With Halloween on the horizon, it’s that time of year where we’re partial to a spooky story or two.
Luckily, one North East expert has enough of them to last a lifetime. Ghost hunter Steve Watson, who runs events at some of the most haunted spots in the region giving visitors the chance to become paranormal investigators for a night, has experienced his fair share of spine-chilling noises and glimpses of supernatural spectres over the years.
Steve has written three books about his research and supernatural adventures, including books about paranormal tales in both Newcastle and Sunderland. After giving us the lowdown on the most haunted buildings in Newcastle last Halloween, this year we asked Steve to tell us what he considers to be the five most haunted spots in Sunderland – here’s his verdict.
Built around the year 1400, Hylton Castle is home to what Steve has dubbed “the best-known ghost story in Wearside” – The Cauld Lad of Hylton. With sightings of this apparition dating back centuries, the folktales say that this is the ghost of a stable boy who met a very unfortunate end.
It’s said that Robert Hylton, the 13th Baron of Hylton who owned the castle at the beginning of the 17th century, caught his wife in the stables rolling in the hay with a man called Robert Skelton. In a fit of jealous rage, the Baron beat the stable boy to death before dumping his body in a nearby lake – and reports of a man wandering the castle complaining of how cold he is have continued ever since.
Other stories Steve has heard include reports of lights being on in the castle despite the building being in ruins, as well as whistles and screams coming from inside. One man told the ghost hunter that he saw several dark shadows float across from the chapel into the castle walls.
North East Land, Sea and Air Museum
Sitting on the former RAF Usworth and Sunderland airport site next to the Nissan factory, this museum was the subject of one of the first Most Haunted episodes. Many of the paranormal tales that surround this building are thought to relate to the pilots of the past who are returning to be reunited with their aircraft.
One tale is spun from many sightings of a dark figure in uniform wandering around the hangar, thought to be a pilot who died in a flying accident nearby. Another is that of a German spy captured during World War II, who some think is the source of a mysterious banging noise that is often heard in the museum.
Steve has experienced some spooky moments at the museum himself, including capturing a strange mist in some photos of the aircraft and hearing unexplainable noises during visits. On one occasion Steve was conducting a public ghost hunt when the group, gathered on the lower deck of a tram, suddenly heard footsteps coming from above. The steps were followed by the unmistakable sound of the bell ringing from the front of the tram, despite the bell not working and nobody being near it.
The Phoenix Hall Masonic Temple
Dating back to 1785, the Phoenix Hall on Queen’s Street is the oldest working purpose-built Masonic Lodge in the world and still houses the original furniture dating back to its opening. Steve described it as “an absolutely wonderful room full of over 200 years of history of The Freemasons, and one of the oldest buildings in the oldest part of Sunderland”.
If that’s not enough to impress history buffs, the basement of the building is also home to a 12th-century house. Archaeologists have uncovered a number of fascinating artefacts from the site, from animal bones to clay pots and pipes and even a shoe dating back almost 1,000 years.
Unsurprisingly this historical site is home to its fair share of ghost stories, many of which have been recounted to Steve over the years. “I must say that the Phoenix Hall is one of the most interesting buildings I have visited on Wearside and is a true hidden gem,” he said.
Steve has witnessed several himself, including hearing mysterious voices coming from the empty basement, wet footprints appearing on the floor when it hadn’t rained for several days, and a dark figure crouched in the corner of the room.
This former manor house can be found just outside Sunderland in the village of Easington, but Steve had to include it in his list nonetheless. “The history of both the village and Seaton Holme is probably the vastest history I have had to research – each story takes you in a different direction and covers anything from witchcraft to the church,” he said.
According to the ghost hunter, the current Seaton Holme building dates back to around 1240 but has had many alterations over the years. Used as a rectory to the Bishops of Durham until 1832, it was later used as a children’s home and then a hostel for poor and ill men during the 1900s before falling into disrepair after the Second World War.
After being bought by Easington Parish Council in 1988 and following fundraising and help from locals, the Grade I listed house was restored to its former glory and is still used today as a hub for community activities. But echoes of the past still remain in the form of eerie apparitions, with many stories involving sightings of priests and dark shrouded figures around the building.
Steve and his ghost-hunting team heard footsteps and giggling in empty rooms, felt large gusts of wind, and saw shadows moving down flights of stairs during just one visit to the house. “We have only visited the building once and it certainly left us shaken up by some of the unexplainable results,” he said.
The Royalty Theatre
This Victorian building is Sunderland’s oldest community theatre, with current inhabitants the Sunderland Drama Club dating back to 1925. Before this it used to belong to the Union Congregational Church, and was used as a military hospital during World War One.
The theatre is said to be home to its own resident spirit, with many cast members claiming to spot a man watching rehearsals from the shadows who disappears when approached. What’s more, disembodied footsteps, whistling and moaning have all been recorded in the backstage and staircase areas of the venue.
Steve himself has witnessed a series of “strange lights and shadows” in the downstairs rehearsal rooms, as well as a couple of particularly chilling experiences. “In my experience this extremely historic building will always be one of the most intriguing and spooky places in Sunderland,” he said.
On one occasion the ghost-hunting team placed a camcorder on a tripod in the theatre’s dressing room facing the door – but when they returned a few hours later they found that it had been turned towards the wall. Playing the footage back, they could clearly hear the sound of footsteps right before the tripod was dragged around – but the door remained tightly closed.
On another visit to the theatre, Steve and the team heard someone slamming doors in the room above them followed by heavy footsteps – but when they ran to investigate the room in question, no-one was there. “I must admit that my heart was pounding in my chest at this moment, to find all the doors were wide open even though we knew that we had closed all the doors earlier in the evening,” Steve said.