Britain has a long and rich tradition of folklore, passed along the generations. These are tales of strange places and happenings, including the presence of ghosts and hauntings. Whether or not you believe in the potential for such things to exist, the tales and their origins are a fascinating part of the country’s history. So I’m taking you out to explore some of the many myths and legends relating to Britain’s past, scattered far and wide across the British Isles. Be prepared for headless ghosts looking to right wrongs, church bells from beneath the sea, literary inspirations and strange beasts.
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Pluckley Village: Most Haunted
Guinness World Records once named this the most haunted village in England. It may be a small place (near Ashford in Kent, if you’re struggling to locate it), but there are reportedly up to 16 ghosts in the village including the Screaming Man, said to have fallen to his death from the village brickworks. You might spot the Red Lady – Lady Dering, who died in the 12th century – in St Nicholas’s churchyard. There’s also the tale of a highwayman, run through with a sword and pinned to a tree at the aptly named Fright Corner. Don’t forget the schoolmaster hanged by children, and the smoking woman on the bridge.
The Pendle Witches at Lancaster Castle
The soft stone of Lancaster Castle hides a brutal past. More than 400 years ago, religious persecution led to the trial and execution of 10 people for witchcraft. The area around Pendle Hill was seen as lawless, and the witch trials likely arose from rivalry between two local families, both of whom provided healing magic in return for payment. This was not unusual in the 16th century. You can retrace the steps taken by the accused from Pendle Hill to the court at Lancaster Castle in 1612 on the Pendle Witch Trail.
Edinburgh: Witch Hunting And Plague
This is a beautiful city with a challenging past. At Mary King’s Close off the Royal Mile, you’ll find tales of witch-hunting and the isolation of plague victims until their death. Then there are the phantom pipers, a headless drummer and spirits of prisoners of war.
Edinburgh Castle is said to be one of the most haunted places in Scotland. It is connected by a series of underground tunnels to the Royal Mile. Many years back a piper was sent to explore the tunnels and told to keep playing so that his progress could be tracked. The sound of the pipes stopped halfway down the Royal Mile, and the piper was never found. The distant sound of the pipes can still be heard from within the castle sometimes accompanied by a drummer, said to appear only when the castle is about to be attacked.
Isle of Skye: MacRaing and The Kelpies
The beautiful Isle of Skye has plenty of legends to offer. At night, you might get to meet an outlaw called MacRaing, said to haunt the Cuillin, a range of rocky mountains on Skye. Loch Coruisk, the “cauldron of waters” and a fresh water loch at the base of Black Cuillin. is home to the water horse known as a kelpie.
Kelpies are shape-shifting water spirits of the lochs and pools of Scotland. A kelpie appears as a horse, but is said to be able to take human form. Sometimes a kelpie is said to retain its hooves, hence the association with Satan, as described by Robbie Burns in the poem Address to the Devil. You can see a spectacular sculptural representation of the kelpies at Falkirk.
Read more about our journey to the Scottish Highlands by sleeper train.
St Briavel’s Castle: Prisoners Speak In The Forest of Dean
This castle has been a Norman fortress, the hunting lodge of King John, the main place for the manufacture of quarrels for crossbows, a prison, a school and a private house. It was also a court and a notorious debtors’ prison. Its deficiencies were brought to light by the prison reformer John Howard in 1775. He noted that two inmates had shared a cell for a year without access to fresh water, exercise or firewood.
“For I have been here a great space; And I am weary of the place.” Graffiti on the castle walls.
Now a Youth Hostel, the castle carries some scary secrets in its huge Edwardian gatehouse. Graffiti from former prisoners marks the walls of the castle, including this from Robin Belcher in 1671: “The day will come that thou shalt answer for it for thou has sworn against me”.
Bardsey Island: The Island of 20,000 Saints
Off the coast of Wales, the little Bardsey Island is said to be the burial site of thousands of saints. There are rumours that King Arthur might be buried here, and a whole monastery of monks, accounting for the ghosts in robes said to haunt the island. The monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII, but the island remains a place of spiritual importance and pilgrimage. It is also famous for its wildlife, including Manx sheerwaters, choughs and grey seals, and is attractive to artists, writers and musicians. It is possible to take a small boat across to the island and stay here.
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
This is reputedly one of the world’s most haunted theatres, and the appearance of any of its ghosts is said to indicate good fortune for the production. Be careful of your choice of fragrance for an evening at Drury Lane. If you pick up the scent of lavender, it is said to mean that a ghost is in your presence. Actors, directors and stagehands have spotted spirits backstage.
