WEIRD NORFOLK: The skeletons that guarded a secret underground tunnel at Ingham

Ingham swan with the church in the background. Date: 1 Jul 1992. Picture: EDP Library

Ingham swan with the church in the background. Date: 1 Jul 1992. Picture: EDP Library - Credit: Archant

The lore and legends about the existence of secret underground passages that criss-cross Norfolk have fascinated generations – one such tunnel is said to have once been under Ingham church's altar.

The spot where the skeleton was uncovered, The remains of the Trinitarian Priory can be seen against

The spot where the skeleton was uncovered, The remains of the Trinitarian Priory can be seen against the north wall of the church. In the group around the grave, Mr. Michael Baker points out details of the site. Date: EDP 1 Feb 1967. - Credit: Archant

Stories of secret underground passages and a subterranean world beneath our feet enchant us all - but Ingham's has a darker twist, involving skeleton gatekeepers.

Holy Trinity Church at Ingham dates back to the 13th century when it was a priory church which housed a college of friars.The monks had left by 1536, although you can see a trace of their monastery to the north of the church, but inside there are many echoes of the past, including two very well-preserved tombs which date to the 1300s. Ingham's church was restored in Victorian times when JP Seddon and the aptly-named Ewan Christian began to raise funds for vital work to save the building from falling into disrepair. Damaged windows were repaired and reglazed, the nave and the chancel were re-roofed, medieval stalls were repaired, the floor was retiled, a new pulpit of Caen stone was installed and an elaborate eagle lectern was designed by Seddon.

And when work began in the altar area and it was taken down for repairs, 19 skeletons were found piled beneath it where there was, they discovered, the entrance to an underground passage. It is said that the passage ran from the old priory to a nearby manor house half a mile away for reasons unknown and, sadly, unexplored by the Victorian builders who hastily covered the entrance over after finding it in the 1860s, and carried on with their work. In Ernest R Suffling's History and Legends of the Broads District written in 1891, the author writes about the priory, Ingham's manor house and the church. "The Manor house still stands a short distance from the church, to the north-east, ad when the altar in the church was taken down for repairs…nineteen skeletons were found piled beneath it and the entrance to the subterranean passage, which led from the Manor to the priory, was discovered," he wrote. "It was not at the time explored, neither has it been since, I believe."

In addition to the skeleton sentries, Ingham has another spectral visitor, this time outside in the churchyard on the north side, the site of a former gravel pit. "At Ingham is another transparent lady, but whether she is of the shrieking or common kind I cannot say," wrote Suffling. "She is to be seen, by those whose vision is acute enough, in the large gravel pit near the church."

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In the EDP of February 1 1967, homeowner Michael Baker talked about the perils of a garden on the site of a former priory: skeletons in the vegetable patch. Philip Langmaid, assistant keeper of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, went to collect some of the bones that were uncovered when a new wall was built. "This skeleton was spotted during the building of a new wall," the article read.

"It was lying parallel to the nave of the church in what was probably the cloisters of the priory, once inhabited by monks of the order of Trinitarians. While Mr Langmaid was raising the dead, Me Baker, who runs Ingham Post Office and stores found another bone protruding from the side of the trench dug for the wall. Other bones have already been found in the garden, including one skeleton which was placed on its side like that of the effigy on the church tomb of Sir Roger de Ingham, of crusading times."

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In November 1988, more human bones were discovered in Ingham, outside the Swan Public House, next door to the church, and there was ore to come. "Two skeletons have been found buried outside the Swan public house at Ingham, near Stalham. And landlord Keith Fiddy has uncovered details of the gallows that used to stand in what is now the pub's car park," wrote the EDP. "He said: 'I have been told that there used to be a gallows where the car park is now and people were hung and left for the birds.'"Drainage work uncovered two skeletons which were later reburied at the church. The gallows, it seems, disappeared entirely…

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