St Giles Church, South Mimms
The Parish Church of St Giles dates from the 13th and 15th century. In Haunted Churches (1939), Elliott O’Donnell (27 February 1872 – 8 May 1965) refers to the churchyard and surrounding area being haunted. Here is his description: ‘The churchyard of South Mimms is well known to be haunted by a woman in white, the ghost of a lady who was murdered in the adjoining vicarage by some of the most ruffianly soldiers of Cromwell’s army. It seems that sometimes this “woman in white” haunts the vicarage, too.
Some years ago I interviewed the then vicar of South Mimms, who told me that, although he had never actually seen the ghost, he had been definitely conscious of its near proximity, especially in the early hours of the morning. He was sure it was beneficent and not evil. He told the same story to a representative of The Daily Chronicle, whose account of it was published in a subsequent issue of the paper.
Apparently, he also told this reporter that one of his parishioners, on entering the church alone one day, saw a clergyman kneeling at the priest’s stall in the chancel. She did not notice anything unusual about him at first, but when he got up and passed through a closed door leading to the vestry, she at once realised that he was not a material being but a ghost.
The description she gave of him exactly fitted a former vicar of the church whom she had never met, and it transpired that on the same day and just about the same hour that she had seen the ghost the former vicar had died.
The vicar of South Mimms also told me he had once seen something of a ghostly nature at the Wash, a strip of waste land, a few minutes walk from the church, running alongside the high road between South Mimms and London, adding that not only he but other people had seen it too. From other sources I learned that, in addition to this ghostly something seen there, the Wash and its environments, including the South Mimms churchyard, are reputed to be at times haunted by the ghost of the notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin. He used to sally forth from the Wash to hold up travellers on the old North Road, which, in his day, was the great highway to the North. It was hearing these stories about the hauntings of the churchyard and Wash that led me to spend an all-night vigil at South Mimms, in the hope of witnessing some of the phenomena.
The South Mimms church clock was solemnly booming midnight when I arrived at the churchyard, and as I passed by the railings that skirt it, I was conscious of something coming through them and moving along beside me. My own shadow stood out clear and black on the moonlit soil, but only mine; whatever was with me cast no shadow. I went by the Middlesex Arms and turned down the asphalted lane leading to the South Mimms Wash, and all the way I felt my silent, invisible companion was with me. After leaving, on my right, a quaint little farmhouse, outside which, in the daytime, horses graze, ducks waddle and geese cackle, I found myself alongside a track of waste land, through which a stream rather sluggishly made its winding way.
On the far side of the waste land were hedges and, beyond, fields. On all sides isolated trees stood out against the moonlit background of sky. This was the Wash — a rural spot, despite its proximity to a great artery of London. Continuing along the deserted, moonlit lane, I crossed a_ stone bridge and came within sight of a very rustic wooden bridge, with dense foliage on one side of it and wire fencing, bordering fields, on the other side. Here I halted, and standing on the bridge rested against one of its railings.
Old times came vividly back to me. Once again I was a private in the “United Arts” doing sentry duty, by night, on Grosvenor Railway Bridge during the War, and I thought, with longing, of the hot coffee and bacon with which we used to regale ourselves in the guard-room. I thought, too, of some things not quite so pleasant, of the White Lady ghost rumoured to walk about at night in the South Mimms churchyard, and wondered if she was the silent, invisible companion I sensed was still close to me; my thoughts reverted, also, to Gill Hill, the scene of the horrible Weare murder, and said to be still haunted by the ghosts of Weare and his murderers, Thurtell and Probert ; to Cheshunt’s old manor house, wherein Mrs. Chapman, whose husband, the well-known publisher and brother-in-law of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean, had so many harrowing ghostly experiences ; and to Enfield, with its House of Sighs and clanging armour ghost, popularly believed to be that of one of the De Mandevilles.
Some of these places were not very near, it is true, but as distance counts for little with denizens of the other world, they were near enough not to be pleasant.
