Land of legends: This map shows the location of 11 of the spookiest mysteries to have taken place in the UK
From mysterious beasts to ghostly apparitions, Britain seems to have experienced more than its fair share of supernatural phenomena. While some – such as the Loch Ness Monster and Jack the Ripper – are globally famous, others have remained more obscure. And although many of the mysteries have been written off as perfectly natural happenings, none has ever been comprehensively solved or debunked. A list of the country’s most enduring spooky puzzles, originally compiled by Brilliantly British, shows the vast range of creepy goings-on around Britain.
1) THE SOLWAY SPACEMAN
Amateur photographer Jim Templeton took a series of photographs of his young daughter in 1964 while on a day trip to Burgh Marsh, overlooking the Solway Firth in Cumbria. When he had the pictures developed, he noticed for the first time that there was a ghostly figure in white, apparently wearing a space helmet, standing in the background. Templeton, insisting that there had been no one nearby when the photograph was taken, reported the matter to the police – but was told it was not suspicious. Soon afterwards, he received a visit from two men who said they worked for the Government and referred to themselves by number rather than name. Some have suggested that the ‘spaceman’ was just Templeton’s wife, standing with her back to the camera – but he insisted she was not in the shot at the time he took it.
Eerie: This photograph by Jim Templeton shows his daughter – and a mysterious figure in the background
2) BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM
When four schoolboys were poaching in Hagley Woods, near Stourbridge in Worcestershire, in 1943 they found a human skeleton hidden in the hollow trunk of a wych elm. They reported the macabre discovery to the authorities, but while police were able to work out that the female victim had been dead for around 18 months they had no clues to her identity. Because of the chaos of the Second World War, there were so many missing people that officials couldn’t narrow it down – but the mystery did not end there. Over the following decades, graffiti started appearing in the area asking, ‘Who put Bella in the wych elm?’, sparking speculation that the killing might have been part of a black magic ceremony. Last year two possible victims, one a Dutch visitor and the other a Birmingham prostitute, were suggested during a BBC programme on the mystery.
3) HAIRY HANDS OF DARTMOOR
In the early days of the car, a number of motorists reported having near-fatal accidents on a remote stretch of road through Dartmoor in Devon. The victims felt their cars or motorcycles suddenly jolt and swerve off the road – saying it was as if an invisible force had taken control of the vehicle. A few of those who suffered from the phenomenon said they had seen a disembodied pair of hairy hands grab on to the steering wheel and attempt to crash their car. In 1921 Dr E.H. Helby, who worked for Dartmoor Prison, was killed when his motorbike came off the road with two young girls riding in the sidecar. Locals have suggested that the mystery could be explained by the dangerous camber of the road, or by outsiders driving too quickly on the narrow country lanes.
Peaceful: But Dartmoor was the scene of a series of horrific accidents linked to supernatural events
4) THE HIGHGATE VAMPIRE
From the 1960s, visitors to Highgate Cemetery in north London – where Karl Marx and other famous figures are buried – claimed to have seen a vampire wandering between between the graves. Others reported different ghostly apparitions, such as unidentified voices, a face staring through the gate or a woman in white. The news was seized on by two rival ghost-hunters, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, who turned the phenomenon into a nationally famous mystery. Manchester organised a huge vampire hunt on Friday the 13th of March, 1970, with dozens of enthusiasts turning up in the cemetery to find the monster. The mystery – which is said to have inspired the Hammer Horror film Dracula AD 1972 – has never been solved, but Manchester and Farrant never gave up the search – or their ferocious rivalry.
5) OVERTOUN BRIDGE
More than 50 dogs have died by throwing themselves off Overtoun Bridge in West Dunbartonshire in the past 70 years, with hundreds more surviving the fall. The pets have usually been running along happily atop the Gothic-style bridge before suddenly jumping over the walls, always in the same spot and always on sunny days. Author Paul Owens recently suggested that the explanation for the mass canine suicides was the ghost of Lady Overtoun, a troubled woman who apparently spent years wandering the area after her husband died in 1908. But others have a more prosaic answer, pointing out that all the dogs affected were long-nosed breeds and suggesting that they were attracted to the scent of a family of mink nesting below the bridge.
