The Brocket Arms

The Brocket Arms: a haunted pub?

Pick any pub in England that’s more than a century old & it’s guaranteed to have some kind of ghost story attached. Parts of The Brocket Arms in Ayot St Lawrence date back to the 14th century so, predictably, it’s said to be teeming with ghosts.

The most commonly sighted ghost is either a monk or a Catholic priest who either hanged himself, was hanged, or was burned alive. The stories – as nearly-one-thousand-year-old stories will – differ; the most complete (although not necessarily true) account of who the spectre might be has it that the pub was originally the Monastic Quarters for the Norman church, until the Reformation – and that’s when the priest was tried and hanged. There is a ruined Norman church directly opposite the pub, so the legend may have some basis in fact. Descriptions of the apparition vary as much as his mysterious origins: some people have seen a whole ghostly man, others merely a face, & in some versions the monk appears to be on fire. The ghost also apparently makes himself known by moving things about or simply hanging around as a “presence” that sensitive people are able to feel.

The pub’s accommodation – it offers several ensuite bedrooms in the main building, and several more in another building across the courtyard – is also said to be plagued by ghosts, with disembodied footsteps, thuds, and phantom conversations being heard throughout the property.

On a sunny day in May, though, there’s very little that’s spooky about the Brocket Arms. It’s a charming black & white building, with exposed beams & low ceilings throughout. The courtyard is filled with picnic tables where punters can grab a quick snack from the smoky barbecue (offerings included Aberdeen Angus cheeseburgers or wild boar & apple sausages); bar snacks are available in the bar; & the small but perfectly formed menu in the restaurant is to die for.  Starters included scallops or “Brocket particular”, a particularly tasty pea & ham soup, while main courses included broad bean & asparagus risotto, steak with all the trimmings, & a mouthwateringly beautiful pan-roasted trout. As for dessert, CJ & I shared a chocolate fondant with raspberry sorbet, & it was the richest, chocolatiest, fruitiest, melting-on-the-plate-but-also-in-your-mouth orgasmic dessert I’ve ever tasted.

Beyond the pub itself, there are lots of stories about local creepy goings-on. The ruined Norman church opposite looks imposingly sinister, with its decayed graveyard, and legend has it that there’s a tunnel underneath the Brocket Arms that leads to Minsden Chapel, another spooky ruined church. The Brocket Arms is also mere minutes away from Shaw’s Corner, George Bernard Shaw’s house, which he is rumoured to haunt. The whole area is a ghosthunter’s dream.

The sheer number of stories are probably explained by the fact that these buildings are so utterly remote, accessible only by mile after mile of winding country roads. It’s the kind of place that gets pitch dark at night, because there’s no light pollution & very little through traffic. It’s beautiful out there, surrounded by acres of stunning English countryside, but it’s also the sort of place you’d feel like ghosts & ghouls might legitimately linger, in tumbledown buildings that have outlived generations.

Last visited 23 May 2010

Example menu: £20.95 for two courses, £25.95 for three courses
Website
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The entrance to Saw Alive

Thorpe Park, an amusement park in Chertsey, boasts two separate Saw themed attractions: Saw the Ride, which opened in March 2009, & Saw Alive, a horror maze, which opened in March 2010. Both are fantastically scary in their own separate ways, & the staging of both is pitch perfect.

The attractions are situated next to one another on one edge of the park, with plenty of set dressing scattered around the queuing areas. There’s a Californian police car smeared with blood outside Saw the Ride, while the queue for Saw Alive requires participants to make their way around a chain fence enclosure, with mutilated dummies & rusting instruments of torture all around them & coils of barbed wire above head height. Both attractions start off with an elaborately decorated indoor area, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Saw the Ride is a steel rollercoaster with a “beyond vertical” drop as its USP: the ride car scales a 100ft vertical hill & drops abruptly down the other side at a 100° angle. I’m something of a rollercoaster junkie, & Oblivion at Alton Towers, with its 90° drop, is one of my favourites, so I wasn’t initially impressed by this boast, but having experienced it? That 10° makes all the difference. It’s a genuinely scary drop, made much scarier by the long vertical ascent that feels like it lasts forever. The ride doesn’t give riders much chance to recover from that drop, though, as it quickly follows it up with more twists, turns, drops, loops & banks before depositing them, slightly the worse for wear, back at the start again.