A chilliness in the air made me put on my overcoat and, as I did so, I was suddenly conscious that my companion from the churchyard was no longer with me. I was now alone. Every now and then from the high-road and roads more distant came the sound of traffic — hootings, whistlings, rumblings. Occasionally bats skimmed in noiseless flight in and out of trees and bushes, night birds wailed and dogs bayed the moon.
In the shallow water beneath me tiny dark forms darted hither and thither. Every now and then, too, some small animal, maybe a stoat or rat, rustled through the reeds and long grass. Otherwise stillness, and not a human being in sight anywhere.
To me, there is always a something rather eerie in a deserted, moonlit road or lane, and as I gazed at the whitened empty lane confronting me, and at the shadows of the trees that flecked it here and there, I was conscious of an intense concentration all around me.
I felt all Nature was expecting something to happen, and that very shortly something alarming would burst into view. Then, suddenly, the horses and cattle, which had been standing dumb and motionless in the distant fields, began to race about madly, as if panicked. Birds from the foliage near me flew away with startled cries and much rustling of wings.
I looked round apprehensively and saw hovering over a spot by the roadside a swarm of flies, that, in the uncertain light, looked curiously black and large, and nasty. When I approached them, to see what the attraction was, they mysteriously disappeared, to reappear directly I moved away.
So far as I could see there was nothing to account for their presence. A feeling of intense repulsion and not a little horror seizing me I left the spot hurriedly and retraced my steps to the distant stone bridge.
I was within a few yards of it, when I saw, coming towards me, over the moon-whitened soil, a black shadow, a shadow something like that of a man but not altogether like, and something like that of an animal but, again, not altogether like. A very alarming shadow, because it was so ultra-grotesque and frightfully suggestive of evil. I glanced around to discover its origin, and failed, utterly.
It was not due to a cloud, because no clouds were in the sky. There were trees near the lane, and their shadows certainly did sway to and fro in the night breeze, but they did not move along as did this shadow. There was no apparent physical counterpart to it, and a very unpleasant atmosphere accompanied it. When it was close to me I experienced again the feeling of horror that had gripped me at the fly-ridden spot, and I walked back in the direction of the wooden bridge. Instinctively, I knew I was being followed by the Shadow, and every time I looked round, there it was, a few yards in my rear. No matter how fast I walked, and, at times, I almost ran, it maintained the same distance from me, seemingly without increasing its pace. When I was close to the wooden bridge, I saw the flies ; they were still hovering round the same spot, and, again, a feeling of intense horror and repulsion obsessed me. I felt the spot was accursed, and something foul and strangely horrible was lying there.
I walked quickly on, and then looked round. The Shadow had come to a halt at the spot around which the flies hovered, and as I gazed at both, Shadow and flies, I was conscious of a shuddering sound, as of suppressed dread, close beside me. The next moment Shadow and flies abruptly vanished, and all I saw at that spot was just moonlight and whitened soil. Directly this happened I felt my invisible companion had rejoined me, and this feeling continued till we came to the churchyard, when I, as suddenly, sensed that the unseen presence had gone and that I was now quite alone.
I have found that many people are most reluctant to talk of ghosts that haunt the town, village or neighbourhood in which they live; and I attribute their reluctance chiefly to a fear of ridicule. They still cling, perhaps, to the notion, at one time very prevalent, that it is only rustics and ignorant peasants who believe in ghosts. However, that notion no longer prevails. On the contrary, the reverse would seem to hold good, and to-day, speaking generally, it is the more highly educated people, who, far from scoffing at those who believe in psychic phenomena, take their belief seriously, even if they cannot agree with it. As a rule it is now only the uneducated or hopelessly ignorant person who laughs derisively when one speaks of the superphysical.
I certainly found the rustics at South Mimms very reluctant to tell me anything about the Wash, and it was not until I had approached and sounded a dozen or more of them that I at last met an old roadman who was not afraid to talk. “You didn’t see the ghost of Dick Turpin,” he remarked, when I told him the primary reason for my all-night vigil at the Wash. “Nobody I’ve come across ever has seen him, but those flies and that shadow you speak of, they’re different.”
