|A leper begging for alms, English Pontifical c 1425 MS Lansdowne 451, fo 127r, British Library|
While there are few things commoner than ghost stories, accounts of people dreaming of ghosts are somewhat rarer. This week's post looks at an English schoolboy whose eerie nightmare began to play out in his waking life.
In the year 1896, a thirteen-year-old named Robert Thurston Hopkins was enduring his first term at Thetford Grammar School, near the market town of Brandon in Norfolk. Hopkins was a sensitive, intelligent, somewhat withdrawn lad who was having a rough time adjusting to his new environment. The cold, unromantic life of a country boarding-school was far from his liking. He was lonely, bored, and dreadfully homesick. In short, he was in a perfect frame of mind to leave him vulnerable to a plunge into The Weird.
One night, Hopkins had an unusually vivid dream. He found himself in a large, isolated heathland. It was night, and a pale moon shone a silvery light over the scene. In the distance, he saw what appeared to be a patch of mist, moving erratically along the heath's trackways. He soon realized that the "mist" was really the form of a man--a man that was running and leaping in his direction. As the figure came closer, the moonlight revealed that he had a grotesque, terrifying face, of a silver-gray color. The mist-man's ragged, dirty clothes were of the previous century, and he was holding a circular wooden plate.
Hopkins was filled with horror, but found himself unable to move. He later wrote, "My feet seemed fastened to enormous bars of lead. I was terrified, and fear of the thing catching hold of me went nigh to driving me mad--or so it seemed in my dream. The moment came when the man was hovering right over me. I was hypnotised with fear. It was then that I could see my pursuer's face with remarkable distinctness. It was thickened and puckered, giving the face a peculiar, heavily menacing expression. I realised that his intention was to press his face against mine. I knew I could not have borne that."
As so often happens in dreams, it was exactly at this crucial moment that Hopkins woke up. However, the singular hideousness of the nightmare lingered with him throughout the day. Over the next few months, the boy continued to have the same dream. All the details were the same, except that now he sometimes saw in the background of the heathland a distinctive building: a long, narrow structure with a thatched-roof tower.
Hopkins had found a friend in Dr. Catt, one of his schoolmasters. Catt was known to be interested in spirtualism, folklore, and other esoteric topics, which emboldened the boy to confide in him the details of these weird and uniquely unsettling dreams. Catt told him that the sinister mist-like man was a leper, but neither of them could make any more sense out of the dreams. As for the thatched tower, there were many old buildings of that description throughout that part of England, leaving Catt to predict that the meaning--if there was one--behind Hopkins' dreams would likely remain a mystery.
A few weeks after this conversation, Catt visited an inn near the school. To his surprise, he saw on a mantelpiece a photograph of an old structure that exactly fit the one Hopkins had described. The landlord told the schoolmaster that the building was Warren House, at Brandon Warren, about a mile from Thetford. Some years before, it was badly damaged by a fire, but had been restored. The innkeeper knew nothing more about the place.
Dr. Catt brought Hopkins to visit Warren House. The setting mirrored perfectly the scene of Hopkins' dreams: an empty stretch of desolate warren. Warren House itself was the same grim-looking brick and grey stone tower the boy had pictured so many times.
The only sign of life was the tower's caretaker, who expressed his surprise at their visit. Warren House was not among Norfolk's more popular and inviting attractions. Catt told the man that they had an interest in archaeology and old buildings, and they hoped he could tell them something about the tower's history.
The caretaker said that about a century before, the tower was a leper house. The remains of the old cemetery for the lepers could still be seen nearby. The top room of the tower was about 700 years old. It still stored the wooden bowls and dishes used by the unfortunates who had been virtually imprisoned there. The caretaker added that he did not live in the tower, because his wife was afraid of the place. She insisted that whenever she was inside the building, invisible eyes stared at her. The caretaker himself admitted that he tried to avoid the tower after dark. While he had never seen or heard anything extraordinary, it was a place that simply had an aura of evil.
The caretaker permitted his guests to tour the building. The crumbling ancient masonry, the old coffin now used as a chicken trough, and the dank air made a fitting setting for a place with such a ghastly history. The entire atmosphere exuded a foul decay.
As the caretaker had said, the upper tower had stacks of wooden dishware. The bowls, he explained were the "begging bowls" the lepers held as they stood on the road below, pleading for alms from passers-by.
Hopkins picked up one of the bowls, and instantly saw that it was a match for the one carried by the man in his dream. When he replaced the bowl, he heard the clink of metal, and saw that he had knocked against a bell placed behind the pile of dishes. It was a very old copper bell about six inches tall. When he gently shook it, they were all surprised by how loud it was. The caretaker said it was used when a party of lepers would pass through a town, warning the residents to keep well away until the poor souls had moved on. The caretaker said that some years back, a local farmer had taken it to use as a sheep's bell. From that time on, the farmer seemed to be cursed. His livestock sickened and his daughter died of a terrible wasting disease. The man's troubles ceased only when he returned the bell.
The caretaker added that some of the area's inhabitants were convinced the tower was haunted. People who passed by Warren House during the night told of hearing the leper's bell ringing, and seeing strange blue lights in the tower windows.
Visiting the site seemed to free Hopkins from its spell. He never had the nightmare again. However, this was not the last time that Warren House would enter his life.
In 1941, Hopkins--by then an author and researcher of the paranormal--revisited the now long-abandoned leper house. He wrote, "I passed under the arched doorway of the tower and found myself in a tangle of beams and fallen blocks of stone. Looking up, I found that the floor of the upper chamber was missing and that the building lay shamelessly open to the sky. The thatched roof which had been a landmark had evidently been destroyed by fire. However, the shell of the old building remained, and as I looked up at the hoary walls I paused and wondered who first lived in Warren House. Was the original building a church, a casde, or a lookout tower? No one knows."
Determined to find out what he could about the building, Hopkins interviewed one Samuel Bull, who had been the tower's caretaker from 1903 to 1905. Bull recalled that he had been warned not to touch the wooden dishes, so he left them well alone. Although he knew nothing about the tower's history, he had no doubt it was haunted. On one occasion, he was standing on the stone staircase when a ghost rushed down the stairs past him. "We met face to face, so to speak, and the ghost could not help but rush at me. It had a flat white face and two buring eyes, and there was a sound like hissing steam. It passed through me, making a filthy gust of hot air...I looked out of a circular window in the stairway and saw the leper's ghost tear out of the archway at the bottom. He went frisking over the warren at a furious speed and I heard him shouting some kind of heathen gibberish. The night air shook with his devilish voice."
Bull said the spectral activity became so unbearable that he bricked up the door to the tower. From that time on, the ghost left him in peace.
The ruins of Warren House are still in existence, but it is anyone's guess what became of the begging bowls and bell. If you ever see items matching their description in some antique shop or on eBay, it's probably wisest to steer clear of them.
You never know.