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The mysterious case of the Cambridgeshire fen slodger

Wicken church whereJoseph Hempsall is meant to be buried. Picture: Keith Heppell
Wicken church whereJoseph Hempsall is meant to be buried. Picture: Keith Heppell

Joseph Hempsall simply disappeared and now so has his grave

Aghost story about a beer-swilling fenman which dates back more than 300 years is being celebrated by the Museum of Cambridge.

The mystery involving fen slodger Joseph Hempsall is not one that will resonate with many folk in Cambridgeshire, but his disappearance – and ultimate reburial – caused quite a stir in the late 17th century.

Back then a fen slodger was a man who made his living from the drains around the county, catching fish and fowl to sell to the locals.

These men were often ruddy-faced, strong, hardy and, in most cases, dedicated drinkers who liked nothing more than to spend a night supping ale in the local tavern after a full day’s work skitting about on the fens.

Hempsall’s story has all the hallmarks of a traditional ghost yarn retold through the ages by fen folk with a love of the macabre and, perhaps, the odd embellishment after a pint or two.

Legend has it that he lived in a small cottage on the Soham side of the Wicken Fen, and such was his love of drink that he would think nothing of walking across the ‘Big Bog’ every night to drink with his pals in a tavern in Wicken.

This is now thought to be the Ship Inn in Soham, but that’s another addition at odds with the folklore.

One night, it is said, while imbibing in the tavern, a thick fog descended and became so bad that Hempsall’s friends pleaded with him not to go home across the bog.

But, being a true fenman, he shrugged off their concerns and began the walk. He soon encountered an all-consuming mist and quickly disappeared from view.

His friends became concerned when, two days later, nothing had been seen or heard of the hardy fenman. Two of them decided to visit his house to see if he was all right.

However, they were met by Hempsall at the bank of the fen – and he was not the jovial, ruddy-faced man they recognised. Instead, he was pale, gaunt and unusually quiet.

When they reached the cottage gate, Hempsall turned and said, so legend has it: “As I am now, so one day will ye be. Fetch me from Big Bog and bury me in Wicken churchyard.”

He then vanished into thin air, leaving his friends understandably shaken. On their return to Wicken, they found Hempsall’s body at the spot where he’d appeared before, lying in the reed-filled water with a terrified expression on his face.

Hempsall was initially buried in Soham churchyard, but this apparently angered his spirit and people began to see his ghost.

When it appeared, it would utter the words: “As I am now, so some day will ye be! Bury my bones in Wicken churchyard or I will not rest!”

After his ghostly spirit had frightened half of the village, he was, so it is said, reinterred at Wicken and the hauntings apparently ceased, although some people still claim to this day that Hempsall haunts the area, particularly on foggy nights, warning people: “As I am now, so one day will ye be!”

Fast forward to 2017 and being on the trail of the old-time slodger brings its own mysteries to the fore. Even armed with all the technological powers of the modern world, as in life, Hempsall appears to have disappeared. Indeed, when raiding the archives for leads to his eventual resting place, no such death by that name is recorded in Cambridgeshire.

Furthermore, a trip on a frosty morning to the delightfully kept St Laurence’s Church in Wicken to try to find his grave also drew a blank.

The churchyard is full of graves of the period, but many had headstones bearing inscriptions that would trouble anyone with experience of Braille.

Certainly, to the naked eye at least, the dead refused to give up their identities – or, in most cases, any clues as to their history.

The words ‘Terrors of the Tombs’ was espied on one particularly ancient gravestone, but the name above such a sentence was not attributed to our man Hempsall.

Without knowing precisely where he was buried, or if at all, the quest to locate the slodger of the fens was proving something of a fruitless affair.

But I was becoming infatuated by Hempsall’s story, just like another chap who has taken it upon himself to produce the exhibition for the Museum of Cambridge.

Jesse Wine has created a new tour of the museum which makes use of audio, dramatic lighting and music to tell the mysterious story of Hempsall.

Mr Wine has added objects from the Kettle’s Yard and Museum of Cambridge collections as well as his own work to the displays in the museum. And he too has been captivated by the slodger’s story.

He said: “The story of Joseph Hempsall, on which the narrative of the audio tour is based, charts his transition from human to ghost, life to death and so for the figure to be present and not present is the crux of the story.

“Because the story is at least to me untrue. I don’t believe in ghosts, and so to start with something fictional is actually really liberating because you can generate total freedom from that.”

Mr Wine maintains he does not believe in ghosts and I too am beginning to think that Hempsall’s story may well be a tale of fiction embellished over the years around a fire in a local tavern.

For me, the trail of Hempsall’s ghost got lost in a fog of confusion, but you can still marvel at the exhibition at the museum until Sunday February 5.

Called ‘Jesse Wine: Sludgy Portrait of Himself’, it can be viewed Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10.30am to 5pm and on Sundays from noon to 4pm. If you’ve seen the fen slodger’s ghost, why not tell me about your experience? Email me on adrian.curtis@iliffemedia.co.uk

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