One of England’s most venerable cities, Canterbury offers a rich slice through two thousand years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman castle, and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren of time-skewed Tudor dwellings. The city began as a Belgic settlement that was overrun by the Romans and renamed Durovernum, from where they proceeded to establish a garrison, supply base and system of roads that was to reach as far as the Scottish borders. With the Roman empire’s collapse came the Saxons, who renamed the town Cantwarabyrig; it was a Saxon king, Ethelbert, who in 597 welcomed Augustine, dispatched by the pope to convert the British Isles to Christianity. By the time of his death, Augustine had founded two Benedictine monasteries, one of which – Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica – was to become the first cathedral in England. Canterbury, like any other city with such rich history, has its fair share of spooky ghost stories, including the Girl in Grey in St Margaret’s Street, the mysterious figure in white at the Marlowe Theatre, and the Robed Man of Sudbury Tower.
Sir Kingsley Amis first came to prominence when he won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1954 for Lucky Jim, one of the great comic creations of the 20th-century. In subsequent works he proved to be a master of invective and comedy, as well as revealing his interest in the supernatural in several short stories and the chilling novel The Green Man (1969), which was described by The Times as “an accomplished ghost story in the M R James style, under appreciated when it first came out, but winning some belated admiration when it became a television serial in 1990.” A clubbable, generous-hearted, though often irascible man, Amis unwittingly created a furore when the novel was first published. It was written in its original form as a radio broadcast intended to make listeners believe it was a factual account. The whole idea backfired, however, when – like H G Wells before him – he found people, including close friends, believing it was true! Indeed, despite the fact that he repeatedly stated it was a “lying narrative, fiction disguised as fact,” this misapprehension – like the theme of another of his short stories Who or What Was It? – haunted Amis for the rest of his life.
The Lake District is perhaps England’s most hyped scenic area, and for good reason. Within an area a mere thirty miles across, sixteen major lakes are squeezed between the steeply pitched faces of England’s highest mountains, an almost alpine landscape that is augmented by waterfalls and picturesque stone-built villages packed into the valleys. Two factors spurred the first waves of Lake District tourism: the re-appraisal of the landscape brought about by such painters as Constable and the writings of William Wordsworth and his contemporaries. Wordsworth was not the first writer to praise the Lake District – Thomas Gray wrote appreciatively of his visit in 1769 – but he dominates its literary landscape, not solely through his poetry but also through his still useful Guide to the Lakes (1810). Worsdworth and his fellow poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey formed a clique that become known as the ‘Lake Poets’, a label based more on their fluctuating friendships and their shared passion for the region than on any common subject matter in their literary output. The one subject which did overlap in their writings was the infamous episode of the ‘Maid of Buttermere’, which also inspired Melvyn Bragg’s best-selling novel of the same name in the 1980s.
Sawney Bean, the cave-dwelling cannibal, is one of Scotland’s most shocking and gruesome legends. Sawney Bean was – legend tells – the head of an incestuous cannibalistic family, who oversaw a 25-year reign of murder and robbery from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 14th century. There are numerous written sources detailing the account of Sawney and his family, and it has been suggested that the legend has its roots in real events. Little is known for certain about his early life, however Sawney Bean is believed to have been born in East Lothian in the late 13th century, and was a tanner by trade. Yet, while the story itself was gory enough, it has often been thought to have an even more sinister subtext. Despite being set in Scotland, the gruesome deeds of Sawney Bean were popularised in England during the 17th and 18th centuries, at a time when there was widespread prejudice against Scots. At the time of the Jacobite risings in the 18th Century, the English press regularly portrayed Scots in a negative way, either as subjects of ridicule or as having a sinister nature (the name Sawney itself was a popular English name for the barbarous cartoon Scot). But just how much truth was there to this sinister legend?
The Mistletoe Bride is a haunting short story by one of Britain’s finest living authors, Kate Mosse, who was inspired by a traditional English folk tale. Mosse describes how as a little girl she first came across the story of the ‘Mistletoe Bride’ in a book that her parents had – Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. In the book several places in Britain claimed to be the historical setting for the story – Skelton in Yorkshire, Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, Marwell Old Hall in Hampshire, Castle Horneck in Cornwall, Exton Hall in Rutland, Brockdish Hall in Norfolk and Bawdrip Rectory in Somerset. While the time and place is uncertain, the story, concerning a young bride who suffocates in an oaken chest, is always the same and is generally regarded as being founded on fact. However, its popularity can be laid at the door of the 19th century songwriter Thomas Haynes Bayley, who set the story to music and published it as The Mistletoe Bough in 1844. It was an instant hit and became one of the most popular Victorian and Edwardian Christmas music hall songs. The enduring nature of this particular story has led many to wonder how much truth there actually is to it or whether it instead taps into something more primal – fear of change, loss of innocence or awareness of the fragility of life?
