The Haunted Ruins Of Warren House: The Dark Story Of What Was Known As "The Lepers House" In Norfolk

Warren House has a long and dark history, most famously being used as the home of the local lepers who often succumbed to painful deaths on the property, it is believed that those tormented souls never left the premises.

Warren House is believed to have been plagued by the spirits of the deceased lepers that once lived there
Warren House is believed to have been plagued by the spirits of the deceased lepers that once lived there

In 1896, thirteen-year-old Robert Thurston Hopkins, in his first term as a boarder at Thetford Grammar School, Norfolk, England, had a vivid dream. It came to him as he slept in the top dormitory of the school, which faced the road running from Thetford to the market town of Brandon, six miles away.

The dream began with the sight of a long stretch of heathland - gorse, heather, grass-grown holes, and mounds - over which a pallid moon shone, its silver light showing up the twistings of the heath's sandy trackways. Soon Hopkins saw, in the distance, what seemed to be a patch of a mist moving along a wide trackway. The dreamer watched with rather uneasy curiosity, as every now and then it flitted from sight behind clumps of gorse and thorn trees. Eventually, the patch of mist disclosed itself to be a man, running, skipping, and jumping over the large pieces of flint on the trackway.

There was something uncanny about the man's movements. He was coming straight for Hopkin's - making great efforts to catch up with him. On he came, growing larger, forward into the beams of moonlight which showed him clearly for the first time: the man of Hopkin's dream had an intensely loathsome face of silvery-white and ashen grey. Continuing to advance with hurried steps, he held up a hand in which was clutched a circular wooden plate. Decayed ruffles fluttered at both his wrists.

Hopkins recalled, "My feet seemed fastened to enormous bars of lead. I was terrified, and fear of the thing catching hold of me went nigh to driving me mad - or so it seemed in my dream. The moment came when the man was hovering right over me. I was hypnotized with fear. It was then that I could see my pursuer's face with remarkable distinctness. It was thickened and puckered, giving the face a peculiar, heavily menacing expression. I realized that his intention was to press his face against mine. I knew I could not have borne that..."

But the relief of waking now came, though Hopkins did not shake off the extreme terror of the dream for hours after, nor was he allowed to forget it for very long. At intervals of months, the same dream was repeated to him many times, with no difference in detail except that sometimes he could see a building in the background, a long, narrow building with a central tower capped by a pyramidal covering of thatch.

One of the masters at the school, Dr Catt, had an interest in hypnotism and spiritualism, and young Hopkins was rather drawn to him. After a month or so, master and boy fell to discussing the puzzles of local archaeology and folklore, and Hopkins then vented to describe his strange dream.

Dr Catt at once remarked, "That man in your dreams is a leper." The master said that he could not deduce any more from the dream, he doubted whether either of them ever could. The best clue, if the dream was mirroring reality, was the tower with a thatched cap, but the boy was unlikely to trace that particular building, as there were hundreds of curious old thatched dwellings in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Some weeks later, however, Dr Catt, making a call on school business at an inn on the outskirts of Thetford, happened to glance at a photograph on the mantlepiece. To his surprise, the picture was exactly that of the building described by Hopkins as seen in his recurring dream. The master questioned the landlord about it and was told that the building was called Warren House. It was still standing on Brandon Warren, about a mile out of Thetford on the Brandon Road, said the landlord. A fire had once almost destroyed the building, but it had since been renovated. He knew nothing about its history.

Soon after this, Dr Catt and Hopkins went together to Warren House. There it stood on its height, a hoary tower of medieval brick, grey stone, and russet walls. On all sides stretched the warren, sweeping moles of sand, furze, and loneliness, with scarcely a friendly barn or a haystack studding the whole landscape. All around, the sandstone mounds and hummocks had been worn smooth by countless waves of windblown sands.

The master and boy were met by the warrener in charge of the house, who was unused to having visitors call. Dr Catt explained that they were interested in ancient buildings and earthworks. Had the place always been called the Warren House?

No, answered the warrener, many years ago, he had forgotten how long - perhaps a hundred - it had been known as "The Lepers House". It was then a place of seclusion for lepers; he had been shown some mounds nearby where the unfortunates were buried, and up in the top room of the tower, which was about seven hundred years old, where wooden bowls and dishes had remained undisturbed since the time of the lepers. He said he did not use the tower as a place of living because his wife was full of idle fancies about it. She had told him she always felt followed by scores of unseen eyes when she entered the place. He himself did not go there in the dark more than necessary, as there was something uncanny about it - an impression of something foul and very evil.

