Weird Norfolk: The haunted bells of Didlington

St. Michael, Didlington church. Dated 1988

St. Michael church, Didlington where PC Williams heard bells ringing in the empty church. Picture date: 1988 - Credit: Archant Library

It was, of course, a dark and stormy night when something ominous was heard in the grounds of the long-demolished Didlington Hall.

Bitterly cold and with a nip of frost in the air, it was approaching midnight when Police Constable Williams heard the unmistakable sound of bells ringing at the local church.

The melancholy sound pierced the frozen air, a sound known to older villagers for a chilling reason – but for whom did the bell toll? And who was at the other end of the rope?

Didlington is a tiny village in Breckland which was once the home of one of the country’s most spectacular mansions, a literal treasure house that inspired an archaeologist to find cursed gold.

The hall where Egyptologist Howard Carter worked as a boy and developed the fascination that would lead him to Tutankhamun’s tomb was demolished in 1950.

Didlington Hall.Dated January 1936

Did the mysterious bells mark the anniversary of the death of the last master of Didlington Hall before it was demolished? - Credit: Archant Library

Didlington is widely regarded as one of the most serious architectural losses in Norfolk: the lostheritage.org.uk site notes: “If house and collection had remained intact it would today be probably regarded as one of the treasure houses of England.”

Originally owned by the Wilson family from the mid-1600s, the estate was sold to Lord William Powlett in 1846 and then William George Tyssen Amherst in the early 1850s.

His son - also William - inherited the hall and became a noted collector of rare books, tapestries, antiques, art and Egyptian artefacts.

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He became Carter’s patron and provided him with the contacts that led him to Egypt, the Valley of the Kings and a curse that would fascinate the world.

The grounds of the 80-bedroom hall were vast and contained a vinery, peach and pineapple houses, boathouses, lakes, a racecourse, a dairy farm, walled gardens, a deer park, a swimming pool and two museums.

Sacrificed for the war effort, Didlington was requisitioned by the Army and became the base for General Miles Dempsey, Commander of the British Second Army during the D-Day landings.

Damaged beyond repair, it fell to the wrecking ball in 1952. But the hall’s church, St Michael’s, remained standing and it was there, in 1965, that PC Williams heard the bells tolling late at night.

As he reached the churchyard and the door, the bells hastily ceased their chilling peal and he assumed he had disturbed an intruder. But the door was locked and the key was where it had always been hidden.

Nervously, he retrieved it and opened the door.

His lantern illuminated a pitch-black church where everything was still and silent – other than the bell rope, which was swinging back and forth in the empty building, as if just that second dropped by an unseen hand.

PC Williams had the overwhelming feeling that he was not alone, but an extensive search revealed no one else was in the church – spooked, he quickly locked up and, too frightened to continue his beat, cycled home.

A storm had gathered and by the time he arrived home, he was cold to the bone and white as a sheet – his wife, on seeing him, told him he looked as if he’d seen a ghost.

“Perhaps I have,” he whispered.

A few days later, PC Williams was recounting the strange tale to an older man in the village and mentioning the tolling of the bells and his feeling of unease.

The man told him that what he had heard was a funeral toll, the sounding of a single bell very slowly with a significant gap between strikes used to mark the death of a person who has just died or who is being buried.

Historically, a bell would be rung on three occasions around the time of a death.

The first was the "passing bell" to warn of impending death, followed by the death knell which was the ringing of a bell immediately after the death, and the last was the "lych bell", or "corpse bell" which was rung at the funeral as the procession approached the church.

While the date of PC Williams’ discovery has been lost, we know it to have been winter: could it have been January 16 1909, the anniversary of the death of the last master of Didlington Hall before it was demolished?

Or did the bells foretell something altogether more sinister…?

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