Our guide to raising spirits and raiding kitchens at haunted jails, spine-tingling taverns and creepy castles on All Hallows Eve…
Let me take you on a Halloween tour like no other. Hold on to your hats and steady your nerves as we head across the country to meet ghouls, ghosts, prisoners and penitentiaries. We’ll stick our noses into kitchens (mind your head) and dip spoons into boiling pots and bubbling broths. Bring your appetite, wrap up warm and try not to scream (where we’re going, no one can hear you anyway…).
Saddle up your horse (feel free to use a car in absence of a trusty steed) and gather pace through the through the wild expanse of Cornish landscape. It is twilight, and jutting into the bright bluish hue of the failing light appears a stark, ominous tower. This is your first glimpse of notorious Bodmin Jail: an ancient jail literally built with the blood, sweat and tears of its inmates.
The prison was constructed by Napoleonic prisoners in 1779, during the reign of George III, who hauled 20,000 tons of granite from Bodmin’s Cuckoo Quarry to raise its ominous walls and create the famous tower that can still be seen for miles around today. Its blood-soaked history boasts around 55 executions, all of which have taken place within the prison’s cold, dank walls. Murderers and rapists; children and the innocent have all passed through the gates and left their mark within its walls. It’s hard not to feel the chill of so many ghosts as you walk around a maze of crumbling cells, visible only in the dim shafts of light. So it’s perfect for Halloween.
You are condemned to the jail’s ghost walk, beginning in the darkening evening and not to be released until dawn the next morning. Thankfully it starts with a hearty restaurant meal, best complemented by a glass of ruby red wine. Reflect on those poor hungry souls, sentenced to hard labour and a pitiful end as you tuck in. A juicy steak by night offers something to sink your fangs into. 8oz sirloin, 16oz T-bone or duck breast make for a sizzling meal, and, if you’re really getting in the spirit of things, go for a ‘life sentence’, as these will be the last morsels you see for a long time. Take comfort in the warmly lit and cosy surroundings before the ghoulish experience begins. Never fear, though, as after a tortuous night in the cells you’ll be pleased to emerge to a full cooked English breakfast – thank your stars it’s not the gallows!
It stands alone; the only establishment for miles around and caught up in the windy stretches of an endless moor. The moon is high and the sounds of civilisation are far behind you. The inn is your only option for the night (well, and you’ve booked for the Halloween weekend). A creaking sign signals that you’re in the right place – Jamaica Inn – the windows are aglow and the smell of homemade food calms wobbling nerves.
Not as intense (or in as much need of repair) as Bodmin Jail, Jamaica Inn might seem a cosier choice with its literary connections and travellers’ history, but it has its fair share of ghostly tales and haunting apparitions. You’ll have heard of it if you’ve ever delved into the novels of Daphne Du Maurier (or flicked through BBC dramas). A tavern hoarding more than one type of spirit, Jamaica Inn was smugglers’ territory and still is by all accounts. A tipple of rum might awaken dormant souls or just as easily whet your appetite: all that talk of smugglers has got your stomach grumbling.
Don’t think of the raids on the towns and villages for local produce as you pore over the menu: the grills, classics and veggie delights are crafted for your enjoyment alone and you might need the extra sustenance before heading up to your room for the night. A number of rooms are known to be still haunted, but I won’t tell you which ones; best you find out for yourself. If you sleep well to the sound of footsteps and creepy children’s laughter, you’ll do just fine under those ancient coverlets.
The gates have slammed behind you. There’s no admittance to the castle grounds after dark and all there is to do is follow your guide inside. Cast a last wistful look towards the exit, as your destination lies down a narrow winding corridor to a dimly lit room – one of the most haunted in the whole castle. Thankfully, it’s in here that the evening’s buffet is provided by Café des Arts, one of Cardiff’s newest cafés on the scene. This is the beginning of the Cardiff Castle Halloween Ghost Walk.
Unlike the previous venues, we’re not actively on the hunt for ghosts here, as the aim of the Ghost Walk is to be tantalised by ancient tales and scared by spooky stories, and there’s plenty to be had as the castle’s history stretches all the way back to the Roman era. Cloaked in the blackness of night, you’ll be climbing to the topmost tower of the castle, to a room hidden away from prying eyes and one in which the Third Marquess of Bute used to personally commune with spirits. From here there are spectacular views over the grounds, if you’re not too scared to look out. Feeling your way back down into the bowels of the castle, twisting and turning through the different eras, who knows what could happen.
