South Tilford on the Essex Marshes is one of the most atmospheric places in the county, and as I walked up the gravel path towards St Peter's Church I found it hard to believe that I was still in the twentieth century. With the tall grey building ahead of me, the grey Coal Fort (built a hundred years ago but for what reason I do not know) in the near distance, and the dark, lowering sky above, I would not have been surprised to find, on looking around, that my red mini-car - which was parked by the gate - had been transformed into a horse-drawn carriage.
My name is Jane Bradshawe and I'm a church restorer. I was in South Tilford to look at some seventeenth century wall-paintings in the church, and to decide whether they could be cleaned without suffering damage. The rector, I knew, should be waiting for me inside, but when I first opened the heavy door, the building appeared empty. Then I heard a movement up at the east end and spotted a tubby, balding figure attending to a censer.
I have nothing against High Church Anglicans, but they do seem to pick the most cloying, heavy incense; the sort which is guaranteed to give me a headache in minutes. The scent which filled this church was no exception.
Not a good start to the visit, I thought; but Father Cranage, who came hurrying down the chancel - hand outstretched - as soon as he saw me, was such a sweet old fellow that I was quite unable to remain irritated with his taste in religious ritual. He led me to the west wall, on which the paintings sheltered beneath a layer of grime and peeling whitewash.
"You see, my dear, there are two figures - one on each side of the door. They're hard to make out now, but I understand that authorities such as the Victoria County History believe them to be a gravedigger and Death."
I realised that the restoration job would be dirty and difficult, but probably rewarding. "These are quite rare, you know," I told the good Father. "There are similar figures in a church in Huntingdonshire, but they're badly defaced. Wouldn't it be exciting if yours were in better condition?"
"Yes, indeed," the rector nodded, "although, curiously enough, a few of my parishioners have hinted to me that the paintings should be left alone. I've been here for forty years now, and I hope they have learned to be completely honest with me, but no one has been able to tell me why they believe the work shouldn't be done. I don't think they know themselves."
Later that evening, after the long drive back to my little house in Northamptonshire, I wrote my report for the Diocesan Advisory Committee, recommending that the restoration be carried out, and that I would like to do it.
A couple of weeks afterwards I was in Essex again, on another job: trying in vain to rescue a hatchment which had been crudely repainted by a well-meaning parishioner in the mistaken belief that he was 'restoring' it. Before returning home, I decided to spend a day in the Essex Record Office, finding out what I could about South Tilford church. Searching through old, handwritten churchwardens' accounts and similar documents is a task I hate. It's hard, eye-straining work and, more often than not, it produces no results whatsoever. My luck seemed to be out on this day. I could find no information on the history of the wall-paintings or their anonymous artist.
Serendipity is something which all researchers experience from time to time. It causes the very piece of knowledge for which you've been looking to fall into your hands, usually from a totally unexpected source, just as you've given up hope of ever finding it. This was what happened when, despairing of the church records, I started to browse through the printed books in the Record Office Library. For no obvious reason, I picked up a small, dowdy green volume without a title on the spine. It proved to be The History and Lore of the Villages of the Essex Marshes by the Reverend Sir Adam Gordon who was, it seemed, the rector of West Tilford, the adjoining parish to South Tilford, during the early years of the nineteenth century. Turning quickly to the short chapter on South Tilford I found a section on the wall-paintings. What Gordon had to say about them was most intriguing:
"On the west wall [of the church] are two paintings, of a gravedigger and a skeleton. The traditional reason for the making of them is fast being forgotten by the villagers, so I am pleased to be able to record it here. It is said that the gravedigger was one Meshach Leach, sexton of the parish during the first part of the seventeenth century. There was a new incumbent at this time and he instructed Leach to remove an old stone from the churchyard. This object was held in heathen awe by the local people and was therefore a source of disgust to the rector. Leach protested very strongly, but he could not refuse for fear of losing his position, so he finally gave way. No one could be persuaded to help him, but unluckily, the stone was small enough for him to move unaided, and the rector made a point of overseeing the task until completed. From that day the sexton was hounded by a figure which came to be called the 'guardian'. No clear description is now available, but there are hints of its being skeletal and extremely unpleasant to look upon.
"Three weeks later the vengeful creature pursued the unhappy man even into the very church itself, and it was there that the rector discovered poor Leach, apparently dead of an apoplexy. The rector was then much troubled in his sleep and finally had the stone replaced. He commissioned Meshach's brother, Shadrach, a sign painter, to produce the figures we see today, as a warning to future incumbents.
