Paranormal Postcards – Woodford Church

The history of our home county of Northamptonshire is thickly woven with stories of ghosts, myths and legends, but there is one in particular that I have been meaning to delve into for some time. It’s a tale of ghostly monks, knights of the crusades, and the discovery of a grisly artefact, but on top of all that there is a rather convincing photograph of an apparition, taken in the summer of 1964 in the historic Church of Woodford.

The photograph made the news and became quite the sensation at the time, and even today it is yet to be debunked or explained, with many people classing it amongst the top potential paranormal captures. When I discovered that the church still displayed a colour print of this fascinating picture I had to go and see for myself, so – on a blisteringly hot June day, lethargic and unable to settle in the sticky heat, and with the cool interior of an ancient stone building sounding quite appealing – we set off for Woodford.

A clipping from a local newspaper featuring the mysterious photograph as displayed in the church today.

The small village is classically pretty, with many old stone buildings still standing that only hint at its ancient past. The local landmarks known as the ‘Three Hills’ are, in fact, Neolithic Barrows and several Roman artefacts have been found in the area. It’s not known exactly when the Church itself was built, but the nave and original chancel were constructed in the 12th century, on the site of an even earlier stone religious building.

Walking around the building to the south entrance, the gravestones frame a stunning vista of the Nene valley. The scene is timeless; endless green fields stretch across the landscape with the River Nene gently weaving through the foreground, and it feels as though this must surely be a view unchanged for centuries.

A view across the Nene Valley from the churchyard

The midday heat however, was unforgiving and the sun was stabbing into the back of my neck like hot knives so I was only too grateful to find the heavy oak door of the south entrance, and slip into the balmy coolness contained within the thick stone walls. My vision flashed and sparked momentarily as the glaring sunlight was shut out behind me, but even in those first moments the atmosphere of the building was apparent. It was as though you could feel the history of the place; it was thick, tangible almost. This wasn’t some faded relic of the past, preserved for antiquities’ sake. It felt like the past still resided here.

The Church is beautiful, and magnificently preserved. There are historical treasures tucked away in every nook and cranny, and you could spend hours exploring. The first thing I had to see though, was a rather grisly artefact –discovered during a renovation in the 19th Century – that gave rise to a legend.

Inside Woodford church looking up towards the altar where the apparition was photographed

As part of restoration work in 1866, an archway in the nave needed to be shored up by a beam, whilst a supporting column was repaired. When workmen removed the beam, they realised that the pressure against the stone had damaged some of the masonry so badly that loose fragments were falling away. This damage however, had revealed a mysterious recess in the stone, with a dark object inside.

Assuming it was merely a bird’s nest, they pulled it out rather roughly and it fell to the ground, smashing apart with the impact. Looking at the shattered remains they could see that it was not a bird’s nest after all, but a round box made of bamboo, and within the fragments of the box was a bundle of coarse cloth. They hoped maybe they had found hidden treasure and excitedly pulled the bundle open, their minds racing with thoughts of gold and silver, but when they saw what was inside they drew back in dismay–for it was not treasure–but a mummified human heart.

There is an account from Reverend C. Smyth of the heart’s discovery in 1866 and he writes that when he arrived at the scene, some parts of the heart and box had disintegrated into dust, but the valves of the heart were preserved in perfect condition – albeit blackened – either from age or the process of embalming.

He placed the remains of the box, cloth and heart into a glass case –with the heart at the front so it could still be seen – and hermetically sealed it to stop further decay. The box was finally inserted back into the pillar where it was found, and there it remains to this day, once more in its final resting place.

The small, square opening at the top of this pillar houses the glass box containing the human heart

The delicate remains of the mummified heart

The Victorian workmen may have been disappointed with what they found, but I scrambled excitedly to find this intriguing artefact as though it were indeed treasure, and sure enough, there it was; securely tucked into a custom-made niche high up in a stone column.

I’m not sure what I was expecting it to look like, but it was less gory than the images which lurked in my imagination. It was pale and delicate, almost like an intricate coral or faded dried flowers, but the good Reverend C. Smyth was right about one thing. The well-preserved valves did make it recognisable as a human heart.

Of course, at the time of its discovery speculation was rife as to who the heart might belong to, but it was widely believed that it may have been the earthly remains of a knight who died in the crusades, his preserved heart having been conveyed home by his comrades.

A popular theory was that it belonged to Walter Trayli, a Lord of the Manor of Woodford, who died in the year 1290. Between the Chancel and the North aisle of the church are two life-sized wooden effigies, one of Walter Trayli, the other of his wife Eleanor. He is depicted wearing a surcoat over armour, with a head covering of sorts, and a sword slung from a waist belt. His wife’s image shows her wearing a long robe and wimple.

