Montague Rhodes James is considered the greatest writer of ghostly fiction in the English language and also father of the modern ghost story. He was born in 1862 at Goodnestone in Kent and later raised at Great Livermere in Suffolk where his father was Rector. James attended Eton college where he would later become Provost, and Cambridge University where he was Vice Chancellor during the First World War. He was an antiquarian, medievalist, bibliographer and an expert on the early history of the Bible. Yet today he is best remembered for his ghost stories, which is a little ironic for he wrote them mainly for his own amusement or to entertain friends at Christmas. All are classics of the genre and still 100 years on have the power to chill the reader. And yet, did he visit Borley Rectory? That great rambling, red bricked pile in remote Essex which would gain the sobriquet "The most haunted house in England".
Well on the surface there appears to be no firm evidence. James doesn't mention it in his stories and neither of his two biographies refer to it. However if we dig a bit deeper there are one or two clues to suggest he may well have done so.
Great Livermere lies some twenty five miles to the north of Borley near the town of Bury St Edmunds. James knew the area well as he did most of East Anglia. In 1930 he published a guide to the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk which details amongst other things stately homes, ancient castles and old churches. One of James' passions was church architecture and he was adept at using the very fabric of the church as triggers in his stories. Tombs, stained glass, wooden carvings and even Bibles are employed to trap those who would unheed the warnings and so leave themselves open to vengeful horrors from beyond the grave. James other skill was to place his stories in as real as setting as possible and then, as he himself put it " Let us then be introduced to the actors in a placid way. Let us see them going about their ordinary business undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings, and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first and then more insistently until it holds the stage." He would often use real or amalgamated towns, churches and landscapes or real publications, guides and county histories to lend his stories a kind of ambiguious authenticity to such an effect he was often asked if the tales were based on fact.
He was particularly fond of the remote and lonely East Anglian coast and
two of his best stories 'Oh whistle and
I'll come to you my lad' and
'A Warning to the
Curious' use this bleak and deserted part of England to
great effect. As for real ghosts, when asked if he believed in the supernatural, James
said he was prepared to accept the evidence if it satisfied him and it
seems one of the stories 'A Vignette' was suggested by a real paranormal
experience he had at Livermere. But what of Borley?
How close did James come? Well, the royal commission
on historical monuments provides us with a bit of a clue. In 1922 James was
commissioned by the RCHM to list the stained glass in the churches of
north Essex. Frustratingly it was north east Essex some miles from Borley
which lies on the west of the county.
Yet I believe the splendours of Lavenham and Long Melford, two beautiful wool villages with their
magnificent middle Gothic churches only a few miles from Borley would
have lured him away from his remit.
We can be sure he was at Sudbury and the villages to the north of Borley
such as Clare and Cavendish, and those just across the river Stour such
There is another clue which brings us closer still and it is a M.R. James story which supplies it. 'Count Magnus', a tale of a vengeful long dead Swedish nobleman was written by James in 1900. It tells the story of a Mr Wraxall, an English academic who is researching into the history of the 17th century Lord of Raeback. As in most of James's stories Wraxall, in his research crosses some kind of supernatural Rubicon and now he must pay the price in fear. He is pursued back to England by two shadowy figures. On arriving at the port of Harwich in Essex he flees in an open fly (coach) across country to the village of Belchamp St Paul. Now those who know the geography of North Essex will be aware that Belchamp St Paul lies just 3 miles from Borley. It seems probable that James visited the area prior to 1900 and something must have made an impression on him to include the village as the climax to Count Magnus. It is interesting to speculate why James chose Belchamp St Paul. Harwich is over thirty miles from the Borley/Belchamp area. He could have used any number of locations, real or combined for Wraxall's demise yet he decided on a small hamlet near the most haunted house in England. Why? I have a theory for that which I shall put forward at the end of this essay.
So what evidence do we have for these two great bulwarks of England's paranormal heritage coming together? James' 1930 guide to Suffolk and Norfolk is one. His inclusion of Belchamp St Paul, so close to Borley is another. But I believe his shire guide and work for the RCHM were more of a labour of love. Any church big or small, grand or modest would have tugged at James antiquarian leanings. Moreover, I would suggest that he would have been aware of the splendid 16th century Waldergrave tomb, with its early renaissance corinthian capitals and remnants of original colouring within Borley church. A grand monument for such a small church. Therefore it seems certain to me that Montague Rhodes James at some time between 1900 and 1930 walked, cycled or drove through Borley village, and that to me is the great fascination with this idea. England's greatest ghost story writer standing outside England's greatest haunted house and neither being aware of the other. In some respects it could almost read as one of James's stories.