"I cannot tell how much of this strange story is true and how much romance, but the old stone does indeed exist, and can still be seen in South Tilford churchyard, a few yards from the main path to the south door. I find myself unable to believe that a servant of Satan such as this 'guardian' could have chased the unfortunate Leach into the sanctuary of a House of God. If the basic tale be true, I would suggest that the sexton injured himself when lifting the stone, causing brain-fever and hallucinations which led inevitably to his death."
I made a mental note (as a point of interest only, of course) to check whether the stone still existed, when I had the chance.
The opportunity came a month later, at the beginning of February, when I received the go-ahead from the Diocesan Advisory Committee, and arranged with Father Cranage to stay in his spare room at the rectory for the next few weeks. I anticipated a long, messy job, but with a final result which would make all the effort worthwhile.
The Essex Marshes are at their most timeless in the dark months of January and February. My feeling of not being in the twentieth century returned as I drove up to the church, and increased when I glanced over to the Thames on my right, and saw a distant line of tall ships' masts moving gracefully by. Before driving on to the rectory I slipped into the graveyard to look for the mysterious stone. Sure enough it was in the position which the Reverend Gordon had described. I must admit to a slight feeling of relief!
Father Cranage was as jovial as ever. His house was a large and slightly decaying eighteenth century building, but he was sensibly using only a small part of it, which was cluttered with his many possessions (including, I noted with approval, a fine little model railway layout), and exuded the same air of gentle friendliness as the rector himself. He was slightly embarrassed in showing me to the spare room, which would be my bedroom, as it had obviously been prepared in a hurry by himself. He explained that his 'daily', Mrs Coggins, was laid up "with her legs", and so we would have to rough it. Since Mrs Coggins' daughter was to bring in a hot meal for us every evening, it seemed like fairly luxurious 'roughing it' to me.
The next day a group of local men helped me to put up a scaffolding platform in the church, and of course I paid them in the traditional way - with money for beer! The platform needed to be no more than four feet from the ground, which was a relief to me as I dislike heights. I started on the right-hand figure - that of the gravedigger - and work progressed splendidly. Two weeks later, 'Meshach' was revealed. Despite some slight damage, his general condition was excellent.
I had told Father Cranage the story of the figures, and we both noticed that the drab brown-clad sexton had a scared and pathetically unhappy look.
"Poor old soul," said the rector, as we stood admiring my efforts, late one afternoon. "I do hope the tale isn't true."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "the whole thing was invented in order to explain his sad expression."
"I hope so, I do indeed. It is a shame that our Parish Registers survive only from the middle of the seventeenth century - probably too late for them to include the death of Meshach if it really did happen."
I nodded, but then something occurred to me. "Meshach Leach, if he existed, died too early, but this need not be the case with his brother Shadrach, who supposedly painted the wall. If we can find him in your records at least it will prove that the family was real."
Filled with enthusiasm we hurried to the vestry where, fortunately, the documents were being readied for loan to the Record Office, and were therefore in good order. It was a fairly simple matter to work through the list of deaths, and a few minutes later, under May 7th 1672, we found the entry we wanted. It read:
"Shadrak Leche, aged 73 years, son of John and Azuba, brother of Meshak."
"Well," I said, leaning back in my chair to look at the solemn face of the rector, "we know now that there is some truth in the story, and that Meshach existed."
"I shall pray for him," said the good Father.
It was when I began cleaning the figure of Death that my zest for the job started to wane. During the daylight hours nothing untoward happened, but February days are so short that I had to continue working after dusk had fallen. When it was really dark I switched on the electric lights in the church, but I don't like using artificial light if I can avoid it, so I tended to work in the dusk for as long as I could. In the hour or so when the setting sun was throwing disconcerting shadows behind the furnishings, I found that I was becoming increasingly disturbed. I have been in so many churches in the past seven years since leaving art school that the shadows and noises, which they all contain, don't trouble me at all; but the physical discomfort which I felt at South Tilford was unique in my experience. First the smell of incense became oppressive and intense, and inevitably my head began to ache; and then the building started to feel uncomfortably hot. The old Gurney's Patent Boiler, against the north wall, heated the church very efficiently, but the temperature at this time of year should rarely have risen above 60ºF. Now, in the evenings, it was rising into the nineties and making me feel positively faint.
I might have doubted the evidence of my own senses had it not been for the fact that Father Cranage noticed it too, during his frequent visits to see how I was getting on. He called in a man to look at the boiler in case it was malfunctioning, but no fault could be found. The puzzle remained unsolved, and it was evident that the oppressiveness was slightly worse each day; consequently my headaches became harder and harder to shake off.
