Cold Christmas and other Hertfordshire church legends
PUBLISHED: 09:23 04 December 2018 | UPDATED: 15:54 02 November 2020
Hertfordshire’s churches are storehouses of history, yet they also attract legends. Mia Jankowicz follows the mysterious trail
Alongside their central role in worship, churches are deep repositories of folk myths and obscure histories. And for their communities, these can be a blessing or a curse.
If the stories are to be believed, a deconsecrated church near Cold Christmas Lane in Thundridge is one of the most haunted places in Britain. Search for the place online and lurid tales of perished children are repeated across websites.
The story goes like this: somewhere near Cold Christmas Lane is the site of a mass burial of children, who froze to death in winter –hence the name of the lane. Nearby is the ruined church of St Mary and All Hallows (Saints), said to echo with the moans of the children.
Over the years the story has attracted a steady trail of occult thrill-seekers to the East Herts village and the evocative tower of its old church – all that remains after it was dismantled in the early Victorian period.
The problem? The story of the frozen children is almost certainly not true. According to research by parish councillor Clive Brigden, the historical record shows absolutely nothing to confirm the tale of frozen children. And for parishioners for every rowdy party of ghost hunters that comes by there’s fresh litter and graffiti to clear up. Worst of all, says Clive, is at Halloween, when police have to extend their patrols to deal with ghost hunters.
It turns out that the only disturbances at Cold Christmas Lane are of the living, and this has galvanised the community.Over the past decade, activists have led a project to reshape the old church site. With help from local authorities and volunteers clearing the site, the spooky nettle-strewn ruin is turning into a beauty spot loved by walkers, and reports of trouble are becoming less frequent.
‘It’s a very pleasant little area, and a great place for a picnic,’ says Clive. ‘I would spend many many hours working around the church in the evenings. All this stuff that there’s mists and ghosts and stuff, it’s just such rubbish.’
Not all church myths are such a burden however. To Rev James Sawyer, the legend of Brent Pelham’s 11th century knight Piers Shonks is a story he thinks can bring the community together and attract tourism.
Shonks’ tomb is lodged in a wall of St Mary’s church and the inscription above it tells how Shonke one serpent kills t’other defies. And in this wall as in a fortress lies.
According to lore, the ‘one serpent’ was a dragon that hailed from the nearby village of Barkway, and terrorised the people of Brent Pelham. Nominated to handle the problem, the lord of the manor of Pelham (and, as the story goes, anything up to 23-feet tall) set out with his hunting dogs to slay the beast at its lair under a yew tree. The battle was long and bloody but finally the serpent lay at the knight’s feet.
However, in so doing he angered a second serpent, the Devil himself, who vowed, in payment for the death of his creature, that he’d come for Shonks’ soul, whether he was buried inside or outside the church.
Shonks was as smart as he was brave. On his deathbed he drew his bow and shot, pronouncing that he would be buried where the arrow landed. The arrow went through the south window of St Mary’s and struck the north wall. Buried neither inside nor outside the church, but in an alcove, his soul forever escapes Satan’s clutches. The coffin’s elaborately carved black marble slab depicts a dragon breathing fire at Shonks, but the flames are deflected by a cross. He is being raised to heaven by an angel.
‘It’s a lovely story because for me it opens up a mystery,’ James explains, ‘to think about people who’ve been part of our community for the past thousand years.’
The reverend has only recently been appointed to the benefice, and with the job comes the thorny problem of how to meet exorbitant running costs in the parish. He’s determined to keep all five churches in his care open outside of services.
‘It’s important to me that the churches should be open for people to go in and have a quiet time, and think about history, and get a sense of what it’s all about.’
He described the beauty of his patch of Hertfordshire, tucked away from major routes and untrodden by the tourist trail. With the popularity of the epic dragon-filled TV series Game of Thrones, Hertfordshire’s St George has definite appeal. Shonks may yet be called upon again to come to the aid of a Hertfordshire village.
More strange goings on...
A stone’s throw over Herts’ northern border, at Holy Trinity in Chrishall, the phenomenon of ‘eaves-drip burials’ has been found. During an archaeological dig for the remains of the early Christian church on the site, a cache of infant bodies was found clustered under the eaves of the old building. The folk explanation for this is that the water, passing over a holy building, would bless those who died before baptism.
St Mary’s in Ashwell, built from an unusually soft stone, is a palimpsest of ancient graffiti, including the chilling testimony of villagers during the Black Death. In 1361, one survivor wrote of the plague of 1350 as ‘pitiable, fierce violent’ and how ‘a wretched populace’ now remained. On a lighter note, a later graffiti artist scratched, ‘the Archdeacon is an ass’.
Puddingstone is a concrete-like conglomerate that is almost completely unique to Hertfordshire, and features as a building material in the walls of many of the county’s churches. The rock has been a magnet for folklore, being used to ward off witches, set at borders, and has been called the ‘breeding stone’ because it is said to give birth to new stones.