"I am not asking, and no one is saying anything..." - a staff member at the Old Queen's Head, Sheffield
Contents (click to go to the relevant section):
In early 2020, and just before the Covid pandemic blighted us, I decided to embark on a project to examine the ghosts of the UK; their forms, description, behaviour - and indeed, to try and enumerate just how haunted we really are. This would entail contacting many thousands of venues, which I had carefully collected for a mapping project that started in 2015 and which is still going strong today. As we shall see, this was not easy for a variety of reasons but which led to some surprising conclusions...
Of the 5000+ locations, a number could be whittled down considerably. A sizeable fraction were ruinous, without a contactable custodian. Then, how does one go about contacting roads, rivers, bridges and so on? A further study revealed that some were simply uncontactable anyway. This still left several thousand venues, the majority of which were public houses. Whatever I gleaned would be placed as "Updates" on my Ghost Mapping Page. The focus of that page was on places that could conceivably be visited by interested parties and was originally created to encourage tourism of haunted locations. I was also only interested in places that had had some form of untoward "activity" reported since, say, the 1980s onwards though I was slightly flexible on the date.
My strategy was to contact the locations twice if email and/or Facebook messaging allowed it, with a gap between the methods of contact. Sometimes, if a sizeable interval had passed, I tried contact a third time; due to most of the places being closed for about a year due to covid, this deferred contact method was the only option! In those cases I wouldn't barge in on day one and ask about ghosts; I left a respectful 3 or 4 week gap after re-opening to allow the venues to become re-established. So, the majority of places have been emailed/messaged twice, and a smaller number only once and an even smaller number three times. It was also advantageous putting off a second contact. During my first pass, a lot of places had no internet presence. But the lure of a domain in cyberspace, or the inevitable beckon of social media, even if not used very regularly, was obviously too much for many proprietors.
I didn’t bother to contact places like the Ancient Ram Inn, Derby Gaol, the Ancient Ram Inn, the Nottingham Galleries of Justice, Kelvedon Hatch etc. as they were hardly likely to say that nothing has been experienced lately. After all, no-one would charge access for places that had nothing of note occur, right?
Discussion of results:
This dual/treble communication effort was to reap dividends. Despite the automated response "we will get back to you in a few days", they rarely did, which makes me ponder on their customer service. I found that some places were more likely to reply using email or Facebook but rarely both. I can't help but feel that the custodian of the locations just routinely ignores or deletes messages unread on those places. But there is another reason why reattempting contact was beneficial; the venues, especially pubs, have a high turn over of staff and you might find (say) a new publican more amenable to questions than the previous one; a good example is The Castle at Edgehill, who didn't respond to my first query but did on my second and in the meantime, a newspaper review of the establishment talked about a phantom that I had never heard about, and I was able to inquire about this. Another good respondent, from a team that had moved in since my first attempt, was The Mitre pub in Lancaster Gate, London.
But unfortunately this "double contact" plan has inevitably resulted in some stories falling by the wayside. Very rarely, you'd get a message saying, "We've been here for x months and nothing to report but the previous landlord had many instances to report." It usually proved impossible to establish more details or contact the old staff. Metaphorically, if not literally, one shrugs one's shoulders and moves to the next location in the huge inventory of places.
It wasn't just the venue that I enquired about, but the location itself. Places do close, new tenants move in, and addresses are repurposed. Knowing that sometimes ghosts resist a change of occupant and carry on regardless, I asked the new businesses if they had experienced anything. Occasionally I did find data of interest (the Law hairdressing salon in Saffron Walden is but one example; it used to be a public house).
