adjacent sideroad, the tall tree-covered earth ramparts of the outer defences, called Castle Hills - the black dog that is Hugh Bigod has been seen, it is said, in all these places.

An even more terrifying aristocrat, a monster in life, let alone after death, and one whose story is inextricably linked with the Fens, was Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, and he too is associated with a ghostly dog, although in his case as companion to his spectre.

King Stephen discovered that Geoffrey was plotting treason, and imprisoned him and demanded he handed over to the king's troops the castles he held, including the Tower of London. Once the castles were in royal hands, the king, unwisely as it turned out, let Geoffrey go. The earl fled into the Fens, and gathered round himself armed men loyal to him, and was soon joined also by an ever-growing gang of outlaws and robbers.

Thereupon he began his reign of terror. He raided towns like Cambridge with its rich churches, and the various monasteries, and looted their treasures like a latter-day Viking. Able to attack anywhere around the Fens, appearing without warning from his hiding places deep inside them, which included Ramsey Abbey itself, which he took over after expelling its monks, and an earthwork castle, now overgrown with vegetation, which today can be freely visited just off the road at Booth's Hill a little south-east of the Abbey. Once the bigger targets had all been looted, he turned on the smaller fry, demanding protection money to spare villages and hamlets from his raids, then, when the inhabitants had met his demands, attacked, plundered, and burned them anyhow. He kidnapped those he thought might have anything worth stealing, and tortured them to make them say where their treasure was hidden. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Geoffrey's methods thus : his men "hung them up by the feet and smoked them with foul smoke. They strung them up by the thumbs, or the head, and hung coats of mail on their feet. They tied knotted cords around their heads and twisted it till it entered the brain. They put them in dungeons with adders and snakes..put them into a short narrow shallow chest or crucethus in which they put sharp stones..and crushed the man in it until they had broken every bone in his body. A weight so heavy it took two or three to carry, called a "loath-and-grim", was fastened to a beam which was attached to a sharp iron put round the man's throat and neck so that he could move in no direction, and could neither sit, nor lie, nor sleep, but had to bear the whole weight of his iron." Of this terrifying time, known as the Anarchy, of which Geoffrey was the most terrible embodiment, the chronicler, finally, concluded "men said openly that Christ and his saints slept."

Something had to be done, as everywhere round the Fens was being turned into a deserted wasteland. King Stephen began building a ring of castles to pen Geoffrey into his Fenland lair. One of these was being constructed at Burwell, nine miles north-east of Cambridge. Geoffrey decided to attack while it was still under construction in August 1144. As he rode round outside it, directing his men, an arrow caught him in the head. The attack was abandoned at once, Geoffrey's men carrying the wounded warlord away with them, across the fens to Mildenhall eleven miles away, where he lay on his sickbed. Walter, the Abbot of Ramsey, found out he was there, and arrived to demand return of his Abbey. The chroniclers report that he found Geoffrey speechless and unable to repent, having "neither voice nor sense", although, oddly, he did come away with a letter purportedly from Geoffrey to his son Ernulf ordering him to hand the Abbey back to its monks.

The story gets odder. A Knight Templar, perhaps from Denny, came and wrapped the wounded man in a cloak bearing his order's symbol, a red cross on white ground. Why would a religious knight show such honour to an irreligious villain excommunicated for his attacks on priests and the Church, a crime so grave only the Pope himself could have absolved him in person? It was put out that Geoffrey had died, and the Templars took the body, it was said, to their London headquarters, and there, as he had "died excommunicate", could not bury it in holy ground, so threw it in a pit outside their cemetery, or, odder still, placed it in a lead coffin and hung it in the branches of a wild apple tree in their orchard. Puzzling behaviour indeed - but before considering a possible explanation - and finding out where Geoffrey's spiriit walks - a brief final mention of Burwell, where the fatal wound was given. Hearing that Geoffrey was dead, and the threat removed, Stephen left the castle unfinished. Today, you can see its earthworks easily by looking to your left across the field from the quiet village street.

But what of the odd story of the Templars and the travels of Geoffrey's "body". Consider this - was he shamming a coma when Abbot Walter visited, and when the Templar cloak covered him? Was he, in turn, shamming death so that he could be smuggled away to safety - and why should the Templars take the risk of arousing royal displeasure by helping? Could they have been promised part or all of the vast loot of his depredations, those treasures of churches and abbeys missing to this day?

And this is where his ghost comes in. If such a terrifying figure really had died at Mildenhall, surely that should be where his ghost appears, but no. Instead, it walks at one of London's least-known historic sites, the moated house, a former hunting lodge, of Camlet, originally called Camelot after Arthur's citadel. Nowadays freely accessible, overgrowth recently cleared from the platform within the moat, and the moat itself cleared of silt and rubbish, it lies at the northern edge of Trent Country Park by Enfield Chase. In the 12th Century, Camlet belonged to Geoffrey de Mandeville, and there he is said to appear on the night of the full moon, accompanied by a huge headless dog - or, in another version, that his appearances come, not every full moon, but far more rarely, every sixth Christmas, although again with headless dog by his side. The story associated with the sighting is that he appears there because he drowned in Camlet's well. How could that be, if, as the "official" story had it, he died of his wound at Mildenhall? Ah, but what if he did not - if the Templars smuggled him to London, in hopes of obtaining his loot as the price of his escape from his royal enemy? Had he, perhaps, convinced them that the loot was hidden at Camlet, maybe in the well itself? Did they discover this was a wild-goose chase, that they had been cheated and tricked, and there was nothing there, or did Geoffrey refuse to reveal the exact hiding place of his treasure, and either way they, enraged, at the last finished the weak, wounded, man off, and threw the body down into the concealment of the well, or throw him in still alive to drown, or perhaps even that, weak and dizzy, he fell in while trying to indicate or reach the treasure, and the drowning was an accident? If any of these scenarios held true, the last thing the Templars would want is for the story to get out, hence the picturesque story of apple-tree "burial".

There is one last curious footnote. Twenty years later, says the Walden chronicler, Geoffrey's younger son, Geoffrey de Mandeville II, finally obtained Papal absolution of his father, and gave his body Christian burial. Where and how did he find the corpse, to do this? And, if it was done, why does the ghost still unsatisfiedly walk its monster dog at Camlet?


'Camelot was In Enfield Chase', by Nick Grant, Pendragon V. XXX, #3, Autumn/Winter 2002/03 (Camlet location OS reference - TQ 28880 9818).
'Haunted Britain', by Antony D. Hippisley Coxe, Hutchinson, 1973, Pan, 1975.
'Haunted East Anglia', by Joan Forman, Robert Hale & Co., 1974.
'The Ghost Hunter's Road Book', by John Harries, revised edn. Frederick Muller, 1974.
'Gazeteer of British Ghosts', by Peter Underwood, Souvenir Press, 1971.
'This Haunted Isle - The Ghosts & Legends of Britain's Historic Buildings', by Peter Underwood, Harrap, 1984.
For a full account of Geoffrey de Mandeville, 'The Troubled Reign of King Stephen', by John T. Appleby, G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1969.

Copyright © Steve Sneyd.

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