8 of Britain’s most mysterious ruins
From haunted castles to cursed, crumbling manor houses, Britain is home to hundreds of ruins steeped in spooky and supernatural history. Here, David Hamilton, author of Wild Ruins, explores eight of the most intriguing…
Ruthven Barracks (Badenoch, Scotland)
With the distant backdrop of the Cairngorms and amid spectacular scenery, Ruthven is a must-see for anyone travelling through Scotland.
During the early 18th century the British government was a nervous one. It had just quelled (in 1715) the first of what would be two Jacobite uprisings, and it sought to subdue the unruly clans of the Highlands. Situated on the main Perth to Inverness road, with a crossing of the river Spey, Ruthven was strategically placed for the building of an army outpost and in 1719 Ruthven Barracks was built on the site of a 13th-century castle.
In 1745 its defences were put to the test when it was attacked by John William O’Sullivan and his group of 300 Jacobites. The barracks successfully warded off the attack with only 12 redcoats. Accounts of the day claim they suffered only one casualty, who received a fatal gunshot to the head after leaning too far over the ramparts. The Jacobite army returned the following year, and the ruins we see today are the result of the damage they inflicted.
Before the barracks were built, there is a tale of a dark figure who arrived at the former castle one night in the 14th century. He challenged Alexander Stewart, known as the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’, to a game of chess (or cards depending on sources). By morning the shadowy figure was gone and all the men of the castle lay outside its walls blackened and dead having been struck by lightning. The Wolf remained unharmed, although all the nails in his boots had been removed.
Reculver Towers (Herne Bay, Kent)
To the Greeks, the Isle of Thanet (or Ynys Thanatos) was a dark place where, legend had it, unmanned boats took the souls of the dead across the water. The river Wantsum, which once separated the isle from mainland Kent, is long gone; it silted up and the last ship sailed through the channel in 1672. Today much of the land is marsh land and makes for an important habitat for local wildlife.
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In its heyday the Wantsum would have been an important shipping channel. Such was its importance to the Romans that they built forts at Richborough in the south and Reculver in the north to protect passing vessels. You can still see remnants of the Reculver fort, underneath the large 12th-century towers of the ruined St Mary’s Church.
The original church dates from AD 669 and would have been constructed almost entirely from pillaged stone from the Roman fort. Much of the church and the fort slipped in the sea over the centuries and today large sea defences have been built to protect the sites and the shoreline.
Today the Thanet coastal path (Ramsgate and Herne Bay via Margate) runs past the site.
Hampton Gay (Cherwell Valley, Oxfordshire)
On Christmas Eve 1874, the packed London to Birkenhead train derailed at Shipton-on-Chirwell, Oxfordshire, sending 34 people to their death and injuring many more. Local residents, hearing what must have been horrifying sounds, were first on the scene to help. Among those coming to the aid of the stricken train was Sir Randolph Churchill from nearby Blenheim Palace, where he was celebrating the christening of his son Winston.
Not all the locals were forthcoming, however. Story has it that when the injured passengers called on Hampton Gay Manor for shelter, they were turned away into the night. It was said that when the household refused to help, a curse was put upon it. Some 13 years later, when a fire gutted the interior of the house, causing the roof to collapse, it was seen as a sign the curse had come to fruition. Many cast doubt on the story, however, claiming the house did indeed offer help.
All that now stands of the once grand manor house is a gutted shell hidden behind a clump of deciduous trees in a village outside of Oxford.
Magpie mine (Peak District National Park)
Magpie mine dates from the mid-18th century, a boom time for the lead industry. South of the village of Sheldon, within the Peak District National Park, it was built to exploit the Bole Vein, a rich vein of lead running underneath the Derbyshire countryside. Despite its position, Magpie was so beset with problems throughout its working life that it was thought to be cursed.
In reality its bad luck can be explained by the fact that it was not alone in seeking to make a profit from the Bole Vein. Neighbouring Maypitt also laid claim to the vein and a fierce rivalry developed between the two mines. The dispute could not be settled in the courts and things escalated when explosives used in Magpie mine had a knock-on effect in the neighbouring shaft injuring one of the Maypitt workers.