Most places didn't respond to my query at all, and the majority of the remainder reported nothing recently (but sometimes still gave brand new historical details). A tiny, but significant fraction reported on-going activity. A suprisingly large number of places gave the standard response "yes we have ghosts but I'm a bit busy now so I'll email you details later." Presuming that they were being sincere, I waited a few weeks before sending a friendly follow-up message. With hardly any exceptions, this resulted in no reply at all. I had to take at face value the places that said that they did have spectral reports but despite my attempts at ascertaining more details, I was roundly ignored. On Facebook you can see if someone has read your message and in every case, they had done so but no reply was ever obtained. This of course is their prerogative. And short of the facetious suggestion of turning up on their doorstep with thumbscrews, there was no way I could entice people to talk if they had obviously said all they wanted to say. I just wish so many places didn't "dangle carrots." If they were worried that I was going to divert them from their business, they needn't have. Lest it be thought that I would have bombarded them with a torrent of questions, far from it. Maybe half a dozen questions to amplify and clarify.
Amongst the preponderance of disappointments and dashed hopes, a couple of exciting snippets occasionally came my way, usually in the form of "Sorry, no ghosts here, but did you know about my previous place...?" and then I was regaled with a brand new location of which I had no knowledge. Of course, sometimes, this was followed with a bald statement with no further data from my respondent or the new occupiers. From time to time, one would garner exciting information. I was chatting to a lady named Ann and she listed a number of pubs in which she had worked (one of which is sadly closed; a shame as she gave some fascinating details) but then she mentioned one that I had never heard of previously: The Railway Inn in Swadlincote. While working there, her glasses disappeared and then mysteriously returned after a delivery of beer; this was to be the only experience that she had in her 18 months at these premises. This was intriguing but I wanted to avoid one-offs as they are difficult to research. Naturally, I wanted to ascertain more information and sent off an email to the pub. The staff member who replied seemed very keen to chat, and then confirmed that untoward phenomena was still manifesting and then ... nothing.
In this category of time-wasters, a mention should be made of the Royal Castle Hotel in Dartmouth. Danielle Frensham, the receptionist said, "I have actually spent the past few days gathering ghost stories from our staff members to put in a history brochure I am writing..." and despite an offer to call for a chat and share research, nothing transpired and both of my follow-up replies were never replied to. After a while you become so used to being shunned, you no longer become disillusioned or infuriated at having your expectations dashed. A couple of venues expressed interest in my work but when I gave them more details, they declined to help. However, they all did so graciously. The closest I got to an insult was the famous Dering Arms in Pluckley, who said; "To be honest we don’t get involved. The haunted stuff just brings idiots to the village. 10 customers all sharing one coke and all using the toilets ... not for us !!" The famous Maid's Head in Norwich was indignant (like others) that they were on my inventory and not only asked for it to be removed but asked if I could help in expunging the record of their hauntings from all literature. They obviously thought that I had more clout in the paranormal world than I had realised and that I could demand that publishers rip offending pages from their unsold books, alter manuscripts and so on.
Getting some places to open up was like pulling teeth. Very often I was told, "I have experienced nothing..." or rarely, "My staff have nothing to report..." (my emphasis) This begs the obvious question: have visitors or guests said anything? Why are people being so guarded in their use of language? A good example is Hodroyd Hall; staff member Stephen Aviss first responded by saying, "I have had numerous stories related to me over the years but as yet I haven’t personally experienced anything I would consider noteworthy to report." But when asked further, he admitted that others had experienced phenomena and quite recently too. My further query as to whether the stories came from staff or visitors, or ghost hunters (and their unreliable observations) went unanswered.
There were a couple of moments of levity, which forced a smile; usually landlords saying that "the only strange thing here is (insert name of colleague)" but a particular instance did make one scratch one's head. The Minster Tavern in Ely was contacted and asked about the reputed phantom in their pub. An incredulous reply came back asking where I had got that information, to which I shot back that it came from an information board in their very own establishment!
