In an old village that lies just outside the parameters of Suffolk County, there is an oak tree which sits on the edge of a fenced path. For near on a century, the tree has presided over all that which is other-worldly. The small church around the corner represents a pre-Anglican Christianity that certainly pledges its allegiance to another place, the worlds to come. The dual worlds: anguish and beauty. But there is more to the story than mere religion. The village is Borley, Essex. The tree guards the Rectory from onlookers. But the Rectory cannot guard itself, and only its structure, made of brick, can survive the flames. Borley Rectory was home to many who came and went, but it remains ‘the most haunted house in England’, and this place ought to be heard about.
There was something that really captured my attention about the story of Borley Rectory as a child. I was forever innocent and confused about the nature of hauntings, ghosts, ghouls and poltergeists. Goings-on which fitted outside of my daily life occurred principally in my imagination, aided by library books and the occasional encouragement of TV. I sat on the floor for hours and poured over my books on ghosts and mysteries, each with a certain smell and pace to go with it. Various different ghosts held my interest; now, I have a picture in my head for each one. There were the pale sketches of the spectres of the American Civil War, dying to this day, falling on swords and torn up by guns. There was the ghost in the chapel with the metal-monster face, a thrill which far pre-dated the horror movies of our modern age, death shrouded within a celebration of death. As with the emotional and intellectual investment within a film, drama, action or horror, there was a perceived truism about this image which left me unsettled, even as I read at the same time about its photographic fakery. Then there was the story of the phantom ship, probably The Flying Dutchman, the picture I still remember vividly in this age of image. But, back to Borley.
In 1862, religion was a great respect. The Rectory was built in this year for the rector of the Parish of Borley, and was in a multitude of senses, truly Gothic. Previous to this, there had been another Rectory on the site, destroyed by fire, which we may now note as a sign of foreboding [if such signs are allowed to exist at all]. Photographs of the building from on-high show it to be colossal, at least that’s what it looked to me upon first impression, with a stick-like fence surrounding the structure, somehow making the photograph seem older than it probably was. What safer haven for ghouls than a series of networking rooms, underground basements (perhaps tunnels), the echoes of lost souls inhabiting spaces where sixteen tried to settle? There are stories from this place, and many of them permeated these walls.
The stories were predominantly those of particular hauntings that occurred in and around the Rectory in what we might now term “collective hysteria”. People in the village heard footsteps in and around this giant house. A horse-drawn carriage driven by a headless horseman would do the rounds on Rectory grounds, and a nun was spotted at twilight on some errand or perhaps indulgence, a reverberation from years long gone. Stories get out. One that got out was about the nun and involved her being ‘bricked up’ as a punishment for having a secret affair with a monk, supposedly beneath the Rectory floors, a story probably made up by one-time owner Harry Bull, told to his children on chilly nights sat by the fire. Collective hysteria even reached me; I tried to imagine what the nun might’ve felt, air and life escaping for the sin of love.
But the juiciest stories from the Rectory concerned the poltergeists, the disruptive forces which seemed designed principally to creep them all the hell out, rather than make a simple nuisance. The footsteps were back. Windows shattered and lights flickered. Winter in ’29 was tough. The rumours reached Sudbury town round the corner; then it was all over the Daily Mirror. Then, the Society for Psychical Research [SPR], which attracted Arthur Conan Doyle and William James to its cause at varying points, became interested, who sent a paranormal investigator to, well, investigate. Harry Price was the one and noted mysterious stones that were thrown around the house and objects inexplicably moving about. Another family left the Rectory.
Shortly after this happened, spirits communicated the new occupiers, leaving strange messages on the walls. There are photographs of some of these messages. Being dead must greatly impair one’s ability to write because the scrawls are essentially childlike, though not altogether ineffective in their disturbed-ness. “Marianne, please help me get out” read one. Was it the nun? Was it a con? Another spirit which somehow acquired the name of Sunex Amures claimed that he would duly reveal the hiding place of a murdered person within the Rectory, and that he would set fire to the Rectory on March the 27th of 1938. Bricks seemed to float in mid-air, and someone got mysteriously locked in a room. Menace had truly arrived.
Sunex happened to be off by eleven months. On 27th February 1939, Borley Rectory was burnt down, and an insurance company concluded post-investigation that the fire had been started deliberately. That was the end of it all. The publicity Borley Rectory gained was, in a way, its downfall and I suspect many confined the ‘hauntings’ of the place to another age, to a Victorian mind-set. A few more sightings occurred in the years after before it was finally demolished in 1944. Many afterwards believed the Harry Price investigation, and the sightings and hauntings, to be bull, probably including the original patron of the Rectory Harry Bull, had he still been around to witness the events. Possibly the older, simpler tales of nuns and ghosts from lost centuries appealed more to the collective imagination of the time. For me, it was all good.
In the days before I was critical, before I widely used the internet, the place held a marvellous fascination. I didn’t get tired of my books, or of the stories. Living in Suffolk, I was able to visit the village of Borley and I recall going once to find the grounds and former site of the Rectory, but finding only modern farmhouses and a grey memorial to the fallen dead of the World Wars, the host of real ghosts, of which there are many up and down the country. I looked in vain for the seemingly ancient Oak that had dominated that photo, which was the definitive image of the Rectory, for me. Now, the demonic gothic house lies in my past and in my mind, along with all the imagined musty smells, images of broken China and of cricket on English lawns in summer. This, then, is a memory of a boyhood interest which still holds a certain magic or at least something other-worldly. It is less of a lament; more of an ode to what was once my favourite half-truth.