At first glance, the ghost at Brandon Country Park looks as if it is carrying a lantern: but look twice, and you’ll see it’s a human skull lit from within…

More than 100 years after the family left Brandon Hall, the ghost of Henry Bliss has been seen next to the mausoleum in its grounds, carrying a candle-lit human skull. But which Henry Bliss prefers a skull to a lantern?

It was 1820 when Edward Bliss bought the land that would become Brandon Country Park and its residents were almost entirely rabbits and sheep. Bliss had amassed a huge fortune by the manufacture of gunflints during the Napoleonic Wars and had become High Sheriff of Suffolk. When the wars ended, Brandon, which had been the main supplier of gunflints to the Duke of Wellington’s armies, struggled to find enough work for residents and so when Bliss found plenty of men to create a forest of eight million trees on his estate. Bliss died in 1845 and was interred – as was his wife, Sarah – in the family mausoleum near the lake in the grounds of Brandon Hall. Built in Gothic style, it takes the form of a small chapel with a tiny porch and a steep roof, topped with a stone cross. It is surrounded by Irish Yew trees and has a façade of flintwork that showcases the quality knapping for which Brandon made its name.

Henry Aldridge inherited Brandon Hall from his uncle Edward and changed his surname to Bliss under the terms of his uncle’s will – it’s amazing what a huge sum of money will do to one’s surname. Just 10 years later, he inherited the estate and title of his cousin the Baron de Alreyo of the Kingdom of Portugal and 14 years after that, he was granted another bequest from Colonel Carlo Antonio Barreto of the Kingdom of Spain who also insisted in his will that he change his name. Despite his promise to Edward, Henry changed his name to Baron Barreto. When he died in 1890, he too was buried in the mausoleum.

It is unclear whether it was Edward’s nephew Henry or whether it was Henry’s son (also called Henry, somewhat confusingly) who began an unusual collection. While others collects stamps, or butterflies, or books, one of the Henrys collected skulls and as the ghost seen at the mausoleum is carrying a skull, one would imagine it is the collector who remains earthbound. Dressed in knee breeches and a deerstalker hat, the ghost wanders the grounds close to the mausoleum appearing to be looking for something – or someone. Legend has it that the ghost is the first Henry, Baron Barreto, but reports suggest that the skull collector was his son. So could the Henrys have been mixed up? Or is Henry holding his most treasured skull of all: that of his father?

Perhaps, however, it was the first of the Henrys who is seen wandering the park: in the Saga Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research is a tale which might help put some meat on the bones. In it, there is the story of a fight between Norsemen and the local Saxons which is believed may have happened in the autumn of 87- while Ivar Lodbrogson was holding Thetford against King Edmund. Many Vikings were slaughtered and their bodies lay forgotten in the earth until January 1869 when the Quarterly Journal of the Suffolk Institute reported: “…a letter relative to some human remains, etc, that had been found in a field between Brandon Church and the river.” Reports from the time spoke of skeletons on tall, fine-limbed men unearthed in the water meadow just south of Staunch, along with swords and helmets. Most were reinterred where they had fallen, but “…some were then, and perhaps still, preserved at Brandon Hall. So numerous were these gruesome relics, that boys collected and brought away as many skulls as they could carry.”

The book continues: “Now, I have recently had some good fortune to meet one of these boys, and he tells me first hand that he well remembers the skulls, with their excellent teeth perfect, and various other bones to have been in such quantity, that the Farmer (Balding) of the Old Manor Farm, by the Church, at Church End, was summoned for manuring his fields with them, though I suspect ecclesiastical intervention to be more probable.

“The preserve of some of these skulls was ‘Henry, Baron de Barreto’ who died on 17th May, 1890 (marble slab now in churchyard, moved from private mausoleum) of Brandon Park.”

The bodies in Brandon Country Park’s mausoleum are no longer there and the only residents there today are pipistrelle bats. And the skull-carrying ghost, of course.