THETFORD WARRENER'S LODGE
I came upon Thetford Warrener’s Lodge (Fig. 1) quite by accident as I drove between Thetford and Brandon on the B1107, in the midst of Thetford Forest. There, to my left, in the distance, isolated in a large clearing in the Brecks and with a backdrop of fir and pine, stood what looked like a medieval ruin. I then saw the brown and white Ancient Monument sign and I parked in a small parking area and walked up to what turned out to be Thetford Warrener’s Lodge – a rare survivor of an important local industry and probably built in the late 13th/early 14th century by the monks of Thetford Priory – and very interesting it proved to be.
My first impression was of a small fortress, for it had thick (one metre) stone walls, narrow windows, and two sets of wide bar slots to strengthen the entrance doorway horizontally, and a porch slot above, where the occupant could lower a board to strengthen, vertically, the door against unwelcome visitors (Fig. 2). The lodge even had a spiral staircase (Fig. 3), set in one corner, which would have been a vulnerable point if under prolonged attack, as the wall would have been thinnest in that area.
It turned out that it was, indeed, a kind of fortress, but designed to protect a warrener and his valuable rabbit skins from armed poachers, when a single rabbit was worth more than a man’s daily wage (it was only in the 18th century that rabbits became ubiquitous and food for the poor). Such furs were used to line robes of the aristocracy; rabbit meat was also a delicacy, eaten at banquets. Rabbit warrens could only be owned by lords of manors in the medieval period, and Thetford Warren was famous and large in size (in the region of miles square) and the lodge would have been situated in the centre, so it was even more isolated then than it is today, and in an area, then, largely devoid of trees, where rabbits could burrow freely in the poor light soil. In the 18th century it is known that annual culls could total more than 20,000 rabbits. A defensive feature of the lodge, since disappeared, would have been a parapet, where the warrener would have surveyed his charge and kept a watch out for poachers.
The lodge is two-storey – the ground floor was used for storing furs and the warrener’s equipment, whilst upstairs housed his family. One can still see where the floor beams of the living quarters rested on an offset along the interior face of the walls, and the fireplace now high up the wall (Fig. 4). This first-floor fireplace was a wide, rather shallow feature and I reasoned that (having been brought up with an open coal and log fire), for radiating more heat, width was more important than depth. This fact was a little discovery for me and made perfect sense.
There was also a blackened fireplace directly below, on the ground floor (Fig. 5).
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, the warren was owned by different landowners and rabbits were farmed there until a fire struck the lodge in 1935. No farmed warrens remain in Britain today.
Despite the interior of the lodge not being accessible to the public – though one is able to take a step in through the entrance-way – one can still get a very good sense indeed, if one uses the imagination, of just what it would have been like to live there during the medieval period. I found this to be particularly true of the upstairs, because I could see, in my mind’s eye, a family living there, especially in the bleak mid-winter, when a fire would have been roaring in the fireplace, bringing the room alive, and the smell of broth cooking, filling the air. I felt a definite affinity with this. There is something elemental about it. Yes, I could have lived in that warrener’s lodge all those centuries ago.