Woodlands are home to the alien and the sacred; where our fears lurk and where our most treasured stories send their heroes, from Gilgamesh to Snow White.
Forests shroud perils, but they are also enchanting, whose wildernesses John Muir described as “the clearest way into the Universe”.
And the UK’s wooded regions are no exception. From the phantom-beleaguered trackways of Oxfordshire’s Wychwood Forest to the otherworldly Forest of Rothiemurchus in the Scottish Highlands, there are haunted forests and unsettling groves spread wide across the United Kingdom.
Find out what skulks among the tangled roots and gnarled limbs at the heart of the woods below.
1. Wenlock Edge, Shropshire, England
A bandit named Ippikin is said to have buried his stolen treasure around Wenlock Edge, a limestone escarpment in Shropshire covered in deciduous woodland. Well known thanks to A. E. Housman’s 1896 poetry collection A Shropshire Lad, legends such as that of Ippikin and Major’s Leap ensure that visitors don’t take their safe ambling for granted.
If a traveller stands on Wenlock Edge and repeats “Ippikin, Ippikin, keep away with your long chin”, they should expect to be pushed off the escarpment by the outlaw’s ghost.
Major Thomas Smallman, a Royalist officer in the English Civil War, is also supposed to haunt an area on Wenlock Edge with his horse.
There, he was surrounded by Parliamentarian troops while he carried an important despatch to Shrewsbury. Instead of surrendering, he rode his horse from a cliff. The horse died, but Smallman was saved by an apple tree. The place he leapt from is known as Major’s Leap.
2. Pembrey Woods, Carmarthenshire, Wales
Pembrey Woods, outside Llanelli in southwest Wales, was an important site during World War One and World War Two. The paranormal-inclined have claimed to witness wandering and dismembered figures in the woods, associating them with the soldiers who once served in the nearby abandoned bunkers.
These sensational claims about the forest led to it featuring on the reality television series Most Haunted.
3. St Mary's Vale, Monmouthshire, Wales
The giant Jack O’Kent lurks within the miles of oak and beech that make up St Mary’s Vale in Monmouthshire. Jack O’Kent is a Welsh folkloric character who first appears in print in a 16th-century play. He is generally considered to be a sort of cleric or wizard, able to embarrass the Devil in games and bargains.
One tale has Jack asking for the Devil’s help with building a bridge in exchange for the first soul that crosses it. Once it is complete, Jack throws a bone across the bridge in order to summon a hungry dog.
Jack O’Kent’s heels are also supposed to have left a distinctive cleft in the Skirrid mountain, and to have thrown the standing stones at Trellech.
4. Wychwood Forest, Oxfordshire, England
Visitors to Wychwood Forest have reported being touched by a ghostly presence and have apparently seen visions of a horse-drawn cart carrying a pair of weeping children.
The 500-hectare woodlands are former royal hunting grounds and were once inhabited by the Hwicce. This tribe lent their name to the earlier Old English name for the forest, Huiccewudu, which means ‘wood of a tribe called the Hwicce’.
Folklore also attributes the death of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to the phantom appearance of his wife Amy Robsart in the woods. Amy had died under suspicious circumstances after being found dead on 8 September 1560 at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Dudley died a week after witnessing his wife’s spirit, the story goes.
5. Ballyboley Forest, Antrim, Northern Ireland
Ballyboley Forest is regularly recalled as a site of ancient druidic practices and ritual sacrifice. Tales of Ballyboley Forest credit the woodland with tales of hooded figures eliding travellers’ gazes. Thanks to some distinctive formations of stones and trenches that run through the plantation woodland, it has garnered a certain sinister reputation.
6. Dering Woods, Kent, England
Walking in Dering Woods in Kent is supposed to be rewarded with sights of unfamiliar shadows and witnessing the cries of people who have become lost in the woodland. There are waymarked paths in Dering Woods, which is nearby the similarly haunted village of Pluckley, supposedly home to 20 or so spirits and ghosts.
7. Epping Forest, Essex, England
The pollarded trees of Epping Forest haven’t been cut since the Epping Forest Act of 1878, resulting in a distinctive, distended appearance. The highwayman Dick Turpin hid inside Epping Forest in the 18th century, no doubt drawn by its size and proximity to London. Turpin was executed in 1739 for his murder of a man in Epping Forest.
In addition to Turpin’s spirit, some paranormal enthusiasts claim that dead Celtic soldiers also animate the woods. Epping Forest’s disquieting reputation has been elaborated in the modern era with the discovery of multiple murder victims.
8. Lydford Gorge, Devon, England
If you aren’t afraid of the Gubbins, then perhaps you should be. The outlaw gang made their lair in the steep-sided Lydford Gorge in Devon. Here trees march to the edge of the river Lyd and crowd out the sunlight. Since the 15th century, storytellers have remarked on the violence and lawless proclivities of the Gubbins that lived here.
Beside the white lady that haunts the waterfall, and puzzling features such as the logs into which hundreds of coins are hammered, tales of the Gubbins lend a perturbing atmosphere to what is otherwise a picturesque and impressive geological feature.
9. Forest of Rothiemurchus, Highland, Scotland
A wrought-iron cage confines the grave of the 14th-century tribal chief Seath Mor, located in the Forest of Rothiemurchus. The chief’s ghost has been reportedly spotted by walkers in the woods. He is supposed to challenge those who find him to a fight: those who accept are granted safe passage, while those who run are condemned to wander eternally within the forest.
Five stones are placed on Seath Mor’s tomb, perhaps to represent those who perished with him in battle. Anybody who tampers with them is suspected of tempting fate. A cage placed in the 1980s protects the grave and the stones. Let’s hope it also keeps Seath Mor in place.
10. Great Wood, Blickling Estate, Norfolk, England
A pyramidal mausoleum built in 1793 is one of the intriguing landmarks in the woods of Blickling Estate in Norfolk. It commemorates the 2nd Earl of Buckingham, but it is the historical Boleyn family that tradition describes as haunting the woodlands.
Anne Boleyn is said to appear every 19 May, the anniversary of her execution by Henry VIII, at the site. Having failed to stop the execution of his daughter, the spirit of Sir Thomas is supposed to suffer from a curse which condemns him to haunting the grounds around the clock.