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Witches, pirates, wizards – oh my! Honestly, when I moved to Cornwall on England’s south-west coast, I certainly didn’t think it was going to be spooky. In fact, I don’t think there are many people who go to Cornwall on a quest to find frightening places, but sometimes you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt, and since I’m a Cornish resident this Halloween, I decided to make do.

It turns out, however, that sunny Cornwall has quite the sordid past. While today it might be synonymous with family holidays and beachside cafes, it hasn’t always been that way. After my days of researching and visiting the spookiest places in Cornwall, it’s certainly clear to me why the rugged county became the backdrop for the author Daphne de Maurier’s dark and sombre tales.

So, if you’re looking to visit some unusual and spooky places in England, you’d best put Cornwall on your list. To help you get your fix o’ fright, I devised this ‘spooky loop’, which hits the spookiest places in northern Cornwall in a day. Let’s get started!

Our Route for Visiting the Spookiest Places in Cornwall

(P.S: If you open this link in your browser, it will show you the directions between sites. It’s worth saving or printing this because reception can be a bit patchy in parts and I don’t want you to get lost out on the Bodmin Moors.)

We were coming from quite far south in Cornwall (Falmouth), so it took us over an hour and a half to get to the first stop, Bodmin Jail. If you were closer to Bodmin, you could probably do this loop in an afternoon in a squeeze, however we took a whole day.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall

Stop One: Bodmin Jail

The first stop on our quest to find the creepiest places in Cornwall was at the Bodmin Jail. The Jail was first built in 1779 by prisoners of war, and it was the only prison in Cornwall for over 150 years. Today, there are no prisons in the county – probably because to the Cornish, being removed from Cornwall is the worst punishment imaginable!

During its time as Cornwall’s only prison, it functioned as a debtor’s prison for those who were bankrupt, a naval prison, and as a common jail for everyone from petty thieves to murderers. During World War II, the British Government also hid many treasures inside it (like the ancient Domesday Book) to stop them from being stolen or destroyed.

Originally, executions in Cornwall took place out on the Bodmin Moors, however after the prison was built it was decided it was much more proper to hang them indoors, by professional executioners who were paid  £10 for their trouble. Nonetheless, they were still open to the public (see, people have always been morbid!), at least until 1868 when it was decided that public hangings were a bit blood-thirsty for the British populace.

While public executions were still the done ‘thing’, at least four women were hanged at Bodmin Jail. This included Elizabeth Osborne, who was convicted of setting fire to her neighbour’s cornfield, and Sarah Polgreen who poisoned her husband Henry with arsenic (it’s always arsenic with black widows!)

Village where Bodmin Jail is

The building itself is quite spooky-looking, standing tall in the midst of a village that is, surprisingly, quite modern. There is no parking at the jail except for people with disability permits, and street parking is limited too. However, we found a great free spot. If coming from southern Cornwall towards the jail, instead of taking the steep road up to Bodmin Jail, continue on the road for another few hundred metres until you come to a left turn to a housing estate. There is free parking here, just a few minutes away.

Back to the jail. Parts of it have been restored, and there is also a bar/restaurant where you can have a drink and be grateful that today we gather for drinking pints rather than public hangings.

The cost of admission to the jail for an adult is £10.00 (you can buy your tickets online), and for that, you get entry into various exhibits which covers life at the jail. There are mannequins along with plaques telling you about who was imprisoned there, and what they did. 

If you’re not on a tight budget then pay your £10, they have obviously put a lot of work and thought into the Bodmin Jail and it’s an interesting thing to do and see – especially if it’s raining. However, if you are on a tight budget and/or have visited jails elsewhere in the world and know how they look inside, I think it’s probably just as fun to just explore the outside and maybe grab a drink from the bar. 

It’s worth noting that Bodmin Jail is currently undergoing extensive renovations – hence why my pictures turned out pretty terribly. A massive project is underway to create a hotel out of the site – personally, I think that’s pretty cool, and perhaps the 2019 version of the Spooky Loop will include an overnight stay in a historical prison!

