The perimeter bank of Downham Warren can be followed for almost eight miles through the forest, marking the boundary of this warren and separating it from Brandon Warren to the west and Thetford Warren to the east.
For over six hundred years, rabbits were farmed for their meat and their fur and were regarded as high-class luxury items. If you were a peasant, you were not allowed to eat rabbit meat nor wear rabbit fur. In fact, only those who were lords of the manor could do so - and there was a strict hierarchy as to what colour fur you could wear, according to your rank.
The rabbits were not wild but were kept in warrens where they were nurtured, protected and trapped by a warrener. Rabbits were often on the menu at important feasts such as the 4000 provided at the banquet following the installation of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1465. Henry 7 had a nightshirt lined with black rabbit fur and the monks of Thetford Priory gave Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's Queen, a gift of rabbit fur trimmings for her gowns when she visited them in 1513.
The rabbits were a source of fresh meat in winter, but they were also a means of making a profitable income when sold on the open market, for their fur as well as their meat. There were nineteen warrens in the area now covered by Thetford Forest, dating from the 1280s, of which Downham Warren was one and many were owned by the great medieval monasteries such as Bury St Edmunds and Ely.
A perimeter bank was built to keep the rabbits inside the warren and natural predators and poachers outside. The bank would have been up to two metres high and twelve metres wide and often had a hedge of gorse planted on top as an added barrier.
There are only a few written accounts of how warren banks were constructed. They were made of turves and reached heights of up to two metres, with each bank perpendicular on its inner side and with the outer side sloped. Each turf - also called a "sad" or "clower" - was approximately one-third of a metre square and the turves were laid like a brick wall.
One of the first written records for making a bank is in 1385 on Wangford Warren when one man does fourteen days work making the bank on the east side and making a hedge on the crest of the same bank.
The Frenchman Francis de la Rochefaucauld who visited Suffolk in 1784, wrote about a four-foot bank of turf sown with gorse, which forms a boundary beyond which the rabbits cannot go.
Not only was it necessary to keep the rabbits in the warren; it was also essential to keep poachers out, but that didn't always work. There are records of poachers arming themselves with soldiers' tunics, helmets, bows and arrows and staves and of fights between rival poachers.
One such fight took place here on Downham Warren on 19 September 1445. A gang of poachers from Thetford decided to raid the warren that night, but unfortunately so did a gang of poachers from Elveden. The Thetford gang wounded three of the Elveden poachers and carried them without licence to the town of Thetford and there unjustly imprisoned them keeping them locked up so that they could go back to taking the rabbits from Downham Warren.
It is by good fortune that the Forestry Commission, now Forestry England, bought this land after the First World War. Much of the forest was planted on the former warrens and their banks and lodge sites have been conserved beneath the trees.
As part of his management of the warren, the warrener had to trap the rabbits needed to trap the rabbits to supply his manorial lord's household; sell to markets to make a profit and also to keep the stock healthy and prevent over-population. The trapping took place in the late autumn and in the winter when the fur was at its thickest.
There were three main ways of trapping the rabbits. The first was to place oval or circular purse nets over the individual burrows and use ferrets underground to make the rabbits bolt to the surface and into the nets. The second was to put up a long net and use lurcher dogs to drive the rabbits into it. The third was to have a system of trapping banks.
If you look through the trees along the trail, you can see up to four banks parallel to each other. At regular intervals, two banks converge and make a funnel and into this funnel the warrener would corrall the rabbits for trapping.
In his book "In Breckland Wilds" published in 1925, W G Clarke mentions
several large banks some thirty feet wide, said to be trapping banks for the rabbits. A warrener left instructions that the earth-mounds … must be laid out with some degree of order … to make the catching up of the rabbits in large numbers easy and convenient … artificial mounds must be thrown up in parallel lines about 100 yards apart.
Brandon's medieval records show that in 1251, Henry Pie had to supply six coney nets a year. In 1379, a net called a hay 30 fathoms long, with cords for the same, for catching coneys, was bought and in 1389, six Baltic boards (pine planks) for making seven traps in the warren.
Even in the 1370s, the culled rabbits were sent to Cambridge and London but they went much further. The King's Lynn Customs Rolls list In the ship of Walter Hake, called Christopher of Briel, departing 27 May 1392 from John de Lakynghyth, 900 rabbit skins worth £20. On 16 April 1612, the Dolphin of Lynne had in her cargo 2 thousande of seasoned black coneyskin and one thousand, three hundred grey coneyskins - all sold by Thomas Snellinge, merchant and mayor of Thetford.
There were two rabbit fur processing factories in Brandon from the 1780s to the 1960s, Rought - Roughts and Lingwoods, employing about six hundred people.
Maybe the items bequeathed to William by his father helped him to carry on the trapping of rabbits to supply these factories. In his Will of 1778, William Currey, warrener, writes:
I give and bequeath to my beloved son William my rabbit cart and black horse and all and every my Traps, Netts and all my ingines for taking and catching of the rabbits
The banks were surveyed as part of the Internal Archaeology of the Warrns project of the Breaking New Ground Scheme. The results can be seen on the Brecks Society website.