We can imagine young Mr James emerging from the cool interior of Belchamp St Paul church into the warm afternoon sunshine. Mounting his cycle he pootles off through the quiet, deserted lanes to remote Borley. Once there he leans his bike against the wooden churchyard fence. He scrapes open the sticking, squeaking gate. As he walks up the path to the south door he admires the fine topiary with which the yard is dotted. Passing in to the Tudor porch he lifts the heavy bolt on the ancient door and enters the church. Within it is cool, silent and musty smelling. By the north wall near the chancel stands what he has come to view - the great Waldegrave tomb, last resting place of a once Lord of the manor of Borley. Oh yes, he agrees, a fine specimen for such a modest church. Looking around he notices the Victorian restoration of the building and bemoans those tractarian gentlemen over at Oxford. He tries to picture the church before the interference of the Gothic revivalists, the Dowsings of their day. The box pews, the three decked pulpit, the gallery, the coat of arms of the Hanoverian king and sighs. And then with the church tower clock striking four he must be on his way.
He makes his way back down the nave to the south door, yet before he can grasp the handle he turns, startled. There is a sound. "Yes,who is it? Anyone there?" He stares down the deserted church. Is that the sound of a door opening? The squeak of a hinge on the alter rail. The heavy muffled rustle of a moth eaten curtain closing off the vestry? No. No, it is just the breeze. A slither of warm air on this silent afternoon.
He leaves the church and closes the heavy door gently but firmly behind him. Once again in the lane he quickly prepares to mount his cycle. Momentarily he looks up at the gloomy, red bricked building across the road from the church. Who is this standing in the drive? She looks so sad. Could it be the rector's wife? I suppose it might be so. It is a beautiful scenario which also begs the words 'if only'. If only as young Dr. James admires the Waldegrave tomb he is startled by a voice from behind.
"Yes it is a fine tomb is it not? Oh, I am sorry to have alarmed you. May I introduce my self, Bull is the name, Henry Bull, Rector of this parish."
"Oh, good day Sir. Yes it is a fine piece indeed. James, Montague James. Just visiting from Cambridge."
"A Cambridge man! How splendid. You must stay for tea, sir. I wont hear a refusal."
And then, chatting amiably, both fine gentlemen leave the church and repair to the Rectory.
"Oh my love, there you are. This is Mr James from Cambridge, dearest. Mr James, may I introduce my wife. I have invited our friend to stay for tea, dear."
"Hello, Mr James. You are most welcome, but don't let my husband detain you too long with his ghost stories."
"Oh, yes. Henry has lots of them, don't you my love?"
"All perfectly true, my petel, perfectly true. Do you believe in ghosts, Mr James?"
Mr James replies hesitantly. "Well, erm. I do know one or two you may find interesting."
"Splendid, sir. Splendid! You shall relate them while we take tea on the lawn."
It is a fascinating scene. What might James have made of what the Rev Bull could have told him? Might not Henry Bull been have inspired to write his own supernatural tales as many 19th century clergymen did? Could James have got ideas from the great gloomy rectory to write of lonely Reverends in isolated houses plagued by soft whispers in the night? Certainly 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', written by James in 1911 almost suggests as such. It tells the story of the Rev Haynes who, whilst alone in an old rectory, is haunted by voices, footsteps and phantoms. He confides his experiences to his diary much as the Rev Foyster would do at Borley during the thirties. Alas it would have been too good to be true. James was certainly at Borley but he would have hated the rectory. To him it was a modern building. He would have known of the 18th century Herringham rectory and been appalled at its destruction, to be replaced by the rambling pile.
So we are left with Montague Rhodes James standing outside Borley Rectory and eager to be off. He mounts his cycle and pootles off down the lane and on to Sudbury. And yet he only goes so far. Stopping by one of the drive gates he looks back on the silent house. Thinking to himself he furrows his brow and rubs his chin. "I wonder," he says. As we all know, 100 years later, after countless witnesses, libraries of books, thousands of disciples and one rather good web site he was quite right to do so.
But one last thing. Why did James use the village of Belchamp St Paul as the scene of Mr Wraxalls demise in Count Magnus? What follows is an idea which I know will irritate a lot of James purists. Yet they are at liberty to say I am wrong or at least off my head. Is it to fanciful to suggest that James chose Belchamp St Paul because he was told of or experienced something paranormal there? The author describes how Wraxall confronts, in the month of August, the two shadowy pursuing figures at a crossroads near the village.
