Kent’s Spookiest Sleepovers
From ancient crypts full of bones to Roman towers that seem to wail in the wind, Kent comes swathed in a rich and reverberating past that’s swarmed in stories, myths and legends just waiting to be discovered. By Olivia Riccini
Whether these spine-tingling tales of Kent are fact or simply folklore, they have cemented themselves firmly in the present, shaping some of the county’s most enthralling places to visit. With Halloween falling at the end of the month, there’s no better time to explore them than when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. Whether you’re a believer in the supernatural, a devout sceptic, or somewhere in the middle, these places and the tales they conceal are undeniably thrilling, capturing our curiosity no matter what our beliefs might be. Alongside this sense of the surreal, we also seek sanctuary in October. Places in which we can find comfort and warmth amidst the mystery of our county are crucial. Crackling fireplaces, hearty meals and cosy cups of tea are undoubtedly essential this autumn, with a little added intrigue thrown in for good measure.
One of Kent’s most ancient and magnificent structures is Canterbury Cathedral. With building commencing around 597 AD, the cathedral is responsible for many of the city’s ghosts and stories. One such spectral character is said to be the ghost of St Thomas á Becket himself, who was martyred in 1170 by two knights. His death is the reason for thousands of pilgrims, right up to present day visiting the city, and the spot where he was murdered is still marked with a large welded cross made from two swords hanging above it. His ghost is said to wander through the cathedral cloisters and nearby Sun Street, sitting outside the cathedral grounds, was once the site of a pump that dripped water coloured a reddish-brown, which was said to be the blood of this ancient saint. Today, pilgrims to Canterbury’s visits can be played out much like those in the famous tales written by Chaucer. Enjoy a drink in The Shakespeare, a Shepherd Neame pub full of its own quirky intrigue, with narrow doorways, creaking floorboards, flickering candles and fine Kentish ale – just as the pilgrims would have done hundreds of years ago.
More of Canterbury’s Christian history can be explored during the daytime at the Franciscan Gardens. After arriving in Canterbury from Italy in 1224, the Franciscans were gifted a small island of land in the middle of the River Stour. Active members of the community, these friars gained respect and popularity by aiding the sick and needy. The garden itself has lived many lives, having been an estate for a wealthy Tudor family, a tea garden and a commercial plant nursery. Today, there is now one-and-a-half acres of the original site for visitors to enjoy; it has been restored to evoke a taste of how the Franciscans would have seen it, complete with chapel, cloister garth and cutting garden. Ghost sightings of a grey hooded figure, said to be one of the Franciscans, have been seen flitting about the city and cathedral at twilight.
For those seeking refuge from the strange happenings of the city, look no further than Dovetail Cottage, available through Bloom Stays. A charming property in the heart of Canterbury, this delightful Victorian cottage offers a perfect blend of history and modern comforts, making it an ideal choice for couples and families. Step inside and be greeted by a beautifully decorated interior that effortlessly combines Victorian elegance with contemporary style. One of the standout features of this property is the superb cinema room, a rare find in a cottage. Treat yourself to a cinematic experience – whether it’s a horror movie ideal for Halloween or something a little more lighthearted. It doesn’t matter if you forget the popcorn – the shops are only a quick walk away.
Canterbury Cathedral is not the only cathedral in Kent. The historic town of Rochester, famous for once being the home of Charles Dickens, himself a committed ghost story lover, has its very own too. Standing opposite Rochester Castle, these two magnificent monuments truly are a sight to behold. Visit the castle and prepare to be perplexed at its complex history of destruction and rebuilding; this protector of an important crossing on the River Medway is immersed in stories of bloody battles, treachery and tragic romance, the most famous being the ghostly tales of the White Lady, who was shot accidentally by her lover through the heart. Her ghost is said to wander restlessly through the castle, the bloody arrow still embedded in her chest, her flowing black hair a vivid contrast to her spectral white dress.
To prepare yourselves for taking on lots of historic tales, breakfast at Tiny Tim’s Tearoom and go all out with their ‘Artful Dodger Breakfast’, a classic full English to set even the most hardy of Victorian pickpockets up for the day. Keep it Dickens’ themed all the way into lunch with a visit to Peggotty’s Parlour which has been providing homemade cakes, scrumptious lunches and cream teas since 1982. Or, for a more substantial lunchtime meal or dinner, stop by at yet another ode to the great novelist, Oliver’s Bar and Restaurant, serving a mouthwatering menu with acclaimed favourites of scrumptious steak and sublime seafood.
