Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor
“For me, this secret wood, perhaps the strangest in all Britain, does not really rise like a line of infantry. It rises like a ghost.”So wrote John Fowles in his 1979 book, The Tree. After revisiting this place half-remembered from his teens, he later writes of feeling overcome with a “primal urge to flee”.
The remnants of a forest that covered this remote part of Dartmoor 7,000 years ago, Wistman’s Wood is an ancient gathering of stunted oaks, half-hidden in a dip. In Devonshire dialect, wisht means uncanny. Indeed, to enter is to be lost in a netherworld, dense with decrepit, twisted branches dripping with moss. The ground, a sea of boulders carpeted with thick moss and lichen, makes for slow and tricky navigation. It will, for some, evoke the dark, misty forest of Dagobah, Yoda’s home planet in The Empire Strikes Back.
Stick around until witching hour and you may glimpse a ghostly huntsman and his dogs roaming the woods and surrounding moors. Best not to get too close: these yellow-eyed slavering wisht hounds are the hellish beasts that inspired Conan Doyle’s tale.
• Wistman’s Wood is a 20-minute walk along a clear path from the car park on the B3357, opposite the Two Bridges Hotel
Baynard House, City of London
London’s streets might creak under the weight of haunted pubs, scary attractions and ghost tours, but a more authentic kind of spookiness can be encountered in its desolate, modern corners, one such as Baynard House, a brutalist office block on Queen Victoria Street near Blackfriars.
Pass along Saint Paul’s school’s football pitch and you soon arrive outside this vast building. Once a GPO sorting office, now a blasted concrete wasteland, it made it the perfect choice as HQ for the anti-vampire hit squad in the Channel 4 series Ultraviolet.
For central London it’s eerily quiet here (particularly now), the unsettling atmosphere enhanced by a strange totem-pole statue, The Seven Ages of Man, erected during the building’s short-lived history as a BT Museum (1982-1997). Six zombified severed heads sit atop what appears to be an alien baby. Only corporate-funded art has the ability to be this horrific.
Across the road lie London’s Scientology headquarters – once, allegedly, the scene of myriad protesters in Guy Fawkes masks chanting, “You’re a cult.” A few years later, in 2017, celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise broke his ankle in this same spot while filming Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Unquestionable proof that high weirdness is still alive in this part of London.
• Approach from the ramp north of the Thames between Blackfriars and Millennium Bridge
Chanctonbury Ring, West Sussex
This circle of trees atop the South Downs is said to be the creepiest place in Sussex, though the ring only appeared after 1760, when hundreds of beech saplings were planted there by local toff Charles Goring. By the 20th century it had garnered a reputation as a meeting place for witches and sightings of demons, satanic worship and even levitation. In his 2017 book, The Old Weird Albion, Justin Hopper describes a vision of his dead grandmother hovering in the air here, “in the thinnest of places”.
This is a dark, empty and disquieting place; sit awhile in the copse and you may, as many have, feel that you’re being watched. Local wisdom warns against spending a night here alone. Robert Macfarlane tried it in 2012 while walking the South Downs for his book The Old Ways. After bedding down between two beech trees he was woken by what he believed to be human screams, which circled around him converging above where he lay.
• On the A23 between Bramber and Storrington: take the Chanctonbury Ring Road to the car park then climb up towards the lonely-looking copse. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
At the back of Oxford’s Natural History Museum, this Victorian pile is a treasure trove of bizarre ethnological curiosities. While its famed collection of shrunken heads has recently been removed, the museum remains crammed with hundreds of old glass cabinets of artefacts guaranteed to give you the creeps, from trepanned skulls and a foetus in a jar to medieval torture devices and a floor made of sheep’s bones.
Eschewing interactive touchscreens and other modern gizmos, the museum has barely changed since it opened in 1884, retaining a creepy and gloomy atmosphere. In fact, some corners are so dark curators have been known to hand out torches to help visitors explore what lies hidden in the shadows, perhaps the twisted face of a reclining mummy or a wooden doll filled with nails. Even the donation box is creepy: drop in a coin and an army of wooden zombies begin to swing their arms, eyes flashing red.
• Museum Parks Road, Oxford, free but online booking essential, prm.ox.ac.uk
Whiteford Lighthouse, Gower peninsula
Few locations beat a solitary windswept lighthouse as the setting for a chilling encounter. And while we’ll never know what fate awaited the lighthouse keeper in Edgar Allan Poe’s final unfinished tale (unofficially named The Lighthouse), his consternation at strange sounds emanating from the building suggests it wasn’t to be a happy one.
