It’s late at night. You’re near Newcastle Central station, walking through the Georgian streets by the railway arches. Drunks fall past you, revellers in body-con dresses and white t-shirts, tramping back up towards the Bigg Market in search of a greasy kebab and trebles for a cheap price. You turn left past the castle, the once great stronghold of the North now bisected by the East Coast Mainline thanks to the one-track mind of Victorian engineering. A stag party barges past you and rolls down the Dog Leap Stairs.
You keep going up the hill, towards the Cathedral. It strikes you as slightly bizarre that this godly building is smack in the heart of night-out Newcastle, surrounded by pubs and clubs. Drunks try and fail to climb on the Queen Victoria statue out front. Still, the perpendicular-style lantern towers above all. Silent. Impartial.
You turn right and curve around the Cathedral. It’s quiet now you’re off the main road and the noise of crowds dies down. You’re walking in a gully with the church on the left and Milburn House, a huge pink Victorian building on the right. It’s a long path that curves round into a car park that’s bordered by gravestones on the cathedral side.
You hear a rustle. You thought you were alone. But you’re not.
Suddenly you look up. You spot it.
A jet black creature squats above a door, staring down at you. But it’s not the demon red eyes you focus on – it’s the fangs. The terrible long fangs! And nails, stained with blood!
By far and away, my favourite Newcastle landmark is the Vampire Bunny. It’s my favourite thing to drag visitors to see. Indeed, earlier this year, I diverted a night out with two schoolfriends to show them this local curio before heading back to a bar. They’d never seen the bunny before, even though they live locally and hear me rabbiting on about it (hur hur). The first time I heard of the Vampire Bunny was in a children’s book called Tinseltoon (by Christopher Goulding), where Newcastle’s statues come to life at Christmas and get up to mischief. I loved the vampire rabbit aggressively eating the churchyard lawn, and statue of George Stephenson and pals wearing traffic cones on their heads, thanks to helpful students.
The Vampire Bunny is hidden away, tucked behind the cathedral (as that overblown scene-setting has informed you) and above an average door in an office building. And no-one knows why the hell it’s there.
Collingwood House, part of Cathedral Buildings, was built back in 1901 by architects Oliver, Leeson and Wood. It’s a mixed-use complex, housing offices, shops and restaurants. The front, which looks onto Dean Street, is pretty ornate with white Rocco ornamentation and contrasting pink paintwork. The back of the building, on Amen Corner, has white architectural features but nowhere near the same level of decoration – after all, the back entrance is not as important for first impressions as the front. (Yes, it’s facing the cathedral, but this is also the back end of the cathedral.) So why is the bunny here? There aren’t any other statues on this building.
The land beneath the bunny is now a car park but was once part of the cathedral’s graveyard. You can see the original grave slabs, now moved to form a platform behind the cathedral. One local rumour says the bunny was intended to scare away grave-robbers, though by 1901 grave-robbing was nowhere near as prevalent as it had been in the early ninteenth century. Perhaps the bunny was keeping an eye on the inhabitants of the graves, making sure they wouldn’t rise of their own accord?
The rabbit was originally white or a plain sandstone, in keeping with the decorative scheme of the building (and more likely to stand out at night, if scaring was his intention). It’s a more recent paint job that has given him his jet black fur and blood-spackled teeth and claws. It’s an excellent gothic touch, though, that makes this demon bunny stand out!
Another local legend concerns the weird appearance of the rabbit’s ears. It says that the rabbit was originally a hare, only the ears got knocked off and were put on back to front. If it is a hare, it could be a reference to a friend of Wood the architect – Newcastle doctor Sir George Hare Phipson, who was a founder of Durham Masonic Hall. Did the Masons have a battalion of vampiric rabbits somewhere? I wouldn’t be surprised, is all I’m saying. (If you know of any rabbit symbolism the masons used, please do let me know in the comments below! I’m curious.)
Name puns aside, there are other ways that the rabbit could be a joke feature left by the architects. It could simply represent the coming of spring (as the animal has long been associated with that season), be a depiction of a “Mad” March hare, or the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland which was published in 1865 and was already popular by the end of the century. Perhaps it was intended to be a modern gargoyle, which you would expect on older buildings relating to churches.
Or a time traveller gave them a copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
On a more local level, it has been suggested that the hare could be a reference to local artist Thomas Bewick, who often featured hares in his engravings and had his workshop pretty much right next door in Cathedral Close. Again, though, there are no vampiric hares in his work, just naturalistically-drawn animals doing their standard thing.
Aside from Python and Wallace and Gromit’s adorable Were-Rabbit, I’ve not come across any references to vampire rabbits in folklore (if you know of any, please comment below!). The rabbit does have a long history in Christian iconography as a symbol of Easter and in general folklore as a symbol of fertility, amongst other things. Medieval manuscripts feature rabbit decoration, some showing normal rabbits, some…weirder. There are many funny and unexpected illustrations in the margins of medieval manuscripts showing animals or people engaging in abnormal practices or inverting the natural order (hello penis trees, didn’t see you there), and one particularly popular motif is the killer bunny. Rabbits attack men with axes, joust and hunt each other in all kinds of manuscript illustrations. They also play musical instruments and dance. It could be that the rabbit’s revenge was a depiction of the weak getting revenge on those who typically prey upon and hunt them. (For a more in depth exploration of the killer bunny, see these articles by Sexy Codicology and Jon Kaneko-James.) Perhaps the architects were aware of this tradition in some way?
The origin of this unusual fluffball remains unknown, though you can see there are many avenues for speculation! Whether it’s a funny reference left by the architects or has deeper meaning, it’s great. I love how there are so many different ideas around. To be honest, if some document emerged revealing exactly why the rabbit was sculpted, I don’t think I’d want to know the truth.