30 June 2018

#Research: Thetford Warren Lodge

Ruins of Thetford Warren Lodge
Four miles south of the Neolithic flint mines of Grime’s Graves, lies another open area in Thetford Forest, this time of sandy heathland. It is the last remaining shred of a once vast medieval Warren. At one end stands the ruins of Thetford Warren Lodge, built around 1400 on the orders of Thetford Priory which owned the Warren.

Rabbits, or coneys as they were known, are not native to the British Isles. The first influx came with the Romans but didn’t seem to make much impression on the landscape. The second influx followed the Norman conquest in 1066.

Coney meat was regarded as a delicacy by the Normans, while its fur trimmed the finest clothing. The coneys were farmed in warrens on what would now be termed an industrial scale, and only lords of manors, and religious houses, could own one.

The surrounding forest is early 20th century; at the time all the land would have been open heath. It has been estimated that this one warren was bigger than modern Thetford (11 sq miles). In the vicinity were over 25 warrens. Each would have had a fortified lodge. There were no villages or hamlets in this area, then or now.

Thetford Warren Lodge, built of flint as all stone buildings in the region were, even castle ramparts, stood like a mini castle itself, with walls up to three feet thick, small windows on all sides, and a fortified ground floor doorway leading to its undercroft store where pelts and doubtless meat, would be worked and stored. 

L: ground floor inner view; doorway to spiral staircase bottom left beyond the modern grille.
R: substantial brick-faced fire-back in what would have been the living quarters.

Connected by an inner spiral staircase the Warrener and his family (and men?) lived on the upper floor in what would have been considered good quarters for the time: note the large brick-faced fireplace. However, like a castle keep, it was meant to act as a refuge – against gangs of armed poachers. Cut off from normal village life, it must have been a harsh and lonely existence, especially for the women of the household.

Over the centuries coneys adapted to the wild, becoming the ubiquitous “bunny”, and in 1880 the animal lost its protected status under the Ground Game Act. Yet the industry of farming them continued into the 1920s when gradually the land was purchased for much-needed timber production following World War 1. Thetford Forest is now the largest lowland forest of mixed pines in Britain.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

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