With these memorials having survived since medieval times, it’s easy to see why it was thought the heart may be his. However, a burial register kept by Peterborough Abbey recording the number of knights buried in the Abbey’s parish churches would indicate otherwise.

A mortuary entry from 1280 translated from Medieval Latin, records that the body of Robert de Kirkton was buried in Norfolk where he died, but that his heart was embalmed, and interred at Woodford church. Robert de Kirkton died in 1280, which would make the heart over 700 years old. It seemed unfathomable to me that this fragile object was still right here in front of my very eyes, close enough to touch. It felt powerful somehow – for it to remain here where it was always intended to rest – and my own heart was glad that it wasn’t trapped in a dusty museum case somewhere far from home.

The effigies of Sir Walter and Eleanor Trayli

You might expect then, with the tales and legends of armoured crusaders from the Holy Wars, that the reports of ghosts and hauntings would feature phantom knights; but witnesses have instead reported seeing a dark figure in the robes of a monk. One lady tells of seeing the robed apparition approach the altar and kneel in prayer, whereas another was terrified to encounter the phantom as it moved up the aisle towards her, only to abruptly vanish at the very spot where the mummified heart had been found.

Moving further up the aisle towards the altar, I started to feel that distinctive buzz in the air; a slight electricity that is often my own peculiar alarm bell for the paranormal. I wondered at myself a little: was this simply a frisson of excitement based on prepossession? After all, I knew that I was making my way up to the location at the centre of the hauntings.

Before I made it to the altar though, I was stopped in my tracks as I came across two doorways, one in each of the north and south walls, almost directly opposite one another. The south door was obviously being repurposed as a cubby hole to store folding chairs. It had a curtain drawn across it, and I could see chinks of daylight around the edges. The North door appeared to lead into the vestry.

There was a definitive change in the atmosphere here, it almost drew a straight line from one door to the other, as though this were such a regular perambulation of someone, that this well-trodden path had been imbued with a peculiar energy. I didn’t trust myself though, so I sent Fitz to walk up to the altar and waited eagerly to see if he remarked on it.

He came up abruptly at the same spot, echoing my exact thoughts; “It’s as if there’s something between these two doors”.

Before our visit, whilst I was happily diving into my treasured reference books, busily becoming captivated by the history and hauntings of the place and dreamily planning a visit for myself in the classically slow nature of a true bookworm, I received a very excited phone call from my brother who had beaten me to the punch. On his countryside ramblings along the Nene Valley way, he had crossed the path of the church almost by accident and, having heard me wax lyrical about the tale, couldn’t resist having a look for himself. Inside he had met one of the custodians, who obliged him with the information that the most recent ghostly sightings are somewhat different to the well-known ghostly monk.

A church key holder apparently had a disquieting experience when locking up one evening. Coming out of the north door, and convinced that the church was empty, she had been surprised to notice somebody slip out behind her. She spoke out to the person, apologising for not realising they were still in there but, receiving no response, looked around to find that she was completely alone. Her mysterious companion had disappeared without a trace.

The North door of the church

Another common sighting in recent times has the altar once more as its focal point, but involves not one apparition, but a pair of figures, kneeling in prayer. Kneeling figures seem to be a common theme here, and one that includes our famous photograph.

As promised I found a framed colour print of the photograph hanging at the back of the church, with a newspaper clipping mounted underneath, dating from 1966. The clipping tells the story of two teenagers; David, 18 and Gordon, 16 who had been spending their summer holidays touring local villages on their bicycles and taking photographs as souvenirs of their visits. It wasn’t until the following Christmas however, when Gordon was showing some slides to his family, that they noticed a shadowy figure at the altar; a ghostly extra, who should not have been there.

The church displays a colour copy of the famous photograph

It’s quite an extraordinary photograph. Taken on a tripod using a 2 second exposure it shows the inside of the church, looking down the aisle towards the altar. The image of the church itself is clear: stable and in focus, but at the altar itself there is a slightly misty, semi-translucent figure, kneeling as if in prayer. Arms and legs are visible, but dark and slightly wispy; the head is bowed but gives the suggestion of a hood or head covering. The body is clearer, light coloured and appears to be wearing a tabard of sorts, belted at the waist. There is visible detail in the body of the figure. You can see folds in the garment, ruching around the belted waist and yet, it is not quite solid somehow.