… & as if that weren’t horrifying enough, as well as being able to buy the standard ride photographs, Saw the Ride also offers DVDs, so riders can watch themselves screaming, grimacing & being thrown about in their seats at their leisure once they get home. I … really can’t imagine why anyone would want to do that, but it’s nice to be given the option.

The actual Saw-related elements of the ride are mostly confined to the queue & the first few seconds of the ride, while the ride car is still in the dark indoor segment of the ride. There are swinging blades, unexpected gusts of air, & other props from the movie; it’s all really well done, but if you’re not a fan of the Saw movies, you won’t miss out on much of significance. It’s still an intense & terrifying experience.

I’m not sure that holds true for Saw Alive, though. Saw Alive is a self-guided maze filled with live actors determined to make you scream – it’s very similar to the Pasaje del Terror, in fact, except while that attraction pulled in scenes from a wide variety of horror movies, Saw Alive is focused on the Saw series. Holding onto one another’s shoulders, & necessarily slowed down by the lack of light & need to keep together, tour groups move through dark room after dark room filled with props & setups from the Saw movies (several of which were rather wasted on me, since I’m only familiar with Saws 1 through 3). Live actors lurk in the shadows in every room, & seem to thoroughly enjoy their roles, screeching & lurching & rattling their chains with relish. Hearing the screams from the tour group in front only adds to the atmosphere.

Interestingly, the actors in Saw Alive sometimes touch you, unlike those in the Pasaje del Terror. There’s a warning at the maze’s entrance explaining that the actors may touch guests, though guests absolutely may not touch actors, & being suddenly grabbed out of the dark by an unseen hand is certainly a nerve-wracking experience.

I think my own lack of interest in the Saw movies spoiled this experience for me somewhat; I didn’t recognise several of the scenarios included (though they were, of course, still quite frightening) & I don’t particularly enjoy the aesthetic of the series. Saw Alive faithfully & effectively recreates that aesthetic & atmosphere, which is probably more enjoyable to Saw fans. It’s still worth a go for non-Saw fans, but personally, I think I preferred the Pasaje del Terror’s selection box approach.

Last visited 24th March 2010

Opening times: vary by season, check website for further details
Adults: £37; Children: £24; Seniors: £25; group discounts available
Tel: 0871 663 1673

Website; Google Maps ref

pasaje del terror

Down in the basement of the Trocadero — underneath Funland, below Cineworld, & deep beneath the sports bar — something nasty is lurking. Pasaje del Terror is a horror attraction that boasts 15 live actors, all dressed as different horror icons, lurking in a series of rooms which visitors must navigate their way through without a guide. Above the door to the entrance is a video showing previous visitors running out of the Pasaje del Terror screaming, which initially seems funny … until you come running & screaming out of the exit yourself some 20 minutes later.

The experience starts with a short 3D movie about the attraction, in which a young woman decides she doesn’t want to go through with it & tries to leave, only to find herself transported back to 19th century Whitechapel, being pursued by a strange gentleman who identifies himself only as “Jack”. The 3D isn’t groundbreaking, & the acting leaves something to be desired, but it’s an entertaining enough start to the experience.

Once the film’s over, you’re led into a passageway & put into the groups that you’ll be exploring the rest of the Pasaje with: CJ & I ended up in a group of six. The tour is split into three parts: the movie, a mini-tour where guides escort you into & out of a couple of rooms, & finally the main passage, which you’re left to negotiate by yourself, having already been eased gently into the rules of the place. You’re not allowed to run, to turn back, or to touch any of the actors or props, but apart from that, you’re on your own. Although you know that nothing is going to touch you, & nothing bad is actually going to happen to you, Pasaje del Terror nonetheless manages to be terrifying.

