The historical mystery in my latest book, Strange Fascination, had been fluttering on the edges of my imagination, attracting my glances periodically, since I was first alerted to it by a friend. He’s a photographer and seven years ago was commissioned to document a cute little Essex pub. When he had arrived he noticed a lump of rock situated rather strangely at the entrance to the carpark. It was in such an odd position that when he finished his work he commented on it to the owner. To his surprise the landlord informed him that, yes it was a pain but unfortunately it couldn’t be moved. When asked why, my friend was told rather casually, it was the ‘Witches Stone’ and had been there for centuries to stop the witch underneath rising from her grave. That’s right – this was just seven years ago. As you can imagine, my curiosity was well and truly piqued and, when I had cleared my desk of other tales, I began to research. As my studies got underway I uncovered a true story of murder, mayhem and magic. Gradually I peeled back layers of legend and lore to 1621 where I learned of the sad tale of Anne Hewghes. She, like the majority of accused witches in Essex, was a poor woman and a widow who lived in the village of Great Leighs. In 1621 she was accused of ‘bewitching to death’ a pied cow, the ‘goods and chattels’ of Richard Edwardes and murdering John Archer through sorcery. Her neighbours threw in a couple of other grumbles for good measure, so that over time Anne’s story became a legend that told of a powerful and evil old witch who brazenly slayed a fine upright citizen and who was consequently burnt at the stake on the crossroads of Scrapfaggot Green. Not only that, the villagers decided once her body had been obliterated her ashes should be buried under the site of her execution and a great boulder moved over the top to ensure she could not take revenge. Hence the reason why the carpark rock could never be moved.
It was a fascinating story, which took a further twist when I discovered that it had been the source of much concern to none other than the US military as late as 1944. Commandeering the pub for their use during the Second World War, the army found that they could not get their military vehicles into the carpark: they were big and the entrance was small. In their way, you see, was a large stone boulder with a ridiculous local legend attached to it. Having no truck with the concerns raised by the locals they commissioned a bulldozer to remove it. The desecration however soon began to wreak havoc: church bells rang of their own accord; livestock keeled over and died; geese disappeared, and a dark and lonely phantom was seen walking the village at night.
And, it wouldn’t stop.
The haunting became so notorious that it was featured in several national newspapers, alongside news about the war. The publicity, however, did nothing to halt the slew of strange phenomena engulfing the village. In their desperation the military called in well-known ghost hunter, Harry Price, of Borley Rectory fame. His conclusions were utterly compelling, and I could not resist exploring them in Strange Fascination. So in my latest book, I’ve located the boulder in the carpark of a pub in Adder’s Fork, home to the Witch Museum. Instead of the military driving into town the story, set today, sees greedy developers arrive in the village. They intend to build a brace of new executive homes, but guess what? There’s a large boulder in their way. Obviously, they decide to move it – I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
The history that lies under every inch of our country, its real people and real crimes, also keep me focussed on structure, especially beginnings and ends. But more than that this aspect enables me to reclaim the stories of some of those lonely unheard voices, the owners of which have long since slipped through the fingers of history. One thing that’s for certain is that Essex, with the highest number of indictments for witchcraft than any other English county, will be keeping the Witch Museum stocked with stories for many years to come.
STRANGE FASCINATION by Syd Moore is out now from Point Blank, an imprint of Oneworld, paperback £8.99.
It's summer in Adders Fork. The sun is out, the sky is blue and things are going swimmingly for Rosie Strange, thank you very much. The Essex Witch Museum has been relaunched with a new Ursula Cadence wing and picnic grounds. Then developers roll into the sleepy village to widen the road. When the centuries-old Blackly Be boulder, said to mark the grave of a notorious witch but now in the car park of the Seven Stars, is moved, all hell breaks out. Within hours a slew of peculiar phenomena descends and, when a severed head is discovered atop the boulder, the locals can take no more and storm the Museum to demand someone take action. Can Rosie and Sam unravel the mystery? And what of the ancient treasure that could drastically change someone's fortunes and offer a motive for murder?