East Anglia has always been rich in tales of the supernatural, as is perhaps befitting for a region full of lonely roads, ancient churches, isolated farms and graveyards overgrown with weeds. This area is also infamous for the witch trials which swept through here at the time of the hated Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who left a trail of death and destruction behind him in his blind pursuit of ‘justice’. The four English counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire are replete with stories of ghostly black dogs, phantom coaches and spectral monks so it is no surprise that M R James drew much of the inspiration for his supernatural fiction from this area, where he was born the son of a rector in a small village in Suffolk and later lived as an adult attending Cambridge’s famous university. But even James’ incredible imagination cannot compete with East Anglia’s own local folklore in the form of the many stories which have been passed down from one generation to the next, the true factual basis of which may have been long since lost in the mists of time.
At the George Hotel, Buckden there is the legend that the most famous highwayman of all time, Dick Turpin, often stayed at this old coaching inn while alive and that his ghost occasionally returns to his old haunt (perhaps on the lookout for his next unsuspecting victim). Then there is the grisly tale of the murderous landlord at the inn neighbouring Caxton Gibbet (which was in fact the site of a hangman’s gibbet), who, when finally caught, was sentenced to imprisonment in an iron cage hung from the gibbet outside his own inn until he rotted to death. The ghostly figure of a nun has been seen crossing the bridge near Hinchinbrooke House in Huntingdon – once the site of a forbidden rendezvous between a nun and a monk, both of whom were put to death cruelly when they were discovered. The Ferry Boat Inn in Holywell, reputedly one of the oldest inns in the country as well as among the most haunted, is the site on the evening of 17th March each year of sightings of the ghost of a local suicide, Juliet Tewslie, rising from her watery grave to wail in despair.
But perhaps the oddest tale in all of the annals of East Anglian paranormal lore is that of the Wild Man of Orford. This was the name given to the man-like creature first caught in the nets of an Orford fishing boat in 1204, who was trawled up with the fish from the mysterious depths. He was reportedly immense and covered in long black hair in place of clothes, which is what earned him his ‘Wild Man’ epithet. Despite the fact that he made the locals somewhat uneasy due to his size and odd appearance, he appeared harmless enough and for a while was kept as the ‘pet’ of the town governor. The townsfolk soon turned against their leader’s unusual pet, however, when his presence coincided with a spate of misfortune throughout Orford, including drought, disease and crop failure. The Wild Man grew tired of the people’s scorn and his own captivity and consequently escaped back into the depths from whence he came, never to be seen again… or so it was hoped. How many times the Wild Man has reappeared in Orford over the centuries since then is impossible to say but on each occasion he has again appeared to be the harbinger of bad luck for the unfortunate people who live there. He has now become so much a part of the legend of the town that his comings and goings seem to exist more in the imaginations of the townsfolk, some of whom would use the threat of the Wild Man for purposes of their own, than in actual fact. It remains the case to this day that the children of Orford are warned not to wander too close to the edge of the quay for fear that they may awaken whatever dwells down in the depths beyond.