The first few scenes work perfectly to unnerve you — all loud bangs, pitch-dark rooms, & actors that move suddenly out of the shadows, & there’s a particularly clever mirror trick that unbalances you & leaves you feeling slightly disoriented — so that by the time you’re in the passage proper, the urge to run is almost overwhelming. The set designs are impeccable; Freddy’s boiler room was a particular highlight for me, but the other horror movie scenes were pretty much bang-on, too. (The only slight niggle being the character wielding the chainsaw appeared to be, er, well, not a traditional chainsaw-wielder, but by the time we’d got that far into the maze I was already screaming my lungs out & therefore not in much of a state to be overly critical!)

I don’t want to go into any further detail, because to do so would spoil some of the surprises for anyone who might want to visit, so I’ll just say this: if you visit the Pasaje del Terror, try to end up at the back of your group, rather than at the front. CJ was designated “leader” of our group, & as a result missed some of the scares as the actors only appeared as we were leaving their rooms — the girls at the back of the line got to see everything, & were screaming all the way through. I’m curious enough about some of the things we didn’t experience (e.g. what does happen if you look into the eyes of the “beautiful girl” you’re warned not to look directly at?) that I’m planning to visit the Pasaje del Terror again. The adrenaline rush of “surviving” the experience was intense enough that I didn’t even feel particularly embarrassed about all the shrieking I was doing, even when I was handed a “survival certificate” by some amused-looking employees at the other end.

Last visited 2nd October 2009

Opening times: Monday – Friday 4pm – 11pm; Saturday 12pm – 12am; Sunday 2pm – 11pm
Adults: 19.95; Concessions 15.95; but discounts available from promoters outside the attraction
Tel: 02074941652
Website; Google Maps ref

The Knights Templar, Chancery Lane

The Knights Templar, Chancery Lane

Now that Ben Crouch’s Tavern is little more than a hazy memory, it’s time I found a new spooky central London pub. The Knights Templar, on Chancery Lane, seemed like it might fit the bill. Located on Chancery Lane, the pub is in the Grade II listed building that used to house the Union Bank: built in 1865, it became a Wetherspoons in 1999.

Since it’s a Wetherspoons, there’s not much to be said about the food & drink: it’s standard Wetherspoons fare, cheap & straightforward, no nasty surprises but no particularly nice ones either. Less busy than the Penderel’s Oak just around the corner, service was surprisingly quick & pleasant, but the building itself is the real selling point here. It’s properly grand. The ceilings are dizzyingly high; there are gilded arches everywhere; the ceiling panels are painted with mildly sinister figures; and there are marble columns in every direction. Red, gold & mahogany shades dominate, & one of the dining tables is made from stone, cracked & engraved & carved & totally immovable. The toilets are big enough to get lost in — no exaggeration. But in spite of all the grandeur, it’s still a Wetherspoons pub.  The huge TV screen is incongruous, set amongst all the drapery & mouldings, & there’s absolutely no atmosphere.

Depending on whether or not you have strong feelings about Dan Brown, this might swing your decision to visit the pub one way or the other: apparently it’s visible in the Da Vinci Code movie, during the scene featuring Middle Temple Church.

I think I’ll keep looking for my new default pub.

Last visited 14th September 2009

Open Monday–Friday 9am–11.30pm; Saturday 11am–7pm; Closed Sunday
Tel: 020 7831 2660
WebsiteGoogle Maps ref

Very sad news for anyone who enjoys boozing in horror-themed environments: the Ben Crouch’s Tavern is no more. It closed its doors at the end of July and will be reopening as The Adam & Eve, a Geronimo gastropub offering a ‘relaxed, home from home environment’.

I must admit that I’ve been rather critical of the Ben Crouch in the past. While I loved it for its central, easy-to-find location & spooky decor, its selection of drinks was never very inspiring & the food was dreadful. The music was often too loud & not in any way in keeping with the horror theme; last time I was there, they played Britney followed by Abba, & on top of that, the TVs were showing a live football game. It made for a weird mishmash of cultures that didn’t really work for me.

