The Bocking Black Cat
Sarah Hartwell

Sometime in the early 1970s when I lived in Bocking there were strange tales told in school. Some odd events had happened to two boys in the top class a few days before the village's big Bonfire Night in a farm field up near Four Releet and Monken Hadley (a home for the blind). By that time, the stubble in the fields surrounding the village had all been burnt, but children were still playing "dens" in hedgerows and thickets and in a World War II bomb shelter (if the tramp wasn't living in there).

Eleven year old Robin, from Dorewards Avenue not far from St Mary's church and his best friend Graeme, who lived on Ashpole Road at the other end of the village, were playing in their den in one of the scrubby copses off Fenne's Road. Fenne's Road starts in the village near the village hall but soon turned into a country lane winding between copses and farm fields. A few people claimed part of it was haunted when two men quarrelled over a woman 200 years earlier which made it a favourite place for kids to dare each other to stay out after dark. This was a time when children had a lot more freedom and it was a small village where people knew each other.

It was half an hour after school had finished, almost twilight and mist had already settled on the damp charred stubble in the fields. Being cub scouts, the pair made a small fire in the woods and started toasting marshmallows they'd bought from Mitchell's on long twigs. They were laughing and joking about the brave things they'd do if they saw the ghost. While they were eating their marshmallows, they became aware of someone approaching their den. By the firelight, the pair saw a huge black cat about four feet tall with large eyes that reflected the firelight. At first they thought it had escaped from the circus that sometimes pitched on Panfield Lane, but it had icy-white eyes and a strangely human-looking face. Then it said "Good evening" to them.

Scared witless, the lads bolted from their den, up Fenne's Road, past the old people's bungalows and onto Church Street where they were almost hit by a 311 bus pulling out of the bus stop by the village hall. Because Robin's mum was at work, they kept running until they reached Ashpole Road at the top end of the village. Unsurprisingly, Graeme's mum didn't believe a word of their tale and put it down to imagination and firelight shadows. Then she drove Robin home because he was too frightened to walk past Fenne's Road.

By next afternoon the boys had decided they imagined it all and returned to their woodland den, determined to stay there until full dark and not be such scaredy-cats. They lit another little fire and cooked Heinz beans and chipolatas in a small can. Their campfire meal was almost ready when the big black cat with the white eyes slunk out of the scrubby trees towards their fire. It sat down and yawned and then started to speak.

It said it was not a cat but was a guardian and it needed to warn the two boys of danger. A very bad man was hiding in the wood and it wasn't a safe place to play. Then the black cat went back among the trees. Thoroughly spooked, the lads left their meal behind and fled to their homes. Their parents understandably laughed at the tales, but when Robin's mum phoned Graeme's mum it seemed the boys were telling exactly the same story which meant there was a grain of truth in it.

To be on the safe side, they called the local police and said the boys had been scared by a big black dog that was on the loose. They were hesitant to say a big black cat in case it caused a panic and then turned out to be a domestic moggy. When the police investigated they found the boys' meal eaten, though that might have been a fox, but later that night they went door to door telling villagers that an escaped IRA prisoner was believed to have come to the village to hide with sympathisers. The man was said to have a shotgun (being rural, a lot of local people had shotguns) and might try to take hostages. Until he was found, children were not to go out alone, not even to walk to or from school.

All the police publicity spooked the fugitive and he was later caught in another town. Police said there was evidence he'd been camping in the same wood where the boys had their den and if they hadn't been spooked by an "escaped dog" there was a good chance he'd have used them as hostages. As for the black cat, several children claimed to have seen it and even spoken to it, but the following spring intensive farming caused the woods - which were little more than overgrown hedgerows anyway - to be cleared and the black cat vanished.

As to the veracity of this tale, who knows? Small children often tell tall tales, but I can vouch for those hedgerows and the IRA scare.