The Old Hall at North Benfleet had been derelict for several years when my mother used to play in there as a child with her sister Doris in the 1920s. She used to tell me stories of finding secret rooms behind the large fireplaces, reached by false walls in the cupboards on either side of the fireplace. And also of a tunnel that ran from Dolce Dolman cottage to the Old Hall, and another one that ran to Sadlers Hall, Bowers Gifford.
After my mother died a few years ago, I was going through some old school photos of my mothers class at North Benfleet school, and I wondered who the other children were in the photo.
My mother always used to tell me stories of all the things she used to get up to with her friend `Dodger` Jennings, she was nicknamed `Dodger`as she was always dodging classes she did not like. I knew this girl was in my mother’s class, and in this photo, as my mother had pointed her out to me, but over the years I had forgotten. I knew there was only one person who was still living in that photo that could tell me the names of the children in that class. She was the youngest in the class, her name was Elsie Norman, who now was over ninety.
I paid a visit to the late Miss Norman in Pound Lane in May 2002, and she very kindly informed me of all the names in the photo. The conversation turned to the secret tunnel at North Benfleet Hall, and Miss Norman surprised me by saying she had been making a study of this tunnel for many years. She showed me photos taken from the air of the area, and you could clearly see the pale line of the tunnel from North Benfleet Hall towards the roundabout at Sadlers Hall Farm, Bowers Gifford, (sadly this photo was thrown away after Miss Norman died). When the Sadlers Hall Farm roundabout was being built for the new A130, the contractors did break into a tunnel, but thought it was an old drain and filled it in.
The Missing Head
In the 1960s four men in a Austin Mini (which was a very small car) were travelling after dark from Southend to London on the A127, which is a dual carriageway trunk road. As they approached the Pound Lane / Cranfield Park Road intersection (now no longer there) a long articulated lorry had pulled across the up lane, from Pound Lane, and was waiting for a space in the traffic on the down lane. The lorry’s trailer had lights on the rear but none on the sides, this trailer completely blocked the up lane of the A127. The driver of the Mini who was travelling at some speed did not see the trailer blocking his path until it was too late to stop. The car went under the trailer slicing off its roof and decapitating the heads of the men. Although four decapitated bodies were in the car only three heads were ever found!
Who or what, was ringing the church bells?
On the 6th May 1958 just before dusk, I was sitting in the garden, when I heard the bells start ringing from All Saints Church in North Benfleet. As I knew one of the bells was cracked, and was not used and the rope had been removed, I knew something was wrong.
Grabbing my mothers bicycle I pedalled frantically up to the church. The bells were still ringing as I reached the church gate. As I ran up the church path they stopped, I tried the only door but it was locked. It was all very silent and eerie. I banged on the door and called out, but there was no answer. I looked through the key hole but could see nothing as it was dark inside. I walked round the outside of the church to see if anyone had broken in through the windows, but they were all ok. There was only one key for the door, and this key was held by the church warden who was a farmer in Burnt Mills Road. I quickly made my way to this farm and told him what had happened. He said no one had borrowed the key that night, and it was still hanging on the hook by his door.
We got into his car and drove up to the church, he unlocked the door and went in, but the church was empty, there was no one to be seen. The bell rope was tied up in its proper place, and everything was normal. So who, or what, had been ringing those bells?
A Perfume Remembered.
When my sister Hazel was born in the summer of 1953, a young 16 year old girl called Ann use to come and visit my mother. Her parents had just brought Clifton Stores. Ann helped my mother to look after Hazel, washing her, changing nappies, taking her out in the pram, etc, etc. When I was not at school I used to go with Ann on these walks, sometimes we would go down to Bowers marshes, or along a bridleway called Green Lanes at North Benfleet, or just to the top of Pound Lane and back. As it was summer time Ann always used a suntan cream called `Cooltan` which had a very unusual perfume to it. We became friends and would often go down to Howard’s Park in Pitsea and play on the swings and the seesaw or the roundabout. In 1955 Ann’s parents sold the shop and moved to Shenfield near Brentwood, and I lost touch with her.
In 1989 I heard that an old workmate of mine had died and was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary The Virgin at Shenfield. On a very hot and sunny day in August of that year I visited this church to pay my respect to my old friend. I did not know where his grave was and I began searching, finally finding it on the South side of the churchyard. After putting some flowers on his grave I made my way back, I noticed there was a faint perfume in the air. After looking inside the church and signing the visitors book I left. I got back to my car when it suddenly dawned on me where I had smelt that perfume before, it was `Cooltan` the suncream my childhood friend Ann had used. I returned to the churchyard to see if anyone was there, but as before the church and churchyard was empty, but I could still smell the `Cooltan`. I started to look at the gravestones where I was standing, what I saw made the hairs stand up on my neck. There in front of me was Ann’s grave, she had died in 1981 aged 44. She did not want me to leave that churchyard without knowing she had died. I returned later with some flowers.