In a cold act of revenge, Maypitt workers lit fires in underground shafts to smoke out Magpie workers. The Magpie miners were not ones to be bullied, however, and they retaliated by lighting yet more underground fires. This resulted in the death of three Maypitt workers who suffered smoke inhalation.
Nowadays the mine is a far more peaceful place to visit: its ruins are a short stroll from the nearest road or can be taken in as part of a longer walk in the area.
Candleston Castle (Bridgend, south Wales)
A short walk from Ogmore Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan, another perhaps more sorrowful castle stands overgrown and hidden in the woods. Slowly being reclaimed by nature, Candleston Castle is the crumbling ruin of a 14th-century fortified manor house. It is situated on the edge of the Merthyr Mawr National Nature Reserve, the second-highest reserve of sand dunes in Europe. The dunes are a rare and important habitat for nesting birds and insects, and their sheer size makes for a unique afternoon out for the family.
The castle hasn’t always been such a bleak site, however – at one time it would have been at the centre of where the thriving village of Treganlaw (Welsh for ‘the town of a hundred hands’) once stood. The castle’s demise began when the village and all its farmland disappeared underneath the dunes following a series of violent storms. Myths and legends have built up around the vanishing village, with stories of the villagers appearing in ghostly form in search of their lost homes.
Thetford Warren Lodge (Thetford, Norfolk)
Rabbits were a rare sight in medieval England and were prized for both their meat and their fur. Commercial warrens, such as the one at Thetford, were lucrative businesses, and landlords set on protecting their assets constructed large defensive lodges. With its metre-thick walls and its box-shaped structure, the building appears as if a celestial dice has been tossed into the Norfolk countryside. It stands in woodlands planted by the forestry commission, and yet rather than seeming manmade, the area feels wild and untouched.
Local tales tell of two ghostly apparitions defending the ruined lodge. The first – and most sinister – is that of a faceless man thought to be the victim of the gamekeeper’s gun or an escaped leper from the nearby colony. The second has a much more Monty Python feel about it: many have claimed to have seen a large, ghostly white rabbit with wild red eyes standing guard over the Lodge. Legend has it that anyone who gazes into the eyes of this overgrown phantom will have very little time left in this world!
Hermitage Castle (Newcastleton, Scottish Borders)
Positioned on the historically contested border between Scotland and England, Hermitage Castle rises up in the landscape like a huge block of brutalist medieval architecture. Described by historical author George MacDonald Fraser as “the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain”, the ruin also has the reputation of being one of the most haunted castles in Britain.
A former resident, the loathed William de Soulis, was a deeply unpleasant man who practised black magic, kidnapped local children and even stabbed a dinner guest in the back. It is said that the soul of De Soulis, along with his supernatural aid – an evil goblin assassin known as Robin Redcap – are forever trapped within the walls of the castle. Those living nearby say they have heard at night the screams of the ‘bad lord’s’ victims!
St Mary’s Church (East Somerton, Norfolk)
In a county with an abundance of ruined churches, the 15th-century St Mary’s in East Somerton stands out from the pack. In its heyday it must have been an awe-inspiring church, as even today the sheer size of the place is staggering.
Built in the Gothic Perpendicular style, the church would have had a similar look to Gloucester Cathedral or King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, albeit on a smaller scale. Having fallen into disuse in the 17th century, it now lies hidden among the trees and despite its size you have to be practically inside the church’s perimeter before it becomes apparent. It has an otherworldly, almost fairytale, feel to it, which is further enhanced by a large oak tree that has taken root inside the church ruins. If you are to visit just one ruined church in Norfolk, it should undoubtedly be St Mary’s.
David Hamilton is the author of Wild Ruins, a guidebook to Britain’s ruins that details how to visit and gain access to 300 hidden historical spots.
This article was first published by History Extra in 2016