Mystery, myth and magic
The UK is full of weird and wonderful places. We visit five places that are sure to send a tingle down your spine
Above: Nine Ladies stone circle, Stanton Moor, Derbyshire
Clootie Well, Munlochy, Black Isle, Scotland
You know there’s something unusual about this woodland walk as soon as you’ve left the car park. At first, a single ribbon tied to a tree; then more ribbons, scraps of cloth, socks and assorted garments – all dangling from the bushes and branches alongside the path.
It’s when you turn the corner and head down the hill, though, that the atmosphere becomes positively eerie – there are items of clothing everywhere. This is the Clootie Well, a holy well where, since the seventh century (and possibly even earlier), pilgrims have come to make an offering – often in the hope that an illness would be cured. Having made a prayer, the pilgrim would leave an item of clothing belonging to the sick person, in the belief that as the cloth (or “cloot”) rotted away, the illness would be cured.
With this in mind, the sight of all these garments is unsettling, if not a little creepy – and you may not want to visit the well alone. The faded, tattered cloths flutter in the breeze – each with their own story of illness or injury. A grey dress pinned out on a tree trunk; a t-shirt, once bright red but now faded to pink; a child’s shoe; a discarded plaster cast from a broken arm.
There’s also a proliferation of socks and handkerchiefs – no doubt impromptu offerings from walkers who have stumbled upon the well and felt they really ought to leave something before heading on their way. Well, that’s what we did, anyway.
Stanton Moor, Peak District, Derbyshire
There’s a lot of legend on Stanton Moor, near Matlock. For a start, there’s a wealth of archaeological remains. The most impressive of these is the Nine Ladies – a Bronze Age stone circle, traditionally believed to be nine ladies who were turned to stone as a punishment for dancing on a Sunday. A tenth stone – the King Stone – is reputedly the fiddler who provided the music.
There are three further stone circles – although these are very hard to find – as well as more than 70 Bronze Age burial mounds dotted around the moor amongst the heather.
It’s not just historic monuments that make Stanton Moor a bit mystical, though. The moor is an important place for pagans, and a “wishing tree” – an old oak tree near the Nine Ladies circle – is decorated with offerings, wishes and prayers.
There’s a ghost too – it’s said that the edge of the moor is haunted by the spirit of a large black dog. And, if you visit the moor at night (go on, we dare you) it’s supposed to be a great location for UFO spotting – head for the trig point at the highest point of the moor. Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of any unidentified flying objects from this vantage point, you should get a fantastic view of the night sky – minimal light pollution makes Stanton Moor a good place for stargazing.
Spooky stays in Cornwall
It’s claimed that Cornwall is the most haunted county in the UK – it has more ghosts than you can shake a broomstick at.
If you’re drawn to things that go bump in the night, there are plenty of places you can stay where there’s a chance of experiencing some paranormal activity.
The Dolphin Inn, Penzance, is reputedly haunted by several spirits. An old sea captain, wearing a tricorn hat and a jacket with brass buttons, is said to wander through the corridors of the hotel in the dead of night. There are also reports of the ghost of a woman in a Victorian dress with a penchant for drifting through the walls of the main bar. The abundance of phantoms may be because the inn was used as a courtroom in the 17th century, presided over by Judge Jeffreys, the notorious “Hanging Judge”.
The Wellington at Boscastle is one of the oldest coaching inns in Cornwall. Dating back to the 17th century, there are regular reports of dark shapes, objects moving by themselves and the feeling of a malevolent presence. Various ghosts have been sighted too, including a young boy roaming the cellars, an old woman and a maid – room nine seems to be particularly popular with the spirits.
Still not spooked? Head for the infamous Jamaica Inn, smugglers haunt of old. The setting itself – in the middle of nowhere, on bleak Bodmin moor – is enough to scare the pants off you. But even scarier is the sound of horses hooves and carriage wheels in the moonlit courtyard, or ghostly footsteps stamping down the corridors.
The Somerset town of Glastonbury has been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years and is steeped in myths and legends. Many of these are associated with King Arthur – who, along with his wife Guinevere, is said to be buried in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey.
Also to be found in the Abbey grounds is a thorn tree that is rumoured to be a descendant of the Holy Thorn. The legend tells that, upon arriving in the area, Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground while he rested. In the morning his staff had taken root. The thorn that now stands in the abbey grounds flowers twice a year – at Easter and at Christmas.
The ruined medieval church at the top of Glastonbury Tor (only the tower remains) is an excellent vantage point for fantastic views across the Somerset Levels. Two thousand years ago there was a vast lake at the foot of the Tor – leading to an association of Glastonbury with the legendary Isle of Avalon. Ancient myth has it that Avalon was the meeting place of the dead, the point where they passed to another level of existence. Surrounding the hill is a system of mysterious terraces – one theory explains that these are a maze following an ancient magical pattern, created thousands of years ago.
Glastonbury has a distinct New Age vibe about it, with the main street in town given over to shops selling incense, cauldrons, crystals and books on astrology and witchcraft. It’s also a centre for spiritual healing and alternative therapies, so is the place to head for if you need your chakra balancing or your aura cleansing.
In 1890, Bram Stoker visited the Yorkshire town of Whitby and was inspired to write a famous gothic horror novel.
It’s easy to see where he got his inspiration for Dracula. A brooding church and ruined abbey sit high above the town on top of East Cliff. Narrow, winding, cobbled streets and alleyways weave through the old town and ancient fisherman’s cottages cluster around the harbour, lending an air of mystery. And on a stormy day you could easily imagine the ship, on which Dracula arrives, being smashed against the rocks near the harbour.
There are Dracula-themed attractions within the town, including a walking tour of the bloodthirsty Count’s favourite haunts.
It’s also worth climbing the 199 steps to visit the churchyard – one of Dracula’s hangouts in the novel. Just don’t go hunting around the graves for his headstone. Whatever the locals may tell you, Dracula is not buried here – he is a fictional character.
Green Adventures October 2015