A number of locations had information sheets, no doubt to placate guests or to satisfy researchers like myself and these were forwarded (e.g. the famous Mermaid Inn in Rye, The Bournemouth Town Halland The Manor at Weston on the Green Country House Hotel). Unfortunately, they did not reply to my query as to whether anything had happened in the last few years which meant that I had to label these places as "perhaps" having activity in the near past, rather than a definite "yes." But I received a truly wonderful response from The Crown at Wells, who not only provided an information sheet detailing staff experiences, but, when I probed further, the manager related two incidents from the last few years. Such generosity was rare. As stated above, more often that not, I had to be satisfied with a simple "yes" as further information was simply not forthcoming.
So, I had more luck with some places than others. Wetherspoons pubs never replied; they have a policy of removing pages from Facebook but with diligence, email addresses for a lot of them could be ascertained. Replies from breweries and their pubs and hotels were hit and miss, though a few tried - and failed - to generate an air of mystery (see here and here for two examples; another can be found at the top of this webpage.)
English Heritage hardly ever replied, as did Historic Environment Scotland and National Trust Scotland. Staff at the English National Trust properties were, surprisingly, very helpful and cordial for the most part although not many provided recent stories. An experience that I had with a certain location did leave me perplexed, though. A worker named Georgia at Osterley Park House told me, "We wish you all the success with your interesting survey but unfortunately as per National Trust policy we will not be able partner or align Osterley Park’s name with out of company or third party projects." Having already obtained useful and valuable information from other NT premises before this, I contacted their headquarters for clarification: "There is no Trust-wide policy on whether or not places share stories of ghosts, and a number do share them - via our website, for example. Some places (such as Treasurer's House) have become well-known for their alleged ghost sightings, which now form a part of the story they tell, and others much less so ... It is down to individual property managers to decide what types of events they accommodate at their places, and this may be decided by staff availability, for example, or simply by the fact that ghost stories don't play a major part of the property's history."
So, Osterley House's staff were less than truthful in their reply. It probably does depend on who you contact; you may, as possibly happened with Georgia, encounter someone who regards the whole notion of ghosts to be so abhorrent or so "low brow" that they just issue a response just to fob people off. One wonders how often this has happened in my survey! Diverging from this slightly, the NT website does list a few ghost stories from some of their properties but obviously no-one maintains those pages; having obtained responses from many of the staff, all has been quiet at most of them for a large number of years now. This lack of checking and updates can be said of newspapers that provide "Top 10 haunted pub/hotels/theatres etc. in your region." It is bewildering that venues like The Ettington Park Hotel always appear on these listings, but it seems that it is just too difficult for most people to elicit a simple, recent quote.
Brielfly returning to the fact that some places lack candour, if I thought that Osterley's response was smug and insufferable, it was nothing compared to the reply from Sandringham House in Norfolk. Unfortunately, in a fit of pique I deleted the email but I refer to the gist of the response in my book on ghosts of the region: "Attempts by this author to ascertain whether anything still occurs at Sandringham has resulted in the reply that the estate would not be replying to such queries. The tone of the message was in an evasive, almost slightly hostile manner, akin to the way that a stern father rebukes an errant child." Hampton Court was even worse. I emailed them and said that I aware from research by (now retired) tour guide Ian Franklin that most of the famous stories would appear to be inventions from the end of the 19th century, possibly for tourism reasons but was curious if anything had been encountered by staff or visitors. I informed the Court of Ian's research and that most of the stories seem to be modern concoctions. Gemma Appleby-Bowles, the Customer Service Advisor replied: "Due to the high cultural value of the sites and items we care for, we do not allow paranormal investigations in order to protect them from accidental damage. However, Hampton Court Palace has previously been investigated by Dr Richard Wiseman and his team from University of Hertfordshire, and a copy of the report they produced can be found here," and she provided a link to his work. She also gave a link to their website which tabulated all the stories that I had already told her were bogus. I quickly replied back and reiterated that I was only interested in reports from staff and visitors and as if to prove that she hadn't read a word I'd said, she responded, "Unfortunately we do not know of any more recent encounters, due to the fact that we do not allow paranormal investigations at our sites." I had specifically said that I wasn't referring to paranormal investigations but phenomena encountered during normal operations at the Court.
