Keen to discover a different way to embrace the eerie excitement of Hallowe’en this year, Victoria Wiclifsco went delving into the paranormal past of White Cliffs Country. Unearthing the haunted happenings of Dover, Deal and Sandwich - plus several ancient villages in between - did not leave her appetite for the unnatural unsated.
In a destination so rich in heritage (the castles of White Cliffs Country alone chronicle almost two millennia of accumulated history) it’s no surprise that myths, mysteries and legends abound – and so do ghosts, apparently.
Footsteps in the hall, and a feeling of being watched... The Guildhall in Sandwich is rumoured to be haunted (image: copyright State Studio)
It can’t be often that one finds an area so richly blessed with spectacular coastline, unspoilt countryside, characterful towns and picturesque villages, which is so easily accessible from London – and which also offers such creative inspiration. I felt devilishly delighted with the opportunity provided me by White Cliffs Country for feeding my imagination in this way. Hence having decided to indulge in a spookily-themed staycation with a tour of all the Halloween-worthy hotspots, I jumped on a train – duly kitted out with facemask and hand sanitiser, of course.
Late October on south east England’s coast might conjure up images of squally storms and grey skies, or a thick, menacing mist hugging the shoreline. Rather than a chilly breeze whipping across the promenade, it was a strangely mild evening that greeted me in Deal, a quaint and quirky seaside town just a few miles north of Dover. Its temperate climate, in combination with the quintessential sea mist, added to the dramatic atmosphere I was eager to embrace. Deal is surely a town to draw arts and history lovers from afar - with its smuggling roots and attractive architecture – traditional fishermen’s cottages rub shoulders with slightly more stately Georgian houses and evidence of concealed contraband from the days of illicit goings-on continues to be unearthed today. It was from this superbly charismatic Kentish coastal spot that was witnessed, in 1748, the loss of the ship Lady Lovibund. Legend has it that the new bride of the ship’s master was a former interest of the first mate’s – who took his vengeance by sailing the ship straight into the Goodwin Sands – but not before delivering a “crushing blow” to the master himself. The whole ship’s crew and passengers were lost… but not to history. The ship, it is rumoured, appears in phantom form every 50 years on the infamous sands, which are ill-famed for having wrecked thousands of ships throughout time. The myth draws ghost hunters from all over the world.
Legend has it that the ghost ship, the Lady Lovibund, appears off the Deal coastline once every 50 years (image: copyright Jordi Parsons)
A few miles around the coastline I found Sandwich Bay and the perfectly-preserved Medieval town of Sandwich. First impressions left me wondering how a place so pretty and charming could be linked to anything unnerving and unnatural – Sandwich is relaxed and romantic, a well-manicured and peaceful corner in the Garden of England. It stands to reason, however, that with so many centuries’ of history to boast of – the street plan has changed little since the commissioning of the Domesday Book - the town would not be without its many tales of terror throughout time. Proud of its roots as an original Cinque Port, Sandwich, I was informed, was once bordered by the sea – but it’s not its ancient coastal connections that are most closely associated with the macabre. Rather, it is Gallows Field – the name a clear and morbid clue as to what went on there – not just public executions of felons found guilty and hanged, but also those accused of witchcraft, burned at the stake or drowned in the adjacent river. The Guildhall in Sandwich - originally built in 1579 and now housing a museum - is furthermore rumoured to be haunted, with staff having reported the sound of footsteps in the halls and a feeling of being watched as they lock up for the night. And in neighbouring Richborough, from where Roman rule in Britain both began and ended, the ghosts of Roman soldiers have reportedly spooked visitors in the past. My lesson here was duly learned – there is more to this area of White Cliffs Country than first meets the eye, when one explores further and digs a little deeper.
Several spectres are said to haunt centuries-old Dover Castle (image: copyright DDC)
Dover Castle has earned the title of “England’s most haunted castle” and with no less than five phantoms rumoured to haunt the magnificent coastal fortress, it’s a fair accolade. A headless spectre is said to stroll along the battlements, the ghost of a young drummer boy allegedly murdered for money during the Napoleonic Wars. Within the solid walls of the old castle keep, an apparition in the form of a woman in a scarlet dress has apparently taken up residence – together with a male ghost dressed as a Cavalier. In the tunnels underneath the castle – famously used for military purposes during the Second World War – several soldier spooks have been sighted by various visitors over the years. It was also in this spot that an American couple were so impressed by the assumed “sound effects” of the death battle re-enactments, they complimented the castle’s Visitor Experience team on their authenticity – only to be told by surprised staff that there were no re-enactments that day, and nobody else present in the tunnels to have made the noise.
Heading inland from Dover, I reached the countryside village of Coldred – the kind of place one imagines maypoles, morris dancing and merriment in early summer but which has a slightly different and more dramatic atmosphere at the onset of November. With a damp grey air hanging over the village green it’s easy to imagine the dread of the poor witch who was flung headlong into the pond and did not resurface – a local tale of which villagers are proud to recount. Turns out she probably wasn’t a witch after all. Oxney Bottom, meanwhile, is a whole different kettle of fish. You have to really want to find this place to be able to track it down – a small former hamlet of only 300 acres, Oxney is now all but lost in the woods, enveloped by dense undergrowth and accessible only by stone track. The main house, Oxney Court, evolved several times throughout the centuries before finally burning to the ground in a mysterious fire. But its most famous ghost – the Grey Lady – has been sighted many times and now many locals refuse to go anywhere near the place. Legend has it the Grey Lady was once a woman sent out to fetch water, but before she could complete her task, was killed suddenly by a horse and cart on the main road. Her spirit refused to rest and she has since been witnessed tormenting motorists on the A258, pouncing into the middle of the road and causing drivers to brake harshly or swerve to avoid her – if they manage to stop at all. Her most infamous haunting appears to be that of a coach driver, who was unable to stop and drove right through her. Or perhaps the bus driver who let her onto his bus – only for her to disappear altogether, moments later. If you do dare to go anywhere near Oxney, watch out as well for the ghost of the masked highwayman, also known to have been spotted in the woodland that now practically suffocates the ancient village’s former location. Highwaymen were common in this part of Kent and the ghost could well be the spirit of the prolific terror of the highway who was hanged in Oxney itself.
Of course, no one tells the stories like a local, so for a more elaborate rendition of the rhetoric you might like to track one down yourself. Rest assured, though – the terror-iffic tales of White Cliffs Country offer plenty of scope to enjoy a sensory adventure of exploration this autumn and an extended stay in a destination full of hidden gems that are waiting to be explored.
Victoria Wiclifsco is the name of a fictional character used by Dover District Council's Tourism department for promotional purpose. The similarity of this name to that of any actual person, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.