I went to see my lovely artist friend Sandra Turnbull last week. She had an open house at her North London studio and it was, as usual, an inspiration to see her and her work. One of my favourite pieces, tucked away in a corner of her workshop was this: My Story in 6 Words.
I am of a delicate disposition. Utterly invertebrate. Had I been born in a different era, I would have been a wan-faced, smelling-salt fainter type prone to swooning into the arms of that blonde bloke from Downton Abbey. Instead, in this robust moment in women’s history, I am a secret scaredy-cat fortified by coffee whose daughters take the piss relentlessly.
After the Dementors in Harry Potter reduced me to tears, my girls prescribed me some serious jitter therapy; a trip to Harry Potter World where I learned that Dementors are in fact just rubbish bags on a piece of string dangled about by an intern.
Although I am semi-cured of my wibbly-wobblyitis, I still have a love/shit-my-pants relationship with this time of year and occasions such as Samhain, Halloween, All Saint’s Day and Bonfire Night. Many of the festivals taking place over the next few weeks are, at heart, celebrations about finding light in the darkness of winter as well as being a time to honour those no longer with us. In short, it’s spook season and I spend quite a lot of it hiding behind the sofa, peeping between the fingers of my 6 year old.
However, I’m feeling brave, and in the spirit of not being a lily-livered, malingering pant-wetter, here is a list of the spookiest most atmospheric places in Britain I can think of. They have either sent chills down my spine, filled me with awe or caused me worry wind. What would you add to the list?
A Pass the Brown Trousers Guide to Britain
1. Glastonbury Abbey
Even more than the Tor or Chalice Well, an autumn afternoon spent at Glastonbury Abbey in the South West of England is a magical experience. An original church was built here in around 63AD and the detailed archeological findings on the site take you through the whole tumultuous history of Britain through myth, legend and artifact. You can almost feel the legendary ghost monks rubbing up against you in their sackcloth and oiling their baldy heads. There is nothing like an old ruin to give you the chills. (Insert ageist, sexist joke about Joan Collins here, think better of it and decide to leave it out). http://www.glastonburyabbey.com/arthur.php
2. The British Museum’s Enlightenment Room is filled with intriguing artifacts but the most compelling were once the property of Dr. John Dee, occult magician and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Dee’s black obsidian mirror and wax discs covered with magical and alchemical symbols make fascinating viewing. After getting the willies here, you can then nip up to the Egyptian mummy exhibit or go see some shrunken heads. Awesome. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/d/dr_dees_mirror.aspx
3. The Rosslyn Chapel located 7 miles south of Edinburgh is a medieval church at the centre of many grail novels, Knights Templar tales and mysteries. Whatever the truth behind the legends, there is no doubt that, even when crowded with visitors, the wall-to-wall carvings of the building are totally engrossing. I don’t know quite what it was that gave me the shivers here; the atmosphere, the freezing weather or the thought of Dan Brown’s I-could-buy-an-island bank balance. http://www.rosslynchapel.org.uk/
4. Highgate Cemetery This stunning Gothic/Victorian graveyard covers miles of land in North London and is the burial place of Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti and Max Wall among others. It’s particularly atmospheric at dusk and on cold autumn days when stone angels peek through mounds of red ivy and golden leaves. My old primary school is located opposite the entrance on Swain’s Lane and, as a child, I was terrified of the huge willow tree that spewed out over the cemetery wall, it’s long gnarled branches beckoning like the bony fingers of the dead. No wonder I wet myself on the trampoline. http://www.highgate-cemetery.org/index.php/home
5. The Whispering Knights in Warwickshire are four Neolithic dolmen dated to around 4000 BC. Set against a sunset, the weathered stones actually look like knights huddled together conspiring and there is almost nothing scarier than rocks that look real people. Just say “no” to animated granite.
6. St Enodoc Church This church in Trebetherick, Cornwall was buried under sand dunes from the 16th-19th centuries and is said to be the location of a cave where the hermit St Enodoc lived. The building still has the appearance of being engulfed by the land and with a vast sea view behind, it is a memorable and rather eerie place according to my mate Charlotte. I’ve never been. The idea of being engulfed by sandunes is too much.
7. Wayland Smithy located near the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire is a Neolithic tomb associated with the Saxon god of blacksmiths. Gnarly trees, crumbling stones and gory archeological findings make this one of the most knee-knocking ancient sites I have ever got the fear in. It puts the “oo” in spooky. http://www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/wayland.htm
8. London’s Ghost Stations ~ London’s underground tube network includes several disused railway stations which invoke bygone eras and ghosts of the past. A quick Google search will guide you to ones you can still catch glimpses of such as the old open air platform at Highgate now overgrown with ivy and buddleia. One of the scariest things is the smell of urine in the abandoned tunnel between Muswell Hill and Highgate. http://www.abandonedstations.org.uk/
9. The German Military Underground Hospital in Guernsey in the Channel Islands was built by slave workers during the Nazi occupation of the Island in 1940. It is an icy, concrete hell of echoing eeriness constructed during an appalling time in European history. With such desperately unhappy foundations, it is unsurprising that a tour still gives most visitors the heebeegeebies for weeks after. Grim.
10. Willy Wilcock’s Hole on the Cornish coast is one of the many of the dark craggy caves in this area associated with ghostly pirate ships, phantom sea folk and distressed damsels whose cries are carried on the howling coastal wind. Luckily, the name Willy Wilcock helps me to laugh in the face of my phobia of ghostly gammy-legged, halitosis-ridden pirates that possibly only Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow could cure. Also, for smuggly, piratey, contrabandy atmosphere par excellence, I’ve got to mention the little fishing village of Polperro where my brother -in-law once dropped his trousers in public. Magic. http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/cornwall/folklore/willy-wilcocks-hole.html
I’d love to hear what you would add to my list.
Now, what was that noise?