Woodwoses (wildmen)

SUFFOLK, mainland Britain’s easternmost county, last year briefly adopted the controversial slogan “the Curious County”. The churches of mostly rural Suffolk do harbour a curiosity – woodwoses (literally “wild-men-of-the-woods”), hirsute manimals brandishing clubs. Particularly in Suffolk Coastal District, few churches are without at least one woodwose. Believed to date from the 15th century (“the 1400s”), these are carved on the staves of stone baptismal fonts, or as a reliefs hewn into the porch of a church, where they are usually to be found with a club and shield raised as they close in for combat with a dragon of wyvern.

The woodwoses on the font of St Andrew’s Walberswick are ruined – some of their heads are gone and you can just make out the wavy hair on the torsos that remain. When I first saw the ruined Walberswick woodwoses, I mistook them for a particularly hairy Adam and Eve.

The Protestant religious reformers – enforcing an edict of 1540 from the Tudor boy king Edward VI ordering the smashing of statues in churches – showed intolerance to these and other Suffolk woodwoses. Some local woodwose-bearing fonts only survive because the idolatrous bits were plastered over until the commissioners had gone away.

(For more information visit https://mattsalusbury.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-woodwoses-of-suffolk.html , the Woodwose of Suffolk, Fortean Times 2014, updated)


Shuck – East Anglia’s Phantom Hellhound

I investigate reports of big cats in Suffolk, I’ve received over a hundred of these over the past seven years. But while seeking testimony on Suffolk big cat sightings, a surprising number of unsolicited accounts of encounters with the phantom East Anglian hellhound Black Shuck seem to come my way. Shuck can’t possibly exist, of course. Nonetheless, I still receive testimony of his antics in the country of Suffolk. An interesting and surprisingly consistent pattern in this handful of Shuck reports is that most of them describe encounters from 40 years ago, usually reported by sons keen to tell me how “my dad saw Shuck in the Seventies.”

During Shuck’s long history, the two peaks in reported East Anglian Shuck activity occurred in the 1920s and in the groovy, cool, fab era that was the 1970s. The ancient horror that was East Anglia’s Black Shuck was at large scaring the residents of Seventies Suffolk as never before.

Ivan A.W. Bunn’s excellent contemporary analysis East of England Shuck traditions, “Shuckland: Analyzing the Hell out of the Beast” remains unequalled to this day.

Among the many 1970s Shuck experiences that came to Bunn’s attention was one via a letter from 1973, in which Lincolnshire man with no previous knowledge of East Anglian black dog traditions told how he was laying drainage pipes across the marshes behind the massive Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh (so huge it’s known as “the Cathedral of the Marshes”). Suddenly, he heard a dog loudly panting behind him. He turned round and there was… nothing. It was only when he told some locals in the pub that they produced a book of local Shuck stories.

This article first appeared in Fortean Times magazine, issue FT412;58-59, December 2021.

Phantom Coach Horses

There are a remarkable numbers of traditions from around the British Isles featuring phantom coaches. These phantom coaches are often driven by headless coachmen, sometimes with even the horses pulling the coach being headless too.

The village of Olney, Buckinghamshire, is allegedly the home of a phantom coach pulled by headless horses and with a decapitated driver. Kingston Russell House in Long Bredy, Dorset, is said to be haunted by a coach with a headless coachman, a headless footman and four headless passengers, pulled by a team of four headless horses. Headless horses driven by a headless coachman were said to emerge at midnight from a hole at Rowlands Hill in Wimborne, Dorset. Another phantom coach, with a headless lady passenger as well as a headless coachman driving headless horses, was alleged to ride around the site of a former court building in Stackpole Elidor, Dyfed. To look upon the phantom coach said to appear on Christmas Eve with a headless horses and a headless coachman at the reins, at Penrhyn, Cornwall, causes death, and so on.

Toby’s Walk in Blythburgh, Suffolk is haunted by “Black Toby”, Toby Gill, a Jamaican drummer of the 4th Dragoons regiment lynched by locals around 1750. In most versions of the story he walks the heath on foot, in some he drives a hearse to Hell, pulled by headless horses. Research by Joan Forman, local author of Haunted East Anglia, concluded that the coach with the headless horses is a later – 19th century – story that became conflated with Toby Gill.

Mystery Lights

The East Anglian coast – coastal Suffolk in particular, but also North Essex and Norfolk – are especially rich in mystery light phenomena.

These mystery lights, traditionally assumed to be alive or at least directed by some malign intelligence, were known variously across the region as hob-o-lanterns, hobby lanterns, lantern-men, will-o-the-wisps, Jack-o-lanterns, Jenny Burnt Arses, Joan the Wad, Spunkie, Pinket or corpse candles.

They all delighted in leading travellers astray at night, particularly in marshes or churchyards. To be “well-led” in Suffolk dialect was to become beguiled by hobby lanterns into dangerous terrain and left in a confused state. A Ms Tish Spall from the Suffolk village of Westleton told her local Women’s Institute she’d been the victim of one such incident in nearby Westleton Walks one night sometime before 1922, when hobby lanterns had led her over a mile away from the path. (Customs and Sayings recorded by the Women’s Institute in 1922, Leiston Press, Leiston 2008).