THE “silly names” of Sedgefield’s pubs have been featuring in the Hear All Sides page of the paper because the conservatively-named Crosshills has been preposterously re-christened as the Pickled Parson.

But the Pickled Parson really did exist.

In fact, he may well still exist in an undead fashion, as it is said that he spookily haunts a secret underground tunnel near St Edmund’s Church.

The Pickled Parson’s real name was the Reverend John Gamage. He was a Welshman who became rector of Sedgefield in 1718. He seems not to have been in Sedgefield much, as he was also a prebend at Salisbury Cathedral and his principal address was a quaintly-named village, White Ladies Aston, in Worcestershire. When he ventured north, he lived in Sedgefield’s huge rectory, which was about 200ft south of the church.

It was connected to the church by a secret tunnel.

The rector’s principal reason for venturing north was to collect the tithes from local landowners, which were due annually on December 20, and which formed a major part of his Sedgefield income.

In 1739, he took some landowners to the High Court to compel them to pay their tithes in full. The landowners counter-sued and in 1741, the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Hardwicke, found in the rector’s favour and ordered the landowners to pay his costs as well as his dues.

There must have been some tension, therefore, between Mr Gamage and his Sedgefield flock over tithes.

In August 1747, at the age of 56, Mr Gamage died – probably at Sedgefield.

His widow, Mary, was plunged into great difficulty: without him, she had no income as she would be unable to collect the tithes in December.

So she hatched a cunning plan.

Some versions of the story say she cured the clergyman’s body in salt, although other versions of the story say she pickled the parson by preserving him in a barrel of brandy. Then she explained to villagers that his sudden disappearance was because he had been called back to White Ladies Aston on urgent business.

But he was back from the dead by December 20. Mary propped his pickled remains up so that when the landowners came to pay their tithes, they could see him: some saw him at his desk in a distant room, apparently in trance-like meditative thought; others spotted him in an upstairs window as they approached, apparently waving at them, although he never actually moved his arm.

Next morning, Mary announced that the rector had suddenly died. She called the Sedgefield doctor who agreed that he was quite dead.

But Mr Gamage had a posthumous pang of guilt, and he restlessly – some sources say violently – haunted the rectory where his pickled body had lain for five months.

It was only when the rectory burned down in 1792 that he was released from the property, although part of him remained trapped in the tunnel, condemned forever to wander listlessly in a curious state of preservation.

The rector at the time of the fire was the Reverend George Barrington, whose uncles were Admiral Samuel Barrington and the Rt Rev Shute Barrington, the Bishop of Durham. They clubbed together to build George a new, large rectory, which is now called Ceddesfeld Hall and is a vibrant community association.

But, as the tunnel is secret, no one quite knows where the Pickled Parson still walks …