Weird Norfolk: The “Gypsy” ghost of Necton and Holme Hale
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
The visits from the Travellers with their beautifully-painted caravans and treasures for sale were always eagerly awaited by the villagers of Holme Hale in Breckland. Two or three times a year, Holme Hale would welcome their regular visitors who would stay for a short while before moving on to the next village. But on one occasion, they left someone – or something – behind. A ghost.
Author Alec Hunt has written a beautiful account of life in Holme Hale throughout the ages, and one of his tales concerns the village’s ghosts. Mr Hunt’s great-grandparents Charles and Elizabeth Hunt lived in The Nag’s Head pub in the village, records tell us from 1858 to 1884. An early 16th century timber-framed farmhouse with a thatched roof on Church Road, the building was used as an inn from 1854 until 1912. Tragically, it was badly damaged by fire in 1994.
Mr Hunt describes how his ancestors started to grow herbs for use in medicine while living at the pub. He writes: “Two or three times a year gipsy caravans would come to sell various herbs collected from different parts of England.
“These visits were highly welcomed by the village children who looked forward to a free supply of rock. Fanny Clark, the gipsy, became famous for her Holme Hale rock.”
As conventional sticks of rock weren’t available at this point, it is likely that the rock in question was more like Edinburgh Rock, a softer and crumblier sweet made with cream of tartar.
“On one such visit an old gipsy man was taken ill. He was given medical care by Charles and Elizabeth Hunt, who advised him to stay longer - but the caravans had to leave for the next call on time, and, on arriving at Necton, the old man was taken ill again,” continues Mr Hunt.
Necton is just over a mile from Holme Hale and would have taken just a few minutes to travel to.
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“The vans pulled into Ramms Lane and there the gipsy died. The next evening at 7pm, the other gipsies burnt his caravan: the blaze could be seen from Holme Hale and was watched by the villagers”
Among some Traveller groups there has been a ritual of burning the belongings or the caravans of a person who has died. In Suzie Lee’s autobiography about her Travelling life, One in a Million, published in 1999, she recalls that when her father died, her mother burned two vans but not the family’s biggest van.
“Mum wanted to burn the old wagon but us children couldn’t bear to have it burnt. It was the only thing of Dad’s left,” she wrote.
In 2016, mourners burned four caravans in a spectacular send-off for ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ Ruby Pearl Marshall, in a tradition which stretches back centuries.
Her son Mario Marshall said: “After someone dies, no one touches their property except for each family member choosing one thing to remember them by.
“Everything else is burned and nobody is allowed to live in the caravan. People don’t even look what’s in there – it’s tradition and about respect.”
Mr Hunt’s story continues: “The ghost of the old gipsy still haunts Ramms Lane to this day. A husband and wife upon a motorcycle rode straight through him.
“A police car driver thought that he had hit a man walking along the road, but a search of the surrounding fields, ditches and hedges failed to find anyone.
“Recently I was travelling very slowly in a car with Mr Melvin Baldwin of Bradenham. Walking down the road we saw an old man, about five feet four inches tall, wearing a Norfolk Jacket and a bowler hat - the kind of man to be seen in Munnings’ horse paintings.
“Suddenly he vanished into thin air on the exact spot that the caravan had been burnt. We had seen the ghost of the gipsy.”
And this small village in the heart of Breckland boasts other spectral residents. Mr Hunt recounts tales of a battle said to have been fought in the village between the Iceni tribe and the Romans and an encounter with the ghosts left behind. Within living memory, a couple who lived in the village “…found themselves surrounded by the sounds of horses and of clashing weapons…” close to the place where the battle was said to have raged.
He adds: “This seems the place to include two more ghosts which haunt the area. Firstly, there is the ghostly priest which protects the ancient Iceni shrine of oak trees near the River Erne. I, and other local inhabitants, have seen him on moonlit nights.
“The second concerns Holme Hale Dale. Many years ago a carriage drawn by a pair of horses started out from Scants Corner Farm to go to Watton.
“On reaching Top Cross the reigns broke. Faster and faster the horses raced down the dale and at the bottom the carriage turned over, breaking the driver's neck in the accident.
“Now, on certain nights of the year as the clock is striking midnight, the phantom coach is still to be seen: drawn by two headless horses and driven by a headless coachman who gives out the most unearthly scream as the coach turns over - a sight and sound that will strike fear into the bravest heart.”
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