Route details, maps, pubs, features, local history and folklore for a wide variety of walks focusing primarily on Norfolk and Suffolk

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Tales of Sundials, Witchcraft and Ghostly happenings in Saxmundham

A 2 mile circular walk around the Suffolk town of Saxmundham using the Town Trail

A simple tour of Saxmundham that can be added onto the East Suffolk Line Walks or to while away a couple of hours on a lazy afternoon, including searching out the unique tombstone sundial in St Johns churchyard, and finding the haunted Monks Cottages.

Saxmundham Circular Walk - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
SaxmundhamView in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
SaxmundhamView in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
2 miles
Walk difficulty
Easy

Walk Data

Date of Walk
2012-02-11
Walk Time
08:30 to 10:30
Walkers
Griffmonster, Kat
Weather Conditions
Cold but sunny winters day

Walk Notes

This is probably not a walk that I would normally undertake or even blog about. Nonetheless, with the car being serviced in Sax' and having a couple of hours to kill, the Saxmundham Town Trail seemed like a good way to spend the time. In addition, I was determined to search out the legendary Saxmundham gravestone that includes a sundial embedded within it. Having failed to locate this unique artifact on a previous visit, I was all the more resolute on finding it on this occasion. I knew this was somewhere in St Johns churchyard and from trawling the Internet it could be pinned down to the south-west side of the church. So, after wandering around the town trail musing over the railway, the old mill, the Monks Cottages and the River Fromus we arrived at the church. There is a block of graves to the south west but nothing obvious at first sight. On closer inspection the grave eventually revealed itself and what a wonder this simple yet effective tool is. Although the low sun was not strong enough to cast a shadow on this winters day, the simplicity of how this should work was obvious. A rectangular section with a semi-circular bottom graduated into hours and a shadow cast by the edge of the rectangle. A true wonder. Read more about this below in the walk features.

Although there is no firm evidence it is thought that Saxmundham takes its name from a Saxon thegn (a Saxon lord) named Seismund. There are references to the manor of Saxmundham in the Domesday Book of 1086 and in 1272 the Henry III awarded a charter to John de Rammseye for Saxmundham to hold a market.

Saxmundham used to have plenty of pubs including the 16th century Angel Inn, closed in 1977 and now marked with a plaque above its door, plus also retaining its notable crinkle-crankle wall at the rear, the Railway (closed 2009) and the Coopers Dip (closed 2011). Sadly the last pub left in the town, the 17th century White Hart, closed its doors at the start of 2012. This is a sad reflection of the times we live in with pubs unable to compete with the cheap discounted booze available in supermarkets and the British Government appearing to be bent on a crusade against the demon drink and pubs in general. During the past few years the number of pubs around this part of Suffolk that have closed down is staggering. Not only we, the British public, are losing a place for refreshment and social interaction but we are also losing some of our, what can only be described as, historic public buildings. It is so sad that many of these old inns and taverns dating from the middle ages will end up as private dwellings and we will never be able to sit and admire them from within. There is no doubt about it that we ARE losing our heritage and the British government is actively encouraging this to happen. Having got off my soap-box, I must admit that the Coopers Dip and the Railway were not the most salubrious of establishments towards the end of their public lives. I speak from personal experience of having to attend Sunday evening pool games at both of these pubs where we had to dodge the frequent brawls and foul language, but this cannot be blamed solely upon the drink but also upon the management of such premises who allow these reprobates to drink too much. Today, there is just one bar left in the town, that at the Bell Hotel, but I have been reliably informed that this now only accepts custom from residents. What a sad state of affairs it is when a town the size of Saxmundham boasts no pubs at all.

For this posting I don't want to dwell upon the historic features around the walk as these are all well covered on the trail pages to the town website (http://www.saxmundham.org/touristinfo/towntrail.html) and I would merely be repeating the same facts. So please refer to this for a little history and information about the Railway Station, the old post-mill, the towns old buildings, the parish church of St John, and the town museum. Instead, for this post, I will concentrate on the walks aim, which was to find the gravestone sundial and also recount a tale from Saxmundham that was published in a variety of publications during the 19th century. As a finale there is a little ghost story from the Monks cottages. With these anecdotes, take a wander around this little town and as you peruse the physical remains of the history of Sax, also ponder over the local tales, the folklore that gives the physical history something of a soul.