But now that I know it’s not there anymore, I feel a bit lost. Ben Crouch’s Tavern has served me well over the years as a convenient & fun place to meet friends; I’ve spent many happy hours tucked into one of its darkened booths, ranting about horror films. In spite of its faults, it had become my default London watering hole; it was comfortable & familiar & I can’t think of anywhere else that will fill that gap.

Last visited 25th July 2009

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Arundel Castle

Arundel Castle

Visiting Arundel Castle feels more like a challenge than a pleasure. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere else that had as many rules & barriers as Arundel Castle provided. As soon as we’d parked in the pay & display car park near the castle, we were sternly warned by an elderly woman that if our car was not well within the lines of the space — if one of the tyres so much as touched one of the lines — we would be clamped & fined. Even on a Sunday. Or perhaps particularly on a Sunday.

As we approached the castle itself, we were approached by an employee, who asked us what kind of ticket we’d like to buy: Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Gold Plus. Each level allowed a different level of access to the castle & its grounds, & increased in price appropriately: £7, £8, £14, & £15. We opted for Gold Plus, deciding we’d want to see as much of the castle as possible — which, as it turned out, wasn’t much at all.

Arundel Castle is one of the best preserved castles in the UK, thanks to many restorations over the 1000+ years there’s been some kind of structure on the spot. It’s an imposing structure with extensive grounds & a separate chapel, & it’s still intact enough to be lived in: currently, the Duke & Duchess of Norfolk live there with their children. As a result, even buying a Gold Plus ticket allows only limited access to the castle, & many of the views from the top of the keep are boarded up & protected from view. This restriction, whilst entirely understandable, makes for a frustrating visit.

Worse, the near perfect condition of the castle makes it feel curiously modern & lacking in atmosphere. The oppressive hush in the rooms, coupled with electric candlelight & safety paint on the edges of ancient steps make it difficut to appreciate the history of the castle or enjoy any of the sights it has to offer, which is a shame because it’s a beautiful castle. Many of the interior rooms are intricately decorated, with original furniture & plenty of portraits to gawp at, but everything is roped off so that you can’t get close to any of it, or see it in any kind of detail. The bedrooms, in particular — which required a Gold Plus ticket to access — only allow visitors to poke their heads through the door & consequently don’t take much time at all to look around. Visitors can apply in advance for guided tours, but otherwise are left to wander around by themselves; guides are stationed in most of the rooms or corridors, but seem to be there mostly to make sure everyone’s adhering to the one-way system & keeping their grubby mitts away from the exhibits.

I came away from Arundel Castle feeling strangely flat. Even the gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the keep failed to enliven the visit anywhere near enough to justify the over-inflated price of admission.

Last visited 12th July 2009

Open 4th April – 1st November 2009, Tuesday – Sundays, & bank holiday Mondays; 10am – 5pm
Adults £7 – £15; concessions £7 – £12.50
Tel: 01903 882173
Website; Google Maps ref

Hellfire Caves

C.J. in the Hellfire Caves

Although the West Wycombe Caves themselves had existed in a now long-unknown capacity as far back as prehistoric times and had been used for flint mining, it wasn’t until arch-rake Francis Dashwood (15th Baron le Despencer) took his hand to them that they became what we know them as today: The Hellfire Caves!

Various groups of upstarts calling themselves Hellfire Clubs had existed for some time prior to the 18th century but Dashwood’s chapter (named the Monks of Medmenham as, to begin with, they held their meetings at Medmenham Abbey) are certainly the most famous and mysterious of all. Accounts vary to what they actually got up to (sensationalised by the tabloids of the age) but it can be agreed certainly that between the years of 1752 and 1766, a group of select and obscenely rich party animals would hold elaborate and outrageous “chapter meetings” in West Wycombe, orchestrated by Sir Francis. Whilst not involved in any actual occult activity or devil worship, the Club were fond of adding meticulous and flamboyant ritualistic elements to their parties, adding an intense and cheekily blasphemous atmosphere to what was essentially just a series of drunken orgies. In other words, Francis and his Monks were serious about their fun.

