It is clear why UK settings are chosen so feverishly amongst authors, both homegrown and from across the seas, for their chilling and shiver-inducing novels.
The never-ending desolate moorlands and eerie woodlands. The legendary castles where countless lives were lost in battle. Creepy manor houses in the middle of nowhere and true tales of witches and witchfinders from centuries past. Any one of these elements could and would become the muse for some truly great writers.
With a world record attempt for the largest gathering of vampires just around the corner at Whitby Abbey, we look at some of the UK’s scariest and most unnerving places used by novelists in their creepy scribblings.
Jump (scare) to:
- Whitby, Yorkshire
- Bly, Essex
- Ripon, North Yorkshire
- Oundle, Northamptonshire
- Bodmin, Cornwall
- Dartmoor, Devon
- Edinburgh, Scotland
- Aldeburgh, Suffolk
- Twickenham, London
- London (various)
- Bath, Somerset
Whitby, Yorkshire – Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker, having already written two novels, was on some much-needed leave in Whitby, having been working in Scotland with a theatre group. During his time in Whitby, he would have taken in all atmosphere and potential that the area has to offer: the windswept headland; a church in an ancient parish loaded with swooping bats; gravestones ravaged by the weather and teetering on the edge of the cliff; and of course, the ruined medieval abbey, to which the novel doffs its cap on more than one occasion.
It was in Whitby library that Stoker first read of a true-life 15th-century prince named Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler. This prince also went by the name Dracula. Another piece of information picked up by the part-time writer was the report of a shipwreck five years previous where a Russian vessel from Narva named the Dmitry ran aground below the East Cliff. In the story, this became the Demeter from Varna and carried Dracula to Yorkshire’s shores.
Despite the novel not being published for another six years, due to Stoker researching the topography and culture of Transylvania, it was undoubtedly in Whitby where the sparks were ignited to create a powerhouse of gothic literature.
Can I visit Whitby?
Whitby has been accepting visitors for 1,500 years and shows no signs of stopping. This English Heritage site offers magnificent sea views and there’s a museum if you wish to learn more about Dracula. Just be sure to leave before dusk!
Bly, Essex - The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Arguably the author who inspired Stephen King, Henry James found spooky acclaim with this 1898 work of fiction set in Bly, Essex. Stephen King said it was one of “only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years” and James even revealed to a friend, “I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed”.
The idea for the story came to James one winter’s evening when the young American writer was visiting England with his father to see the Archbishop of Canterbury. The leader of the Church of England told a chilling tale of orphaned children left to the care of wicked and vile servants, who in turn died and came back to haunt the poor infants. James’ narrative takes a more sinister view, with the seemingly blameless children communing with the spirits in the manor and their (still living) caregiver trying to protect them from the spectres’ malevolent ways.
There have been 30 screen adaptations to date, with the most recent version being Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, which stays true to the book’s original setting of Bly, Essex.
Can I visit Bly?
The novel never refers to the household as Bly Manor despite the author clearly setting the story in a place called Bly in the south of England. To that end, neither Bly nor Bly Manor actually exists. This is possibly just as well because after reading this novel, you surely wouldn’t want to visit the manor. For the Netflix remake, the manor was a CGI construct and the filming location was mainly Vancouver, Canada.
Ripon, North Yorkshire – Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
If you were to ask a focus group to think of classic English literature, it stands to reason that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre would take its place amongst the elite novels, right there with Dickens’ Great Expectations, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And yet, you don’t always think of this book as one that ticks the spooky or creepy box.
It tells of a girl, Jane, who falls for a boy, Edward Rochester at a place called Thornfield Hall. All is rosy until it transpires that there’s a Mrs Rochester. Said wife, Bertha, is somewhat unhinged, leading Edward to lock her in an attic prison. Things take a few more disturbing turns, but we won’t spoil the ending for you.
Charlotte Bronte, a Yorkshire literary great, stayed at Norton Conyers (which doubled as Thornfield Hall), 4 miles north of Ripon, in 1839. She heard the woeful tale of a lunatic woman who was confined to an attic during the 1700s. It was here she was inspired to create Bertha’s character, but it was as recently as 2004 that the literature-loving public got their confirmation. Floorboards were prised up at the Yorkshire house, and a hidden staircase was revealed that matched the description of the one to the attic prison in the story.
Can I visit Norton Conyers?
The gardens at Norton Conyers are open Monday – Friday. The house is unfortunately closed throughout 2022 for major rebuilding works (it is usually open 28 days a year).