The Bodmin Moors in Cornwall - looking spooky!

Stop Two: Bodmin Moors

After we visited the Bodmin Jail, we pushed on to our next stop via the Bodmin Moors, which are the least populated part of Cornwall (which is pretty unpopulated anyway). Perhaps due to its desolation, or the eerie fog that tends to descend on it, Bodmin Moors have become the site of many sombre tales.

There’s the Beast of Bodmin, known to attack livestock in the middle of the night. Then there’s the alleged ghost of Charlotte Dymond, a young house servant who was murdered by her boyfriend in the Moors in 1844. Just five months later, he too met a grisly fate amongst the landscape when he was publicly executed for the crime. Legend has it that they can still be seen wandering amongst the moors.

Although I don’t believe in ghosts, I can’t say I wasn’t pleased to be getting out of the moorland before the sun went down.

The Jamaica Inn Smugglers Bar in Cornwall

Stop Three: the Jamaica Inn

An impressive slate building rising out of the moorland, the Jamaica Inn is one of the most famous sights in all of Cornwall. It’s long been cloaked in myth and legend, but it was the release of Daphne de Maurier’s book of the same name that has cemented the inn as one of the most famous places in Cornwall.

Legend has it that the inn was once a favourite haunt of pirates and smugglers, who would retire there to hide their bounty and drink in excess. The Jamaica Inn is said to have been a key stop on the smugglers’ routes, because of its remote location amongst the moors. Cornwall itself was the heart of smuggling in England, due to its geographic features including rocky coasts and high hills which allowed for outlaws to detect the approach of authorities well in advance of their arrival.

At one time, it was thought more rum was flowing illegally through Cornwall than was being legally imported into all of the UK.

The Smugglers Bar at the Jamaica Inn

Although the Jamaica Inn’s smuggling history has been a local legend for centuries, it was the release of Daphne de Maurier’s book and the subsequent film adaption by Alfred Hitchcock that made it world-famous.

The current owners have certainly capitalised on its fame, with a museum, bar, restaurant, hotel, gift shop and farm shop on the premises. Although I suppose you can’t fault the owners for publicising its history, if you are seeking an ‘authentic’ experience in a hidden pub, you’re likely to be disappointed. One look at the massive carpark says this is a key stop on the touristic trail.

The Bar at the Jamaica Inn

I did love the look of the inside bar, which is original and filled with dark, oaky furniture. I could certainly imagine pirates and smugglers spending a raucous evening downing a few pints of ale while a storm raged outside. The restaurant keeps a similar theme, whereas the farm and gift shops are more modern.

There’s also a small museum that is devoted to smuggling in Cornwall. At £3.95 for an adult, it’s pretty good value and features a modest but interesting collection of objects.

The Restaurant at the Jamaica Inn

Overall, while there’s certainly an appeal in saying you’ve been to the Jamaica Inn and it’s worth a stop on the spooky loop, I wouldn’t recommend it to be the only historical pub you visit in Cornwall. Instead, try the Turk’s Head in Penzance, a thirteenth-century pub with just as much piratey past and a little less kitsch.

Beautiful Altarnun Village in Cornwall

Bonus Stop: Altarnun Village

Our drive took us through some tiny Cornish lanes, and we were relieved to come out on the other side at a picture perfect village. To me, it was the perfect example of a quaint and beautiful English town, with a bubbling brook and selection of stunning historic houses. I also loved this old church – part of it dates back to the 11th Century!

Altarnun in Cornwall
Altarnun – a picture perfect village, with a tenuous spooky link!

It doesn’t really look creepy, although in researching this article I learnt that the beautiful church, St Nonna, was actually featured in the Jamaica Inn novel! So there you go, a serendipitous stop on the Spooky Loop!

The view at Tintagel in Cornwall

Stop Four: Tintagel Castle

After our visit to the Jamaica Inn it was off to the site of an even more famous legend: Tintagel Castle. As soon as I heard the name, I felt the faint pangs of remembrance in my mind but couldn’t quite place where I’d heard it before.