The warrener invited his visitors to examine the tower for themselves, and, stumbling over blocks of ancient masonry, passing a stone coffin used as a chicken trough, master and boy followed him through the tower door and began to climb the spiral stone staircase set in the thickness of the wall. The steps, once trodden by the naked feet of the lepers, were so worn as to show the marbling of the stone as clearly as layers of quartz, and the heavily oppressive air seemed thick with a sickly smell of decay. When they came to the top room the warrener pointed out the wooden platters and bowls in a corner. They were, he explained, begging bowls. The lepers used to carry them down to the Brandon road below, where they squatted to beg from wayfarers and farmers.

Inside the remains of Warren House
Inside the remains of Warren House

Picking up one of the begging bowls, young Hopkins saw at once that it was exactly like the one carried by the leper in his dream. On quickly replacing the bowl he heard a metallic clink and saw that his boot had kicked a bell partly hidden beneath the bowl of platters. He picked it up, and on taking it into the light of the arrow shot window, saw it was not a shepherd's sheep bell or an ordinary house bell, but one of some considerable age, made of copper and about six inches high. He held it by the iron ring which served as a handle and gave it a shake. "Klonk, klonk,klonk..." The golden sounds which came from it startled them a little. It was a sound that would certainly have been heard from some distance.

The warrener said he had been told, on first coming to the house, that this was a leper's bell - the leper who led a party through a town or village went a hundred or so yards ahead, ringing it to warn people to remain in their houses until the lepers had passed. Nobody since had been eager to remove it from the tower. Once, a farmer at Two-Mile-Bottom Common did take it to use as a sheep bell, and it had seemed to bring a curse with it. His cows went dry and barren, his sheep went down with rot, while his small daughter died of some horrible disease. There was no rest for the farmer until the bell was returned to the tower.

Hopkins and the master discovered that some of the older inhabitants living in the neighbourhood of Warren House retailed rumours of ghostly happenings in the old tower. People passing it at night had spoken of hearing the leper's bell ringing out across the warren, and of seeing eerie blue lights in the narrow windows.

After this visit to the old house and tower, the unmistakable pivot of his strange dreams, Hopkins was never again troubled by the nightmare. There is, however, a sequel to this story.

Forty-five years afterwards, in 1941, Hopkins, by now an author and investigator of the uncanny, revisited the house of lepers. The long buildings which had once stood on each side of the ancient tower had now disappeared. The tower itself was rent with cracks and pierced from foundations to the top steps with holes letting in the morning sun, while the flint-faced cottage in which the warrener had lived was a mere stone heap.

Hopkins Noted, "I passed under the arched doorway of the tower and found myself in a tangle of beams and fallen blocks of stone. Looking up I found that the floor of the upper chamber was missing and that the building would lay shamelessly open to the sky. The thatched roof which had been a landmark had evidently been destroyed by fire. However, the shell of the old building remained, and as I looked up at the hoary walls I paused and wondered who first lived in Warren House. Was the original building a church, a castle, or a lookout tower? No one knows."

Hoping to be able to add something to the meagre history of the house, Hopkins then called on Samuel Bull, a warrener who had occupied it during 1903-5. Bull well remembered the leper's bell and the old begging bowls which, he said, were still in the tower during his period in charge there. The warrener from whom he took over had warned him not to touch them, so he left them alone, and kept a sharp lookout for strange visitors after dark. For the place, he said, was haunted, he had no doubt of it.

Once, said Mr Bull, he was alone on the circular stone staircase when a leper's ghost rushed right through him. "We met face to face, so to speak, and the ghost could not help but rush at me. It had a flat white face and two burning eyes, and there was a sound like hissing steam. It passed through me, making a filthy gust of hot air."

Could it not have been a white owl that he saw? Hopkins suggested. "Mr Bulls' eyes met mine without flinching. 'No sir,' he said. 'That wasn't an owl. I looked out of a circular window in the stairway and saw the leper's ghost tear out of the archway at the bottom. He went frisking over the warren at a furious speed and I heard him shouting some kind of heathen gibberish. The night air shook with his devilish voice.'"

After that, said Mr Bull, the strange disturbances in the tower became worse. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, he closed the tower door, bricked up the inner wall, and left the ghost in sole occupation, From that day to the time he and his wife left the house, all was peaceful and quiet within. The Ghosts Of Glamis Castle: The Myths & Legends That Have Plagued Scotlands Most Haunted Castle


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