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  Columnist: Matt Forde

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The zombie of Gladwish Wood

Posted on Tuesday, 6 July, 2010 | 9 comments
Columnist: Matt Forde

Nestling amid the beautiful countryside of the Sussex Weald there is a little village called Burwash, where listed buildings flank the neat, meandering high street and rows of deciduous trees lead the visitor east to the 11th century church of St Bartholomew. A quaint and pleasant slice of English village life, indeed.

But underneath the picturesque, historic exterior lurks a dark legend concerning the woods that lie a little to the south. It is a legend that tells of the tragic demise of a man who would be fated to return from death to split the stillness of the East Sussex countryside with the horrific wailing of the tormented. The ghastly phantom that supposedly stalks through the aged trees of Gladwish Wood is believed to be David Leaney (perhaps Leary), a 19 year-old farm labourer who, despite insisting that he was innocent of the crime of murder, was hanged in 1825. Witnesses maintain that the unfortunate Leaney is ever restless, perhaps striving futilely to put right an ancient wrong.

Burwash was long a haven for smugglers, with many of the local populace sympathising with the roguish traffickers (to the extent of allowing skull and crossbones to be carved, unabashedly into their gravestones) and much continental contraband being brought up from the south coast of England to eventually end up in London, and it was probably participation in this nefarious activity that saw both Leaney and Benjamin Russel (with whom Leaney lodged in Burwash) venturing into the nearby Gladwish Wood in the dead of night. Some sources insist the night’s ambition was poaching, or the stealing of corn, but, whatever the reason, illegality was certainly the intent and fate would see their scheme unravel grimly before its conclusion.

Sometime during the night, while endeavouring to return to their home, Russel suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack in the woods, an ailment no doubt exacerbated by the weight of their contraband or the thought of reprisals if caught red-handed. Leaney, fearing prosecution for the night’s deeds left Russel where he had expired and fled to his lodgings, with the intention of returning the next day and orchestrating a surprised discovery of Russel. Alas, Leaney’s plan would not play out as he intended.

Village gossip quickly suggested that Leaney and Russel’s widow had been engaged in a romantic affair and that together, they had hatched a murderous plot to bump off Benjamin with a dose of arsenic and then claim to find him in Gladwish Wood. The hearsay was strong enough to prompt the local doctor, an old and blundering practitioner, to pronounce the cause of death as arsenic poisoning. Variation in the story also suggests that the doctor in question did not even examine the body.

Despite their desperate protestations of innocence, Mrs. Russel was soon imprisoned and the ill-fated Leaney was sentenced to hang. As the executioner’s noose slipped around his neck, he swore to the chaplain that he would return from whatever realm death held for him and haunt those who had persecuted, nay harassed, him to his sad demise: “I beg of you believe me when I say I’m not guilty, and to prove it I shall return to haunt those people who have hounded me to my death.” but this final claim of innocence went unheeded and Leaney was hanged. Soon after the execution, it was discovered that Russel had indeed died of a heart attack and that there was no trace of arsenic in his corpse. Mrs. Russel was released but, of course, it was too late for Leaney.

It is said that Leaney’s spirit stumbles through Gladwish Wood ‘in the form of a decomposing, ragged ghost. Clutching his throat [and] creating terror as he blunders through the woods’, fulfilling his final, dark promise.

In more recent times, Burwash gained fame as the beloved home of the late author Rudyard Kipling, who lived at Bateman’s (a splendid Jacobean house that lies to the south of the village) from 1902 until his death thirty years later. Kipling took a great interest in the surrounding area and even penned ‘A Smuggler’s Song’ in recognition of the area’s association with goods trafficking:

“Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark,
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk,
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, whilst the Gentlemen go by.”

But it was not only the nocturnal deeds of the smugglers that interested him, indeed, he became increasingly fascinated by the supernatural as he approached his autumnal years. His biographer, Robert Thurston Hopkins, wrote that Kipling felt that ‘the dowland surrounding his home was full of pure magic and that the small area of woodland known as Gladwish Wood was particularly evil’. One night, a ghost hunt including Kipling and Hopkins was organised to explore the wood. One of the participants endeavoured to venture away from the rest of the party, and was suddenly confronted by a repugnant, deathly apparition of a man, his flesh putrefied, hands clutching his throat. Undoubtedly poor Leaney.

It is very difficult to uncover eyewitness reports of the apparition itself. The excellent Anthony D. Hippisley Coxe writes in his 1973 book Haunted Britain: “The description of the ghost which [Robert Thurston Hopkins’] friend met in Gladwish Wood, the ragged thing that plucked at its neck, coughed and choked and moaned, is one of the most frightening passages I’ve ever read.”

Kipling described the area as being “full of a sense of ancient ferocity and evil. I have sometimes…felt a secretive and menacing feeling all around me, holding me expectant and always on guard. Yes, and in this evil wood everything is evil…”

It is not known when the last sighting of ragged Leaney’s animated corpse was last seen. Perhaps his soul has finally found peace; perhaps it is silently gathering energy, waiting to ambush the next foolhardy visitor with its terrible appearance.

Kipling himself is said to haunt Bateman’s, perhaps lingering after death because of the tragic circumstances of his own son’s demise during the battle of Loos in the great war of 1914-1918. After the battle he was reported as missing, believed dead, aged only eighteen. Kipling never fully recovered from the death of his only son and suffered from depression for many years after.

Originally published in Ghost Voices Magazine

Article Copyright© Matt Forde - reproduced with permission.

Matt has also written two e-books:

Eerie Britain and Eerie Britain 2

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