Happisburgh is a pretty, ancient coastal village, battered by the North Sea at the top of Norfolk, a place where smugglers were known to land their boats and stash their booty. For more than two hundred years, villagers and visitors to the area reported seeing a glowing figure of a man dressed in the clothes of a seaman, walking up Cart Gap towards Well Corner, carrying a bundle.
One night, a group of four farm workers left the pub a little worse for wear. After a long day of back-breaking harvesting in the fields of a local farmer, punished by the high summer sun, they wet their whistles, sang a few sea shanties and were looking forward to their beds. As they rolled up the road, tripping over their feet and shushing each other, the youngest of the group stopped and let out a gasp.
The men clattered to a stop and looked in the direction of their friend’s pointing finger. In the intermittent flash of the lighthouse, they could just make out a shadowy figure surrounded by a silvery halo, making its way up the hill.
‘He ‘nt got no legs,’ said Bill.
‘Nor no head’, said Nobby.
‘Yes he has. I can see it clearly, hanging down his back. It looks like someone made a bad job of hacking it off.’
They hurried as quietly as drunken men can to catch up with the figure and, as they approached Well Corner at the top of Pump Hill, they drew back in horror: the man’s head was attached to his neck by just a thin strip of skin and hung down his back like a hideous Santa Claus’s sack, with his pigtail dragging up a cloud of dust and stones.
The men froze in the indigo light of the late summer night. The warm numbness of the alcohol evaporated and in its place ice cold fear chilled their veins.
Bill nudged Nobby. He had spotted a bundle tucked under the phantom’s arm and they watched in terror as it stopped at Well Corner, dropped the bundle into the communal well, and then threw itself in too.
The men gaped at each other in disbelief.
‘Just wait ‘til we tell the rest of the gang,’ Bill said. ‘That was the ghost of a smuggler, and where there’s a smuggler, there has to be treasure.’
‘We could be set up for the rest of our lives. No more grafting for a pittance. No more nagging from the wife,’ said Nobby.
But the next morning, in the everyday normality of a dusty field and the hot sun, nobody believed them.
‘Go on,’ said one of their workmates, struggling to stifle a guffaw, ‘you’d had a skinful. You don’t expect us to get involved in your daft escapades.’
Nobody wanted to help them recover the smuggler’s treasure from the well – until word got around the village and reached the ears of Harmer the butcher’s lad. As fearless as he was thick, he was up for anything and, because he was slight of build, he was perfect for the job.
Nobby and Bill managed to smuggle from under their wives’ noses a couple of clothes props and some lengths of washing line, which they had to knot together as the well was at least forty foot deep. They tied the rope around Harmer’s skinny waist, handed him one of the props and lowered him into the well.
‘It’s all right, boys!’ he called up to them. ‘I’ve found footholds, but keep hold of that rope. It’s dark down here and I need to keep my hands free.’
Fist over fist they lowered him until there was about a yard of rope left, which Nobby tied around his own thick waist, while Bill and their two friends held onto him. They waited in silence, their eyes focused on the black hole at the top of the well.
They heard a distant splash and a cry from Harmer.
‘I’ve got something! It’s coming up!’
Bill grabbed the prop as it emerged from the well, a sopping wet hemp sack attached to it. He laid it on the grass and, forgetting Nobby and Harmer struggling at the well head, eagerly opened the sack.
Just as Bill held up a pair of seaman’s thigh boots – with the legs still inside – Harmer climbed over the wall of the well. He took one look at the legs and fainted. Nobby slapped the boy’s face until he came round.
‘I’m not going back down there again,’ Harmer said, ‘not even for treasure.’
Seeing as the boy had descended the well so effortlessly, a chap by the name of Farrow said he’d recover the booty, as long as he could have a drop of Dutch courage. Harmer was sent off to the pub and returned shortly with three quarters of a bottle of rum.
Sufficiently courageous, Farrow was lowered down the well for further investigation and soon returned with another bundle, a second hemp sack that revealed the leather-skinned, mummified trunk of the unfortunate smuggler, whose wounds corresponded with those seen on the ghost, with a pistol still gripped in its hand.
With their hunger for treasure whetted, the farm labourers dashed to a smugglers’ hideout at Cart Gap, where the ghost was first seen, and where smugglers were known to drive their carts and load them up with booty. Sure enough, they found signs of a mortal struggle and a pistol matching the one they found on the body – a pair of flintlocks with ivory tipped ramrods, stocks and trigger decorated with silver mounts, worth a pretty penny.
They could only surmise that the smugglers had argued about the division of spoils, or maybe the murdered one had turned informer. Whoever he was, you may one day see his shimmering ghost between Cart Gap and Pump Hill.