‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ is one of M.R. James’ greatest ghost stories. The chilling tale of an isolated, skeptical Cambridge academic, Parkins who, when traveling on the desolate Suffolk coast finds an ancient whistle. Unheeding, or rather ignorant, of the warnings on the whistle, he blows and invokes… something. What exactly is left up to the reader’s imagination, but it obviously chills Parkins to his very core.
If you do not have a print copy of either Ghost Stories of an Antiquary where the story was originally published, or Collected Ghost Stories where James assembled most of his tales later in life, then you can read the story here. Go read, I’ll wait.
Good, you’re back. The story takes place in the fictional seaside town of Burnstow in Suffolk. Burnstow is one of the few places where M.R. James directly names his inspiration. From the preface to Collected Ghost Stories…
if anyone is curious about my local settings, let it be recorded … that in ‘ ”Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You” ’ I had Felixstowe in mind.
When I first read M.R. James, not that long ago (I was late to the party), ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ was the first story I read. Why, well along with it being one of the most well-known in the Jamesian canon, I also had a personal link to the story – I am a Burnstowian.
I grew up in Felixstowe, though, annoyingly, never came across this story in the 18 years I lived there 1. It is so great to read a story, especially a ghost story, where you can vividly picture the scenes. Felixstowe, and the Suffolk coast in general, is a great place for a ghost story 2. It is bleak, but in a beautiful way. The skies are grey, the winds are fierce, the sea is black, and the flat shingle beaches seem to last forever down the shore 3.
In re-reading the story recently, and listening to the wonderful A Podcast to the Curious, ‘a podcast dedicated to the weird fiction of M.R. James’ by Will Ross and Mike Taylor I thought, in the slight vein of Darrell Pardoe’s A Visit to Seaburgh, I would take a look at “Oh, Whistle…”‘s four main locations: the golf course, the beach, the Globe Inn, and the Templar preceptory.
The Golf Course
Out of the four, this is the only one that a) actually exists, and b) is probably basically unchanged from James’ time. Unfortunately, there is not much to say about it. It’s a golf course. I hear it is quite a good one, but I have never played there myself (I have never played on any golf course). The only thing I know about it is that Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, was once captain of the club. Given, however, that it is the fifth oldest golf course in England, it must have been fairly well-known in James’ time and he probably met plenty of people in Felixstowe there only for the golf when he was relaxing with the Cobbolds 4.
It is in the far north of the town, bordered by the River Deben to the north, the sea to the east, farmland to the west, and Old Felixstowe to the south.
The most recent TV adaptation of Oh, Whistle… was not well received. Though quite an original take on the story, a few people had issue with the upending of the story from the barren, grey east coast and to the relative sunlit shores of southwest England. If you haven’t visited the beaches of East Anglia then I implore you to go. Just don’t pack your bathing suit. These are not really beaches to be enjoyed, as much to be endured, with the wind sweeping in unobstructed from the northern edges of Europe and the sea ever-eating away at the sand – the ‘black groynes running down to the water’ there to stop the encroachment.
A groyne rather than a groin. Here are a couple. The position of these on the beach, near Jacob’s ladder (the concrete part) mean that these are exactly the groynes Parkins would have had to climb over, and the man in his dream would have cowered behind, when walking from the golf course back to the Inn (from left to right).
M.R. James is not the only writer to try and describe the Felixstowe coastline. John Betjeman also wrote about the town in his poem Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order. The first stanza reads:
With one consuming roar along the shingle
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.
From the golf course to where Parkins is staying is a fair trek along the beach – at least a mile.
This is probably now much changed from James’/Parkins’ day, mainly due to the coastal erosion defences. The area around Cobbold’s point (the curve in the Google Maps image) is now known as Jacob’s ladder for the extensive concrete latticework that is there to hold the cliffs up. I think you can now make the walk from the golf course to the Spa Pavilion area, where Parkins likely stayed, without stepping foot on the beach, just along the concrete walls.
The Globe Inn
Mike and Will at A Podcast to the Curious cite the Bath Hotel as the real-life version of the Globe Inn. For some reason, I always had the Fludyer Arms as the model, but for the life of me I can’t remember why I came to this conclusion. I think it is because the description of the hotel lends more to the Fludyers than it does the Bath Hotel…
…the central window looked straight out to sea, and those on the left and right commanded prospects along the shore to the north and south respectively. On the south you saw the village of Burnstow. On the north no houses were to be seen, but only the beach and the low cliff backing it. Immediately in front was a strip – not considerable – of rough grass, dotted with old anchors, capstans, and so forth; then a broad path; then the beach. Whatever may have been the original distance between the Globe Inn and the sea, not more than sixty yards now separated them.
