Weird Norfolk: The headless ghost donkey of Cranworth

A donkey knee high in buttercups in a field at Bramfield near Southwold.

The spirit of a headless donkey was seen at Letton (we are aware that the donkey pictured here has a head.). - Credit: Archant Library/Bill Darnell

Our story today comes from a lost village and involves a lost head: the village is Letton in Breckland, the head is that of a poor, unfortunate monster donkey.

While the deserted medieval settlement of Letton in Breckland has been swallowed by present-day Cranworth, the stories of strange equine creatures in the area lives on. For in addition to a huge, headless ghost donkey there have also been sightings of a coach driven by either invisible or headless horses.

But first to the donkey.

In The Folklore of East Anglia by Enid Porter, a curious tale recounted by a farmer’s wife in Letton is in editions of the Eastern Counties Magazine of 1900.

The woman had been out late at night and, in the darkness, had heard footsteps behind her and on turning, saw “…a shape like a donkey standing on its hind legs, prancing and towering over her”.

In terror, she hurried on, the footsteps matching her pace. Finally, she reached the safety of her cottage and rushed inside, slamming the doors – but she couldn’t resist looking out of the window to see what had followed her.

And there, from the glass, she “…distinctly saw the headless donkey pass on its way through the starlit night.”

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The story was backed up by a man from the same village who passed on a tale his uncle had told him about what he’d seen as he made his way to market in the early hours of the morning.

“It was the turn of the night, about 12 o’clock or a little later, when uncle saw something a-moving by the side of the horses, at which they seemed to be mortal feared, and they went all shivery-shaky, like a leaf when it ought to fall and has not done so,” he said.

“Uncle looked over the side of the wagon, and saw four legs a-moving; and then he saw a kind of shape that trotted by them until they come to the lane which leads down to Four Tree Hill. There that left them and trotted down the lane, and the shape was plain to be seen of a headless donkey.”

From the same magazine and the same location, another story that features members of the equine family, this time horses rather than donkeys. A female witness told of seeing a phantom coach being pulled by invisible horses along Shipdam Road – the story is told in the article by Lady Cranworth of Letton Hall, who narrated it complete with ‘yokel’ accent. Weird Norfolk will spare you the pain of hearing it in her Ladyship’s approximation of a local accent, but will abridge the tale she told.

A grand looking hall with cars from the 1960s parked outside

Lady Cranworth of Letton Hall (pictured) shared a tale about a phantom coach which was seen in the nearby village. - Credit: Archant Library

Kitty, who lived at a farm in Letton, was in bed when she heard a loud noise coming down the road, a rumbling that was growing closer. She got out of bed and went to the window to see what was making the noise and saw a coach approaching, its lamps and windows brightly-lit. She looked to see the team of horses pulling the coach, but there were none there: it was being propelled along the road by ghost horses.

People in nearby Hingham also saw the coach and noted that the horses they could hear could not be seen, also that the light from the vehicle was so bright that they could have seen to darn by it. A stableman who was in Hingham outside the White Hart was removing harnesses from his donkey and cart when, on the stroke of midnight, he saw the brightly-lit coach drive past him. It was brightly illuminated and the clattering of the horses’ hooves was deafening – he could see the horses, unlike Kitty in Letton, but…they had no heads.

Just what makes this tiny pocket of Norfolk such a magnet to ghosts from the horse family?