With houses steeped in centuries of historic tales, the National Trust has many a spine-chilling story to tell. From the mysterious apparitions of a marching Roman legion to the ghostly recollections of a much-loved Prime Minister, a day out in a hauntingly atmospheric house will give everyone a fright.
During the haunting season, enjoy eerie tours and creepy tales in some of Britain’s oldest homes, where the floorboards creek and the faces of the past stare out from every wall.
Here are the National Trust’s top ten places for a ghoulish day out:
The hard-up Duchess of Ham House, Surrey
Set on the banks on the River Thames, Ham House, near Richmond, is said to be one of the National Trust’s most prolifically haunted houses. Once home to the tenacious and strong-willed Duchess of Lauderdale, a highly ambitious aristocrat, it is her ghost which is believed to roam the house to this day.
After ignoring public outrage about the unseemly haste of her match to the 1st Earl of Lauderdale, whom she married after the convenient death of both her husband and the Earl’s wife, they set about living at Ham in luxurious style. However, when the Earl fell out of Royal favour and died in 1682, he left the Duchess increasingly hard-up; forced to sell many of her prized possessions she ended her days at Ham, writing “I am a prisoner now in my beloved Ham House, and I will never leave.”
The ground-floor room to which she retreated, the Duchess’s Bedchamber, now has a strangely oppressive atmosphere. The room emits sounds of footsteps and wafts of the Duchess’s favourite rose scent, while her looking glass with its slightly clouded appearance is often home to the reflection of a malevolent looking figure. So powerful is the atmosphere in this room that some of the staff take the precaution of murmuring “Good afternoon, your ladyship” before entering.
A lifeless legion march at Treasurer’s House, York
York is the leading contender for the title of the most haunted city in Britain, with at least 140 ghosts, and the Treasurer’s House, built over the main Roman thoroughfare leading into York, was featured in the Guinness Book of Records for having ‘Ghosts of the greatest longevity’.
Many people have reported seeing the ghosts of a Roman army in the cellars of Treasurer’s House. The best known account is of an engineer who was installing central heating in cellars of the house, when he heard the sound of a trumpet and saw the top of a soldier’s helmet apparently emerging from the wall against which he had just been working. He leapt from his ladder, watching in disbelief as behind the trumpet player plodded a horse and about twenty soldiers walking two abreast, carrying lances, round shields and short swords.
The engineer was not alone in his Roman vision. While the house was in private hands in the 1920s, a fancy dress party was held and one guest was amused to find herself in the cellars with a man dressed as a Roman soldier who barred her passage by placing a spear across the corridor… she was less amused to discover subsequently that not one of the guests had come dressed as a Roman soldier.
Churchill’s ghostly tale at Chartwell, Kent
Few family homes can have such a powerful sense of the personality who has lived there as Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1924 until the end of his life. The rooms remain very much as he left them, with pictures, books, maps and mementoes evoking the career and interests of the great statesman.
Many people, understandably, have hoped to pick up a continuing presence of the former Prime Minister. Indeed, many visitors have reported the occasional whiff of cigar smoke emanating from the rooms as they tour the building. But, in fact, the most fascinating ghost story associated with Chartwell comes from Churchill himself.
In an article entitled ‘The Dream’, Sir Winston gives a moving account of how his father appeared to him as he was painting in his studio. He had been copying a portrait of his father when suddenly he became aware of an odd sensation and there, sitting in his red leather upright armchair, was his father, just as Winston remembered him in his prime.
Churchill goes on to describe their subsequent conversation, in which he attempts to convey to his startled father all that has happened in the years since his death, including two World Wars, political upheavals and family gossip. The tale ends with Randolph expressing his disappointment that his son ‘didn’t go into politics’ where he ‘might have done a lot to help’, perhaps even making a ‘name’ for himself. With that, Randolph takes a match to light his cigarette, strikes it and then vanishes.
The phantom bibliophile at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk
A house of surprising contrasts, parts of the hall at Felbrigg were built both before and after the English Civil War, belying a fascinating history.
Most of the ghost stories associated with Felbrigg centre on the phantom bibliophile. William Windham III is believed to still visit his magnificent library in order to read all the books he didn’t have time to whilst he was alive.
Nearly 200 years ago, a fire broke out and William risked his life trying to rescue precious volumes, dying weeks later from his injuries. Ever since, William’s ghost has been seen sitting at the library table, with a beloved book in hand, and also relaxing in the library chair. According to reports, the ghost will only appear when an exact combination of books is placed on the library chair.
A spurned lover’s revenge at Dinefwr, Carmarthenshire
Set in the middle of this 18th century landscape park is Newton House, which, it is rumoured, is haunted at night by Lady Elinor Cavendish.
Lady Elinor was betrothed to a man she didn’t love and to escape him she sought refuge with her family at Dinefwr, followed by her enraged suitor who then strangled her to death.