Luckily, my husband Tom, font of all English history knowledge, reminded me – it’s the purported birthplace of King Arthur, and also the site of Merlin’s Cave.

King Arthur is a legend in Cornwall, despite the fact that no evidence exists that he actually lived. Despite (or because of) this, he has become an integral part of Cornish folklore. Legend has it he was born around the 5th century at Tintagel Castle, before the Earl of Cornwall, Richard’s castle was built. It is believed that he went on to valiantly defend Britain against the Saxons, supported by his Knights of the Round Table.

Perhaps the most famous Arthurian legend relates to his trusted advisor, Merlin. In essence, legend has it that Merlin arranged for the birth of King Arthur at Tintagel Castle, and carried him off once he was born, closely watching over him as he grew into adolescence. At this stage, Merlin cast a sword into stone, declaring that only a true King would be able to draw it. Of course, as we all know, eventually King Arthur was able to do so.

Despite the lack of conclusive evidence as to who (if anyone) inspired the legends of King Arthur, there is no doubting their charm and I was excited to visit his supposed birthplace, Tintagel Castle.

Remains of Tintagel Castle
Remains of Tintagel Castle

Unfortunately – rather embarrassingly for a would-be travel blogger – it turns out the Tintagel Castle is currently closed until summer 2019 as the walkway to the island is repaired. Nonetheless, the good news is that you still get a great view out over the ruins, and, it’s free! See – there’s always a silver lining.

One word of advice – don’t visit the castle expecting it to be well-preserved. The 13th century castle, built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall but today owned by Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall, stands in ruin. Nonetheless, the site has a haunting beauty, as you look over the rugged coastline of Cornwall and up to the once glorious castle, now nearly entirely reclaimed by the elements. The area does have a certain magic about it, and whether or not any of the legends are true, the area around Tintagel does seem fitting for the birthplace of a mythical hero.

Although it was closed/free when we visited, entry into the castle area is usually £9.50 for an adult. It is free for members of English Heritage, or people holding the English Heritage Overseas Visitor’s Pass.

In front of the Medieval Post Office in Tintagel
In front of the Medieval Post Office in Tintagel

Bonus Stop: Medieval Post Office

When we entered Tintagel, we saw a sign drawing attention to the two main attractions: the castle, and a post office. We had a little chuckle, musing that these two attractions weren’t really on par.

After the disappointment of finding out the castle was closed, we decided we might as well go find this post office. It was actually very quaint and adorable! Best of all, it was free with our National Trust cards. The building looks so traditionally medieval that it almost looks like something that would be created for the set of a movie, but it is the real thing. 

I have to admit, I ate my words a little bit, and am now giving the fourteenth century post office an honourable mention on my Spooky Loop. It’s not really very spooky, but it is atmospheric and worth a visit.

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

Stop Four: Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

Following the disappointment of Tintagel’s closure and the olde worlde charm of the Jamaica Inn, I couldn’t help but feel my spooky loop was a bit like one of those old Halloween movies that lack any real punch. While I didn’t want my loop to be too scary, it was all a little PG rated for my liking.

I wasn’t convinced that things would improve at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. I didn’t totally know what to expect, but the premise seemed ripe for being a bit cheesy and tacky.

Boscastle Village in Cornwall
The walk up to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

It was getting late as we made it to Boscastle, not far from Tintagel, and the golden hour had arrived. Immediately, I was drawn to the town. Nestled around a harbour that lies between two large, foliage-rich hills, I couldn’t help but feel it did have an atmospheric charm. A selection of historic buildings lined the streets, although it was the ‘Cobwebs’ pub that most took my eye.

At first, we struggled to find the museum and I found myself wandering down a narrow, cobbled street that was completely adorable. Boscastle was definitely growing on me by the time I saw the bridge and beyond that, the museum of witchcraft and magic.

In front of the Museum of Witchcraft of Witchcraft and Magic

We paid our £5 to enter and as I stepped inside, I noticed an altar to my left, and a sign hanging above me which warned that the museum was not suitable for children.

And so it wasn’t.

