Winter. The snow is falling and the evenings are long, dark and cold. What better time of year to sit by the fire reading the ghost stories of M R James?
I love James’s stories. I’m drawn in by the beauty of his locations, his obsession with ancient treasures and old books discovered in dusty libraries, and I’m fascinated by the academic world his characters inhabit, and the simple, quiet life of study his protagonists lead. Quiet, that is, until they poke their noses just a little too far into the past…
Having grown up in Suffolk, James makes good use of the wild coastline, the many brick and flint churches, and the isolated manor houses which dot the landscape. And just imagine my delight when I discovered that one of the settings used in Count Magnus wasn’t too far from us.
Belchamp St Paul is just over the border in Essex and I couldn’t help wondering why M R James had chosen this little village for the climax of his story.
So, off we went with a 1906 edition of Ghost Stories on an Antiquary to see what we could find.
A terrific gale greeted us as we left the car and walked to the church, and we feared it might be a supernatural force warning us to stay away!
The church of St Andrew has many fine features including some beautiful old pew ends. I love this one of the holy man with his book, although I doubt it’s an M R James title he’s reading!
The afternoon light was quite magical as we walked around the churchyard and we all did a double-take when we spotted the name ‘James’ on a grave, feeling that the great man was very much with us!
When I spotted what might once have been the parsonage, I was reminded of the feeling of helplessness experienced by Mr Wraxall in Count Magnus when he says, “The parson is away.” Wraxall is truly alone. There is nobody he can turn to for help.The village itself centres around a pleasant green. There’s a pub and many pretty thatched cottages. There’s even a waterpump.But we didn’t find the crossroads where Wraxall sees his two eerie pursuers. Perhaps that’s just as well.As the sun began to set, we thought we’d better count our blessings and head home to safety. But I still have many questions as to why James chose this village for his story. Perhaps his terrified hero chose the middle-of-nowhere place at random, hoping that his pursuers would be unable to find him. Of course, we know how that turned out! Whatever James’s reasons, it was enormous fun to step into the world of his story for a brief time.