Weird Norfolk: Thetford’s ghost child that rides a headless rocking horse

Nuns Bridges in Thetford

Nuns Bridges in Thetford was once haunted by a little boy riding a headless rocking horse. - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Be careful, if you walk across Nuns’ Bridges in Thetford after nightfall, this is where a child ghost has been seen riding a headless wooden rocking horse.

The ghost of Little Lord Dacre has been riding across this ancient water crossing for centuries, marking a path which used to mark the Icknield Way. One of Norfolk’s quirkiest spirits, the story of Lord Dacre is a tragic one and is open to interpretation as to whether his untimely death was a terrible accident, or murder.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, St George’s Nunnery was given Sir Richard Fulmerston, an English politician, by Henry VIII and turned into a house. Born in around 1561, George was the only surviving son of Baron Thomas Dacre and succeeded his father on July 1 1566 at the tender age of five.

Soon after, his widowed mother married Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk but she died in childbirth in September 1567 so the boy and his three sisters were left in the care of their grieving stepfather. Summoned to parliament as a five-year-old, George died on May 17 1569, at the age of seven: he was staying with his Uncle, Sir Richard Fulmerston who the Duke of Norfolk had appointed as little Lord Dacre’s guardian.

There are two stories regarding the little boy’s death and the first is recorded. Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, said that the lad was “…slain casually at Thetford by the fall of a vaulting hors upon him”. A coroner’s report adds that after Little Lord Dacre had eaten “in a dyning chamber” in the Thetford house, he had wandered off to explore. Delighting to find a “vawtynge horse”, or rocking horse, in another part of the house, he had tried to clamber on to it, but it stood at four and a half feet high by six feet long, and he was unable to jump on its back. He tried to adjust the horse so he could climb aboard for a ride and in doing so took way a pin that supported the toy’s back legs: it collapsed on top of him, crushing his head and killing him instantly.

Another story claims his wicked uncle, keen to get his hands on young George’s inherited land in Cumberland, pulled the pin out of Lord Dacre’s rocking horse so that he would be thrown from it when it broke. When the child fell, his head shattered against the wall and the bloodstains from his wounds could not be cleaned for 100 years while his ghost fled to the nearby bridge to ride his headless rocking horse for the rest of time. As Sir Richard died two years before George, the dastardly plot seems unlikely.

Whatever the story behind the death of little Lord Dacre, his ghost was reputed to haunt Nuns’ Bridges, riding up and down the bridge on a headless rocking horse. The phantom became so troublesome around "Blue Bridges," as they were then known, that in an effort to calm it, local people threw a pound of new candles into the Little Ouse and ordered the spirit not to return until they were burned completely. Whether or not the strange recipe worked is not recorded.

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Sir Richard’s house was replaced by a fine country house in around 1610, parts of which still exist in the dwelling that stands in the same spot today. The three Nuns’ Bridges cross the River Thet and the Little Ouse and it is from here that you can see the huge earthworks where, in around 500BC, Iron Age tribe the Iceni built a giant fort, today Thetford Castle.

A vital crossing which has been used by the Iceni, the Romans, the Vikings, the Normans, medieval pilgrims and, more recently, by the British Army, it is this area that helped give Thetford its name, before a bridge was built, a ford led to the town. There are records of the bridge that stretch back to 1538, but today’s structure is 19th century and was named for the nunnery of St George’s which was close by and which the path across the bridge led to and from.

The Grade II listed bridges in Nuns’ Bridge Road have had a colourful history, and not just due to Little Lord Dacre and his rocking horse. It was the site of a ducking stool and in May 1538, three women were ducked as a ‘punishment for scolds’ and in 2019, the bridge was fixed after a Norfolk County Council contractor used the wrong colour bricks which left locals seeing red.

Another ghost is associated with the ruins of the nunnery: a phantom horse is said to be seen jumping through the jagged flint walls. It has a head.