I had it in my mind, therefore, that the hotel was at sea level, and not far from the sea. This fitted more with the Fludyers which is directly across from the beach rather than the Bath Hotel which would have been on the cliffs. Additionally, the architecture and orientation seemed to fit the Fludyers. However, I noticed a big blunder in this thinking: ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ was first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. The Fludyers was only built in 1903. Of course, James could have been down to the coast in that year and seen the new hotel and then written the story, but…
The Fludyers was always a dive when I lived in the town and I don’t think I ever stepped foot in there. It has recently undergone a major makeover however, and seems to be a very nice hotel and bar now.
It probably is the Bath Hotel then 5. The Bath Hotel itself was burned down in 1914 by suffragettes, the last major action by the movement before the outbreak of the First World War.
Part of the hotel later became the Bartlet Hospital, where I worked as a porter and domestic during the holidays and weekends. Therefore I probably looked out at exactly the view Parkins described when I was idly gazing out the window instead of doing my work.
The Bartlet has since closed, to much local chagrin. I think the hospital is now being converted into luxury flats.
The Templar Perceptory
I know of no direct link between the Knights Templar and Felixstowe. Pure speculation, but my idea on the Templar preceptory is that it is Walton Castle disguised. The remains of Walton Castle are now under the North Sea a few hundred feet off the coast of Felixstowe. The remains lie directly between the golf course and where Parkins stayed.
Walton Castle was a Saxon Shore fort built by the Romans to keep the evil barbarians at bay. There were a few dotted down the eastern coast of England. In that way they nicely foreshadow the Martello towers built to fend off a French invasion, and the Chain Home radar network to protect against German invasion 6. It was expanded by the Bigod family after the Norman Conquest, until they fell foul of Henry II and he dismantled it to build Orford Castle a few miles up the coast.
However, Hugh Bigod, the 1st Earl of Norfolk, and the one who rebelled against Henry II, is cited as a major benefactor to the Templars. This is something that James would definitely have known given his position as an eminent medievalist. The sea claimed the last remains of the castle in the 18th century so it would have been gone by the time James visited the area, but you can still see the remains at low tide, so in the 19th century James would still be able to see some of the Roman walls.
James could have definitely blended all this knowledge into a ‘Templar Preceptory’. The other option is that James is combining Felixstowe with the lost village of Dunwich further up the coast. The whole village of Dunwich has now been lost to the waves 7, but in the late middle ages it was an exceptionally important place in Suffolk, and there was definitely a Templar church in Dunwich. Another reason James may have chosen to mix the two places up is because there is debate within medievalist circles about which place, Walton Castle or Dunwich, was the location of the see of Dummoc. Dummoc was where Bede said St. Felix of Burgundy established his church and spread Christianity among the pagan Anglo-Saxons in the 7th Century. Generally Dunwich is thought of as the site, but mainly this is due only to the similarity of the names. Walton Castle had a church dedicated to St. Felix, and the church was well-known for reusing old Roman fortifications as there bases when spreading the gospels.
Unfortunately, because the tragedy of this story really takes place in Parkins mind, there aren’t quite the numerous locations as with A Warning to the Curious. But still, I hope that using this you will be able to get a better idea in your mind of where the whistle was found, and where it might still be, lost to the waves along with the castle.
Hopefully, next time I am back in England and Felixstowe, I’ll get to some of these places and take some photos.
- why didn’t we do this story in English! One of the greatest ghost stories in English Literature was set on our doorstep, yet it was never mentioned. ↩
- actually, the stark bleakness of Suffolk, Norfolk and the low fenland is all great for ghosts and ghoulies. ↩
- I don’t think I will get that job at the Suffolk tourist board. ↩
- On A Podcast to the Curious, which any M.R. James aficionado should listen to, Mike and Will tell us that James used to visit the Cobbolds for his stay in Felixstowe (fyi, guys – Cobbold is pronounced as in corn-on-the-cobbold…). The Cobbold family is exceptionally well-known in Suffolk for a) their brewery and b) their patronage of the mighty, mighty ITFC. ↩
- Two other things slightly count against the Bath Hotel. Felixstowe was trying to make a name for itself as a spa resort around this time, so there were a lot of hotels springing up in the area. Additionally, when the suffragettes burned the Bath Hotel down, it was then closed for the winter, something James said the Globe expressly didn’t do! ↩
- Incidentally, radar was developed just across the River Deben from Felixstowe, in Bawdsey ↩
- Dunwich is another gorgeously spooky place. Suffolk legend has it that, if you stand in the right place at the right time, you can still hear the church bells cry out from underneath the waves. Because of this, when I was a kid I always thought that the village was destroyed in one go, Pompeii style, with villagers fleeing from the angry seas. Coastal erosion is far more boring… ↩