New book, Apparitions of East Anglia, delves into region’s hidden folklore
The next time you are out walking, try to really immerse yourself in the countryside – as an innocuous-looking path or tree might just have a fascinating story associated with it.
This is the advice of Chris Spalton, a software designer who works for Redgate Software in Cambridge, who has written a book about the region’s folktales, entitled Apparitions of East Anglia.
Often dismissed as flat and featureless, East Anglia is actually a region filled with history and mystery – as Chris’s book demonstrates. He explores a selection of tall tales, grim history and extraordinary events from East Anglia in the ambitious project, which was written during lockdown.
“I grew up in the Fens, in a place called Parson Drove, up near Wisbech,” says Chris, 41, “and the Fens is a pretty weird place anyway, isn’t it? So I mention in the book about how you’re always kind of surrounded by stories – it might be the spooky house down on the village green, or something like that.
“That sparked my interest at a really young age, and I’ve always been interested in weird and wonderful stuff like that. As I’ve got older, I’ve always had my creative projects on the go. I self-published a graphic novel two or three years ago called The Eelman Chronicles. My dad was the last eel catcher in the Fens and he had some funny stories, so I turned that into a comic book.”
Commuting from Norwich to Cambridge every day left Chris with little time to work on other projects. Then Covid-19 hit and Chris got his commuting time back.
“It had been bothering me that I hadn’t done anything creative for a while,” says Chris. “I like finding the story and going to a place to walk around that churchyard, or go down that spooky lane – and then come back and draw it. I didn’t necessarily set out to do a book but I realised I was starting to get a bit of a collection of these.”
Chris, who comes from a graphic design background, says the book contains 30 main stories, with his illustrations accompanying them.
“There are a few little additions,” he notes, “like some interesting quotes that I found about folklore. Norfolk in particular has lots of abandoned villages so I did a page or two on that... I’ve called it ‘Selected folklore tales, ghost stories and weird history of East Anglia’.
“There is some historic stuff in there; I’ve got things like Hereward the Wake, who was around Ely and a rebel in the Fens back in Norman times. It was whichever stories interested me, whether they were real or ghosts or anything else. There’s a really nice selection here.”
While Hereward the Wake and Black Shuck might be more well known, Chris says that some of the tales he has included are more “niche”. He notes: “What I like about folklore and ghost stories is it feels that each village has its own legends. I tried to put a mixture of things that are universally true, historic things and more ‘hyper-local’ legends.”
For Cambridgeshire, the book features the story of Oliver Cromwell’s head. “Oliver Cromwell obviously plays a large part in the region,” says Chris. “Even in the village where I grew up, there’s Ghost Hill and supposedly that’s haunted by some of his soldiers.
“There’s various ruins that Oliver Cromwell’s troops smashed up and I found a really interesting story about his head – it’s actually buried in Cambridge. It went missing for years and it’s buried in a secret location in Sidney Sussex College – and his disembodied head floats around the corridors... It went missing for centuries and then appeared in 1960 and they buried it in a secret corner of Sidney Sussex.”
Chris continues: “There’s been lots of conflict in Ely. Hereward the Wake defended it and there’s a great story there about how the Normans tried to attack Ely. They attacked it across this wooden bridge and Hereward the Wake snuck round the back and then set fire to the reed beds, which scared their horses onto the bridge and then they all sank into the marsh due to the weight of their armour.
“Also, there was a guy called Tom Hickathrift, a giant who defended Ely from an army of 10,000 people, apparently. He broke his weapon and then grabbed a ‘lusty, rawboned miller’ by the legs and used him as a club... Apparently millers were distrustful people, I don’t know why.”
Although all of the inner drawings were done by Chris, the cover came from elsewhere. “That comes from my interest in comic books, where they always have a different artist to who was doing the inside,” he explains. “I got a tattoo of Black Shuck last year, and I asked my tattoo friend if I could use it for the cover. Internally I did everything.”
A physical copy of Apparitions of East Anglia, available from June 1, can be pre-ordered at gum.co/eastangliaapp. It is available now on eBook/Kindle via Amazon. Follow Chris on Twitter using @chrisspalton, or on Instagram @spalton. Chris is also looking for stockists for his book.