Another place that Dickens was no stranger to is the eerie Romney Marsh. Together with his Victorian relish for the supernatural, the marsh inspired some unforgettably atmospheric scenes in Great Expectations. Visit the marsh and see all its mystery for yourself when you stay in a Romney Marsh Shepherd’s Hut. Beautifully boutique and with all the modern luxuries you need, a shepherd’s hut will be the ultimate sanctuary this October. Snuggle up under a real Romney Marsh sheep wool blanket inside, or sip hot chocolate with marshmallows around the fire pit outside as you gaze up at a neverending starry sky meeting the marshy horizon around you. Sometimes referred to as the ‘fifth continent’, the surreal landscape of this area is one which at night becomes full of creeping marsh mist and was even a victorious opponent of Elizabeth I, who was said to have reorganised her travel plans in order to avoid its treacherous crossing. Still a remote and mysterious place full of old villages, ancient churches and crooked buildings that sit under such a wide expanse of the open sky, a place like this could not exist without its own collection of unexplainable hauntings and stories.
One of these chilling tales is centred around Fairfield Church, a unique 12th-century building that stands marooned in the middle of a field, cut off into isolation by ditches of water. With this strange building comes a tragic tale of disaster and death that occurred during the calamitous 14th century, an era that produced the devastating combination of the Black Death and the marshes being a prime victim of flooding, which took a mighty toll. The population of those living in villages like Fairfield was more than halved and two centuries later, malaria, also known as ‘marsh fever’, caused further devastation. The open land and slow brackish waters were a breeding ground for disease-spreading mosquitoes causing hundreds of farm workers that lived in the lower lands to die. The village was subsequently deserted, leaving just the church standing alone on the marshes all these years later.
A major coastal landmark in Kent which will never fail to capture the eye and imagination of those from miles around is Reculver Towers. Dominating the skyline of Herne Bay and still acting as a navigation marker for ships at sea, Reculver Towers marks the site of one of the earliest Roman forts built to protect against Saxon raids, before later becoming the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery and then St Mary’s Church. With so much history that seeps through its various rebirths over time, many haunting tales are whispered about the towers and their dark past. The most famous and spine chilling being that of the ‘wailing baby’ whose cries are said to be heard by visitors on stormy nights when the wind whips round the towers and the waves crash against the rocks. During excavation work, the remains of ten Roman infants were found buried on site, and sadly, due to the nature of the burials, it is widely assumed that they were used as ritual sacrifices to the Roman gods. This dark reputation of the towers has turned it into a favourite for ghost hunters, some claiming to have seen two hooded spectres pacing the ruins in the moonlight.
Another charming seaside town with a somewhat spookier past is Hythe. With its quaint highstreet and independent shops you’re sure to bewitched, but delve deeper into its strange past and you will spot the entrance to The Ossuary. Home to the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human skulls and bones in Britain, this is a place full of mystery and unanswered questions. Consisting of shelves in four arched bays that contain 1,000 skulls in total, plus thousands of bones, there are estimated to be around 2,000 individuals here. The sheer scale is one that is sure to stun visitors when they investigate the crypt, but what remains the most curious fact about this unique place, is that we are still unsure exactly as to who these people were when they lived. Visit St Leonards and read all about imaginative previous interpretations of the collection and who they might have been, including men who fell in the Battle of Hastings and Black Death victims. Although most of these theories have been disproved, one thing remains for certain, visitors will have a fascinating time down in The Ossuary.
Another subterranean surreality that Kent is home to is Chislehurst Caves. So chilling are these, there was once a challenge set by a 1950’s landowner who promised to award £5 to any brave soul that could spend one night alone in the caves – of course nobody could see the challenge through, except one man who swore he would never return and could sense heavy breathing behind him for the entire night! Persuaded that there were malevolent forces lurking within the maze, subsequent landowners have since banned anyone from spending the night down there. Other stories of sinister spectres such as the pacing White Woman said to have been killed by her spouse, the paranormal presence which glows over the pool in the haunted chamber, and the laughter of the ‘lost children’ are also said to have been witnessed by explorers. Visit the caves today and you may not see a ghostly presence, but you are sure to be enthralled by their history. First open to the public in 1900 as a showplace, the guides told the Victorians history of Romans, Druids and Saxons, smuggling and murder and the last 100 years have added shelter from the Blitz and even several rock star concerts.
We could not write a Halloween guide to Kent without mentioning the village of Pluckley. Reputed to be the most haunted place in the UK, Pluckley is featured in the Guiness Book of World Records for being home to the most ghosts and sightings of ghosts. With characterful spirits of all kinds, from a Gypsy woman who drowned in the stream at The Pinnock to a highwayman that haunts the woods waiting to startle passers by, a trip to Pluckley this October is sure to be an exciting one for lovers of the supernatural. After a country stroll brimming with intrigue and incredible stories, visit The Black Horse, a traditional inn for over 300 years with parts of the current building dating back to the 15th century. The Black Horse boasts beamed ceilings and inglenook fireplaces, which at this time of year are always lit and dressed with pumpkins. The Black Horse offers a fine dining experience using the freshest locally sourced ingredients to create outstanding dishes that are as easy on the eye as they are sensational on the tongue.