Proper attire is required for the grand Scottish Dalhousie Castle, and I don’t mean your best dinner jacket. Ghoulishly dressed visitors are invited to join the castle’s steward for a day devoted to ancient myths and legends, falconry and ghostly apparitions. Over the course of a quarter of a century, the steward has been faced with first-hand experience of paranormal activity. He can vouch for at least two spirits residing within the walls of the castle and is well versed in the horrors and haunting of Dalhousie. Should you feel safe with him? Only time will tell…
To break up the day you’ll be treated to a three-course Scottish castle banquet. Take a seat to the traditional sound of bagpipes and sip pre-dinner drinks as you glimpse your fellow guests looking even more horrific by candlelight. Then watch as faces scrunch and twist as they try to make out the words to Robbie Burns’ Ode to Haggis which opens the meal. Fill your belly before heading out to the ghost tour: it’ll be dark and that’s all we know. See you on the other side.
You’ll recognise it as the blood-red building amid the streets of Clerkenwell. Bloody by name and bloody by nature, this is where 17th-Century belle Lady Elizabeth Hatton was brutally murdered. Young, beautiful and incredibly wealthy, Miss Hatton was the toast of the city. The stories surrounding her death are gruesome and shrouded in mystery. Some say she danced her last dance with the devil before she was found the next morning, torn limb from limb and her heart still beating blood out over the cobblestones – delightful. The Bleeding Heart Yard was so named in her honour and today you can dine decadently on roast suckling pig in the restaurant (don’t worry they’ve cleared up the blood). But you’re not getting off that easily, as our tour is going to take you down into the adjoining 600-year-old crypt. This is the same crypt in which Henry VIII held his three-day wedding feast, and we all know how well his marriage to Anne Boleyn went!
Nevertheless, it is thus an apt place to enjoy French cuisine. The whole French-inspired menu from the restaurant is available in the crypt and as venues go it’s atmospheric, cavernous and candlelit, and complete with stained-glass windows and ancient statues watching over you. While this is no ghost tour, or specified Halloween event, we thought a city dining experience in the presence of the devil, death and mystery was in order.
It sounds like something from a fictional tale: a village haunted by at least 12 ghosts and home to landmarks such as Fright Corner and the Screaming Woods, but it is a real place and next on our ghostly tour. Pluckley (a decidedly unscary name) in Kent is reputedly England’s most haunted village. It’s one in which a rather unfortunate highwayman is subject to repeated ghostly relivings of his death at Fright Corner (hence the name). While apparitions of hanging schoolmasters and horse-drawn carriages, and screams from below ground and missing clothes are all commonplace, the most haunted establishment in the village is this inn.
The Dering Arms is the only place you should visit on All Hallows Eve and is home to the rather mysterious ‘Lady in the Bonnet’. She is apparently such a realistic ghost that she’s often been mistaken for a customer. If you see her, be polite and buy her a drink. But if all those ghosts have given you the heebie-jeebies, cosy up in one of the many snugly corners and distract yourself with the menu. Seafood is the speciality here, and, I don’t know about you, but all thoughts of the paranormal fade away when presented with a delicious steaming bowl of oysters or a perfectly charred rainbow trout.
We are coming to the end of our tour and nerves are starting to fray. But never fear, not all ghosts wish to terrify and taunt; some, believe it not, are just after a bit of quiet time by the fire –the ghostly gentleman at the Fleur de Lys, for example. No-one knows his name, but they do know that he is fond of the snug and sometimes accompanied by the White Lady, who likes to float around. These ghosts are more Hogwarts than Hannibal. This 16th-Century inn has had its fair share of notable visitors too: Samuel Pepys dined here on his way to Bath, for example. Pull up a pew with the ghosts and for once just enjoy the fare – it’s hearty, homemade and fright-free.
Finally, you’re on the home stretch. It’s time to gather the little ones and subject them to a half term of horrors at Celtic Manor. You’ve spent all summer with the little monsters and now you have the chance to indulge them in their ghastly behaviour. Visual transformations can be accommodated with the swift use of a brush and a few brightly coloured paints. One minute a child – the next a vampire, pumpkin, cat or witch. Suitably attired, they are ready to be let loose on a range of activities held within the spectacular grounds of Celtic Manor. Classic options like pumpkin carving and spooky laser combat are all on offer. Hopefully they’ll be so tuckered out you can finally get a restful night’s sleep. Wait, what was that noise?