WEIRD NORFOLK: “The Hateful Thing” and the many ghosts of Geldeston

The Hateful Thing is said to prowl the lanes of Geldeston. Picture: EDP Library / Nick Butcher

The Hateful Thing is said to prowl the lanes of Geldeston. Picture: EDP Library / Nick Butcher - Credit: Archant © 2007

A terrible shapeshifting horror, a ghost that rattles the chains that drowned him, a spectral coach and horses and a phantom donkey: Geldeston in Norfolk boasts ghosts aplenty

In one of the most remote areas of the county, in the midst of marshland where waterways criss-cross the land, The Hateful Thing lurks in darkness.

In Bogie Tales of East Anglia, written by Margaret Helen James in 1891 (a first cousin of horror writer MR James and sister of Minnie James, the first female librarian of a national library) we learn of The Hateful Thing. She wrote: “There is an uncomfortable sort of ghostly terror, in beast form, that haunts the villages on the borders of the two counties, which is commonly called the ‘Hateful Thing’. I allude to the churchyard or hell-beast. This charming creature generally takes the somewhat indefinite form of a ‘swoundling’ ie a swooning shadow, whatever that might be! Whenever it is met in any locality, it is a sign that some great and unusually horrible wickedness is about to be committed or has just taken place there. The writer, when crossing a field at night, once came across a countryman who had just seen this apparition, but a slight search for the goblin was wholly unsuccessful.”

Margaret also tells the story of “a respectable old charwoman” who went walking in Gillingham and Geldeston with her daughter and the young man she was courting one night. Between 8pm and 9pm in Geldeston, they saw something strange by the market path. “…it was that time I saw the Hateful Thing,” the woman told her. Her daughter had alerted her to the presence of a dog in front of them which she then said grew before her very eyes into a creature as big as a horse. Walking slowly, and mindful that her daughter “had been born under the chime hours so she could see things”, the woman looked for the creature but could see nothing…she could, however, hear a thumping noise. When her daughter came to cling to her in abject fear, suddenly she was able to see the object of her terror: “The moment she touched me, I saw The Hateful Thing. The beast was black and didn’t keep the same size and it wasn’t any regular shape. “We walked slow, for I was afraid of it getting behind us.” The creature kept ahead of the trio until it disappeared at Geldeston churchyard, itself a magnet for the strange.

In another of Margaret’s tales, she talks of a path from the village which skirted a pond which often flooded in bad weather, forcing walkers to take a different route along Hodman’s Path. In order to put an end to the diversions, the decision was taken to deepen the pond – and during the excavation, it is said that a skeleton was found in the mud, a millstone chained around its neck. The workmen “…began to recollect old stories told to them by their grannies, of a wicked felon who, for his sins, was condemned to be buried at the ‘four-releet’ or four cross ways, but from respect to his family was after all deposited in the pond, where he had lain undisturbed ever since.” The Rector of Geldeston agreed that the skeleton should be freed from its millstone – a punishment mentioned in the New Testament – and reburied close to the wall on the north side of the churchyard, just across the field. It was, it turned out, a rash decision. Margaret continues: “…this wicked felon, relieved of his spiritual clog, rose at once from his dry and uncomfortable churchyard quarters, and, nightly, with a horrid clanking of ghostly chains, rambles the unconsecrated space of glebe between the churchyard and Lover’s Lane.” It is said that the ghost can be heard at night, clanking the chains it once wore

Website Hidden East Anglia believes the location of the pond to have been just south of Norwich Road and adds that Lover’s Lane is now Snake’s Lane and runs southward from the church to meet with Sandy Lane, the haunt of The Hateful Thing. Additionally, it adds that both these lanes were once said to be haunted by a coach and horses driven by a headless coachman whose passengers were the restless souls of the infamous Bigod family on their way to their stronghold at Bungay Castle. And if you need more reason to a take a supernatural trip to the Norfolk/Suffolk border, there’s also a ghostly donkey that rattles chains in the village on dark nights: an embarrassment of supernatural riches, as it were.

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