To add to this, neither I nor the Father were terribly happy about the second figure which my careful cleaning was revealing. It was not the ordinary skeleton which I had been expecting, but something altogether more grotesque, although it was certainly skeletal enough. From its bones hung shreds of what might have been cloth, or flesh, and the sardonically smiling face was undoubtedly fleshed, with parchment-like skin drawn tight against the skull. If this exceedingly unpleasant creation was intended to portray Death then the artist must have wanted the congregation to fear their final hour with a frightening intensity. If, on the other hand, it was the guardian of the story then I felt very glad that the stone in the churchyard was still in position.
By early March, my work was nearing completion, much to my relief. During my final evening in the church, the oppression was worse than ever. "Another night like this," I thought to myself, "and I'd be in danger of fainting and falling off the platform. A broken leg is all I need."
As I turned to climb down and switch out the lights, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Had the huddled shadow behind the boiler moved? I had no time to decide before another shadow, this one definitely moving, detached itself from the gloom of the chancel and started to make its way jerkily down the church. Its motion reminded me incongruously of a child playing hopscotch, but this was no child. It was tall, bony and impossibly thin - perhaps I can best describe it as a huge and humanoid stick insect. As it approached the patch of darkness behind the boiler, which now seemed to resemble a cowering figure, it reached out its hideous arms and the two shadows met, and merged. I heard - inside my head - a terrible, hopeless scream; and then there was silence. They were gone, leaving only a slight, distasteful smell of mould in my nostrils, which the scent of incense quickly overpowered.
I realised that I was clinging on for dear life to an upright on the scaffolding, otherwise I would certainly have fallen. But not for a moment had I felt threatened by the manifestation which I had just seen. When the shadow was making its way towards the boiler, it was also coming in my direction, but I knew that I was not its object, and that it could not harm me. I was merely seeing a re-enactment of that which had gone before.
If wall-paintings are in bad condition, restorers often suggest that they be concealed beneath a layer of whitewash to protect them. The figures at South Tilford didn't need this treatment, but I recommended it anyway, and although I did not tell Father Cranage my real reasons, he was happy to agree. "I'm afraid the older members of my congregation are being frightened by the grim reaper there," he said. So, with the permission of the Diocesan Authorities, the paintings were covered up.
As I see it, there is no actual danger as long as the stone remains in position in the graveyard, but I believe that by revealing their images, I re-awakened the shades of the 'guardian' and of poor Meshach Leach. I suspect they also haunted the church when the paintings were new, which would account for several attempts made in the following centuries to deface and hide them. Ironically they were thereby preserved in much better condition than most contemporary work of a similar nature. By covering them up again, I hope I have 'laid' the shades, at least for the time being. Whether I took this action from pity for the unquiet spirit of the sexton, or for fear of the other, I will leave you to decide.
Note (from the Editor's Introduction to Ghosts & Scholars 5): Mary Ann tells me that her story was inspired by a wall-painting at Yaxley church in Huntingdonshire. She also asks me to mention that the Reverend Sir Adam Gordon really did exist and was rector of West Tilbury (alias West Tilford) at the beginning of the last [i.e. nineteenth - ed.] century. For further information on him, she refers the interested reader to her article "A Hertfordshire Church's Memorial for a 'Mad' King" in Hertfordshire Countryside, November 1975.
[The book by Adam Gordon mentioned in the story, however, is entirely fictional. Also, for some unaccountable reason, the author of the article in Hertfordshire Countryside is given there as Rosemary Pardoe, who has been strangely keen over the years to lay claim to the writings of Mary Ann Allen, much to the latter's irritation! - ed.].
Copyright © 1983 Rosemary Pardoe
"The Gravedigger and Death" (in a very slightly different version) and the other eleven supernatural tales by Mary Ann Allen were reprinted in 2000 in The Angry Dead, a fine hard-cover book published by Richard Fawcett and Jessica Amanda Salmonson. In the UK and Europe, copies of The Angry Dead are available from the Ghosts & Scholars editorial address at a price of £21.50 including UK p&p. Add an extra £1.00 for European p&p. Sterling cheques/money orders payable to R.A. Pardoe. Please mention if you would like Mary Ann to sign your copy. Or e-mail me with your name and address for an order form. In the States and elsewhere, contact Richard Fawcett or visit Jessica Amanda Salmonson's web site (where you can also read a review of the book by Jim Rockhill).]
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