According to Peter Haining, the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould, writing in 1904, was the first to record a local belief that the figure of a Roman centurion was seen patrolling the Strood (pronounced ‘strode’), the causeway linking the island to mainland Essex. This centurion would be seen at certain times of the year, especially on the night of the autumn equinox, around 23 September. Some people claimed that other figures would be seen approaching this lone man and the clashing of arms would be heard. One version of the story suggested to Baring-Gould that these other men were not attacking the centurion but helping him repel invaders.
Baring-Gould, though he several times walked across the Strood in the hope of seeing or hearing the phantom, never did. Nevertheless, he wrote:
I believe the sounds the people of Mersea heard were the ring of the swords and the clang of the armour of Roman soldiery who fought and died here centuries ago. Whether there be one soldier or more I do not profess to know.
In 1926, testimony of an encounter with the ghost was given by Mrs Jane Pullen, landlady of the fifteenth-century Peldon Rose on the edge of the salt marshes on the Colchester to Mersea road. James Wentworth Day, in Ghosts and Witches (1954), says he was told the story by Mrs Pullen herself, who had then been eighty-one years old and remembered Baring-Gould.
Mrs Pullen believed in ghosts, as she herself encountered the centurion on the road from Barrow Hill down to the Strood one warm summer’s evening on her way home from seeing friends. Wentworth Day records Mrs Pullen as saying that she heard the steady tramp of a soldier marching alongside her all the way to the Strood: ‘I could see no one, yet the feet were close beside me, as near as I could have touched him. I bopped [crouched] down to look along the road in the moonlight, yet no one was there.’ She kept on walking until she met a man she knew, who was ‘all a-tremble’. He said he could hear a man, but was unable to see anyone. Mrs Pullen, with great presence of mind, said, ‘keep all along of me … ’Tis only one of those old Romans come out of the barrows.’
Peter Haining adds to this story that, in 1962, a man digging in the mound suddenly felt the ground beneath him collapse and fell into a hollowed-out chamber. As it appeared to be a burial mound, he reported it to the local authorities. Later excavation brought out some Roman artefacts and an urn containing human ashes, seeming to confirm that a Roman of some rank had been laid there.
Local people drew the obvious conclusion that the cremation was that of the ghostly centurion, and there was a feeling that he might never appear again. However, this proved unfounded, as one winter night, when two naval officers were driving across the Strood to Mersea, caught in the headlights was what seemed to be a human figure, wearing a helmet, and having vertical and horizontal white lines across it. They screeched to a halt, fearing they had hit someone, but when they got out of the car no one was there. When they spoke of this later that night, they were told about the centurion – of whom they had never heard – and concluded that the white lines they had seen were the metal plates on his kilt. The phantom has been seen since then, not least in September 1989 when the ‘sighting’ turned out to be an elaborate hoax. Not everyone agreed that the haunt was Roman, however. Archie White, in Tideways and Byways in Essex and Suffolk (1948), attributes it to a tragedy of the Viking Age connected with BARROW HILL.