The UK is riddled with stories of the macabre, morbid and mysterious. How many of them are true is another matter, but there’s no denying the strange pull of the chilling spots where many of them took place. More than just stages for ghostly goings-on, many of these historic locations — castles, churches, pubs and even the landscape itself — have played host to significant historical events and witnessed tragic human tales unfold, all giving rise to intriguing stories that still captivate us today. From London to Lancashire, here are some of the spookiest sites in the country.
Looks are deceiving in this pretty Wealden village — Pluckley is astir with tales of the paranormal. With 12 ‘official’ ghosts, it was awarded the Guinness World Record for Britain’s most-haunted village in 1989. These include the Red Lady — who’s been seen wandering through the churchyard — vengeful highwaymen, phantom horses and even reports of piercing screeches ringing through Dering Woods, earning it the unofficial title of Screaming Woods. If you’d rather not test your nerves by camping out in the forest, then call into the Black Horse for a Kentish ale beneath the old beams instead. But keep an eye on your things — the pub’s said to be home to a thieving poltergeist.
Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, London
Hidden in plain sight of the Shard, in the eaves of St Thomas’ Church, is one of the world’s oldest surviving operating theatres. Dating back to 1822, it was only rediscovered in the 1950s and is now a museum for those curious to learn more about the terrifying traditions of pre-anaesthetic medicine — with plenty of instruments and artefacts on show. Don’t miss the operating table itself, as well as all the curative curios in the herb garret — a cobwebbed attic space believed to have been used to store herbs by St Thomas’ Hospital apothecary.
Nowhere in England is more synonymous with witches than this corner of the North East. In 1612, 12 locals were charged with murder by witchcraft, with 10 of them sent to the gallows, one found not guilty and another dying in prison. The trials are noted as being recorded in remarkable detail by the court clerk. Want to follow in their fateful footsteps? The Walking with Witches Trail passes through the area (no broomstick required), taking in key sites, including churches, a quarry and the village of Roughlee, where a lonely statue of accused witch Alice Nutter stands.
The Pendle witch trials of 1612 were some of the most well-known in British history. Alice Nutter was one of the accused, and visitors can follow in her footsteps on a themed trail through the Lancashire countryside. A statue of the young woman stands in the village of Roughlee.
Photograph by Alamy
Edinburgh Old Town
With blackened granite buildings, narrow, lamp-lit closes and an iconic castle, Auld Reekie still has an undeniably spooky air. Big draws include the subterranean Mary King’s Close, where 17th-century townsfolk lived, worked and died, and a tour through the chilling Edinburgh Vaults. A wee dram in the supposedly haunted The White Hart Inn — the city’s oldest pub — is also in order, as is a visit to Greyfriars Kirkyard. At this graveyard, an iron grille (known as a mortsafe) sits above a pair of graves, designed to deter the likes of Victorian bodysnatching serial killers William Burke and William Hare. Visitors can also inspect the last resting places of William McGonagall, Thomas Riddell and Elizabeth Moodie, whose names allegedly inspired author JK Rowling — a former resident of the city — to create very similar monikers for Harry Potter characters.
Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Cornwall
Opened in 1951 by occultist Cecil Williamson, this is one of the world’s largest and most spellbinding collections of folk magic artifacts. The independent museum, found in the scenic village of Boscastle, is packed with all manner of occult curios, including statues of horned gods, masks, books, artwork, dolls and taxidermy, alongside informative displays that recount the intriguing history of witchcraft in Britain. For an extra touch of local Cornish magic, Merlin’s Cave — purportedly where the legendary warlock once lived — is a few miles down the coast, tucked beneath Tintagel Castle. Unfortunately, the museum is currently closed due to Covid-19.
Chillingham Castle, Northumberland
‘Chilling’ by name, chilling by nature — this is reputed to be the UK’s most-haunted castle. On the edge of the Cheviot Hills, this stronghold dates back to the 12th century and has seen numerous bloody border battles with Scotland in its near 700-year history. It’s no wonder, then, that a cast of spectres is said to haunt its hallways, including male voices that whisper in the chapel and a ‘white lady’ in the pantry who begs for water. Budding ghost-hunters can even join a tour to catch a glimpse of the spirits for themselves. Keep an eye out for the bat motifs in the chapel windows and on the weathervane, too — it’s the symbol of the Wakefield family, the current owners, whose ancestors have lived in the castle since it was first built.
Could this be Britain’s most-haunted castle? The 12th-century Chillingham Castle in Northumberland has its fair share of ghosts and ghouls, owed in no small part to its role in the bloody battles between England and Scotland.
Photograph by Alamy
St George-in-the-East, London
Much of Whitechapel has transformed beyond all recognition, but in the shadows of this handsome church — one of six designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor — a now-derelict brick shed still stands. It opened as part of the Whitechapel Museum in 1904 but in a previous life served as a mortuary. On the evening of 30 September 1888, the body of Elizabeth Stride, the third known victim of Jack the Ripper, was brought here for identification. It’s one of many locations throughout the old East End associated with the notorious serial killer. Join an expert-led tour at twilight to learn more of his wicked crimes.
Glamis Castle, Angus
This idyllic country castle — the childhood home of the Queen Mother — is the source of numerous supernatural legends. There’ve been sightings of countless ghosts, including that of a woman whose tongue was cut off by an earl who wanted to silence her. The most remarkable story of all, though, concerns the Monster of Glamis (pronounced ‘Glarms’, by the way). Rumour has it that the heir born to Thomas Bowes-Lyon in 1821 was so unspeakably hideous that he was banished to a secret chamber, never to be seen again. What really happened to the child is a mystery, but subsequent guests — including poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1830 — reported spending an ‘eerie’ night within the castle walls.
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