He then went on to tell me that his father, who had been dead many years, used to talk about getting “a queer feeling” every time he passed the churchyard at night, as if the spirits of some of those who lay buried there were standing at the railings peering at him, and of being occasionally followed by one or more of them, always in the direction of the Wash. His father, also, used to speak about an old woman living near the Wash when he was a boy, who, it was said, called up evil spirits. She was found dead one morning at the Wash. Some thought she had been murdered, but there was nothing to prove it. Anyway, being a witch, the parson wouldn’t have her buried in the churchyard, and so she was buried at the cross-roads, near the Wash, with a stake driven through her body, to keep her spirit from wandering about. ” In spite of these precautions,” the old roadman continued, ” people said they saw a shadow, just as you described, following them along the road leading to the Wash, at night. Some thought it was the spirit of the old witch, and others one of her imps, but whichever or whatever it was, it always came to a stop at the spot where the body of the old woman was found. And folks declared, too, that at this spot, as if waiting for the Shadow, were a swarm of nasty- looking black flies that disappeared, suddenly, with the Shadow, in the mysterious manner you described. But,” he added, ” it doesn’t happen every night, only just now and then.” He went on to tell me about some experiences he had in South Mimms churchyard. He said that some time after one of the very old tombs had undergone repairs and renovations he had seen a gruesome leadenish blue light hovering around the spot, and nothing would induce his dog to go near it. When, however, the light no longer appeared there, his dog would approach the tomb quite happily.
I published an account of my nocturnal experiences at South Mimms in The Sunday Pictorial and received a letter from a reader, living in a suburb of Birmingham, expressing great interest in my narrative and stating that he, also, had had a ghostly experience at the Wash. The following is an ad verbum extract from his letter: “Nearly fifty years ago (I was then between thirteen and fourteen years of age) I was staying with an uncle at High Barnet, together with a cousin, a little older than myself. He and I were great chums, certainly not good boys, in fact we were known as two little devils who would come to a bad end, always in some scrape or other, and without fear of anything. My uncle’s business took him driving into the surrounding country, and we would often walk a few miles out to meet him, and to get a ride home. One evening we walked to a place called South Mimms. Uncle had not yet arrived, and we proceeded to have a ramble round. It was a late autumn evening, and as we walked along, with the flies surrounding us, there was certainly nothing to worry us, or to give warning of the few minutes of really terrifying experience we were to go through. First, the feeling that everything around us stood still, a feeling that something was happening near us that we could not see. I remember we both stood still, neither speaking, the cold feeling of my hair literally standing on end, just two boys spellbound. Then, the horror of something weird and unearthly that appeared to rise from the very ground, and still no sound at all, just dead silence, as this thing which was neither human nor animal, seemed to come towards us. Suddenly, one of us let out a scream (we were never able to decide which of us it was) which brought us to life, and we ran home, forgetting all about our ride, in our haste to get there, we were so scared; but we got no sympathy, only each a good hiding, for letting our imaginations run away with us. It was, however, no imagination, it was true and terrifying, but very hard for two young boys to get anyone to believe.”
Apart from the tradition concerning the mysterious death of the reputed witch, in more recent years there have been at least two sinister mysteries that might well be productive of hauntings. The first occurred in 1861 when the body of an unknown woman was found in a ditch in a field near the Wash. She was thought to have been employed hay-making by a local farmer, but her face was too gnawn by rats and other vermin for identification to be possible. Cries had been heard coming from the field one night, but whether they were her cries or not was never known. An open verdict was returned. The second mystery occurred in 1930, when the body of an old tramp was found, also in a field, near the Wash. Though a verdict of death from natural causes was returned, there was grave suspicion of foul play. After this second mystery tramps gave the Wash a very wide berth, at night, for some considerable time.
Only a few weeks ago I commented on this to a tramp whom I saw one morning lying on the ground, near the wooden bridge, and he said : ” I’ll never sleep out ‘ere again, guvernor. What with the queer noises from that bit of swampy ground, with its weeds and water, and the things I didn’t see but could feel a’overing over and around me all the time, it’s far too uncanny for my liking. Talk about ‘aunted places. This place is ‘aunted right enough, and so is the churchyard near ‘ere. I tried sleeping there one night, a year or two ago, but never again, guvernor, not if I knows it.”