London has been the capital of England, more or less, for almost a thousand years. Much of the capital’s history is either hidden or forgotten, and this is especially true of the London beneath the feet of its residents. London’s sewers, tunnels and underground network stretch for uncounted miles deep below the bustling city, home to millions, which exists on the surface. Within those hidden depths lurk all manner of mysteries – the source of rumours, legends and nightmares down the centuries. There was a sensation in the 1860s, when it was feared, following the death of a well-known politician, that a band of criminals were stalking the capital, garroting anyone unfortunate enough to come into their path, then disappearing below ground. Then there was a string of news stories around the turn of the twentieth century, concerning reports of archaeological discoveries of hidden subterranean habitats and strangely large human remains found in the city’s sewers. But there is perhaps no story more terrifying than the persistent rumours over the years that the sewers of London are full of monstrous pigs that will one day free themselves from their foetid home and run riot through the city. The Black Swine in the sewers of Hampstead is one Victorian urban legend that has proved to be horrifyingly resilient.
Walt Disney – animator, business magnate, the man who brought us Mickey Mouse et al – was and remains an international icon. During his lifetime he earned more Academy awards and nominations than anyone else in history and today the company that he left behind is one of the richest and most powerful in the world. When he died in 1966, as everyone knows, he was cryogenically frozen, and his frozen corpse stored beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Except that it wasn’t – Disney’s remains were actually cremated on December 17, 1966, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The first known human cryogenic freezing was in January 1967, more than a month after Disney’s death. As Disney’s daughter Diane wrote in 1972, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumour that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.” So what is the source of this bizarre frozen head urban legend? Well, according to “at least one Disney publicist”, as reported in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969, the source of the rumour was a group of Disney Studio animators with “a bizarre sense of humour” who were playing a final prank on their late boss. As we shall see, however, this is not the only fact relating to the life of Walt Disney that is a matter of some dispute.
It’s fair to say that, during World War I, Herbert Kitchener’s face was just about the most famous in the country. His commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!”, remains recognised and parodied in popular culture to this day. Before the First World War, Kitchener won fame for the imperial campaigns, most particularly in the Sudan and South Africa, which made him a national hero. This made his unexpected and bizarre death in the middle of the war a demoralising shock. The official story is that Kitchener was killed in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a German mine of the coast of Scotland. But some suspected that this was a cover-up – a convenient explanation put out to appease a puzzled public who were in need of some sort of closure. Locals spoke of mysterious events that took place on the night of Kitchener’s apparent death. A variety of rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories have since then refused to be dismissed entirely. A further investigation was requested by many who remained unconvinced by the official version of events. This was impossible at the time due to the ongoing war effort but, in all the years since, the call for the case to be re-opened has never quite gone away. The question of what actually happened to Lord Kitchener has still to be answered definitively.
Porth Oer, an attractive if unobtrusive beach hidden on the north Wales coast is an unusual location for one of the UK’s strangest unsolved mysteries. This small, picturesque National Trust beach, backed by steep grassy cliffs, is famously known as ‘Whistling Sands’, a nickname based on the sound the granules make underfoot when you walk over its gleaming sand. The sound is created due to the stress of weight that is put upon the sand, and interestingly Porth Oer is unique among the beaches of Europe for this unusual effect. ‘Singing sands’ do exist in other places in the world, but usually these take the form of vast desert landscapes – the singing dunes of Almaty in Kazakhstan for example, or the Kelso dunes in California’s Mojave Desert – rather than a cute little beach on the Llyn Heritage Coast. Although there is a general consensus among scientists as to the best conditions for the ‘singing sand’ effect, why places like Port Oer exist at all remains something of a mystery.
Perceval Landon (1868-1927) was an English writer and journalist, now best remembered for his classic and much reprinted ghost story Thurnley Abbey. Well known to ghost story connoisseurs, Thurnley Abbey is a true classic of the genre, as well as being one of the most anthologised tales of the supernatural ever written. I’m not joking, Thurnley Abbey appears in virtually every other ghost story collection ever published! The tale was printed originally in Landon’s only short story collection, Raw Edges (1908), which in fact contains no other ghostly tales, although a few of the pieces have other fantastical elements. Raw Edges generally, as well as Thurnley Abbey in particular, display both Landon’s intelligence and his versatility as a writer. He was well-travelled, educated and discerning in his tastes (as well as being related to Spencer Perceval, who holds the dubious distinction of being the only British Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated). Despite all of this, and despite the fact that he was also a barrister, a good friend of Rudyard Kipling, a journalist, a war correspondent and an expert on heraldry, Landon is best remembered today as a ghost story writer and the perpetrator of one of the oddest hoaxes in publishing history.