Oundle, Northamptonshire - The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill
A lovely little Christmas tale to share with the young ‘uns…perhaps not. The Woman in Black tells of a junior solicitor, Arthur Kipps, who has been sent to settle the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. The story follows the events that occur whilst he is staying at Eel Marsh House and the noises, sightings and general hauntings of the eponymous woman in black.
Set in the Edwardian era but written in 1983, the novel, inspired by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, is predominantly set in Oundle, Northamptonshire, which doubles as the sleepy village, Crythin Gifford. It’s a bleak town full of secrets and surrounded by a wilderness only the very bravest would think to enter.
In the 1970s, Hill used to visit Suffolk for the winter. The house she stayed in was enveloped by marshes. When the wind crept in with its moaning chorus causing the reeds to rattle, and the soft light of dusk threw an eerie blanket over everything, it gave her a chill that inspired the writing of this book. Oundle had all of these things but was much more inland and therefore served her narrative purpose better.
Can I visit Eel Marsh House?
You can visit Oundle and also nearby Cotterstock. However, Cotterstock Hall is not open to visitors, as it is a residential property.
Bodmin, Cornwall - Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier
The inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn owes everything to her personal experiences in Cornwall and specifically upon Bodmin Moor. In 1930, she arrived at the real-life Jamaica Inn and went for a ride with a friend on their horses. Before long, a thick mist set in and they started to lose the light. Hoping their horses knew the area better than they did, they dismounted and the steeds duly led them back to the inn.
Shaken from the ordeal, she decided to remain a few more days and hence learned all about the remarkable history of the inn and the smuggling that occurred all along the Cornish coast. All these things, combined with the atmosphere of the tavern, led her to write her captivating novel.
During the 18th century, it is thought that about half the brandy and a quarter of all tea being smuggled into the UK was trafficked along the coasts of Cornwall and Devon. This staggering true-life saga set the scene for a chilling tale of smugglers leading unknowing seamen and their ships to ruin upon the rocks, stealing their cargo and leaving no one alive so as to keep their secret intact.
Can I visit Jamaica Inn?
Not only can you visit for some traditional Cornish food and drink, but you can also book a ghost hunt weekend and take part in paranormal investigations. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Dartmoor, Devon - The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It’s easy to think of Sherlock Holmes novels as detective fiction but let’s not forget the Gothic elements that were instilled in many of Conan Doyle’s complex storylines: horror, distress, terror and the supernatural. The Hounds of the Baskervilles tells the tale of “a spectral hound which leaves material footmarks” as Dr Watson puts it, with the famous detective and his prodigy investigating the death of Sir Charles Baskerville who died with a look of pure fear on his face.
Conan Doyle found inspiration for the story after speaking with the then editor of Vanity Fair who spun yarns of his spooky home in Dartmoor. Locations were scouted and the ever wet and swampy Fox Tor Mire was chosen - a bleak and fog-covered area that would become Grimpen Mire in the unsettling narrative.
There’s plenty to get spooked about in this classic. There’s the fluorescent canine beast, of course. And then there’s Selden, an escaped murderer who roams Dartmoor. The locals live in fear of this fugitive, a character inspired by the imposing Dartmoor Prison, a citadel encircled by enough desolate moorland to give even the most steely-eyed the shivers.
Can I visit Grimpen Mire?
Dartmoor National Park is a marvellous place to visit, it’s full of walks and quaint villages and pretty scenery. But if you see a beast with an eerie radiance in the distance, fear not, it’s just glow-in-the-dark Dartmoor ponies. They will have been marked with reflective paint to make them more visible to road users.
Edinburgh, Scotland - Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg
Confessions is a novel described by many Scottish literature fans as essential reading, yet it takes curiously subtle steps in its pledge to become a 19th-century horror classic. Published in 1824, it toys with the idea of predestination and free will, specifically what a man would (or more devilishly could) do if God had already reserved the man a place in heaven.
With much of the action taking place in Edinburgh, the story follows the maddening mental decline of Robert Wringhim, who believes he should be receiving an inheritance over his more grounded and stable brother, George Colwan. Enter Gil-Martin, who could possibly be the Devil in disguise, to convince Wringhim to commit crime after ever-worsening crime with the safety net of promised salvation always there to catch him.
Hogg grew up in the Scottish Borders and no doubt knew Edinburgh well, seeing it as an archaic city, boiling and bubbling, ready to erupt at a moment’s notice. Combine this with the bleak and gloomy wilderness of Salisbury Crags which leads down to Arthur’s Seat and you have an atmosphere fit for a final showdown between a distressed and fearful Colwan and an assured yet crazed Wringhim.
Can I visit Arthur’s Seat?
A popular tourist destination, Arthur’s Seat is a short walk from the heart of the city. You can climb to the summit in roughly an hour, just be sure to wear suitable shoes.
