How rabbits (or coneys) came to Thetford

I’ve been reading A History of English Food, a very interesting book by Clarissa Dickson Wright of Two fat Ladies fame, which I picked up in the lovely Browsers Bookshop in Woodbridge. The book goes right back to medieval times and through to the modern day, looking at the food that was eaten, where it came from, and also its role in society.

Keeping an eye out for things with local significance, I was interested to read about rabbits, which were introduced to the country by the Normans. Rabbit meat was considered a delicacy throughout the middle ages, which made farming them a lucrative business in the region.

The open spaces and warm climate, combined with sandy soil (considered poor for crops and easy for burrowing) in the Breckland region in the borders between Norfolk and Suffolk meant that the area was seen as perfect for farming rabbits. Known as coneys, rabbits were kept by the wealthy and also often by monasteries in large purpose-built burrows or warrens. The warrens often covered areas of a mile or more and were surrounded by solid walls and protected by a warrener, who often would have lived on site, to defend the warren from poachers out to get their hands on the highly valued rabbit meat and fur.

We had the chance recently to visit Thetford Warren Lodge, on the outskirts of Thetford. You could quite easily drive past without knowing that it was there, but the site is run by English Heritage, and is free to wander round.

There’s not a lot left now of what was once a reasonable sized and comfortable home for the warrener and his family. The main building in the photos below was extended to have a wing each side.

The lodge provided accommodation for the warreners

The lodge provided accommodation for the warreners

Thetford Warren Lodge - from the forest

The rabbit warrens covered a great distance around the lodge

The living accommodation was upstairs and in the wings, with the downstairs central area reserved for equipment and rabbits that had been caught. Rabbits were farmed in this way at the Thetford warren until the early 20th Century. The lodge was occupied up until 1935 when much of it was destroyed by fire.

Thetford Warren Lodge - inside

You can see the remains of the upstairs fireplace

With so little evidence left, it’s easy to forget that farming rabbits in this way played such an important role in the economy in Breckland for centuries. If you’d like to know more about the warren in Thetford, and other warrens in the Brecks, the Eastern Daily Press has a very comprehensive article on its website. In 2010 The Breckland Society published a detailed survey called The warrens of Breckland, which was produced following a grant by English Heritage to research the archaeological and archival evidence of the managed rabbit warrens of the Norfolk and Suffolk Brecks.

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