6) THE RENDLESHAM FOREST INCIDENT
The incident referred to as ‘Britain’s Roswell’ happened in December 1980, when unexplained lights were seen over Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk. On two separate nights just before the New Year, military personnel said they saw lights flying in the sky and descending into the woodland – sending livestock into a ‘frenzy’. When they reached the site where the objects appeared to have landed, they found burn marks in the ground but no sign of debris. Charles Halt, a colonel in the US Air Force, reported the sightings to the Ministry of Defence and subsequently accused American and British officials of conspiring to cover up the incident. A number of potential explanations for the mystery have been put forward, including unusually bright stars, flashes from a nearby lighthouse and claims that it was simply a hoax.
UFO: This drawing purports to be a US soldier’s depiction of an alien spacecraft seen at Rendlesham Forest
7) THE ENFIELD HAUNTING
A suburban council house in Enfield, north London was the scene of a ghostly mystery between 1977 and 1979 when 11-year-old Janet Hodgson was repeatedly possessed by the spirit of an old man. Her mother Peggy was irritated by repeated noises from the upstairs building – but when she went up, she apparently saw a chest of drawers moving by itself. Janet claimed that the ‘haunting’ subsequently got worse, involving objects being thrown around the room and ending up with her and her sister levitating into the air. The child started speaking in the voice of Bill Wilkins, a previous inhabitant of the house, using foul language and describing how he died. A BBC crew attempted to film the disturbances, but found that their equipment was destroyed by an inexplicable electrical fault. Janet and her sister later admitted that they had invented some of the paranormal episodes to trick investigators, but insisted that most of the supernatural goings-on had really happened. The story was dramatised in a Sky TV series, The Enfield Haunting, broadcast earlier this year.
Unexplained: This photograph purports to show Janet Hodgson levitating at her home in Enfield
8) HYSTERIA AT HOLLINWELL
Around 300 children suffered from a mysterious, sudden illness at Hollinwell showground in Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire in July 1980. Within just a few minutes, the children who were supposed to be playing in various brass bands collapsed, with many vomiting and complaining of painful headaches. A total of 259 people were treated at hospital after the episode, but there was no explanation of the illness’ cause. Some blamed an outbreak of mass hysteria – but others suggested that the use of a toxic pesticide was to blame for the bizarre events.
9) THE BEAST OF BODMIN
For decades, it has been claimed that a big cat lives on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, with reports of mutilated livestock and occasional alleged sightings. Scientists claimed it was impossible for a colony of wild cats to live in the area because of the lack of food available, but a Government investigation did not rule out the presence of a solitary creature. In 1995, a young boy discovered a large cat skull next to the River Fowey, with huge teeth which suggested that it could belong to a leopard. An analysis by the Natural History Museum determined that it was indeed a leopard – but it is still not known how it made it to the remote moor.
Caught on camera: This 2009 photograph purports to show the big cat living in Cornwall
10) LOCH NESS MONSTER
Nessie is, of course, the archetypal British mystery story – and 1,400 years after the legend first arose, we are still no closer to solving it. In the 6th century, Saint Columba is said to have saved a man from being attacked by a ‘water beast’ which lived in the River Ness, flowing away from the loch. But it was not until 1933 that the creature was given the name that it bears today, kicking off a frenzy which has never died down. The next year, the best-known photograph of it was taken by gynaecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson and published in the Daily Mail, fixing the image of the monster as a dinosaur-like beast with a long neck and small head.
That picture was later shown to be a hoax – but many lovers of the paranormal have refused to accept that the monster does not exist, and the loch’s remote location and extraordinary depth have continued to fuel the rumours that there must be something strange inside.
11) JACK THE RIPPER
127 years later, we are no closer to finding out exactly who carried out five brutal murders of prostitutes in the East End of London in autumn 1888. The unfortunate victims were found mutilated in Whitechapel in a crime spree which shocked the Victorian public. The murders sparked a national panic, but despite a huge police investigation the killer was never found, and seems to have escaped justice for ever. There are hundreds of different theories about the murderer’s identity, with some observers suggesting that he must have been a doctor or a butcher given the gruesome yet precise way the victims’ bodies were manipulated.
Drama: From Hell, starring Johnny Depp, is just one of dozens of films inspired by Jack the Ripper