Cold Christmas is something of a legend in east Hertfordshire. The mere mention of its name often provokes a nervous hush, even among those who have never been there. The title applies to the tiny hamlet: a handful of unassuming houses on a tight, country lane, as well as the ruined church tower, formerly known as Little St Mary’s, half a mile to the west. The modern name originates from one particularly hostile winter centuries ago, when large numbers of local children perished, and were buried in the church graveyard, which still exists today. The reason for its daunting reputation is that the original, medieval church was built in what devout later generations believed to be the wrong alignment (north to south, instead of east to west); allegedly a sign of the Devil. As a result, the main church building was demolished in the mid eighteen-hundreds, leaving only the fifteenth-century bell tower now on the site.
Such spiritual turbulence, not to mention the reputed mass grave hidden deep beneath its footings, contributed to the tower’s enduring reputation as a hotbed of paranormal activity. Many unexplained phenomena have been reported there, ranging from growling noises, and a desolate black figure wandering among the graves, to larger apparitions like the one described by a woman in 1978, who claimed an entire ghost army exited the tower and marched straight through her, chanting as they went. Today, the structure’s battered walls bear an eclectic mix of cyphers and caveats, forecasting bleak destiny for those who fail to heed their connotations. The site continues to attract worshippers year-round, from witches to Satanists, and the occult, while numerous supernaturally-focused blogs and websites feature this remote, crumbling fascination. These sites, and the people who maintain them, along with visits to the church, and conversations with people who still live in the area today, provided unique insight and inspiration around which I built the most personal novel I have written to date.
But the brilliant idea to use its remains in one of my books actually came from my fiancée, Anna, who grew up in Cold Christmas hamlet itself. As a result, many of Anna’s family make cameo appearances in the book, along with several names taken from headstones that still occupy the graveyard behind the church. My own connections with the area go back to my childhood, when I lived in Ware, the larger, adjacent town. Family walks would often incorporate the pathway that cuts through Hertfordshire countryside, within yards of the enigmatic ruin. And in later years, my mother and sisters kept ponies in the stable outside Fabdens, a country estate off Cold Christmas Lane, (all of which feature in the book) belonging at that time to the actor Nigel Hawthorne.
I have passed the old church tower dozens of times over the years, always mildly apprehensive about the eerie chill that seems to claw outwards from those antique stone walls. Yet it never occurred to me that this characterful building would one day become the eponymous backdrop for my fourth Antonia Hawkins novel: Cold Christmas.
Cold Christmas by Alastair Gunn is published by Penguin