If you enter the museum with children in tow expecting it to be black cats and broomsticks, you’ll probably leave with some seriously scarred kids. (Or perhaps they’ll just grow up to be morbid like me).

Names of witches executed in England
Names of people executed for alleged links to witchcraft

This Museum is an unflinching look at witchcraft in England, tracing it from its earliest origins and laying bare the brutality that was inflicted on the women accused of being witches. It lists the names of many women who were killed due to their alleged “witchy” inclinations – which included evidence such as being ‘quarrelsome’ or ‘stubborn’.

Memorial to Joan Wytte
Memorial to Joan Wytte

One of the most touching exhibits is to Joan Wytte (1775 – 1813), an alleged witch who was tormented for much of her life before her remains were displayed in the museum. In 1998, friends of the Museum decided to give her a proper burial and arranged for her to be laid to rest in a local cemetery. The simple inscription of ”Joan Wytte… no longer abused.’ was unexpectedly moving.

Ingredients used in witchcraft at the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft
Ingredients used in witchcraft at the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft

The Museum was first started by Cecil Williamson, who became obsessed with anything related to the occult and dabbled in the dark arts himself. He collected an incredible collection of artefacts, each with a link to modern or historical witchcraft. Amongst the immense collection are ingredients used for spell-casting, as well as objects apparently used to ward off witches. Apparently, at first locals were not impressed with the museum – amongst the acts of vandalism included several fires, and a bunch of dead cats left on the doorstep. Nonetheless, Cecil continued and eventually the town embraced the museum. (Edit: Many thanks to the Museum of Witchcraft who explained that this vandalism did not occur in Boscastle. It happened when the museum was in other locations, and Boscastle has always been happy with the museum).

Witch clothing at the Museum of Witchcraft
Traditional Wiccan robes at the Museum of Witchcraft

The museum isn’t tacky at all – I found it to be thought-provoking, well organised and above all, fascinating. It is a mammoth collection, but it follows a sensible route which traces the history and makes it easy to understand. In all honesty, I didn’t go expecting to learn so much about witchcraft and found it to be more informative than entertaining. Although it may not be for everybody, it was the highlight of the spooky loop for me.

Walking Past the Bridge in Boscastle, Cornwall

Final Thoughts on Visiting Cornwall’s Spookiest Places

So there you have it – the spooky loop! I certainly had a lot of fun on our quest to find some Halloween-inspired destination in England’s favourite seaside county. All in all, this loop takes in many of Cornwall’s most famous myths – from pirates to murderers to ghosts and wizards – but also some beautiful scenery. It’s a great idea for something different to do in Cornwall.

Most of it is kid friendly, but there’s some definite adult content at the witchcraft museum – so if you’re looking for a lighthearted, spooky day, I’d recommend cutting that one out and visiting when all the guests are 18+.

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The Spooky Loop: Cornwall's Creepiest Places
A list of the spookiest place to visit in Cornwall, England!
The Spooky Loop: Cornwall's Creepiest Places
A list of the spookiest place to visit in Cornwall, England!

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4 Comments

  1. I love that there is a witchcraft museum and I had no idea the connections between King Arthur and Cornwall!

  2. My mom loves spooky stuff, so I’ll be sharing this post with her 🙂 My parents want to see more of the UK on their next visit, and now I have some ideas of where to take them (definitely Tintagel Castle and Smugglers Bar)!

  3. Hello Georgie,
    I’m delighted that you enjoyed your visit to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Just a little factual correction. When Cecil moved the museum to Boscastle, Cornwall he didn’t encounter any negative reactions at all. The incidents you mention all happened in England at Windsor, Stratford-upon-Avon and Burton-on-the-Water. Cornwall is a very magical place and probably accepted the museum much more readily! Thanks again for the lovely review.

    1. Hi Simon, thank you for your comment and for the correction! I have amended the article to reflect that. I am pleased to hear that Boscastle embraced the museum from the beginning – it is certainly a fascinating addition to the beautiful town! I am loving getting to know all about Cornwall. Thanks again!

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