The notion of contactees being less than honest in their responses is usually something that cannot be quantified. Only a few venues gave this writer conundrums. The first was the Cellar Bar in Stamford. Andrew Croft was a manager here for many years and in a long and detailed telephone conversation, he listed many of his and his staff's experiences, which corroborated the accounts in the press, as well as providing new stories. Not long afterwards, I was in contact with the Stamford Arts Centre, which was in the same building as the Cellar Bar. I received an email from Graham Burley, the Arts & Cultural Services Operations Manager for South Kesteven District Council and he said, "We ran the bar in-house for a few years after Mr Croft left never any sightings, I have worked in the building for 25 years and nothing..." When I clarified whether he meant the bar or the Arts Centre, he said, "No sightings anywhere in my time. Sorry." He was obviously in charge at the same time at Mr Croft and yet had never heard of anything in the building, either the Arts Centre or the bar. Mr Croft had also provided ghost reports from the Arts Centre too, which makes a mockery of Mr Burley's assertions. Who was telling the truth?
Another venue with confusing misinformation was The Berwick Town Hall. Responding to an email from myself, Michael Herriott, the Town Hall Keeper replied, "Berwick Town Hall may be on a list of places that are alleged to be haunted but fortunately it is not and thus there have been no manifestations of uncleanness here." It is not known what he means by 'uncleanness,' but it hints that there is an element of bias and that he regards the whole subect of ghosts with disdain and scorn. Author Darren Ritson talked to caretaker 'Michael Erriott' for his book on the ghosts of Berwick, who told him of the stories associated with the place. Herriott says that although he did have a conversation with Ritson, he claims that none of the attributed comments in his book came from him. Ritson, a respected researcher and author, denies fabrication.
I constantly searched for news articles via Google news search, as well as looking for links to newspapers on Facebook, Twitter etc. in attempts to bolster my existing data with new information. Displeasingly, I sometimes found venues that had ignored or fobbed me off, but instead talked to the media about their anecdotes instead. It would have been nice to speak to these places first-hand. Fortunately there were fewer than I thought there would be, but two left a very sour impression:
As should be obvious, I am an independant researcher working with no budget. I cannot provide the publicity that the media can proffer, or pay the money that ghost hunting companies can. It does seem very unfair that I am seemingly regarded as unworthy of contact because I cannot offer these two resources. It just leaves the distateful impression that some venues are driven by money and publicity, and not by a desire to add to the historical record.
When a location referred to the results of ghost-hunting groups, either amateur or commercial, I asked if anything had been reported by staff, vistors or guests during their normal, day to day business. Some places were happy to oblige; a few possibly took umbrage as I never heard from them again, such as the Mill Street Barracks. But it is telling the number of places that said that nothing had been experienced - unless they happened to be ghost hunters. For instance, Ursula Pearce, the Heritage & Education Officer for the Royal Victoria Chapel museum in Netley: "To answer your question, to the best of my knowledge none of the staff or volunteers have experienced any of the phenomena you have suggested (or anything else ghostly/odd/inexplicable) at the Chapel or Park over the last 4-5 years. However, we have had visits from a number of paranormal investigation groups since reopening to the Chapel in 2018 and they’ve always been very happy with the things they have found and have said there is plenty of ‘action’." Then there is Cate Waby, manager of St Mary's Guildhall in Lincoln: "I have worked in the building for over 16 years and have never experienced any unknown or known paranormal activity and neither has any of my visitors to the building as far as I am aware - I know the paranormal groups have." The response from other custodians is similar; nothing experienced by staff, volunteers or visitors. But when the ghost groups come in, the place becomes paranormally active.
When one looks at methodology of the spook chasers, which is discussed in the appendix, all becomes clear as to why venues seemingly become paranormally active, but are quiet at other times.
