A winter’s day in a remote graveyard in Suffolk. On the north side of the church — the dark side, the cold side — we find a dense grove of old yew trees, and a hidden grave.
Matthew retrieves something from the earth: an old bone. ‘A rabbit?’ I suggest. He shakes his head. It’s a human finger bone.
Respectfully, we replace the fragment exactly where we found it, and return to the south side of the church. Behind us, the yew trees shiver.
Fact and fiction: St Peter’s in Great Livermere. Montague Rhodes James called the ‘remote and sleepy’ village home
For we are in the churchyard of St Peter’s at Great Livermere, the village that England’s greatest ghost-story writer, Montague Rhodes James, called home, and where his father was rector. One of his spookiest stories, The Ash-Tree, features a house similar to the rectory here, where James spent his boyhood, and a terrifying witch, long dead, called Mothersole.
The name on the grave we have just discovered under the yews? Mothersole.
Matthew, a Suffolk local, explains that his county is rich in haunted country houses, often inhabited by the same families for generations, with an old church nearby, bells intoning through the mist.
It was just this landscape that inspired James, who passed a long, serene life (1862-1936) as a Cambridge don, poring over medieval manuscripts; and, late at night, composing his spine-chilling tales.
The BBC has adapted The Mezzotint, one of M. R. James’s classic ghost stories. Pictured from the left are the cast of the BBC adaptation, with Rory Kinnear (playing Edward Williams), Nikesh Patel (Nisbet), and Robert Bathurst (Garwood)
Rory Kinnear stars in the BBC adaptation of James’s spooky tale – A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint – which will air on Christmas Eve
James once claimed that he saw a real ghost on the edge of the Brecklands woodland, at Oldbroom Plantation (pictured on the left). Picture courtesy of Creative Commons. On the right is a photograph of James, who Christopher describes as ‘England’s greatest ghost-story writer’
‘We lunch at the little fishing port of Felixstowe Ferry (pictured), where the River Deben curves out into the North Sea, creating a treacherous sandbar across the mouth of the estuary,’ writes Christopher
They often featured academics like himself, investigating ancient texts or artefacts and disturbing something terrible. James — whose story The Mezzotint has been adapted by the BBC and will be shown on Christmas Eve — would then read his tales to friends in his rooms in King’s College, Cambridge, by candlelight.
A remote and sleepy village, Great Livermere is the first stop on our M. R. James winter pilgrimage. It stands on the edge of that mysterious stretch of country called the Brecklands, a barely inhabited grassland sparsely dotted with trees and thorn thickets. In his story A Vignette, James records the only time he saw a real ghost — ‘the eyes were large and open and fixed . . . a glamour of madness about it’ — on the edge of the woodland here called Oldbroom Plantation, which stands to this day.
From here it’s a rambling drive east across the county to the coast north of Felixstowe. James used to stay at the Bath Hotel here. We lunch at the little fishing port of Felixstowe Ferry, where the River Deben curves out into the North Sea, creating a treacherous sandbar across the mouth of the estuary.
Christopher’s final stop is in the town of Aldeburgh, pictured. He says that the area was ‘much loved by James’
The centre of Aldeburgh. According to Christopher, James created the tale A Warning To The Curious during his time in the town
Christopher stays at The Angel Hotel in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds (pictured)
Rooms at The Angel Hotel, pictured, start at £69 pp. Visit www.theangel.co.uk for more information
Small boats bob about on the river, halyards clanking in the wind and gulls loitering ready to pounce.
This is the coastal landscape of one of James’s most terrifying tales, Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, complete with golf course, just as he described it (he hated golf).
Take a walk along this atmospherically desolate coast, or inland over Falkenham Marshes, and you can understand James’s fascination.
Finally, on to Aldeburgh, much loved by James. Even here, though, his haunted imagination created the tale A Warning To The Curious, featuring the sinister figure of one William Ager.
He is said to live north of the town, in an isolated cottage on the heath.
Not all the great writers of the haunted and strange evoke specific locales, but when they do — Dickens’s Kentish marshes, Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor — the effect can be spine-tingling.
James’s Suffolk is just such a landscape, a perfect destination for exploring on a bleak winter’s day.
And wherever there is an old country house, dark woodland, empty heathland or a remote medieval church, there, surely, the ghost of the genial old Cambridge don still wanders.
In Aldeburgh, Christopher stayed at the White Lion Hotel, pictured, where rooms cost from £78 pp