Market Hall
Market Hall

Directions

A simple trail around the town of Saxmundham

Head to the railway station which is pretty much in the town centre. From here, continue across the railway line and up Albion Street until it bends to the right and junctions with Rendham Road. Turn left past the post-mill then left into Mill Road. Continue down the road, over the railway crossing and then turn right at the cross roads into South Entrance. Walk past the town sign next to Chantry House and up to the last housing in town which is Monks Cottages. Cross the road and return back into town then turn right at the crossroads past the supermarket car park, over the river bridge and up into St Johns churchyard. Return back down towards the town and cross the Waitrose car park and cut through into Fromus Square and back out onto the main street. Turn right and if you continue about a quarter of a mile beyond Brook Farm Road there is the entrance to Carlton Hall. Return back into town along North Entrance and under the railway bridge then bearing right in front of the old Angel pub to get back to the railway station.

Gravestone showing the distinctive rectangular sundialThe sundial clearly showing the hour markings
On the left Gravestone showing the distinctive rectangular sundial; On the right The sundial clearly showing the hour markings

Features

Saxmundham Tombstone with Integral SundialView in OS Map | View in Google Map

There is no recorded documentation as to why the grave of John Nollar that stands on the south west corner of St Johns churchyard, has a carved sundial contained within its stone. We do know that John Nollar was born in Rendham in 1667 to Thomas and Anne Nollar. He married Mary, born in 1670 but whose origins are unknown, and together they had 5 children, John, Mary, Thomas, Joseph and Anne. Mary passed away on 13th March 1724 followed by Johns passing on 1 August 1725 and they were both buried in St Johns churchyard and marked with a single headstone with the inscription . "The Remains of John Nollar Snr. and Mary his wife whose soul took flight John Nollars 1st August 1725 aged 58 years and Mary Nollar his wife...." after which the remaining inscription is concealed by the earth and grass.

The headstone faces an east west orientation along with the rest of the stones on that section of the churchyard. On each side of the stone there is a 3 inch rectangular recess that forms a half cylinder and is essentially a sundial. The recesses are on a slant to the vertical so that they point to the north star and are thus parallel to the earths axis. Within the recesses are lined parallel graduations with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the west side and 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 on the east side. The beauty about the design of this sundial is that it lacks a gnomon, the pointer that casts the shadow. Whoever designed this sundial came up with an ingenious solution which makes the edge of the recess the gnomon and this casts its shadow down into the recess with midday not marked as both recesses will be in shadow.

The sundial is said to be extremely accurate but the designer has no credit and the reason for its inclusion not revealed. Nonetheless this is a most remarkable and ingenious piece of handiwork that is well worth seeking out.

The Strange Tale of Magdalen HolydayView in OS Map | View in Google Map

Magdalen Holyday was the eighteen year old daughter of Rendham couple Phineas and Martha Holyday and was a live-in servant-maid to Mr. Simon Jones, minister of Saxmundham. She had been in his employ for three years when this tale came about and had earned a reputation of being a well behaved and decent young lady, civil in her speech and dutiful in her religion. She had been brought up as a loyal subject to the king and had renounced the likes of Oliver Cromwell and all what he stood for.

This tale starts in the year of 1672, on a day known as Lammas, the festival of the wheat harvest, August 1. This particular year it occurred on a Monday and at noon of that day, as expected, she was serving dinner to the parson, his wife and their daughter Rebbecca who at the time was about to be married to a gospel minister from Yoxford. As Magdalen placed a suet dumpling down on a plate, she let out a loud shriek and stooped down in pain complaining that she had felt a sting on her upper leg as if a pin had pierced it. When she investigated she could see and feel a pin just under the surface of her skin but there was no break in the tissue for it to have gotten there. The pain was unrelenting and from this point on tormented her both day and night.

In these bygone days Suffolk was renowned for the number of witches that practiced in the black arts and Magdalen had soon connected the fact that only a few days previous to her affliction she had denied an old crone who had come to the door of the house and begged a pin. This, she had assumed, was the repayment for her actions, a hex brought about by the witch she had denied.

It wasn't many days before the ministers wife, concerned for Magdalens welfare, sent for the assistance of two local doctors, both of high repute and well experienced in their professions. Despite their qualifications neither was able to detect or trace any evidence of a pin within Magdalens leg. She insisted that the pin was there but had worked itself deeper into her skin. As was the custom of those days, the doctors prescribed leeches to draw the blood but to no avail. The minister, meanwhile, offered his godly prayers and rang the church bells to try to chase the demons away but Magdalen's pains continued unabated, getting worse, now giving her dreams and apparitions at night. Sometimes she would see a creature resembling a mole scurrying into her bed, sometimes a terrorizing naked arm grasped across her body as she lay in bed.