To ease the analysis, it was decided to categorise the venues, which can be seen in the table below. This was mostly straightforward but a few arbitrary decisions had to be made. A location was designated as a "hotel" if it had rooms available, regardless of whether it offered food or drink as an incidental feature. Likewise, "restaurants" were designated as such if being a hostelry seemed to be their secondary function. No doubt, a few of my designations may be on the wayside. But what does one do when a place could fall into one or more categories? Some places that have Royal ghosts are also hotels or pubs. A number of mansions could be classified as museums, and vice verse. Once the numbers had been tallied, I suspected that any such miscategorisations were moot as the conclusions turned out to be overwhelming anyway; and any such venues affected by being given a wrong type/moniker were probably small.
The adjusted figures omit those locations that couldn't be contacted by any electronic means. It is perhaps difficult to realise that in this electronic age, there are locations with no contact methods at all; sometimes, the Facebook page was many years out of date (despite this, contact was still attempted), or the contact form on websites was malfunctioning. Or, in the case of hotels, there was a simple booking form but no email whatsoever. Many venues in "misc" were private homes that allowed access but only on a handful of dates per year. And a fair number of castles are ruins with no custodian to be found.
A few places might have been listed as closed, but were still kept on my master listing despite this; this was usually the case for pubs, which were found on the "whatpub.com" website, facebook and so on to be listed as "long term closed" - but rarely did such premises become private abodes (and in fact, a small number did eventually reopen; and a few took the opportunity to refurbish their premises during lockdown to incorporate lodgings, hence requiring a re-designation from "pub" to "hotel"). Giving these places the benefit of the doubt, I elected to keep them, with a view to attempting contact when the situation changes. From time to time, I found pubs that were listed as closed for refurbishment and a couple have suffered fire damage with a suggestion that they might reopen at some point. I retained these places in my list, but were removed from the tally of "contactable" locations. And as I have related in the preamble, there were times when I didn't feel it necessary to contact the venue as they were so famous (and also derive a substantial cash income from "ghost hunts") that it simply wasn't necessary. At the time of writing, a few places still remain closed for whatever reason but give indications that they will re-open (for instance, fire damaged locations). Hopefully these currently inaccessible venues will become amenable for contact at some point.
A couple of locations that were new to me were identified in newspaper articles, and these numbers, since about 2020, are in a separate column. I make no judgement on the accuracy of the witnesses in these interviews.
My list had been broken down into further categories, but these were not part of my contact plan. To give but two examples: religious establishments rarely replied to my efforts, as I had found in previous research, and thus I wasted no time on them. I did not try to gauge the level of ghostliness at emergency services as I didn't want to distract them from their vital work.
What conclusions can we glean from the data? First of all that the majority of places, despite their promises, do not get back in touch! From a ghost point of view, it would seem that the number of spectres as reported in books and other media over the years is overstated. Of some surprising is that the recently reported phenomena is very different from those reported in books etc. even just a few years hence. In many locations, there may have been ghosts there - once but not within the last few years. Are they dormant or have they faded away completely? Were there ever any ghosts there in the first place? Were they simply rumours, or Chinese whispers? A lot of the back story cannot be verified and it is assumed in many cases that the spooky history is simply true. Or were the tales hoaxes or lies to entice customers - and latterly, ghost hunting groups? For a discussion on this latter point, see my page.
Of the categories listed above, only "pubs and clubs" gave responses where the number of yes/maybe responses was comparable to the maybe not/no replies. All the others show a dominance of negative replies.
What is of interest is the nature of the ghost stories. A lot are poltergeist phenomena. There are very few recognisable human or animal forms. Where "shapes" have been discerned, they would seem to be black forms or shadows, usually observed out of the corner of the eye. Of interest is a mention on the ASSAP facebook group by a gentleman who is attending a Covid support group. He says that, "many people are reporting corner of the eye phenomena, usually human-shaped shadow figures, although some have seen animals, as well as having unprecendented dreams about relatives that have died that seem unusually real." Another friend, who worked at a hospital eye unit, said that cataracts could be give symptoms of "black shapes or figures, usually seen out of the corner of the eye." This could include wisps of smoke. One such person who was experiencing these phenomena was advised to contact an optician and she had a test to determine if she had a cataract, which she did.
