LOOKING BACK: By Long Sutton and District Civic Society
The River Nene between Wisbech and the Wash is today a very different place to the wide muddy wetland that existed prior to the 1830s when the current channel was dug.
It was then a place of constant danger from fast moving tides, silt and quicksand ready to entrap unwary travellers.
King John was allegedly a victim of this dangerous place along with another local legend the ‘Phantom Horseman’, whose spectre occasionally appears on the river bank at what is now Sutton Bridge on a grey charger and rides out over the old shore line.
The story of the Phantom Horseman appears in the original History of Long Sutton by Frank and Bruce Robinson and was compiled from a story ‘InThe Fen Country’, by Christopher Marlowe, 1925.
“One cold night in the 18th century, when the tide was still retreating and guiding lamps assured travellers that passage was safe, there came driving into Long Sutton a boy and his comely sweetheart, whom he proposed to marry as soon as they could escape from her angry and pursuing uncle, Sir Peregrin.
He wanted the girl to marry a rich foreigner, who was also in pursuit. Willing hands in the town, hearing of the couple’s plight, quickly harnessed fresh horses to their chaise while the landlord of the Crown inn gave them food and drink.
The moment the horses were changed they were on their way again, with a guide riding ahead to show them the way. They decided to cross the Wash estuary in the dark, believing that if they could reach the far bank they would be safe, for the tide would turn again before their pursuers could reach the shoreline.
Quickly, an excited crowd gathered, watching the distant bobbing lanterns, waiting for a signal from the far shore that the travellers were safe, listening to the unmistakable sound of a turning tide and water creeping over the sands.
Suddenly, there was a commotion behind them, and into the circle of lanterns swept a solitary horseman, his mount dripping with lather and a sword in his hand.
“Hast thou seen the chaise, friends?” he asked. “A youth and a maiden who wish to escape from lawful guardianship?”
The crowd pointed to the tiny retreating light, whereupon the rider said: “Then by Old Nick himself I’ll catch them e’er they land on the Norfolk side, may he take me for his own if I do not.”
And slapping his spurs into his mount, he disappeared into the darkness.
Warning shouts pursued him, for the rush of the waters (of the incoming tide) could now be clearly heard. Then, as the onlookers peered into the darkness, a pinhead of light from the far bank dipped and circled three times. The chaise was safe, even as the tide poured in. Nothing was ever heard again of the Horseman.