Now this description bears an uncanny similarity to an encounter experienced by ley line expert Stephen Jenkins and his wife Thelma on the 28th of August 1977 near Belchamp St Paul and retold by Colin Wilson in his book Poltergeist. Both were travelling on a road north of Belchamp Walter Hall (the three Belchamp villages, Walter, Otton and St Paul are in close proximity to each other).
'We were driving along the minor road which marks the north end of the hall grounds when on the road in front appeared four men in black carrying a coffin. I thought them hooded and cloaked,' says Jenkins. However, his wife describes one of the men as wearing a soft tall hat. Both Jenkins and his wife at once made notes of the encounter. The impression it made on them was of absolute physical presence, of complete material reality. The next day they returned to the precise spot and at exactly the same time and took a picture. The print revealed, in the hedge near the gap where the four men had vanished, a short figure, apparently cloaked with its face lowered and a skull like dome to the head. Now is this apparition the model for James shadowy pursuers? Of course some will say that Jenkins and his wife saw four men, James describes only two. Yet I think the idea of Wraxall being confronted by four paranormal entities almost amounts to a supernatural mugging. Just having two is much more sinister. And it was Belchamp Walter not St Paul where Jenkins and his wife saw the apparition. Yet I believe these to be a minor distraction. What is important is the description of the figures and the location name. Was James told of the ghosts of hooded/hatted men in black walking the lanes around the Belchamp area? If not it seems that his description and the experience of the Jenkins is a strange coincidence.
The parapsychologist would argue that Jenkins and his wife must have at sometime read 'Count Magnus'. Although not thinking about the story at the time of their experience it was nonetheless buried deep within their subconscious. Driving along a road with sign posts to the Belchamp area triggered in their minds the memory of Mr Wraxalls encounter, resulting in a momentary hallucination. Yet Stephen Jenkins is adamant that what he and his wife saw was as real as any flesh and blood human being. He also points out that Norfolk and Suffolk, and I suspect parts of north Essex, are a spider web of ley line alignments. (Ley lines are said to link areas of ancient sites such as churches, stone circles, tumuli, etc. at which the paranormal is most active).
No doubt the Belchamp area contains such alignments. Yet just as important is that Borley church stands at a node where four lines cross. Moreover, a line which passes through Belchamp Walter estate is itself linked with a line at Borley. But what relevance does this have for the haunting of Borley Rectory? Well, if Stephen Jenkins is right and ley lines and their nodes are the hot spots of paranormal activity, is it correct to suggest that hauntings are not confined to one place? Can we say that the phenomena at Borley did not stop once outside the walls of the Rectory? The phantom coach, the Nun, the haunting of Borley church, even the sightings of ghosts in the fields around Borley give rise to the idea that perhaps ghosts don't have boundaries. Are ley lines the paranormal superhighway? Can ghosts move along these paths to go where they please? Could it be that what occurred at Borley, the Belchamps and at other sites around Essex, or for that matter all over England are all one and the same haunting?
And finally, what would M.R. James have made of it all? Could he have made literary capital out of Borley? I believe the phantom coach, the padding dog and the torso-less legs emerging from behind a bush would have been a bit to twee for his taste. However, the Nun might well have been transformed into a thing in white which lurks in the dank and dark garden shrubberies. The dark shapes in the rectory corridors, the footsteps in the lane and Borley church could have provided ideas. But I believe the thing which James could have really got his teeth into is the story of artist Margaret Wilson. She was given permission to paint a picture of the empty Rectory on the 22nd August 1938. Setting up her easel on the lawn on a quiet warm afternoon she was soon to experience the terror of being attacked by what she describes as a giant flying insect. A sketch of which appears in Price's 'The Most Haunted House in England'. James would have had a field day with this. The deserted lonely Rectory, the overgrown unkempt lawn. The lone visitor thinking they are safe in the warm afternoon sunshine. Oh yes, James would have enjoyed that.
One thing is certain. Whether they are the phantoms of the Belchamps, the spectres of Borley Rectory or the stories of M R James, in this green and pleasant land of ours you are never to far from a ghost. It would be interesting to know if Andrew Clarke and his friends at the Foxearth Historical Society can tell us if there are any stories or history relating to hooded/hatted phantoms wandering the lanes in the Belchamp area. If anyone would like to find out more about the work of M R James they should check out Rosemary Pardoe's Ghosts and Scholars web site.
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