- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
January 27, 2012 6:35 pm
People can get pretty territorial about supernatural black dogs – which is strange, considering that they tend to be creatures that leave nothing but death and depression in their wake. Almost every region in Britain has its own dark hellhound legend that locals swear is “the proper one”.
I’m no different. I’m willing to accept that Cu Sith, the giant wife-abducting canine of the Scottish Highlands, and the fire-breathing Yeth hound that haunts Dartmoor both have their pluses, but neither is quite as vivid to me as Black Shuck, the murderous East Anglian beast.
Black Shuck – also known as “Old Skeff”, “Shucky Dog” or, presumably to the very myopic, “Old Scarf” – has been claimed all over Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex, but it’s largely accepted that his true home is Blythburgh, a few miles inland from Southwold and Walberswick on the Suffolk coast. It is at Blythburgh that he is said to have terrorised the congregation at The Church Of The Most Holy Trinity during an electrical storm in 1577, slaughtering two parishioners. Just to get in the mood, in the car on the way to the church where this seasonally spooky winter walk starts, I listen to “Black Shuck”, a tribute to the hound by the Lowestoftian soft rock group The Darkness. For added atmosphere I’ve brought with me Henry, a friend’s black dog that I often walk, but he is a happy simpleton of a cocker spaniel, with no history of terror, other than a propensity to intimidate the odd chicken.
The walk starts by leaving the church car park and turning left on to a back lane and taking the marshy path alongside rushes and reeds near the south side of the river Blyth, before crossing an old railway embankment. We take Wenhaston Lane and turn right towards Laurel Farm to turn away from the river in the direction of the higgledy-piggledy, pink- and yellow-shaded village of Wenhaston. We pass a couple of farmers who look on silently in a very rural Suffolk way as Henry dives into their trailer of scrap metal.
I’ve been walking Henry for three years now, but any person who sees us together can tell that I’m not a real dog owner. I lack the authority, and, were I to meet Black Shuck, it’s unlikely I’d have the necessary influence to stare him down and send him on his way. Nonetheless, Henry and I get by, more as two spiritually aligned idiots than as master and pet. Eighteen months ago, when we first did this walk, we had to take a three-mile detour at dusk, due to a small wrong turn and flooding. I completed the last stretch shoeless, due to sustaining a blister roughly twice the size of the foot hosting it.
On that occasion, every marshy path seemed to be blocked. The spire of Blythburgh church taunted us in the distance as night fell over the foreboding edifice of the old Blything Union Workhouse, which overlooks the Blyth between Blythburgh and Blyford. It was summer, though, and to get the eeriness of this landscape at its purest, you have to be here in the bleaker months.
Having strolled through the quiet of the back lanes surrounding Wenhaston and Mells, smelling bonfires and hearing the buzz of rural industry, we turn for home, following a long stretch back along the river, past water meadows and inquisitive cows. After a break at The Queen’s Head in Blyford, I realise that I have cut it fine again, with dusk fast approaching as we navigate the river path back to Blythburgh.
This is not a rugged landscape of vast hiding places, but an ostensibly open one with subtle pockets of dread, and it’s perhaps that which makes it so ripe for insinuating, slow-burn ghost stories. As I walk through the reeds in the cold grey light, I can’t help picturing myself as Michael Hordern playing the stuffy academic in the 1968 BBC adaptation of M.R. James’ classic East Anglian ghost tale Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You M’lad. I put myself in the place of a 16th-century villager trudging home from a hard day’s labour, trying to banish superstitious thoughts of Black Shuck lurking in the reeds. In an age before high-rise buildings, Blythburgh Church – “The Cathedral Of The Marshes” – must have seemed impossibly imposing and intimidating as it rose into view: a symbol of both comfort and terror.
On the final stretch of the walk, for 20 minutes or so, the church seems to hover above you. As the river twists and the reeds get higher, I spook myself with the knowledge that it is just these lonely lanes and marshy riverbanks that are reputed to be Black Shuck’s favourite hiding places. Shuck was reported in this exact spot by a sewage worker in 1973. Fifteen years earlier, A.A. MacGregor, author of The Ghost Book, encountered an old man who told him he’d seen Black Shuck “goo in the church an’ cock his leg”.
It’s with this last detail in mind that, before visiting the church, I put Henry in the car, for fear of despoiling a building that dates, in some form or other, back at least as far as AD 630. Whether or not those scratches on the door really are “the devil’s pawprints” or just the weathermarks of ageing wood, this is a truly portentous building, full of gargoyles and, in today’s deserted state, the kind of place that makes you want to wheel round to see who or what is behind you.
I mount a narrow, claustrophobic spiral staircase to a minuscule, sombre chamber, known as The Priest’s Room. As I reach the top, I hear the church door creak, and I bolt back down the stairs. I’m being ridiculous, I know, and as I leave I exchange a mumbled hello with a genial-looking man in his forties carrying a camerabag.
Maybe this is how legends expand – for now I’m just a bloke in a duffle coat leaving the church on a still winter night, looking a little spooked. But how long before, with enough retelling, I’m recast as a mysterious hooded visitor sent fleeing from The Priest’s Room, his face white with shock, pursued by a terrifying, red-eyed, black-shape?
Tom Cox is the author of ‘Talk To The Tail’ (Simon & Schuster, £6.99)
A walk with the FT No. 1 The ‘Black Shuck’ route
Start at Blythburgh Church.
Follow a back lane south-west away from the church, passing a “Slow: Cats Crossing” sign; turn right towards the river.
Pass an old railway embankment and turn right along a lane.
At Wenhaston, turn right, passing the church on the left. At a garage on the left, look out a few yards later for a footpath cutting through a corridor of trees on the right.
Cross a planked bridge over a stream, then, at a golf course boundary, turn right and walk parallel with the fairway.
Walk down the hill through Mells, cross a bridge over the river, and turn right to walk through water meadows. After a cow pasture, turn left up the hill for the pub.
Walk back down the hill and rejoin the footpath by the river. When the workhouse comes into view on your left, look out for a bridge to take you across the river to the path back to Blythburgh church.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.