It’s a lonely two-mile walk at low tide across Whiteford Sands to one of the UK’s last remaining iron-framed lighthouses. And what a disquieting place this is. While the vast wet sands evoke the haunted landscape of an MR James story, this great rusting skeletal feature could be an ancient alien craft from a Lovecraftian tale of horror, uncovered by the tide. Visit at night and folklore decrees that the sands reverberate with the thunderous hooves of some phantasmagorical creature. If you find an ancient-looking whistle half-buried in the sand, for goodness sake don’t blow it.
• Park at Cwm Ivy close to Llanmadoc, the lighthouse is at the north end of the beach, enjoygower.com. Check tides beforehand
What better place to get a good spooking than a lonely twilight walk in Glasgow’s Necropolis, where more than 50,000 people lie buried? This, all 15 hectares of it, is a vast city of the dead, its winding paths and hills peppered with granite mausoleums, statues, Celtic crosses and memorials, each tarnished and blackened by smoke from the old steelworks. It was inspired by Paris’s Père-Lachaise, and while this necropolis may not boast the likes of Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde among its dead, it is the site of real-life vampire-hunting vigilantes.
In 1954 police were called here after it was reported to be overflowing with local children, armed with knives, sticks and stakes. The children were searching for a vampire with metal teeth, who was said to have murdered and eaten two of their kind. For three nights the kids had searched in vain for what became known as the Gorbals Vampire. To this day no one is certain what turned the children into fearless hunters, but should you be planning a visit it may be wise to wolf down a few sticks of garlic bread beforehand.
• Open daily 7am-4.30pm, main entrance Cathedral Precinct by Glasgow Cathedral, glasgownecropolis.org
Clipsham Yew Tree Avenue, Rutland
About 150 years ago Amos Alexander, head forester for Clipsham Hall in Rutland, decided to get creative with the yews that lined the avenue all the way to his master’s hall. His experiments proved a hit with local people, and the tradition continues to this day. Where Alexander’s topiary played with shapes of people, animals and birds, however, the designs seem to have morphed into creepy extras from a Tim Burton film. Surreal pot-bellied alien-like shapes now dominate the 700-metre grassed avenue. That they are a little unkempt only adds to their weirdness. Visit at dusk and the further you venture the harder it gets to shake off that dreaded feeling that they’re all about to uproot, form a circle around you and make you one of them.
• Castle Bytham Road, Clipsham, free parking, yewtreeavenue.co.uk
Samson Island, Isles of Scilly
For generations the tiny isle of Samson was home to two families. But in 1855 its women and children, found half-starved from a diet of just limpets and potatoes, were relocated to another island. Their menfolk were never found, believed to have been killed by pirates or lost at sea. After that, Samson had a short period as a deer park, which came to an abrupt end after the deer drowned in a desperate attempt to escape. Since then, it has remained empty. No surprise that Samson is reputedly cursed.
Barely an eighth of a square mile in area and treeless, the island consists of two small hills joinedby a flat plain. It is an uninviting, silent and bleak place with no shelter. All that remains of its former inhabitants are the crumbling remnants of their stone cottages and several limpet pits. As the myriad gulls who nest there start to gather en masse and get all Hitchcockian, remember that on this remote desolate isle, no one can hear you scream.
• South-west of Tresco; for access, negotiate a ride with a local boat owner
Boggart Hole Clough, Blackley, Manchester
This large park a few miles north-east of Manchester city centre is a popular haunt for paranormal investigators and ghost hunters. The clue is in the name – boggart is a local word for the poltergeists and malevolent spirits believed to inhabit the marshes, fields and bogs here. According to folklore this particular boggart’s favourite snack is children. While none have been gobbled up of late, dog walkers do report unusual behaviour, with their pets barking frenziedly seemingly at thin air; other visitors to the park claim to hear uncanny and demonic laughter echoing through the trees and in the ravines. It’s probably in everyone’s interest that it closes at dusk.
• Main entrance on Charlestown Road
The Forbidden Corner, North Yorkshire
For those in search of some family-friendly spookiness, the Forbidden Corner offers all the thrilling anticipation of a classic “haunted” seaside attraction – without the crowds, off-putting smells and crushing disappointment. What began in 1991 as a private folly garden within the grounds of the Tupgill Park Estate in Wensleydale has evolved, over 30 years, into the self-styled “strangest place in the world”.
With a nod to the sometimes surreal and strange sets from The Prisoner, The Avengers and Goosebumps, the Forbidden Corner is an enchanting but unsettling journey via a maze of tunnels, chambers, revolving floors, grottos, talking statues and secret doors. No need to worry about crowds: even before Covid, Forbidden Corner was always designed to be experienced alone or in a small family group. And while its coffins and dark tunnels may be frightening for kids, isn’t that the point?
• Five miles south of Leyburn, adult £13, 4-15 years £11, family (2 + 2) £46, theforbiddencorner.co.uk
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