Eventually, after much discussion, the doctors took her to the Baronet Sir John Rouse of Henham, a Member of Parliament for Dunwich and Eye and upon his jurisdiction they gave her a concoction consisting of southernwood, an antiseptic plant with a strong camphor-like odour, mugwort, commonly known as wormwood and vervain. This she was then required to drink. They also anointed her leg with an ointment made from four ounces of Dog's grease mixed with two ounces of bear's fat, eight ounces of capon's grease, 24 slips of mistletoe, cut in pieces and powdered with gum of Venice turpentine. This mixture was mixed and left in a phial exposed to the sun for nine days until it formed a green balsam. She was then required to rub this into her skin daily for three weeks.

She carried out the prescription as required but her ailments became worse, causing constant sickness during which she vomited a variety of items including parings of nails, bits of spoons, triangular pieces of brass, crooked pins, bodkins, lumps of red hair, broken egg-shells, parchment shavings, a hen's leg bone, one thousand, two hundred worms, pieces of glass, bones resembling the great teeth of a horse, some unidentified luminous matter and sal petri (this is the name for nitrate of potash, a salt which produces dreadful effects when largely taken). After all this, as the medical practitioners were giving up hope she brought up with a violent retching, a whole row of pins stuck on blew paper.

After this the vomiting ceased and she began to recover. Naturally the Doctors perceived that it was their potent drugs that had been the cure. But who knows, maybe it was the witches curse, how else did so many and varied amount of items manage to get lodged into her stomach to be vomited up. Magdalen went on to live a happy life, her afflictions never to return. She married an honest but poor man who was the steward to Sir John Heveninghara to whom she bore four healthy children.

References

A Spooky Tale from the Monks CottagesView in OS Map | View in Google Map

On South Entrance, as the road leaves Saxmundham there are, on the right hand side, a group of cottages with a plaque high up on the wall declaring them to be Monks Cottages. At one time, during the 1600's these used to be a part of a very large and grand manor house. Prior to this, in the 14th century, the site housed several chapels known as chantries. Before we go into further detail, it is vital to know that during the middle-ages there was a general belief that after death the soul passed into purgatory, which was a place of temporary punishment where the soul is made ready for Heaven. Prayers for the deceased would assist and promote their passage and purification within purgatory and funds known as a chantries were set up which would be used to pay for a priest to lodge petition in prayer once the benefactor had died. The Chantry Chapel was the name for a designated area, usually within a church, that was used for the chantry duties of the priests, the place the priests would recite their prayers and chant their masses for those who had passed on.

In the year 2000, one of the cottages was occupied by a Doreen Pelletier. She had lived there for 13 years when she decided to clear out the cellar which had been littered with rubble since she first moved into the house 13 years previous. For the job she hired a group of builders, but soon after they had started to dig around in the cellar, the electric light went and switched itself off. This was the start of many spooky happenings which eventually resulted in the builders quitting the job, declaring the place to be haunted and suggesting that Doreen get an exorcist in.

Doing a little research Doreen learned that the previous owners had their own spooky experiences in the cottage. The lady of the house had encountered a ghostly figure on the stairs and eventually, after many other strange happenings within the cottage, the owners called in an exorcist. Knowing this, Doreen covered the cellar with a trap door and then called in BBC2's House Detective team, a series dedicated to investigating the secret histories of houses, to help solve the mystery. She was initially asked to take photographs for the programme but when she pulled up the trap door and tried to take a picture, the camera jammed and then mysteriously rewound itself.

The Series two presenters historian Dan Cruickshank and antiques specialist Judith Miller soon discovered from local records that Doreen's home had indeed been built on the site of one of these 'chantry's'. And after clearing her cellar, it was obvious that was what it had been - complete with shelves for candles. The episode was originally screened on BBC2 in 2002 but unfortunately I have not been able to locate a youtube version of this and therefore the outcome of the investigation is unknown. The only conclusion from the references found was that after the visit from the House Detectives, things quietened down. But who knows. Maybe whilst walking past this ancient building, maybe you may just catch a distant sound of a ghostly chanting monk.

References
Monks Cottages, probably the oldest houses in Saxmundham and featured on the December 09, 2000 episode of TV series The House Detectives where they investigated a spooky underground room
Monks Cottages, probably the oldest houses in Saxmundham and featured on the December 09, 2000 episode of TV series The House Detectives where they investigated a spooky underground room

Images

Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on any image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Click on an image below to view the Image Gallery

Maps

Below is the route depicted on the OpenStreetMap, Ordnance Survey Map and Google Map. Links to full page versions are found in the Essential Information

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: ... 2016-01-16

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