You could meet the Man in Grey or the ghost of the clown Joseph Grimaldi. The Man in Grey appears as a nobleman of the late 18th century, complete with tricorn hat, riding boots and sword. He begins his walk at the end of the fourth row in the Upper Circle, should you want to bear this in mind when purchasing tickets.
Highgate is one of the Magnificent Seven private cemeteries set around central London. It became a fashionable place for burial, with Victorians creating an extravagance of Gothic tombs and buildings. Interments include Karl Marx and a number of socialist politicians, Douglas Adams author of the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, the novelist George Eliot, Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols, Bob Hoskins, George Michael and the campaigning journalist Paul Foot.
The cemetery is in private ownership, and can be accessed by guided tour. Reports of paranormal activity including sightings of a strange man led to a scheduled vampire hunt in 1970. No vampire was ever found.
Hampton Court Palace: Henry VII
We’re talking Tudor haunting here, with the Palace said to be haunted by Henry VIII and two of his wives: Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard, the latter said to shriek in the gallery. You can walk Henry VIII’s route from his private apartments to the Chapel. Catherine Howard discovered in 1541 that she was to be charged, like her predecessor Anne Boleyn, with adultery. Fearing that she too would be executed, she broke free from her guards and ran along the Gallery to seek Henry in the Chapel so she could protest her innocence. Before she could reach the door, she was taken by guards who returned her screaming to her rooms, and she was later executed at the Tower of London. Her ghost is reported to be seen running through the Haunted Gallery, screaming for mercy.
Greenwich Foot Tunnel
Despite its beautiful canopy, this tunnel has some gritty tales to offer. Constructed relatively recently in 1902, the tunnel runs under the River Thames connecting Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs. At night, its damp narrow enclosure is full of echoes, even without the prospect of a Victorian couple strolling past. If you don’t see them, you might hear their footsteps resonating from the tiles.
Chartwell House: The Ghost of Churchill’s Father
There’s a very touching story from Sir Winston Churchill giving his account of a visit from his dead father. Churchill was painting in his studio, copying a portrait of his father. Looking around, he saw his father sitting in an armchair. Churchill goes on to describe his conversation with his father, updating him on the wars which had taken place since his father’s death. His father – surely with tongue in cheek – asked him why he had not thought to go into politics, as he might have done a lot to help.
“He was so exactly like my memories of him in his most charming moods that I could hardly believe my eyes. I felt no alarm; but I thought I would stand where I was and go no nearer.”
Eyam: The Plague Village
Within the beauty of the Peak District lies the village of Eyam. The Great Plague of 1665 started here after the village tailor took delivery of material from London which carried the plague. In a brave and selfless decision, the village cut itself off from the outside world to stop the disease spreading. You can visit several sites within the village relating to the plague, including the Coolstone on the village boundary, where money soaked in vinegar to remove germs was exchanged for food and medicine brought from outside the village. There is also reported to be a haunted pub and haunted cottage, while Eyam Hall is said to be haunted by a young serving girl.
Corfe Castle, Dorset
Corfe Castle was home to the Royalist Bankes family during the Civil War, and they fought off repeated attempts by the Roundheads to take the castle. But an act of treachery allowed the Roundheads to smuggle their own soldiers within the castle walls to attack from both sides. The woman said to have betrayed the Bankes now appears as a headless figure in white, roaming the walls and battlements.
You can read more about Britain’s most amazing castles here.
Said to be the most haunted castle in the Midlands, this Herefordshire fortress lays claim to seven spectres. The most mighty is a seven-foot tall figure of a man in a leather jerkin, said to be the ghost of Welsh freedom fighter Owain Glyndwr. Staff at the castle have reported hearing a wailing baby and seeing figures clad in doublet and hose or a crinoline and a cap. The latter is believed to be a ghost of one of the Croft family, keeping vigil as she waited for money to be sent from Ireland. She has been seen in many parts of the castle. You can read more about Herefordshire’s stunning countryside here.
Whitby: The Inspiration for Dracula
Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula in this seaside town, discovering the name in the public library. You’ll understand why when you see the ruins of Whitby Abbey outlined stark against a dramatic sky. But Stoker wasn’t the only author inspired by this small port. Wilkie Collins stayed in Whitby with Caroline Graves, the inspiration for The Woman In White. Shadowmancer is set in Whitby, as is the young adult trilogy The Whitby Witches.
“It was a grey, drizzling day but that only added to the haunting beauty and lonely atmosphere of the place. Listening to Carmina Burana on my headphones, I explored the ruined abbey on the clifftop. The place was a fantastic inspiration.” Robin Jarvis, author of The Whitby Witches
Fountains Abbey: Ghostly Chanting
Not just a stark silhouette of a ruined abbey, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is also meant to offer a haunting chorus of chanting from the Chapel of Nine Altars. It’s said to come from the ghosts of the choir of monks who once inhabited the abbey. Couple this with the bellowing of stags in rutting season, and you’ve got a whole lot of atmospheric sounds to make you shiver.
