Photography by Joe Charrington

Nothing says Hastings like Jack in the Green: clog-dancing maidens, stomping steampunk drummers, Morris dancers a-leaping with their knee bells and handkerchiefs, happy LGBTQ+ samba troupes, beardy blokes with owls perched on their arms, a long procession following the presiding deity of the rite, Jack, the spirit of Spring, making his way up the winding cobbles of the Old Town, all eight foot of him covered in foliage and flowers, a green nature spirit zig-zagging and spinning crazily up the crooked streets like a Whirling Dervish or maybe a Zangbeto voodoo spirit of Benin, herded and jostled by the priestly caste of Bogies all decked in ivy leaf and green rags, shepherding him to the spot by the castle commanding the seaways back to Normandy, the sacred spot at the top of the West Hill where he is ritually slain each Mayday, sacrificed to banish the winter and release all the goodness of the warmth and the light…

It was a fresh, sunny Spring day when we headed down to the caves to take some photos, a mistletoe wreath on a maypole on the crest of the hill, commemorating Jack’s recent sacrifice… we took the path down the eastern flank, towards the Old Town, by the stumpy little old hilltop lighthouse thing pointing out to sea, just above the entrance to the caves that descended down into the depths… 

As soon as you’re in there, heading down Monks’ Walk, a close, claustrophobic tunnel dug out of the rock, a sinister oldy-worldly construction with columns, candle nooks and pointed gothic arches carved into it, like something out of the black mass scene in an old Dennis Wheatley film, you immediately start to feel an uncomfortable sense of foreboding… at the bottom, the tunnel abruptly corners a sharp left turn, then suddenly opens out into a cavernous, sunless chamber receding off deep into the darkness, unnerving you, and you’re wary of what may lay ahead… 

In modern times the caves have been turned into a visitor attraction popular with tourists and the various English language schools in the town, Spanish and German teenagers looking freaked out among the pantalooned mannequins, the pistols and artifacts in glass cases, the interactive displays where you put your hands into a dark hole with a cartoon smuggler saying, “I’ve lost me booty, can you find my pipe?”, all a bit too 70s, a bit too Captain Pugwash and Seaman Staines, and then there’s the holes in the walls where chains for smugglers’ prisoners used to be, and the recreated bony corpses of smugglers hanged in gibbets, victims of the rivalries and turf-wars between local gangs, a 17th-century version of the Essex Boys, dominated by the worst of the lot, the Hawkhurst Gang, the Ronnies and Reggies and Mad Frankie Frazers of the day…

It’s all weird and unsettling enough, but it’s only once you arrive at the black heart of the place, The Chapel, that it fully hits you: a horrible feeling, an atmosphere so thick and heavy and menacing it feels like it’s weighing down on your chest, and you need to catch your breath, a feeling of something oppressing you, bad vibes radiating from the place where the altar would usually sit in this dark chapel – the idol, that horrible thing carved out of the living rock, a crude, brutish humanoid shape, like a heavy-set mudman, with a face like a voodoo mask the wrong size plonked artlessly over the top of a crude clay head, and you’re thinking, Who the Hell ARE you but at the same time, you don’t really want to know…

The Victorians called him St Clement, but he has a far from saintly air; there’s something diabolical about him; the shadow of his crudely carved shoulders cast a pair of Baphomet-like wings behind him, his clumsy arms cupped in a hollow just about big enough to fit what in? A baby? No, stop thinking these thoughts, I told myself, as I remembered the stories of the place being candlelit like in the golden days for the benefit of a TV crew not so long ago, and every time they pressed record, all the candles flickered and went out, all at once, right on cue, take after take…

“There’s one animatronic mannequin all the staff are scared of that apparently malfunctions and says Get Out Get Out Get Out on a loop.”