The young photographers were shocked by this discovery, and adamant that there was no one in the frame when the photograph was taken. They were certain that no person could have escaped their attention during the shot and, having seen the area for myself, I have to agree with them. The altar is enclosed on both sides, and to access it, you must walk up the aisle through a gate and, once there, there is really nowhere to hide. According to the photographer, having taken his shot, he proceeded to walk up to the altar, turn the camera around and photograph a view of the other end of the church. I have to imagine that in doing so, he would quickly have come across any person in the vicinity.

In the 1980’s the photograph was analysed by Agfa – the makers of the film that was used – and computer analysts at a home office laboratory. Agfa confirmed that there was no fault in the film or developing process, and no evidence of a double exposure. All the analysts could really confirm, was that the photograph wasn’t tampered with after the fact, and what appeared in the image had been there at the time of its taking.

The church altar, this photo clearly shows that there are no exits and nowhere to hide

As we were fortunate enough to have actual exposure the photographer used for the shot, we were able to set up a digital SLR camera on a tripod, from what we estimated to be the same position looking down the aisle of the church towards the altar. We were also lucky enough to still have the church entirely to ourselves so we spent some time experimenting with different shots to see if we could recreate an approximation of the original photograph.

Most of the theories ‘debunking’ this photograph are along the lines of the photographer having missed an actual person walking in and out of the shot during the fairly long exposure who he simply didn’t notice, so this is the basis we worked from. Fitz took the shot whilst I acted as ‘the ghost’, and I tried entering and exiting the shots at different speeds, as well as starting from different positions.

On the shots in which I entered and exited during the 2 second exposure, I am basically invisible in the shot, producing a slight blur, but nothing like the significant figure captured in the original, so to my mind this rather blows out of the water the idea that a person could have entered the frame, and exited again, before Gordon Carroll noticed, and even if that were the case, the resultant photograph would have looked quite different, with a blurry streak crossing from one side of the frame to the other.

Here you can only just see my blurry figure crossing from one side of the altar to the other, with the image of my legs repeating several times as I moved during the 2 second exposure.

I was able to produce a slightly more accurate result by starting in a kneeling position at the altar and then moving out of frame during the exposure, although you can quite obviously see the blur of my movement as I stand up and move away, something which really isn’t evident in the original. The other problem with this setup is that, had this been the case, the person would have been in full view during the framing of the shot, only leaving the frame once the shutter had been released and I think this would be quite hard for the photographer to miss.

Another shot, starting in a kneeling position at the altar.

The last variation was to start at the altar and move away much more slowly, decreasing the motion blur we were getting in the other shots. This, however, simply resulted in very solid looking figure, with none of the transparent, ethereal quality of the original and of course, this would mean the figure would have to be clearly visible to the photographer for the entire duration when Gordon Carroll categorically stated that he saw no-one. In short, we were unable to reproduce the results satisfactorily and couldn’t come up with a reasonable explanation for what had happened that summer’s day in 1964.

In this version we tried to reduce the motion blur by a much slower exit, but this merely gave us a very solid and normal-looking figure.

Seeing the colour print hanging in the church just deepened the fascination for me; up to this point I’d only seen grainy, black and white facsimiles and the real thing was even more breath-taking. At the time, some parishioner’s suspected that the apparition may be that of The Reverend Basil Eversley Owen, a previous Rector of Woodford who died in 1963 and was affectionately remembered to have often been seen praying at the very spot where the figure appeared. Gazing transfixed at the mysterious picture however, everything about it spoke to me of a knight. I could see the dark arms, legs and head as wearing a suit of mail, with the lighter coloured body being a surcoat, or tabard worn over the armour. You could even see the belt at the waist, which could easily have suspended a sword. My mind wandered back to the wooden effigy of Walter Trayli, and the outfit he was depicted wearing in the carving was just too reminiscent of the apparition to ignore.

Side by side comparison of our experiments versus the original

Later, chatting between ourselves about the question of who might possibly have made the ghostly cameo in that photograph, I spoke aloud the names of Walter Trayli and Robert de Kirkton. No sooner had the names left my lips than we heard the sound of quiet footsteps in the deserted church, which was completely empty except for ourselves. Fitz poked me in the back to silently alert me which, of course, made me jump a mile and nearly drop the camera! I only wish I hadn’t spoken both names at once, as now we may never know which name it was that elicited a response. We did of course try again, trying each name in turn for a further response, but unfortunately the moment had passed. For now at least, the phantom knight of Woodford Church remains a mystery.

One of the church windows with beautiful stained glass

Woodford Parish Council – History

Pictures of England – Woodford Church

British History Online – Woodford

 

St. Mary the Virgin Woodford – by William and Michael Warren

Haunted Northamptonshire – Simon J. Sherwood – Black Shuck Press 2013