The second mistake had been punching the self-same lad on the nose. Now he was being chased through Thetford woods by three considerably bigger boys, one sporting a bloody nose. He crashed into the clearing to find a tumbledown ruin, a strange block of crumbling flint. Without thinking, he darted inside. Third mistake. Now he was trapped.
“You in there, Tommy Andrews?” the lads called as they swaggered into the gloomy interior. “The Easter Bunny keeping you company?” In the half-light, Tommy saw their jeering faces and prepared himself for the beating that never came. Suddenly something large, white and furry lolloped into the centre of the room. It was the size of a small dog, and through its matted, transparent pelt the boys could make out its glowing skeleton. As they froze in fear, the ghastly rabbit sniffed the air and then turned to fix them with blazing red eyes. Tommy joined the boys as they ran screaming all the way home. Perhaps the Easter Bunny was real after all.
You can’t step inside Thetford Warren Lodge today, though you can view it from the outside. Maintained by English Heritage, this two-storey structure is found 2 miles west of Thetford, Norfolk, off the B1107. But why is the ruin supposedly haunted by a demonic rabbit?
The clue is in its name. The dwelling, built around 1400, was home to one of the highest-paid individuals on a medieval estate: the warrener. Rabbits – or coneys as they were called – were big business. Their meat was roasted, boiled or served in pies, and both prince and pauper prized their fur. Henry VIII even had his dressing gowns lined with the stuff.
The warrener’s job was simple. Create artificial warrens – or conigars – by boring a series of holes into the ground before introducing the coneys to breed like, well, rabbits. Once established, the warrener would protect his charges from natural predators and provide food.
Of course, violent poachers were the biggest danger. They would regularly
try to bump off the warrener and make off with his coneys. Because of this, the lodge was well fortified, with 90cm (3ft) thick walls and iron-barred windows.
The warrener and his family would live on the top story of the building, his traps and nets were housed on the lower floor, and the structure was topped by a turret, from which he could keep a close eye on his kingdom.
The golden age of the warrener ended with the new game laws of the 1880s, which gave farmers the right to shoot rabbits on their land. The warrener’s monopoly over the beasts was broken and by the time Thetford Forest was planted in the 1920s, rabbits were seen as a pest. Myxomatosis was the solution and 90 percent of the Breckland bunnies were soon infected, devastating the local population.
Who knows if the ghostly coney of Thetford is one of the victims of that dreadful disease or the main course of a medieval feast? One thing is certain – local legends say he is not alone.
The figure of a gaunt, wailing man has been seen stalking the ruin from time to time. Some say he is one of the warreners lamenting the passing of the coney trade, while others think he is wrathful spirit of a poacher, shot while trying to steal rabbits.
Some even claim that he’s a phantom leper from a nearby medieval colony. Whoever he is, the ruins he haunts are an eerie relic of a long-lost way of life.