It was a trip to the toilet that led to time travel into the future: and despite being in the centre of Norwich’s clubland, it didn’t involve any intoxication whatsoever.

This curious tale is courtesy of Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, a retired British priest who has also worked as a journalist, teacher, TV presenter, author and lecturer and who was born in Dereham and taught in Norfolk from the 1950s to 1979.

It involves the incredibly creepy but now-demolished underground toilets at Tombland, which were built in the 1930s and demolished in 2020, and time travel into the future: not your standard visit to what even Norwich City Council described as “generally unwelcoming” public loos. 

Tombland has been a market place, a centre for merchants, the home of a palace and a cathedral and a place which has witnessed revolts, great fires and medieval fairs.

Although its evocative name suggests a place where burials occurred, Tombland takes its name from an old English word derived from the Danish meaning ‘empty space’.

Rev Fanthorpe has spoken several times of something strange that happened in the sunken toilets, which until they were demolished were visible from street level due to a Cold War bunker-style ‘lid’ which announced them to the public.

Eastern Daily Press:

The tale begins as Rev Fanthorpe and wife Patricia had returned from a walk around the Cathedral and to their car parked next to the underground toilets in Tombland (neither exist today, dating this experience to, we believe, before the mid-1990s)

In an interview with he said: “…as we came out [of the Cathedral gate]  a poor woman came running across to us, her car was parked pretty close to ours. She saw my dog collar and realised I was a priest and she said, ‘Father can you help me?’

“’I don’t know what’s happened to my husband. He went to the toilet and left me in the car and didn’t come back. I asked a traffic warden who went past if he’d be kind enough to take a look down there in case he’s had a heart attack or fallen on the stairs.’”

The traffic warden had walked down the steps and into the toilet, checking the cubicles and the urinal, but there was no one there: the woman swore she could not have missed her partner leaving.

“She was getting more and more worried so I went and had a look down there myself and just as the traffic warden reported, the place was empty,” said Rev Fanthorpe.

“Then, not long after, as Patricia and I were talking to her and trying to comfort her, to my utter astonishment, a man emerges from this toilet that I had seen empty with my own eyes, looking very bewildered.”

The man walked to his car to the delight of his worried wife. Ashen-faced, he told her he needed to recover for a moment before he could explain. Then he told a strange tale.

Eastern Daily Press:

“He said he’d gone down to use the toilet, then come up again, only to find his car was not there, his wife was not there and everything looked strangely different,” said Rev Fanthorpe.

“The cars a little way ahead of where that toilet was located were going past on the road and he said they were almost silent, it sounded as though they had electric engines rather than the normal internal combustion engines we’re used to. 

“He said: ‘I stood there and it was as if I’d gone into the future.’”

The man added: “I’ve read science fiction stories in which there are time slips and if you can get back to the right place again you might be able to slip back.”

Looking out over an unfamiliar view, the man stood staring for a few minutes and then went back down the stairs, rested for a moment and walked back up into what was, for him, the present day. His wife and the Fanthorpes were waiting.

Rev Fanthorpe said: “I tried to weigh up what might have happened and it seemed when he came up the stairs the first time there had been some sort of time slip, – you get time slips and time quakes just as you do earthquakes or faults in the electricity supply.

“I certainly couldn’t explain how or what had happened. I think time is very mysterious and he did exactly the right thing by going down again and when he came back up, he was in our time.”

Eastern Daily Press:

The underground Tombland toilets were closed by Norwich City Council in 2012 due to maintenance costs and lots of plans were mooted as to what should happen to them.

City Hall’s feasibility study in 2018, noted: “The toilets are not easily accessible and were generally unwelcoming when they were open to the public, at times attracting antisocial behaviour.”

In November 2020, work began on the disused block as part of a shake-up to the area which saw bus stops moved and open space created for pedestrians.

As the work continued, a skull was unearthed followed by around a dozen skeletons.

Analysis of two of the skeletons suggested they could be brothers – one in his late teens, the other in his early 20s - who were executed, possibly during Kett’s Rebellion.

The other skeletons were far older, dating from between 772AD and 941AD and offered a tantalising insight into where one of Norwich’s lost churches might once have stood. 

Eastern Daily Press:

Archaeologists believed they would have been buried in what was once the churchyard of St Michael’s, a church which was known to have been demolished at the turn of the 12th century, but which has never been precisely located.

Tombland is a treasure trove of ghosts. There’s also the Grey Lady of Tombland and the cannibal child ghost of the street’s crooked house.

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