Dunwich: Church Bells From Under The Sea
Imagine yourself in the 14th century, living in the capital of the Kingdom of the Eastern Angles in a town as big as London. Then imagine a huge storm and eroding cliffs, and the town being lost to the waves off Norfolk forever. It’s said that the church bells still ring from beneath the sea. Today what remains of the village is home to less than 200 people.
Beware of picking up anything heart-shaped from the beach. The legend of the Dark Heart of Dunwich tells of Eva, a maiden due to be married to the son of a local landowner. Instead, she fell for a local miscreant who, in modern parlance, ditched her after a one night stand, ghosted her and ran away to sea. After waiting in vain for him to return, she cut out her heart and threw it into the sea, but was unable to die. The heart is believed to wash up ashore from time to time, and bring misfortune to anyone who retrieves and keeps it.
“By the lost town of Dunwich
The shore was washed away
They say you hear the church bells still
As they toll beneath the waves”
The Coldest Winter In Memory, Al Stewart
Bodmin Moor: the Beast of Bodmin
Deep in the heart of Cornwall, where Daphne DuMaurier wove tales of smuggling intrigue at Jamaica Inn, you’ll find Bodmin Moor. Here more than 60 people have reported sightings of a big black cat, known as the Beast of Bodmin. Reported to be a black panther around one and a half meters long, the cat has bright yellow eyes and a taste for local livestock. An investigation by the Natural History Museum concluded that no such beast existed, but locals are not so sure.
Dartmoor: Hound of the Baskervilles
Welcome to the home of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Here Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed at the Duchy Hotel – now the Dartmoor Visitors’ Centre – and was inspired by the atmospheric surroundings full of “dwellings of prehistoric man, strange monoliths, huts and graves”. Dartmoor is full of isolated and stark beauty.
On the edge of the moor, you’ll find Witches’ Wood, an ancient wooded gorge. It leads to Whitelady Waterfall, named after a ghostly figure said to appear nearby. A 17th century band of outlaws known as the Gubbins made their home here, sneaking out for a spot of sheep rustling.
Widecombe Fair And The Ghostly Grey Mare
Tucked into the folds of the hills of Dartmoor, you’ll find the pretty village of Widecombe. I grew up not far from here, and remember having a battered book telling the story of Widecombe (also known as Widdicombe) Fair. This was a children’s book, and the story was so scary it gave me a healthy respect for not wandering the moors alone. The Tom Pearce of the title loaned out his grey mare to rather too many people wanting to visit Widecombe Fair riding on her ample back. It’s surprising that she didn’t simply stop in her tracks and refuse to carry them. After two days and nights on the moor, and the death of all involved, the last verse of the tale explains the ghostly presence of the travelling party.
And all the long night be heard skirling and groans.
All along, down along, out along lea.
From Tom Pearce’s old mare in her rattling bones,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
You’ll get a good idea of the Devon accent here too – that’s the sound of home! There’s a wooden sculpture of the horse and its riders in the local church.
Great Wood, Blickling: Anne Boleyn And Her Father
The Great Wood at Blickling is full of oak and beech trees through which you can walk to the Mausoleum. Blickling was the ancestral home of Anne Boleyn. Her father Sir Thomas Boleyn is said to haunt the area, having had a curse placed on him for failing to stop the execution of Anne and her brother at the hands of King Henry VIII. On 19 May, the anniversary of her execution, Anne herself is said to appear.
Anne’s father was ambitious and ruthless, and did his best to encourage Anne’s relationship with Henry VIII. When Anne finally became queen, she underestimated the treachery of the court, and the popularity of Catherine who had preceded her. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell plotted to remove her. They considered charging Anne with witchcraft, as she had an extra finger on one hand. However, she was eventually accused of treason, and the penalty was death. Her father, Sir Thomas, assisted in the trials of those who stood accused alongside her. Anne was beheaded, and her father died three years later. Neither rested peacefully, and it is said that her ghost is intent on returning to the place she was truly happy: Blickling Hall. Anne’s ghost is reported to arrive driven by headless horses and a headless coachman paying penance: her father.
Britain: Land Of Myths And Legends
We’ve given you just a taster of the many myths and legends of Britain, all part of her rich history and heritage. Hopefully you won’t need to leave the light on tonight. But in all seriousness, many of these tales offer cautionary notes of consequences for treachery and bad behaviour, while others commemorate selfless acts for the greater good. They make a powerful moral commentary on the more challenging parts of history.
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