However, lest the above be pounced upon as a way of explaining away ghosts, this does not include those occasions where black shapes have been seen directly - and sometimes by more than one witness, the most spectacular that I discovered during my survey was at the Llindir Inn. Problems with visual acuity also doesn't explain poltergeist-like effects.
Unfortunately my survey results were not so palatable to ghost hunting groups. By March 2022 it was clear what the trend of the results to date would be, and they were mentioned in a tabloid magazine and this soon disseminated into the press and social media. I was lambasted and lampooned, especially on Twitter, by those who didn't know my full data, results to date, or my methodology. The majority of those people were amateur ghost hunters. It seems that they didn't like to hear that ghosts are in decline and their personal attacks proved to me that they were more inclined to accept their own beliefs, rather than facts. There is of course, a huge chasm between these two but spook chasers often confuse the two.
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Although many ghost hunters describe their results as "convincing evidence", their research methodology is basically, codswallop. By reading the reports on-line one can immediately see how subjective and credulous they are. This does not apply to all groups I must stress, but it does seem to apply to those that end up being given disproportionate coverage in the newspapers. The reasons for the groups' inanity are listed below:
There are also a number of other factors why the results of ghost "hunting" are questionable (for instance, the ideomotor effect which explains ouija board interactions; and "scrying" which is simply an optical artefact which you get if you stare at anything long enough). But most of the techniques utilised by modern day spook chasers seem to be inspired by TV programmes and their use in that medium implies some form of endorsement, no matter how risible. One such TV show resurrects occasionally and it seems to be the template for many ghost "hunts". As a consequence I call these groups "Most Haunted Wannabes." And their maxim seems to be, "why settle for a rational explanation when a paranormal one will suffice?"
This is not to say that there haven't been genuinely inexplicable phenomena. But looking at the multitude of sources - website reports, newspaper articles, interviews, YouTube videos, TV shows and their ilk - these possible paranormal results are heavily diluted in a sea of histrionics.
A few other examples can be provided which causes one to doubt the observational skills of ghost hunters. Not so long ago, a photo was printed in the press showing two blurry objects taken at Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel. There was the inevitable flurry of excitement in the press, with some likening the shapes to the menacing twins in the 1980 cinematic version of "The Shining". The problem is that those objects are actually fire extinguishers. Unless the ghost hunters were myopic, they must have seen what they were photographing. The other example is a personal story, from years ago when digital photography was just on the cusp on taking over as the preferred medium of choice for taking pictures. A ghost hunter, with a film camera to his face, took a picture of a driveway at one alleged haunted mansion. A little while later he excitedly emailed copies of the photos to his team members; the resultant images showed white, semi transparent mists hovering in the foreground. The team members were ecstatic and this was, of course, hailed as proof. But when he took the picture, the temperature outside was quite chilly and I could see his breath condensing in front of him. With his camera to his face he couldn't see this. The "ghosts" were simply his own breath. But he and his cohorts touted this as yet more proof of the afterlife. My comments about the "ghosts" being his breath, even when I stated that I had seen it with my own eyes, were belittled.
A huge proportion of ghost hunting escapades can be labelled using the psychology term, "confirmation bias." People go into haunted houses expecting to find apparitions and that is usually exactly what they find. There is little effort expended on debunking, or finding natural explanations. I cannot remember the last time when a place was declared to be "not haunted." This latter activity is, of course, not conducive to the business practises of commercial ghost hunting groups. They act to entice people into their properties with suitable descriptions of "activity" and "phenomena" - and not dissuade them using phrases that lack concrete promises of spookiness.