Whilst there’s historical argument about the exact reasons why Dashwood had his caves extended and shaped the way in which they remain, the most interesting theories are – naturally – the most salacious ones. With what’s known about Dashwood’s sense of humour and his sense of anti-establishment mischief-making, these are also the most likely to be true.

The caves were opened as a tourist attraction in 1951 and, although renovated to make them safe for visitors, they remain much the same as Dashwood envisioned when he built them and they take the unwitting visitor along the route that would’ve been followed during a Hellfire Club “chapter meeting”.

As soon as we stepped through the entrance (a recreation of a gothic church archway), the daylight began to dissipate and we found ourselves in the first, dimly-lit tunnel leading downwards. If one looks closely, faces (ranging from the macabre to the hilarious) can be seen carved into the chalk. The atmosphere in the tunnels has been well-preserved. There’s a smattering of tourist-friendly waxwork figures of some of the Club’s patrons (including Benjamin Franklin and the Hellfire Club’s steward, Paul Whitehead) but, by and large, it’s not hard to imagine oneself in the procession of revelers heading into the cave for a night of orgiastic excess. Of amusing note (and as denoted by a waxwork model of a nun lurking in the shadows of the tunnels), the prostitutes that were ferried in from the brothels of London used to dress as nuns in order to enter West Wycombe undetected as ladies of the night and would remain in this attire until such time as it was properly removed by a “Hellfire Monk”.

After a couple of minutes walking, we arrived at The Banqueting Hall. This is a vast circular chamber carved into the chalk in which the Monks and their companions would eat elaborate meals and consume liver-vanquishing quantities of alcohol. As in the points of the compass, there are four small elevated chambers leading off from the Banqueting Hall, known as “Monk’s Cells”, there for the benefit of monks and nuns who couldn’t contain their desires throughout dinner and needed to leave the table. In the chambers now stand ancient, moss-covered statues of Venus (some of which may well remain from the halycon days of the Medmenham monks!).

The final section of the caves is the eeriest and best part for my money (a modest £5 per adult in case you were wondering). As we walked further and descended towards the infamous Inner Temple, I felt my hairs prickle all over; the ghost of excitement past still echoing through the caves perhaps? Certainly, had I been making that journey circa 1752, I’d’ve most likely have stuffed with food, drunk off my ass, groping a nun and giddy with anticipation of the debauchery to come. I should probably note that should you wish to do any or all of those things, the Caves are available to book for private parties nowadays.

The Triangle is a series of three tunnels in the final section apparently shaped that way to represent the pubic area of a woman. Theory has it that the Banqueting Hall was a womb and one must pass through The Triangle as a means of “rebirth”. At the base of The Triangle, we reached a small stream of water, known as the River Styx. Comically, the stalagmites and stalagtites that adorn the Styx are not natural to the caves and were stolen by Sir Francis from Wookey Hole and stuck up there to achieve the correct aesthetic.

Hellfire Club Sandwich!

A Hellfire Club sandwich

Back in the days of the Medmenham Monks, one would need a small boat to cross the River Styx into the Inner Temple but nowadays there’s a bridge. The only downside to the Caves as they stand now is that, once you’ve crossed the Styx, the Inner Temple itself has bars across it preventing entry. Whilst quite happy to peer in at a group of nifty waxwork dummies of Sir Francis and his merry-makers, I was sad not to be able to actually walk inside. One of the more notable surviving artefacts from the glory days is a hook that hangs from the ceiling of the Inner Temple, allegedly used to hang chandeliers (although I’d like to think perhaps also for some kind of De Sade-ian levels of sexual debauchery?) but this is only just visible through the bars.

As the Caves only go one way, the walk back upwards into daylight feels a little anti-climactic. I felt sad to leave behind the nocturnal world of Sir Francis Dashwood and his frenetic orgies but provisions have been put in place to prevent melancholia from setting in. You can ease the pain at the café above the Caves with (wait for it)… A HELLFIRE CLUB SANDWICH!

Last visited 19th July 2009

April – October: open 7 days a week, 11am – 5.30pm
November – March: open Saturdays & Sundays, 11am – 5pm
Adults £5, concessions £4
Tel: 01494 533739
Website; Google Maps ref