Ghosts and Skeptics in Britain

A few years ago, I visited a half-timbered old guildhall from the time of King Henry VI, in what little survives of the historic town center of Coventry, England. As I explored the vast, echoey space, I noticed that the two museum attendants were listening to a recording of white noise. On my way out the door, I asked, “What’s that?”

The attendants — a younger man and a middle-aged woman — exchanged a knowing glance. Should we tell him? She took a deep breath. “Look, you may not believe this, but this place is extremely haunted. So every night we set up this recorder to keep a log of the many creaks and bumps. See?” She showed me a long, handwritten list of times and types of noises. Just then, a loud clapping sound — like a chair being tipped over onto a wooden floor — erupted from the recorder. “Ah. There’s another one,” she said, adding it to the list.

My interest piqued, I probed a bit further. “So, have you two actually experienced this?” Another knowing glance, this time with barely suppressed smiles. “Oh, constantly. Every day, we hear some bump or knock.”

They proceeded to tell me stories that curled my toes: Normally it was just a strange sound coming from a room they knew was empty. But other things had also happened. Strange things. People on the overnight cleaning crew kept quitting — refusing to give a reason. And one time, when the two attendants were certain they were the only people in the building, one last patron — an elderly woman — arrived to look around. As she was leaving, she filled out a comment card. When they read it later, it said, “Fascinating old space. But that gentleman dressed in historic clothes in the back room was very unfriendly. I kept talking to him, but he never said anything back!”

I asked if they’d personally seen anything strange. Both of them had — usually just flashes of light or inexplicable shadows. But the young man described one particularly harrowing experience. One evening, he was all alone in the building, closing up. He went up to the rickety old minstrel’s gallery overlooking the hall to carry out his duties. When he turned back toward the stairs — the only stairs — he found a ghostly figure blocking his path. Terrified, and with no other options, he simply pushed his way through the phantom and quickly left the building. “What did it feel like?” I asked. “Cold,” he said. “Very, very cold.”

“That’s terrifying! How do you spend so much time here?” They shrugged. “It’s not so bad, really. We get used to it. It’s routine — just part of the job. And we’re never in danger. We’re not so much frightened, but curious. That’s why we record the noises. Try to see if there’s any pattern.”

Maybe I’m a total sucker. Maybe they sit there with their tape recording all day, waiting for a live one to nibble at the bait. But I don’t think so. They seemed like decent, honest people. They didn’t breathe a word of the hauntings until I asked them about it, and even then, they were initially reluctant. I think they really believe these stories. Whatever was happening — explainable by science or not — was happening a lot.

Tonight in Stirling, Scotland, I took one of those nighttime “haunted walks.” An actor, dressed as the ghost of the hangman, led us through the old kirkyard, reciting a carefully composed litany of ghostly stories from the city’s history as we walked between the tombstones.

After the show, he broke character, and we chatted as we walked back down into town. Turns out he’s a serious historian, who’s written two books about the history of Stirling.

We passed the heavily grilled top window of the old tollbooth building, which during his spiel he’d described as the place where the condemned would await the death penalty. Pointing it out again now, he said, “That was actually my office for four years. I didn’t even realize that there was anything strange about it until one day, I mentioned the space to a friend, and he said, ‘Don’t you know that’s the most haunted place in town?'”

I asked him if he’d ever actually had any strange encounters himself. “I’ve had plenty of strange encounters in this town. But none of them were paranormal.” It turns out that the person who has devoted his life to studying, researching, and writing about paranormal activity in Stirling for the last two decades…is a total skeptic. In fact, he has accompanied “paranormal investigators” into the graveyard, and prides himself on finding scientific facts to debunk any unusual findings they come across.

He described an example. One of the town’s historic pubs took down an old bit of paneling, revealing a hidden compartment. Suddenly, the workers were overcome with a terrible sensation. They couldn’t breathe and felt distressed. The only items in the compartment were some empty cans and a faded old black-and-white picture of what appeared to be a priest.

Paranormal investigators and psychics came in to investigate. And while they were doing that, our “ghost hangman” decided to do some actual historical research. He found a faded watermark on the back of the photograph, and conferred with a local museum curator. It turns out, in Victorian times, the pub was owned by the town’s portrait photographer. His wife hated the fumes from the developing chemicals, and insisted that he do his work at the pub. Then, at some point, his darkroom was abandoned and boarded up, with all those nasty chemicals inside, evaporated and trapped for over a century…until modern-day workers unsealed the space and inhaled them.

Should we believe the haunted museum attendants in Coventry? Or the skeptic ghost walker in Stirling? Or perhaps both? One of the joys of travel is being exposed to different real-world perspectives…then having an opportunity to make up your own mind.

Have you experienced any unexplained happenings in your travels around Europe?

I was in Stirling working on our Rick Steves Scotland guidebook.

While on my Scotland trip, I did a lot of blogging (all archived on our website). For a roundup of what I learned, check out my post on Top 10 Tips for Traveling in Scotland.

We can’t promise ghost sightings…but our Rick Steves Best of Scotland in 10 Days Tour does stop in Stirling. And lots of other great places.

6 Replies to “Ghosts and Skeptics in Britain”

  1. My family lived in a house with ghosts, so I completely believe. It was becoming unsettling to my husband & children, so I let the ghosts who were children, find rest.

  2. Took the exact same Stirling Ghost Walk and it was the most hilarious time I had in Scotland! That gentleman is FANTASTIC as an entertainer and as an historian.

  3. I’ve always been surrounded by things happening that I couldn’t explain and even my husband, the ultimate skeptic, refuses to discuss some of them. The current “ghost” in our house likes to open the lid of the top-loading washing machine when it’s finished, sometimes even when I’m in the same room. While many things do have a natural explanation, and I’m all for debunking ghost stories, there is sometimes a supernatural reason.

  4. In a historical pub in Dublin, I climbed a back staircase believing it led upstairs to the bathrooms. The door was locked, so I came back down to the landing. As I turned, I watched a dark shadow float down the staircase I’d just come down, and then it floated through the wall. I had not yet started drinking, but I did after that!!

  5. Iin the 1980s I was at a haunted B&B in Glastonbury with a small group. We all felt something very spooky and it was unanimous we have to get out of this place. We checked out early and drove into the night. I later learned it was at the Crossing point of two ley lines.

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