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Ghosts and murder: Book lifts lid on ‘secret river’

PUBLISHED: 19:31 09 December 2019 | UPDATED: 13:23 12 December 2019

Roman River from Fingringhoe Bridge – flowing towards Fingringhoe Mill and on towards the Colne  Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

Roman River from Fingringhoe Bridge – flowing towards Fingringhoe Mill and on towards the Colne Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

Archant

Who is The Lady in White, what happened to the wife threatened by highwaymen, and was a church haunted?

A postcard view of Langenhoe church, which suffered dramatically in the 1884 earthquake  Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVEA postcard view of Langenhoe church, which suffered dramatically in the 1884 earthquake Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

Poor Charlotte. Doted on by her rich father. A bride at 19. Mother of six children. Dead at 32. But has she actually departed this world? There have been many reported sightings of The Lady in White…

The only daughter of Sir George Smyth and Lady Eva was born at Berechurch Hall in 1813. (Think south Colchester.)

"She was regarded by all as beautiful, and was doted on by an indulgent father who built her a swimming pool or grotto," writes Ken Rickwood in his latest book.

It sounds exotic. The grounds of the hall then featured freshwater springs, with rivulets running down to Roman River. The grotto was built next to one of the streams, explains Ken.

It had three niches beneath a domed roof. "Each of the niches was plastered white and ornamented with shells. Curving steps led into an oval pool fed by the freshwater spring and overflowed into the stream."

Charlotte married on her 19th birthday and moved away. She often visited Berechurch, though. She had her six children, before expiring at 32. Since then there have been those alleged spooky appearances.

"The caretakers of the Hall during the 1920s were so disturbed by these apparitions that they took alternative employment and moved away," reports Ken.

"There were also reports of several separate sightings by various locals and even some of the PoWs (there was a Second World War camp for detainees) claim to have witnessed the ephemeral 'Lady in White'. Some of these occurred within the hall, others in various places in the grounds, and some at her favourite place: the site of the former grotto."

Ken Rickwood says ‘Mankind has walked this valley for thousands of years and many have settled on its banks. Some have left evidence of their occupation, which is fascinating to interpret. Many others have just passed through, leaving no physical evidence, but sometimes story and myth, which I find just as fascinating to interpret’  Picture: Ken Rickwood/David ClevelandKen Rickwood says ‘Mankind has walked this valley for thousands of years and many have settled on its banks. Some have left evidence of their occupation, which is fascinating to interpret. Many others have just passed through, leaving no physical evidence, but sometimes story and myth, which I find just as fascinating to interpret’ Picture: Ken Rickwood/David Cleveland

Who knows the truth? What is clear is that the banks of the nearby Roman River are the settings for many intriguing stories.

Berechurch itself offers plenty. The hall, for instance, was once home to Thomas Audley, one-time speaker of the House of Commons and later Lord Chancellor in the era of Henry VIII.

Fast-forward and we find Mrs Frances Hetherington owning the building from 1898. When son Lieutenant Thomas Hetherington visited in 1913, he arrived in style - in a new Army airship that was tethered for the night in Berechurch Hall Park.

Musket balls

Ken Rickwood has been exploring the "small and beautiful" north-east Essex river for more than half a century, collecting "facts and fancies" about it.

His book "Colchester's Secret Roman River" traces his progress along the valley, parish by parish.

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The river rises in Great Tey and flows through Aldham and Eight Ash Green, Marks Tey, Copford, Stanway, Birch, Layer-de-la-Haye, Berechurch and Langenhoe, and on to join the Colne.

Ken says it's thought the river is named not after the Romans but local landowners the Romaynes (who were certainly there in the 14th Century).

East Donyland, where he begins his journey, refers to land once controlled by a Saxon called Dunna.

Donyland Hall was caught up in the Civil War. "Hundreds of musket balls have been found on the field by the drive; and when the moat was dredged in the 1980s it was found to contain over 2,000 more, along with a number of cannon balls."

Further along, the Manwood Bridge area was the scene of a hold-up and murder one early evening in October, 1789.

Samuel Deeks, his young wife and a friend were riding home on horseback from Colchester Market. As they climbed the hill, three highwaymen emerged from the wood.

"One, brandishing a pistol at them, demanded their money," writes Ken. "Mr Deeks handed over his money but, even so, the villain fired the pistol.

"The ball passed close to Samuel's face, leaving burn marks on his cheek and throat before passing through his shoulder and then becoming lodged in his wife's head.

Part of the cover of Ken Rickwood's new book  Picture: Ken Rickwood/David ClevelandPart of the cover of Ken Rickwood's new book Picture: Ken Rickwood/David Cleveland

"Despite the offer of a considerable reward, no arrests were ever made for the murder of Mrs Deeks."

Bump in the night

Langenhoe was in 1884 close to the epicentre of the strongest quake to strike mainland Britain: the Colchester earthquake. About 1,200 buildings needed repairing.

Of 20 churches damaged, Langenhoe's suffered the most, explains Ken.

The building was demolished and rebuilt, using much of the old stone and original material. The "new" church opened in 1886.

It later acquired a reputation as one of the most haunted places in England, writes Ken. "This was as a result of a number of disturbing happenings experienced by the Reverend Ernest Merryweather, who was rector there for twenty years.

"Many of these could be attributed to a combination of a poor-quality rebuild and the interpretation by the rector of 'things that go bump in the night'. Nevertheless, the last service was held in 1959 and the church was closed.

"The reason given at the time was that the building was too dangerous. This prompted a BBC ghost-hunting team to spend the night there in 1961. Absolutely nothing happened!" And St Mary's was demolished in 1963.

* The book is published by David Cleveland at £10. It's available from Red Lion Books in Colchester High Street, Wivenhoe Bookshop and www.localeastanglianbooks.co.uk. On December 14 Ken will be in the Red Lion Bookshop between 10am and 11am to chat and answer questions.


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