Eight of the most haunting places in East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 15:21 10 October 2019 | UPDATED: 18:24 10 October 2019
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Ghostland, by Edward Parnell, explores the haunts of ghouls in literature and film, the natural and unnatural world, and the horror of his own family history.
Ghosts haunt every page of Edward Parnell's new book. His Britain is a land reverberating with the whispers of the dead. Its shores are washed with unease, its rivers coil around a constant flow of folklore, its woodland crackles with the sense of something just glimpsed, its streets shimmer with long-gone lives.
Some of these ghosts have lived only in fiction and film; others were his family.
Ghostland is the story of Edward's own life, as well as of the fictional lives and deaths created by other authors and directors. It is a memoir, a travelogue, an essay on ghosts in stories and on screen, and an exploration of his own overpowering grief.
He tells us, early in the book that he is alone. So the lovely, ordinary stories of family life, his mum and dad, his brother, are imbued with dread. Something bad is coming, just as it is in the stories, films and television programmes he grew up with.
He explores the landscapes which inspired the ghost stories of MR James, the children's fantasy novels of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, the cinematic folk horror of The Wicker Man.
But real horror lurks in the bright rooms of modern hospitals as well as in fictionalised dark forests and isolated islands. As Edward tracks characters and their authors through mossy moors and cemeteries, gaunt cliffs and ruins, the fog-wreathed Fens of his childhood or the streets of London, Edinburgh and long-gone Dunwich, he is haunted by his grief.
Travelling through landscapes haunted by his favourite writers of the weird and eerie, and by his memories of his lost family, he takes fascinating excursions into fiction and films.
Edward, who grew up in the Fens and lives in Wymondham, is a naturalist too.
As he writes about the terror, dread and loss, lurking at the edges of perception, his lyrical writing also summons wildlife. A keen birdwatcher from boyhood, Edward tells the stories of birds he has seen, and almost seen in a flicker of feather and rustle of leaves. Their bright barely-glimpsed ghosts flit through his stories of fictional phantoms and their creators, and through Edward's own haunting memories of his family.
Ghostland is published by William Collins on October 17.
EERIE EAST ANGLIA
Edward Parnell picks eight of our most haunting places
The Halfway House, Blakeney Point
This most-isolated of building, near the mid-point of the shingle slog of Blakeney Point, was the inspiration for the early twentieth-century ghost story writer E. F. Benson's 'A Tale of an Empty House'. In certain lights it seems to shimmer on the horizon as you trudge towards it.
Church of St John the Baptist, Croxton
I was lucky to visit many of Norfolk's abandoned churches with my friend Clive Dunn while he was compiling Landscape of Towers, his guide to the county's lost religious ruins. One really sticks out to me: a 12th-century shell in the woods, not far from Fakenham. As I was walking around its tree-clad remains, I flushed a tawny owl that shot out from the ivy in front of me: a dark, silent ghost that caused me to jump back in fright.
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Once it boasted up to twelve churches and two monasteries, a Domesday Book population of three thousand souls, and, until the beginning of the 14th century, perhaps East Anglia's finest harbour. Fierce storms coupled with the wrong geology, however, meant the town's flaking cliffs were prone to be washed away by the unrelenting waves, with hundreds of houses and, today, all but one of the churches lost below the waters. Legends say you can still hear the ringing bells of the submerged places of worship. Occasionally, bones appear in the cliff face, a reminder of the lives lived here long before.
Arguably the finest English writer of ghost stories, M R James, spent his childhood in this small village six miles from Bury St Edmunds. Its graveyard has several headstones that bear the surname given to the terrifying Mrs Mothersole in his story The Ash Tree. A few hundred yards away lies Livermere Lake, an eerie, ephemeral lagoon that inspired another of James's stories Lost Hearts.
Orford has more than its fair share of eeriness. Across the channel from the harbour lies the lonely Orford Ness (where the triggers for the country's nuclear weapons were once tested.) During the 12th century local fishermen were said to have caught a Wild Man - a merman - in their nets. They imprisoned him in the castle and tortured him (the same polygonal keep features as a place of cruelty at the brutal climax of the Vincent Price film Witchfinder General) though the creature did not appear capable of speech, at least, not in any language they could decipher, and his captors eventually tired of him, allowing him to slip back unnoticed to the sea.
Wayland Wood, near Watton
When I was writing my gothic novel The Listeners I visited Wayland - today an NWT nature reserve, but also popularly regarded as the historical location of the events of the 'Babes in the Wood' folk tale - several times for inspiration. Its trees grow dense in places and on a winter's afternoon it's easy to become spooked by its silent, claustrophobic vibe.
Wells Wood and beach
Despite all the visiting tourists and birders, this narrow stand of light-stealing Corsican pines soon manages to feel remote, disorienting and strangely lifeless. The neighbouring beach too, on a quiet day, is sublimely awe-inspiring. The fact that both locations were the backdrop for the brilliant 1972 BBC adaptation of M. R. James's 'A Warning to the Curious' adds to the atmosphere.
Wisbech and the Fens
Wisbech became the childhood home of a brilliant, but rather under-appreciated writer of weird and spooky tales for young adults, John Gordon. His second book, The House on the Brink features many locations from the town that are still recognisable today including the clocktower and the titular Peckover House. It also captures the bleak, haunting atmosphere of the Fenland flatlands, and of what it is to be a teenager.