Christmas is a time for ghost stories (though Heaven alone knows why). Christmas is also, technically, still with us, so it seems appropriate to have a gander at some of the supernatural tales from the author’s home town.
Last week, the Spratsbourne Dragon whiffled through the tulgey blog to water in Angley Park. The Park is also the residence of two other paranormal visitants. One is a smuggler, mortally injured at Sandhurst and buried in the grounds, The other is a witch by the name of Jennings, said to have been burnt in Cranbrook at an inevitably imprecise date. Any schoolboy will instantly recognize this story as nonsense. Witches in England were hanged, not burnt and most of those accused were not even hanged (contrary to popular belief, acquittals were more common than convictions and the penalty was not always death). The truth, however, is the enemy of amusement and local oral tradition has the supposedly incinerated Mistress Jennings sweep, in her shawl and gown, from the gatehouse of Angley Park, across Whitewell Lane, to the farm buildings opposite.
Mistress Jennings was not Cranbrook’s only witch. In 1652, the period when witch-hunting was at its most fervent in England, five witches from the town, Anne Ashby, Mary Brown, Ann Martin, Ann Wilson and Mildred Wright, were accused of killing some of their neighbours with the Evil Eye. The account of their trial in Maidstone contains certain extraordinary details, alleging that they demonstrated their powers in the very court. The Devil himself was said to have given them a piece of charred flesh that would cause their wishes to come true and to have inserted an unmentionable piece of his own flesh into Miss Martin, impregnating her. Her fellow accused, Miss Ashby, swelled in the dock and regurgitated an evil spirit, in the shape of mouse. Quite how she thought this would help her defence is unclear and she and her friends were hanged.
The ghost tourist, having begun his tour (arbitrarily) on Whitewell Lane, can proceed eastwards to the roundabout and then southwards down Sissinghurst Road, where a Gypsy once met the Devil. A more physically verifiable occupant of Sissinghurst Road is the gatehouse of Great Swifts Manor, which, by dead of night, is said to open telekinetically to welcome a phantom coach that tears down the road (presumably bringing suitably tempestuous weather with it).
Further down Sissinghurst Road, past the Great Swifts estate and then the Vicarage, is Cornwallis House, one of the boarding houses of the Free and Perpetual Grammar School of Queen Elizabeth (known more compendiously as ‘Cranbrook School’, as being easier to fit on a U.C.A.S. form). The house was originally a private residence, built in 1848 but it was acquired by the school in 1931 and extended, out of keeping, towards the rear. Normally the stage for boarders’ high-jinks and adolescent angst, Cornwallis was also, within living memory, the scene of an exorcism, though details are (for obvious reasons) hard to come by.
The parish church, Saint Dunstan’s, is home to the town’s oldest association with the supernatural. In 1436, thieves stole several of the church’s ornaments and murdered the sexton. They were never caught but, in the week after the fourth Sunday in Lent, 1437, two townsmen of Cranbrook, Thomas Taylor and Robert Adcock, attended a séance in Southwark to call upon the aid of the Other Side. The medium was a priest named Piers, who was assisted by one John Bailey, a squire of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The priest successfully made contact with an obliging spirit who named the murderers, who were arrested and imprisoned in Canterbury to await trial.
The accused turned out to be the tenant farmers of one Adam Begginden, who petitioned the Lord Chancellor to inquire into the questionable grounds on which they had been charged. At least one of them, James Begginden (presumably a relative of his landlord), was pardoned, though what became of the others in unknown. Begginden’s case was helped by the fact that the Lord Chancellor, John Stafford, Bishop of Bath and Wells, was a political opponent of Humphrey of Gloucester, whose wife would herself be convicted of witchcraft in 1441 (in a scene immortalized by Shakespeare in The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth). The involvement of one of the Duke’s squires was most advantageous to Begginden’s case but Bailey would eventually be executed for necromancy not by the state but by rebel Jack Cade in 1450 (Cade’s own head, ironically, would join Bailey’s on London Bridge only two weeks afterwards). The fate of the less than Reverend Mister Piers is unrecorded but Thomas Taylor and Robert Adcock lived out the rest of their days quietly in Cranbrook.
The town’s association with the supernatural does not end there. On the high ground north of the churchyard is Bigside, one of the school’s five playing fields. It is bordered by Quaker Lane, so called because of the Friends’ burial ground that lies beneath and runs under the field, where oblivious boys now play Rugby (or, if they are anything like the author, stand in Rugby kit on the edge of the field and hope no one will pass them the ball).
On a less active occasion the author, whilst still a pupil of the school, met a groundsman on the field and they took to discussing its history. The groundsman pointed out the circle of dry grass that marks the remains of a windmill. It was the groundsman who told the author about the Quaker burial ground and it was the groundsman who claimed that it was on this very field that the five witches of 1652 had met to conduct their sabbats. How he had obtained this intelligence the author does not know and he suspects that it deserves to be treated with the same seriousness as Miss Martin’s demonic impregnation and Miss Ashby’s impromptu growth spurt. Then again, the truth, as a wise man once said, is the enemy of amusement.