Other stories from the staff included running footsteps, children laughing, the sound of chains being dragged late at night when everyone else had left… a common complaint is the sensation of somebody blowing in your ear… one customer emerged white as a sheet into the gift shop once saying something had been whispering her name down there… one girl told me the walkie talkie told her to Piss Off once when she was locking up and there was no one else around… there’s one animatronic mannequin all the staff are scared of that apparently malfunctions and says Get Out Get Out Get Out on loop; I was later told it only does this when one particular member of staff is in the room… 

They held a psychic night down there recently and did a Ouija board – just looking for trouble I’d say… the girl I was speaking to heard loud footprints stomping up angrily behind her, she turned in fright to look, but of course there was nobody there… lots of children came through on that Ouija board session… the living asked the dead if there were any nasty ghosts who wanted to harm them, and they said only one: He who stands in front of the idol… “Anything happened to you in the Chapel?” I asked her, “I don’t go in there. I always take the long way round. None of the staff like going in there,” she told me… apparently the only person who does like that room comes to visit once a month, a man who pays his entrance fee, goes straight to the Chapel and then sits in front of the idol for hours on end…

I’ve been in that Chapel two times with my son and twice with friends, and each time someone’s said, “Right, can we leave now? I don’t like it down here…” Beth from Get Hastings who was organising the shoot took a funny turn and decided she had to leave… I wanted to leave too but we needed to get some photos and as always it takes a while to set up…

“Stand in front of the idol will you Michael?”

I know it was probably a bit of autosuggestion, as well as last night’s hangover, but I couldn’t bare being too close to him for very long, I was getting a queasy feeling being in his presence, a headache, a feeling like I needed some fresh air, a feeling like I just needed to get the fuck out of dodge as quickly as possible…

“Turn to look at the camera, will you?”

I didn’t want to turn to look at the camera; I found when I was near the idol, I always had to have him in front of me, where I could see him, and turning my back to him felt like a really bad idea… 

“Yeah, that’s lovely,” said the photographer,

“Great – can I go now?”

“I’ll walk you back if you want,” offered the lighting guy,

“Wait! Don’t leave me here alone!” said the photographer, so the three of us walked back to the entrance… as we walked by some iron chains, I got an inexplicably strong whiff of something,

“Whoa, can you smell that?”

“Yeah, it smells like… beef Hula Hoops…” said the lighting guy, and we all laughed nervously because that’s exactly what it smelled like…

Writer Michael Smith in Smugglers Cave

It was a fresh, sunny Spring Day when we descended into the caves, but it could have been a different time of year when I reached the surface again… a heavy grey helmet of cloud enveloped the hill, like my headache… I sat on the step to try and get my breath back, still feeling queasy, oppressed, still feeling really wrong… a great black crow flopped through the skies and landed on the path in front of me as I looked out over the Old Town nestled in its gorge, thinking of all that hidden secret wrongness it was built on top of… the cave complex forms a sprawling four-acre system that extends under the Old Town, one tunnel even coming up under the altar of All Saints Church with the ITNOTGAOTU grave, a warren of twisting claustrophobic passages to further cavernous hollows and chambers…

I woke up in the middle of the night worrying about all that hidden secret wrongness, worrying about that idol’s awful misshaped face, while I listened out for my poorly baby coughing and wheezing in the cot next to the bed, and I felt very uneasy indeed… the next day I found out Beth was woken up startled in the middle of the night by her daughter running into the bedroom screaming after a horrible nightmare, which really did her in… and writing about it now, I’m worrying about the crude, clumsy, horrible face of that idol again, and I can’t get him out of my mind’s eye, and I find I need to stop writing and walk around the flat for a bit, just to have a breather and to check that everything’s alright… Δ

Author

  • Michael Smith

    Michael Smith is a writer, broadcaster, filmmaker and Faber novelist. He was brought up in Hartlepool and graduated from University College London. His best-known work is The Giro Playboy. He is the author of two other works of fiction, Unreal City and Shorty Loves Wing Wong, and has written features for the Guardian, the Observer, the Idler and Dazed and Confused, amongst others. He has made various documentaries for BBC4 including Drivetime and held a regular slot on BBC 2’s The Culture Show while it ran. His short film Lost in London premiered at The Barbican in 2012 and Stranger on the Shore was screened at the NFT along with a performance with his collaborator Andrew Weatherall in 2016.

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