Want to greet a ghost or sleep with a spectre? Wales is reputedly one of the most haunted countries in the world and its castles, stately homes, pubs and even abbey ruins can give a whole new meaning to getting into the spirit of the place. Here are six of the most spirited spots.
The Skirrid Inn
I’m unarmed – no de-materializer or spectral blaster. Some ghostbuster!
It’s dark and musty in this small dressing room, just a thin, uneven sliver of light shows under the door. I hear my own breathing, the creak of ancient floorboards and from downstairs, an occasional murmur of conversation. I’m waiting for something – anything! – to happen.
I’ve always wanted to meet a real ghost. But alas! There are no prickles down my spine, no whispers, no rustling skirts, nothing. In the haunted bedroom of the Skirrid Inn, the infamous ghost of Fanny Price is apparently reticent today. I’m tempted to say, “Bah, humbug!”
Once used as a circuit courthouse, this historic inn near Abergavenny in Wales was the site of many hangings during the early part of its 900-year history. Indeed, the Skirrid Inn is reputedly the most haunted pub in the British Isles.
Fanny was its landlady in the 1830s, so she’s a relative latecomer to the spirit collection here. But it’s she who has been seen, felt and heard most often. On one notable occasion, she apparently attempted to drown a hapless guest in her bath; the poor woman ran screaming from her room.
A portentous noose hangs in the Elizabethan stairwell, down whose steps countless condemned wretches presumably took their last steps from the courtroom. It’s very dramatic, but no one is really sure where the hangings actually took place.
Owners Geoff and Sharon Fiddler take it all with immense good humor and little apparent concern. And why not? The pub’s guest rooms are regularly filled with ghost hunters hoping for a haunting. Saturday nights are booked for the next six months!
Am I too skeptical to fee the ghostly presence? I don’t know but as the only chill I’m feeling comes from an open window, it’s back to the warm, cosy pub lounge for me. With its massive inglenook fireplace and Tudor beams, I can picture generations of ploughmen enjoying their ale of an evening. Perhaps they even sang a few songs together? This is, after all, Wales.
To be born Welsh, they say, is to be born with music in your blood and poetry in your soul. Welsh choirs are as ubiquitous as the sheep – and they outnumber the human population nine to one!
But this tiny country has sparked the imaginations of four of the world’s most inventive fantasy writers; C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl and J. K. Rowling all have strong Welsh connections. And Tolkien is said to have based some of his Middle Earth languages on the lilting cadences of Welsh.
The Queen’s Head, Monmouth
It’s not really surprising; it would be a rare individual who remained uninspired in this land of spectacular mountains, rich musical heritage and extraordinary castles. These castles, as well as a string of pubs, stately homes and even ruined abbeys offer opportunities for those looking for, shall we say, a more spiritual experience.
The Queen’s Head, Monmouth
Pubs seem to be a favourite spectral haunt. Oliver Cromwell, England’s leader during its brief non-royalist period in the mid-1600s, was said to be a frequent visitor to the Queen’s Head, a delightfully antiquated, Tudor-beamed hostelry in the heart of Monmouth.
During this Civil War, one Cavalier – supporter of the King – decided this would be the ideal spot to assassinate the Puritan leader in his bedroom. He failed dismally. Worse, he was chased into the pub’s low-beamed lounge where he was finally slain. The poor Cavalier’s failure apparently hangs heavy on his spirit; the current publican’s daughter has often encountered his ghost upstairs, near one of the bedrooms.
Like the Skirrid’s owners, this pair regards the haunting of their inn as a mild aberration. They are more likely to tell you about the live jazz than the dead ghost as a reason to visit the Queen’s Head.
Cardiff Castle, Cardiff
In a relatively small landscape, Wales boasts 400 castles, of which about 100 still stand either as impressive ruins or actual habitations. Edward I, the nasty king of Braveheart fame, built a string of fortresses in order to subdue the unruly Welsh. They, in turn, built their own castles to keep the English out!
One of the most impressive of these stands right in the centre of the capital city. Cardiff Castle began 2000 years ago as Roman fortifications, and the magnificent Norman keep, built in the 12th century, still watches over the city. The castle has passed through many hands, ending with the powerful and wealthy Bute family. In the 19th century, the third Marquess of Bute hired the famed architectural designer, William Burgess, to turn his home into a fantastic medieval castle. The Gothic marvels wrought by Burgess are extraordinary and only by taking a castle tour can you appreciate their full scope.
