Weird Norfolk: The grey lady of Hunstanton Hall
- Credit: Ian Burt
While they were essential to an enchanting Arabian Night, magical carpets aren't just confined to folklore and far-flung lands – in Norfolk, the thread of a story of one such carpet and its Tudor home has been embroidered through the centuries from the 1700s.
Just outside the seaside town of Hunstanton, the town's Hall was the home of the Le Strange family for centuries, a magnificent coastal carrstone mansion surrounded by moats, an orchard and a deer park, boasting an octagon pond, a park house and a banqueting house. There are Gothic battlements and an orangery, pleasure grounds and a terraced walk.
And there is also the ghost of a grey lady whose wrath was incurred by the destruction of her beloved Persian carpet.
Hunstanton Hall used to be filled with delightful treasures: leather-bound books climbed the walls of the library, precious jewels rested in ornate boxes, silks, velvets and satins waiting to be paraded by beautiful ladies at balls, silverware glinted by candlelight in every room and rarities from across the world.
But the most loved of all for Dame Armine Le Strange, who live at the hall in the mid-18th century as the lady of the manor after her brother Henry died childless, was a beautiful carpet which had been presented to the family by the Shah of Persia and showcased the exquisite talents of the weavers of the Far East.
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The Dame was somewhat less enamoured with her son Nicholas, a feckless gambler who was hell-bent on stripping the hall of its saleable assets in order to fun his gaming habit. While his mother bore the loss of many treasures, she was determined the carpet would not end up on the floor of one of her son's creditors.
As she lay on her deathbed in 1768, she made her son promise the carpet would not be a victim of his avarice and would remain in the bosom of the family and, indeed, in Hunstanton Hall. She would, she told Nicholas, watch the progress of the carpet from her new heavenly vantage point and if he broke his promise would return with ghostly wrath. He kept his promise.
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Nailed into a wooden crate to prevent inebriation causing him to forget his vow, the carpet found a new home in a distant part of the hall and, after Nicholas' death in 1788, was forgotten. Almost 100 years later, the new American mistress of the hall arrived in Norfolk having married Hamon Le Strange.
Keen to put her own stamp on the Tudor mansion, she began enthusiastically renovating the hall, discovering rooms which had been left untouched by human hand for decades. Fighting her way through the dust, cobwebs and rusty nails on an interesting-looking wooden crate, Emmeline found that it contained nothing of note, just a dirty old carpet that was unfit for purpose. Glad to flex her philanthropic muscles, the new mistress arranged for the carpet to be cut into pieces and then she herself distributed the 'new' rugs to the poor or Hunstanton.
Returning home, replete with goodwill, she was surprised to see a face in an upstairs window: an older lady, grey, angry, unmistakeably one of her husband's relatives with Le Strange features. But once home, she was surprised to find there was no visitation from a Le Strange matriarch and relieved, she went to bed.
That night, she and Hamon were disturbed by pacing footsteps outside their bedroom door – Hamon went to see who was there, but could see nothing. As he climbed back into bed and snuffed out the candle, the foosteps restarted.
When Emmeline came across a family portrait of Armine, she immediately recognised her as the face she had seen at the window, but when she was told by Hamon of the family legend she was resistant to such tales of sorcery. But when the haunting continued, she finally bowed to Hamon's pleas and had the rugs recovered from the poor – who were given new ones – and sewn together again to make the old carpet complete.
But it was too late: Dame Armine's last wish had been ignored. She can still be seen wandering through the Hall today, lamenting the loss of her beloved carpet's unsullied beauty.
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