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Terror in Tombland? Spooky Norwich!

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By day Norwich’s Tombland district (derived from the term for ‘Unoccupied Ground’ – actually no reference to anything grave-related) is a major draw for tourists and locals alike, housing numerous historical buildings and being flanked between the majestic Cathedral and Elm Hill. The immediate area also boasts many excellent cafes and restaurants, including Tatlers and Erpingham House.

However, as Halloween draws near, it is fitting to explore a less well-known side to Tombland, and perhaps the possibility that it is not just the living that are frequent visitors to the cobbled streets… 

Situated at one end of Tombland are The Maids Head Hotel and Samson & Hercules House (formerly Ritzy’s, Central Park… newly redeveloped into apartments). Both have ghost stories associated with them, and when you explore their heritage a little further it is perhaps easy to understand why.   The Maids Head dates back to the 13th century, when it was called the ‘Murtle Fish’. The name is said to have changed following a visit by Queen Elizabeth I to Norwich in 1578. Rumours that she stayed at The Maids Head are contradicted by tales that it was full at the time and so she actually stayed elsewhere in the near vicinity. Like most places visited by the Royal Party in 1578, the Black Death or Plague was destined to follow in its wake. It has been suggested that a member of the large party spread the plague as they travelled from place to place and Norwich was no exception (although historians have subsequently doubted this claim). From August 1578 to February 1579 almost 5000 victims of the plague were recorded in the city. In total almost half the entire population of Norwich may have perished from the Plague during this time.   While rats thrived in the narrow alleyways, the grim cry of ‘bring out your dead’ rang throughout the city. As the number of bodies grew in colossal number, formal burials were abandoned in favour of mass-graves or ‘plague pits’. Cartloads of bodies were taken to the Cathedral Close, which became a large burial area. The graveyards behind St. George’s church are so high as they were raised to accommodate the huge number of bodies.

It is alleged that the church played an even more sinister role during this time, being the site where opportunistic looters of the dead and dying were taking if caught. It goes that, after being bound at the ankles and wrists, they would be dropped headfirst from St. George’s church onto the unforgiving ground below. Their bodies, whether dead or still alive, would then join the plague victims in the pits.

One of the largest plague pits in Norwich was dug beneath the site of the Samson and Hercules, which was for many years a nightclub under various names. Those that remember dancing the night away may not be aware that they were also dancing over the bodies of about 5000 plague victims! This uniquely grim feature, along with the close proximity to the Cathedral, may be the root cause of numerous tales of hauntings and disturbances in the building throughout the years. These include the apparition of a ‘Lady In Grey’ (perhaps the ghost of a young girl who apparently starved to death in Augustine Steward House next door (now an antique shop) after it was boarded up during the plague?), spectral monks, shadowy figures and, when the building was used as a YWCA, recurring nightmares for the residents of being buried alive in a huge pit full of dead bodies… 

The Maids Head has also been the location of reported sightings of an elderly lady dressed in grey (the same ‘Grey Lady’ as seen at the Samson & Hercules perhaps?). Staff and guests who have witnessed her move around the hotel, often accompanied by the scent of lavender, speculate that she was once a chambermaid employed by the hotel. The ghost of an elderly man – believed to be a former Mayor, has also been spotted vigorously shaking his head in the courtyard.

Ghosts and spirits are often awoken when refurbishment work is carried out on an old building, disturbing their peaceful rest. Note that both the former nightclub and the hotel have undergone repair and renovation in the recent past.

Other ghostly goings-on that have been reported in the ancient Tombland district include the ghost of a strangled girl, soldiers, rebels and the sound of the hooves of Oliver Cromwell’s slaughtered cavalry on a cold January night.   Perhaps it would take a brave soul to linger around Tombland late this Halloween…?

Other places to visit in Norwich.

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