Aldeburgh, Suffolk - A Warning to the Curious, by M.R. James
Born in Kent, Montague Rhodes James always felt a closeness with the Suffolk coast, often visiting Aldeburgh on holiday. Aldeburgh would become Seaburgh, a sleepy East Anglian village shrouded in secrecy and mystery, where our protagonist, Paxton, chose to holiday. A choice he would come to regret.
Often said to be the father of the Edwardian ghost story, James placed a lot of importance upon Suffolk’s inland gorse and marshland. When the mist descends, the area is given a vast eeriness that played into the writer’s hands to produce an overwhelming feeling of isolation.
In the story, Paxton, an archaeologist, unintentionally discovers one of the three lost crowns of Anglia, a crown said to protect the East Anglian coast from invasion. With the crown now unearthed, a malevolent supernatural presence begins to menace Paxton, to the point that he tries to replace the crown back where he found it. But he grossly underestimated the spitefulness of a vindictive spirit unwavering in its determination to punish the curious…
Can I visit Seaburgh?
If you are a lover of this book, you should absolutely visit Seaburgh aka Aldeburgh. You will see first-hand how James took so much of the landscape and put it directly into his novel. Visit the White Lion Hotel, known as The Bear in the story, where James himself stayed. The beach, church and cemetery, and marshland are also as described in the story.
Twickenham, London - The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole
Deemed by many to be the very first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764 and inspired an entire genre of literature spanning the 18th and 19th centuries. Powerhouses such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson then took up the mantle, sending this medieval horror style of writing into the mainstream.
Walpole, who was the son of Britain’s first prime minister (fun fact), was said to have been inspired to write Otranto after enduring a nightmare at his Gothic home, Strawberry Hill House. Walpole built the house himself in stages, adding further Gothic aesthetics at each new phase of building, no doubt gaining invaluable insights that he didn’t yet know he needed.
The story tells of love and family ties, ancient prophecies and the lengths people will go to protect their legacy. And there’s a ghost in it too!
Can I visit Strawberry Hill House?
Fans of Walpole have been visiting this Georgian Gothic masterpiece for over 250 years, with the house itself, along with the gardens, shop and cafe all open to the public. Why not immerse yourself fully and book a private guided tour to fully appreciate the castle that inspired a genre?
London - Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
When a book written in the 19th century sparks a saying that is still commonly used in the 21st century, you begin to realise how well the story resonated with the public over the years. And even though the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s bizarre classic are unlikely to be found in everyday life, it’s probable that we all know someone who, at one point or another, has demonstrated a Jekyll and Hyde personality.
The story tells of a kind and good-natured doctor, Henry Jekyll, who takes a potion which metamorphosises him into Edward Hyde. The latter is a man who acts upon and is controlled by his baser instincts; his immoral desires that, up until that point, had been caged within Jekyll. The story takes place in London, around Leicester Square and the Temple and Fleet Street areas.
The inspiration for this tale came from Louis Stevenson’s own drinking buddy, Eugene Chantrelle, a French friend who was tried for killing his wife and four others by lacing their cheese on toast with opium. Chantrelle was seen as a mild-mannered man with a good reputation, but Louis Stevenson had always hinted he knew of the Frenchman’s duality and the darker side to his personality.
Can I visit London?
Of course you may. And whilst you’re there, why not take a guided walk of the haunts described in this fascinating novella?
Bath, Somerset – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
A special mention goes out to Bath. Although not the setting for Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein, this Somerset city was where Shelley started penning the frightening fiction at the fresh-faced age of 19.
Shelley was taken aback by the beauty of Geneva, one of the story’s settings, whilst holidaying there. However, it was when she moved to 5 Abbey Church Yard in 1816 and attended science lectures that her idea ‘came to life’!
The lecturer indicated that electricity might be used to bring inanimate matter to life, and for Shelley, who had recently experienced nightmares during thunderstorms, this rang true and inspired the writing of one of the most famous Gothic novels ever published.
Can I visit Abbey Church Yard?
Unfortunately, the house was demolished to create an extension to the Pump Room in the 1890s. You can still see the commemorative plaque in the Pump Room. Just knowing you’re in the same space where literary history was created might be enough, but if not, they do an amazing afternoon tea as well.
After reading about all these unsettling stories, you may want a beautiful cottage with some fabulous and colourful interior design just to take your mind off ghouls and other paranormal apparitions. Or perhaps you just need a place to batten down the hatches and hide out for the night. Whatever your reason, our gorgeous Yorkshire cottages are sure to be the elixir you’re looking for. Just remember, never invite a vampire into your house…
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.