The remains of New Buckenham Castle are situated on a mound of unnervingly perfect circularity 16 miles south of Norwich, behind a moat and large, padlocked iron gate. I've done the six-and-half-mile walk that goes past it several times in the last few years, as it features a pretty cool donkey and, if you're there at the right time of year, a couple of impressively macabre scarecrows, but until last week I'd never quite had time to visit the castle itself.
On my previous attempt, I'd been determined to collect the key to the 12th-century ruin – for which one must pay £2 at the petrol station down the road – but been waylaid by a nice bearded man called Roger in a local pub who wanted to tell me about his Indian wife's cooking. Hence, last weekend, on bonfire night, as my girlfriend Gemma and I approached Castle Hill Garage, I wasn't going to let anything stand in our way: not the gathering November gloom, not the damp, flared bottoms of my ill-chosen trousers, not the fact that my car, and any form of warmth, was three miles away.
The garage is one of those charmingly shabby ones at which Norfolk excels, harking back to the days when you still needed to say petrol pumps were "self-serve" to acknowledge they were different to the norm. The establishment's speciality is Robin Reliants, of which a dozen or so are parked around its front. A key to a venerable ancient structure is something folklore tells us will be presented to us by a bearded mystic or, at the very least, a civic luminary, but in this case you get it from a man in late middle age called John, with two-day stubble and oil-stained overalls, from whom you can buy some surprisingly cheap Fruit Pastilles.
I'd expected a bit of a grumble, what with it being late, but John clearly relishes his role as gatekeeper (the family who actually own the castle live over 100 miles away, so the arrangement is convenient for them, and the small fee helps for the grass to stay cut). He told Gemma and me of a conspiracy theory suggesting that New Buckenham Castle, then owned by the Knyvet family, was where the gunpowder plot was born. "Is this confirmed?" I asked. "Yep," he replied. "By me."
I'm not sure how thoroughly John believed in what he was telling us, or if he had a different castle-related story for every big date on the British calendar. Whatever the case, after five minutes he'd lost us, partly because the story we might be about to be part of was potentially more involving than the one we were being told.Rooks and jackdaws gather on Buckenham Marshes. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
It had all the hallmarks of the beginning of a tale you might find in An Anthology Of Supernatural Rural Brutality: a dark night, a pair of young(ish) lovers, a haunted ruin, a couple of country types in overalls. It didn't help that Gemma was wearing a bright red coat with the hood up and I'd not long since rewatched the film Don't Look Now. We stood on top of the mound as night hurtled down, looking at the cobwebby remnants of the earthworks, taking in the silence, and imagining all the people who'd died here.
"This would be a great place for a Grand Design house," I said.
"Good transport links, too," said Gemma.
As we walked back along the road to the sister village of Old Buckenham in the pitch black, cars hurtling towards us around each bend, I tripped into a ditch, lucky not to break my ankle, and reflected on just how often I did this sort of thing: put myself needlessly in a remote, spooky part of Norfolk, at nightfall, often while alone.
I thought back to the previous week, when I'd walked uneasily past some doggers near Whitlingham Broad, just outside Norwich, after misjudging the hour change. Or last year, when I'd been on a walk near Blythburgh in Suffolk, in tribute to the Black Dog legend of the local church, accompanied by my friend's black spaniel, and the breaking down of the river walls had necessitated that I took a three-mile detour through spooky marsh country. In truth, I probably brought it on myself every time.
During Norfolk holidays in the 80s, as a pre-teen obsessed with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's Fighting Fantasy books and a rudimentary form of Dungeons And Dragons, I would wander off on my own into woodland, fighting warlocks and orcs. By the time I was an adolescent this seemed pretty stupid, but really what I spend a large amount of my leisure time doing now is a scarcely more grown-up version of the same. The difference is that instead of going sword-to-mace with goblins to win the hand of elf princesses, I'm in my own unwritten MR James story, equally as bleak and unsettling as Jonathan Miller's phenomenal 1968 adaptation of Whistle And I'll Come To You. I like the countryside, and I like scaring myself, so combining the two seems an obvious thing to do. If it were at all useful, you might call it a hobby.
The ghost stories of James, written in the early 20th century, are all about the power of suggestion, and for this reason it's not surprising he set so many of them in Norfolk and Suffolk. Despite the fact that the area's most famous ghost is a demon hound, its spookiness is not a gnashing, toothy one of aggressively frightening terrain. It's a more subtle, eerie spookiness: that of a hillock filled with dead Saxons rising out of an otherwise flat landscape from behind a copse, or a mist rising off a broad with a decaying windmill in the background. Yet it feels awash with ghosts and legends in a way that, in all Britain, perhaps only the West Country can match.Norwich Cathedral by night: a ghostly setting?
Oddly, the ghost walks in Norfolk's county seat didn't start running until 1997. Their host, Ghostly Dave, retired four years ago, and has now been replaced by the Man In Black: a narrator with a skull-headed staff and an impressively hawkish, Victorian face. His mystique is in sharp contrast to, say, the ghost walks in Dudley, which a West Midlands-dwelling friend reliably informs me are hosted by a man simply called "Craig". That said, The Man In Black's blood-red business card does lose something of its aura by having an ad for 'Richard's Driving School' on its flipside.
I've been on a ghost walk in Norwich twice now, and I can't think of a more appropriate, more inherently Norfolk, way to spend an early winter evening. As well as the ghouls and witches paid to jump out at punters on the walk – including The Faggot Witch who will curse you with her sticks, a skull-faced man who my friend Michelle offered a tenner to stop growling at her, and the Grey Lady and Lonely Monk who lurk amidst the plague pits in the city's Tombland district – you get the odd unexpected extra. During my first ghost walk, a local wino tagged along for a while to see what all the fuss was about, and the owner of a new Chinese restaurant stole away into a dark corner in a churchyard to make a deal with the Man In Black, allowing him to hand flyers out to that evening's ghost walkers advertising cut-price chow mein.
Later, the Cathedral Close area – the beautiful inspiration for the unforgettable final scenes in John Gordon's 1968 young adult horror novel The Giant Under The Snow – became a lot more chilling when a notorious local bag lady emerged out of the fog from her favourite bench behind us, especially to my friend Jenny, who had an apple thrown at her head after trying to give her spare change.
We chuckled at the atmosphere-puncturing banality of it, but there was also the possibility that this was a preview to a future age of Norfolk ghosts: an era when, just as the rotting spectre of the rebel Robert Kett still sometimes hangs beside the castle in his gibbet, The Phantom Bag Lady And Her Demon Braeburn would intimidate ecclesiastical enthusiasts in the cloisters and The Ghoulish Man Of The Pumps would be condemned to drive for eternity in circles around Old Buckenham in his Robin Reliant, searching for his key and the pesky couple who bent it slightly in the lock while trying to get his gate shut.