* On the banks of the Stour *
* Of Flatford Mill and Hay Wain’s *
*Where Constable Dreamt the Dedham Dream *
* The Visions of Alfred Munnings *
* Art and Postmen according to Simon Carter *
* The Haunting of Borley and Dear Mister Price *
The first thing I know, even before I enter this quaint old English town of Dedham with its array of picturesque houses and aging pubs, is its association with the river Stour that runs through it. It is the Stour that links us neatly, not just to Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, for that is where the Stour threads its ceaseless route, but also to the famed artist John Constable. It was along the Stour that Constable, with his wondrous gift, and some liberal imagination, painted his legendary works of art. Dedham is as close as you can get, while still being in Essex, to the neighbouring county of Suffolk. Obviously, Constable must have loved the area as it was from here that he would walk and wander looking, researching before finally settling down with paintbrush and easel to paint those fantastic images he is mow remembered for. I say fantastic as I have a huge respect for the man’s natural gift but it is not the sort of art that excites me but more of that later on. Here is Dedham; and as English, a town as you could wish for.
The Marlborough head is a public house of declining years. Much of the building appears to be sinking into itself; the top section looks as though it is sliding down on the ground floor while the building shapes itself, clinging in quite a disregard to gravity, to the slight incline it is built upon. The pub is old dating back to Tudor times.
Opposite the pub and across the road is another establishment of venerable years; The English Rose tea rooms built in the 16th century. Yes, the tea rooms are a temptation but I, with a struggle, resist.
I follow down the hill to where a bridge crosses a river. It is, of course, the river that I spoke: the river Stour and the bridge is the structure that links Essex to Suffolk. People sit along the bank while geese stroll to and fro while occasionally they claxon their curious warning if some child should wander too close. I lean over the bridge and watch the life below. There is a collection of boats that float in a sort of semis circle and so I, spotting the obvious photo opportunity, take a swift snap.
Only a short walk away is the place where Constable painted his famed Flatford Mills and again only a short walk from here where he sat and created The Hay Wain. Wain is a funny word now, very old and archaic but a good, if infrequently used, word nonetheless.
There is, of course, another famous artist from around here, in fact, Sir Alfred Munnings resided in Dedham and has a museum dedicated to him. Munnings, like Constable, used the natural countryside as an influence but he concentrated more on a narrative form of art than Constable. He was especially regarded as having one hell of an eye for detail and definition when it came to drawing or painting things equine. Personally, I prefer him to Constable although I have nothing in particular against the later it is just that I like art with a story behind it. Having said that I do like abstract expressionism too!
Munnings would not have approved of my appreciating abstract or modern art as he utterly loathed it. He was very outspoken about anything modern and was heavily critical, rude even of Cézanne, Matisse and even that genius of modern art, Picasso. Once, when Winston Churchill asked him what he would do if he met Picasso coming down the street asking if he would join the wartime leader in kicking his arse, Munnings replied, “Yes, Sir, I would.”
Alfred Munnings was born in Mendham, Suffolk, in 1878. He lost the sight of one eye in 1898 but this did not deter him a bit and as soon as his apprenticeship finished (he worked initially for a Norwich printer) he went on to become a full-time painter. He volunteered to serve in the Great War but was told he was unfit to fight and so instead was employed by the Canadian Cavalry Brigade as an artist. I like the man because of his outspoken and individual attitude to life; I cannot agree with him about modern art but I have to admire his principles and staunch beliefs even if I don’t accept them. He lived until the ripe old age of 81 dying in 1959. Sadly, I very much doubt if he would have liked Simon Carter or that said gent’s art.
I find Simon Carter’s work electrifying. It strikes me as having elements of impressionism and the abstract. His colours are vibrant and a wonderful depiction of the Stour valley where, just like Constable, he works. He has this almost childlike way of daubing paint so that it has a bold and decisive feel to it, very different to Constable who used subtle tones of colour to create his images.
Above is John Constable’s take on Harwich.
There is a pub in Dedham called The Sun Inn. It is a public house with a ghost. The ghost in question is a girl who has been seen in full skirts walking down the staircase between the two bars. He skirt is of a brown hue and she is seen to be weeping and sometimes she is seen sitting on the stairs. It is said that she is the ghost of a young witch who was burnt at the stake by the locals. Some say that was not the case as in point of fact she was hung in 1771 and that her name is Elsa. 1771 is a bit late for witch trials though so this may be more hearsay. Whatever the truth is the ghost of the girl has been seen by various people and on many occasions with some even venturing that she appears to like women but not so men. Perhaps whoever ended her life was a man hence the natural dislike.
I now say my fond farewell’s to Constable, Munnings, Carter and to the village of Dedham. Although not to ghosts as I am about to visit yet another village and this one with more ghostly tales than you can shake a stick at Borley village. To get there I follow the northern curve of Essex round where it kisses Suffolk. Borley is a part of the Stour valley collection of villages and lays some few miles north-west of Sudbury in Suffolk. Forever more the village, pretty as a picture, will be remembered, less for its delightful charms and more as the place that houses Borley Church and the equally notorious Borley Rectory. The church, as seen below, is said to be haunted and by ghosts who were made homeless when the rectory was burnt to the ground in 1939 before being demolished in 1944.