While there, take a careful look around the splendid library. You might encounter the castle’s ghost, the second Marquess who died suddenly in 1848. His spectre, clad in a heavy cloak, has been seen there as well as in the small chapel – the room in which he died. As it was his son who turned Cardiff Castle into a Gothic wonderland, one might speculate that his father’s ghost simply doesn’t approve of the decor?
Gwydir Castle, Conwy
The problem with most hauntings is that they generally occur during the darkness hours, so unless you are able to spend the night, you’re likely to miss all the fun. Few castles offer this option. But at Gwydir Castle in Conwy, reputedly the most haunted castle in the country, you can do just that.
In the far north of Wales, near the foothills of the Snowdonia Mountains, Gwydir offers a fabulous four-poster bed, traditional Welsh breakfast and resident spectres, all at a very reasonable price. As a bonus, a large flock of peacocks lives on the grounds and their evocative cries make a delightfully eerie backdrop for your stay.
But this handsome old castle whose original structure dates to the 14th century doesn’t lay on a single ghost. The place is absolutely rife with them – crying children, a dog, an Elizabethan lady in a yellow dress, a great torch-lit procession of monks on the Great Terrace. Two appear most frequently.
The first is the apparition of a young girl who was apparently murdered in the mid-1500s, when she became pregnant by the lord of the castle, Sir John Wynn. He hid her body behind the paneling of a bedroom in the North Wing. A drop in temperature and a foul smell heralds her appearance in this corridor. The second is her murderer’s remorseful ghost who visits the nearby spiral staircase, wringing his hands at his dastardly deed.
Wynn’s ghost doesn’t visit and while I neither see nor smell the girl’s, I confess to noting a drop in temperature in the corridor. But could this simply be a draft?
The current owners of Gwydir, Peter and Judy Welford, seem unconcerned about their otherworldly tenants. They’re more preoccupied with restoring this magnificent building to its former grandeur – a relentless task. A recent coup was re-acquiring the 17th century wall and ceiling decorations of the main dining room. These had been removed and sold to American, William Randolph Hearst, but never installed in his estate, San Simeon. After his death, the elaborate wood, leather and gilt panels languished in New York until the Welfords tracked them down and brought them home.
It’s hard to imagine calling this splendid pile ‘home’, but patently some of its earliest inhabitants loved it so well, they’re reluctant to leave it, even after death. A tour of the castle and grounds is very much a must for visitors and plan to stay overnight if you really want the full experience. The King’s room boasts an unconventional throne – in the bathroom!
Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire
No record of haunted places can be complete without monks, and the Cistercian Abbey of Tintern, a magnificent monastic ruin on the banks of the Wye River, happily obliges. Founded in 1131 by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow, it prospered for several centuries, only to be dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1500s.
The ruins have been painted by Turner and inspired poets like Wordsworth and Tennyson. In 1967, Allen Ginsberg took an acid trip at Tintern Abbey, then wrote Wales Visitation. Under the influence of LSD, he undoubtedly might have seen more than a few spectres.
But Tintern’s massive stone walls and sense of desolation seem simply to insist that there be spectral monks processing in the dead of night. The hollow windows and stark bones of the chancel seem designed for such visitations, their shapes evoking images of black-clad friars. There are legends of such ghostly processions as well as one of a spectral knight in chain mail. The area is closed at night but one can get very close. Its eerie shape looms in the darkness and on a clear night, the moon offers just enough ghostly pallor to bring a chill to the most skeptical spine.
Bodelwydden Castle Denbighshire
Bodelwydden Castle, Denbighshire
While Shakespeare’s ghosts were nearly all male, it’s extraordinary to note that many ghosts actually seem to be women – palely loitering in flowing robes along corridors and staircases. Bodelwydden’s spiritual visitor is no exception. The original building dates to the 15th century though it was renovations by the Williams family in the late 1600s that created the castle as it looks today. In 1829, during one of the periods of restoration, the diary of the lord of that period, Sir John Hay Williams, noted that human bones – gender not specified – were found near one of the chimneys. He had them replaced in the wall when it was rebuilt. Enter the ghost.
Whose bones are these and is their owner one of the several spectres who haunt the grounds? A mysterious lady dressed in a flowing gown wanders the Sculpture Gallery, but shadowy figures have been seen throughout the house – even drifting through walls! But these are ghosts with a sense of humor. The most intriguing experience visitors have reported is having their hair pulled!
Whether or not you see a ghost in this patently spirited country, it’s impossible not to love Wales or as it’s known to its own population, Cymru (pronounced Coom-Ree). Here, every signpost is a challenge to the tongue and every turn of the road brings more magnificent views. And frankly, I find the living inhabitants of Cymru much more friendly and welcoming than any spectre.
Story first published in The Town Crier in 2014