In the 1980s, a camera crew attempted to film the ghost of Elinor at work and, although they didn’t capture anything on screen, the cameraman claims that while he was sleeping he felt invisible hands squeezing his throat. Staff at Dinefwr also believe that there is a presence haunting the house. Lights switch themselves on and off, muffled voices reverberate around empty rooms and from time to time there is the unmistakeable aroma of pipe or cigar smoke.
A giant presence at Dunster Castle, Somerset
With a rich history dating back to Norman times, Dunster is a popular haunting ground for ghosts. Staff at the National Trust shop have noted the presence of a mysterious man dressed in green who wanders aimlessly through the old stable block. A general sense of menace haunts this space, with a number of inexplicable happenings, from stock mysteriously falling from shelves to visitors asking if anyone has been murdered here.
Perhaps the most unusual ghost story from Dunster concerns the remains of a seven foot tall prisoner, who was manacled by the wrists and ankles along with three or four other skeletons. Even in daylight, the site where these skeletons were found is dark and gloomy. Dogs seem particularly troubled by the presence of these prisoners, refusing to climb the steps that stand near to where the bodies were found.
A friendlier ghost can be found back inside the house in the Inner Hall, where a former volunteer is said to return to her steward’s chair and look longingly over the beloved room she cared for.
A grieving ghost at Nunnington Hall, York
Nunnington Hall, on the banks of the River Rye, has long had a reputation of being haunted.
The proud Lady of Nunnington is believed to haunt the house. The second wife of the Hall’s owner, she bitterly resented her stepson, wishing that her own son could inherit the estate. After her husband died, Lady Nunnington began to mistreat the older boy, locking him in an attic room. The only person allowed to see him was his half-brother, who was very fond of him and would bring him food and toys. One night, the older boy escaped, probably with the help of the servants, and disappeared without a trace.
The stepmother was jubilant, the younger child was distraught; he missed his playmate and would watch for him endlessly. This ended in tragedy when he leaned too far out of a window, fell to the ground and died from his injuries. His mother took to roaming the house, inconsolable with grief. After her death, when the property had passed to new owners, there were many reported sightings of her ghost gliding through the roams and ascending the staircase, accompanied by the sound of rustling from her silk dress.
Royal cruelty and a headless Lady at Corfe Castle, Dorset
Believed to have been first settled 6,000 years ago, Corfe Castle is a majestic, brooding ruin and with many years of turbulent history that includes Civil War, torture, treachery and imprisonment.
Legend tells of the 18 year old Anglo-Saxon heir to the throne, murdered in the grounds of the castle at the orders of his stepmother, Queen Elfrida. She was determined to bring about the succession of her son, Ethelred, later known as ‘The Unready’. While in the 14th century, Edward II was imprisoned at Corfe prior to his own horrific murder.
During the Civil War, Corfe belonged to a family supportive of the Royalists, and was overrun by Cromwell’s Roundhead’s and eventually blown up. The sound of a child weeping can occasionally be heard nearby and it is believed that the headless body of a woman in white who stalks the battlements and walls of the ruins is the one who betrayed the besieged Royalists, bringing about the ruin of both the family and their formidable fortress.
A murderous past at Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire
Given Baddesley Clinton’s history (it was a haven for persecuted Catholics in the Elizabethan era) it isn’t a surprise that there are a number of ghost stories associated with the house.
Many people claim to have heard ghostly footsteps along corridors and have had the unnerving experience of seeing door handles turned by an unseen hand. In the 19th century, a house guest wrote, “I once heard that solemn tread. It had an awful and mournful sound…and affected me deeply.”
The library at Baddesley Clinton is particularly known for its dramatic history. In Tudor times, this was a first-floor chamber. It was here that, according to legend, Nicholas Broome, who had inherited the house in 1483, returned home unexpectedly and “slew ye minister of Baddesley Church finding him in his plor (parlour) chockinge (choking) his wife under ye chinne…” The slaughtered priest’s bloodstain made an indelible mark in front of the library fireplace, but scientific analysis has since proved that the stain was actually pig’s blood. Nevertheless the murder was documented as having occurred at Baddesley Clinton, in one of the older parts of the house.
A questionable ghost at Speke Hall, Liverpool
One of the most famous half-timbered houses in Britain, Speke Hall alludes to having its very own ghostly guest.
The chilling tale in Speke’s history comes from the 1730s when Lady Mary inherited the house, becoming an important and desirable heiress. Later, she married the notorious Lord Sidney Beauclerk, ‘Worthless Sidney’ as he was known, who loved high living and excess so much that eventually he was forced to break the news to his wife that he had gambled away the family fortunes.
Legend tells of Lady Mary, so overcome with grief and anger, that she picked up her infant son from his cradle and threw him from the window into the moat below. She then went down into the great hall and committed suicide.
The story is suitably dramatic but does not sit well with documented facts; Lady Mary in fact survived her husband, while her only son lived till 1781. Nevertheless, the tradition of a ghost at Speke is long-standing. The references to a haunted chamber and the various appearances of a lady in white, believed to be Lady Mary, date back more than a century.