The name Borley comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon: Bar as in boar and Ley as in pasture or field thereby making Barley (the Boar Field) or, in modern spelling Borley. The church was built in and around the 12th century but it is widely believed that the site the rectory was built is where the curse of the spectres comes from. Possibly built by Benedictine monks around the same period it is said that a nun fell in love with a monk and they, like Adam and Eve before they couldn’t resist temptation and eloped together. Sadly, their plans to run away became known to the other monks. Another monk and a friend of the couple volunteered to help them escape by driving a carriage with them hidden inside.
On a fateful night, the monks captured the trio, whereupon they beheaded the friendly monk, hung by the neck the amorous lover and bricked the nun alive in the walls of the rectory.
Borley rectory was then built on the site of the ancient building in 1862 by the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull. A year later he moved in after being appointed the rector of the parish. The first paranormal event took place the same year, 1863 when a group of locals heard unexplained footsteps padding around the place. Then, some years later in 1900, the daughters of the family living there were scared out of their wits when they caught sight of a ghostly nun walking past them. The children tried to talk to the spectre but it vanished as they pursued it. This tale has been dismissed as being a childish invention although subsequent sightings haven’t. Years later, after Henry Dawson Ellis Bull had died and so had his successor, his son, Henry Bull, a third rector was appointed, the Reverend Guy Eric Smith. It was his wife when one cleaning a cupboard found a brown paper package which contained the skull of a young female. This horrific find was followed by a series of alarming events. The servants alarm bells would sound even though the strings to pull them had been cut, lights mysteriously appeared at windows before vanishing and there were more unexplained footsteps. Then, one sooty night, a horse-drawn carriage was seen by Mrs. Smith. The family called for the expert skills of a paranormal and psychic researcher, Harry Price.
Harry was born in 1881 in Red Lion Square, London, even though he claimed to have been born in Shropshire. At the turn of the century, Harry came to the attention of the press when he claimed an interest in space-telegraphy. He went so far as to set up a transmitter and receiver that operated between Telegraph Hill, Hatcham and St. Peter’s Church, Brockley. Harry was widely regarded as a genuine sort of fellow, if a little misguided, and did his utmost to expose hoaxes. His most famous exposé was William Hope, the spirit photographer. Hope took a photo of Price which featured a ‘spirit’ in the foreground. It was later proven to be a hoax.
Oddly, though, bunkum or not, Price went on to receive acclaim in other fields. His psychic research library was given on permanent loan to the University of London; he was involved in the formation of the National Film Library (now the British Film Institute eventually becoming its chairman, the founding member of the Shakespeare Film Society.
Having concluded his investigations at Borley rectory, Price claimed to have found a great many strange and inexplicable events: bell-ringing, bottle-throwing, windows breaking and many other odd goings on. Mrs. Smith said after Price had left that all such incidents ceased and stated that she suspected Price all along. The Smiths left in 1929 to be replaced by a new rector and his family, the Foyster’s. Then odd things started happening again, the daughter of the Foyster’s was locked in a room that had no key in the lock and the wife reported being thrown, physically from her bed. The Adelaide was attacked by something horrible. The vicar tried to exorcise whatever demons inhabited his home but all to no avail. Then Foyster was struck by a fist-sized stone on his shoulder.
After the Foyster’s had left due to the rectors ill health, Harry Price returned to conduct more tests and experiments. His findings, never proven, were alarming. Price pulled together some forty-eight people who he asked to act as observers within the rectory. Most of these people were students and all the observations were carried out at the weekend. At the end of this experiment Price, having correlated his evidence then conducted a Planchette séance. A connection was made and a history was revealed.
The woman who conducted the séance was a young lady named Helen Glanville who made contact with two spirits. The first was a nun who said her name was Marie Lairre. She claimed that she had been murdered at Borley Rectory. According to Marie, she was a French nun who had left her order to get married. She then came to live in England. Her husband was Henry Waldergrave, the owner of the 17th-century manor house. Marie claimed that she had been killed in 1667. Price believed this tale and held it up for scrutiny. He suggested that the wall writings were those of Marie as she tried to leave messages for the living, informing them of her death, pleas for help as it were. Of course, nothing could be verified.
Helen Glanville then made contact with a second spirit who claimed to be Sunex Amures saying that it was he who set fire to the rectory. He did this so as to reveal the bones of the dead. The then owner confirmed that, as he was unpacking boxes, an oil lamp mysteriously fell over setting fire to the hallway. The fire spread rapidly and the rectory severely damaged. Harry Price then conducted a search of the ruined house where he found the bones of a young woman along with a medal of Saint Ignatius. The medal was typical of those worn by nuns during the 1600’s.
However, since his death in 1948, a lot of doubt has been cast on the honesty of Harry Price and many, who have researched his claims have found his evidence was often falsified and, as much as he may have seemed to have exposed hoaxer’s, he was perhaps the biggest hoaxer of them all.
Marie Lairre has never been seen again but is thought to be wandering still
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.