The Deep, Deep History of Derbyshire

Written by Luke Greensmith

Originally published on October 19th, 2021


We’re at episode 2 of 3 for our mini series on the Most Haunted parts of Britain. The previous installment being the return to York, then after the upcoming Halloween special we will be going to Edinburgh. But today we have Derbyshire, the region with the claim to be the most haunted county in England. England is split into different counties based on historic boundaries, regions we’ve approached in previous episodes such as Episode 19: Lancashire is Haunted and now so are you. There are a lot of impressively haunted cities across the British Isles, and the city of Derby is one of the strong contenders, but there’s heavy debate there when there’s so many other old Roman towns with a lot of history behind them. But when you change your perspective, and look at the county instead of one given city, Derbyshire puts forward a proud pile of folklore and supernatural stories across the territory.


It’s pretty easy to give Derbyshire the title of most haunted county! A large portion of the Peak District national park comes under Derbyshire, it’s natural peaks and valleys pretty much guaranteed to be filled with terrors and stories of missing persons. Roman spa towns have existed for millennia as tourist traps, and there are huge numbers of beautiful country houses across the region masking dark histories of murder and tragedy. Some settlements in Derbyshire even date back 6,000 years, having continuous occupation since the stone ages. It all adds up to a beautiful place to visit where the history runs deep as well as tightly packed.


The following episode is going to be very surface level for this topic. There’s far too much to dig into here. But hopefully I can give you a fun glimpse at what may be the regional spook central of an already pretty haunted country.


SECTION BREAK – England’s Spookiest Castle


One of the castles in Derbyshire has an impressive title. Bolsover Castle came top of the list of England’s Spookiest Heritage site, as voted by the staff who maintain the over 400 sites registered with English Heritage. English Heritage protected sites come with many a legend and local folklore attached, I doubt there’s a single qualifying site without some ghost story attached. To beat the rest of the available list is already a strong sign you’re in for something special with Bolsover!


This castle was off to a strong start by being built on a burial ground, overlooking the town that was known as “the Satanic capital of Britain”. It has quite the sustained reputation for a lot going bump in the night. The poor overnight security guards there are regularly bothered by mysterious lights. Pretty much everyone gets to encounter doors being slammed open or shut, footsteps and muffled voices can appear anywhere in the grounds where no living guests are present. Objects can be moved, and there’s a risk of being pinched or even shoved by invisible forces.


One night a member of staff closing up could hear a scream coming from the castle that got louder and louder the further away they went. Once they couldn’t stand it any more they ran back to the castle to find what the hell was making that sound, only as soon as they got back inside the screaming stopped. Something in there wanted attention, and it wasn’t going to stop until it got it.


One particular ghost is almost sweet, in a terrifying ghost child way. As guests tour the building, the spectre of a little boy can be seen holding on to the hand of someone in the group. The little ghost child doesn’t surprise these guests, anyone seen holding hands doesn’t feel anything, the boy just mingles with tourists who wouldn’t even realise but for the fact outside observers can spot the spirit. The little ghost child is so famous there is mention of them to be found on the BBC news website.


As if all of this wouldn’t make touring the halls of the castle worrying enough, there’s even a chance that former owner William Cavendish can be spotted roaming the corridors. The sheer volume and frequency of strangeness has Bolsover Castle ranked the number one for being scariest to work at, and there’s quite a lot of competition for such a title. There’s even a specific ghost encounters book maintained for guests to record what they see and hear, it’s so common.


I definitely want to visit there!


SECTION BREAK – The skies above a famous reservoir


Not every haunting in Derbyshire is down to the ancient history it has built up, some more modern areas have surprising sightings. Ladybower Reservoir in Upper Derwent Valley was built between 1935 and 1943 to accommodate the industrialisation in nearby areas, providing drinking water to nearby growing population centres. Despite some early missteps, such as flooding two villages to make way for the project, the Reservoir is now a well integrated part of the beautiful scenery surrounding it.


The main claim to fame for Ladybower is that this is where the RAF practiced with bouncing bombs for the Dam busters mission of World War 2. 617 squadron practiced their low level flights here in preparation for Operation Chastise, and a devastating blow to wartime Germany’s infrastructure.


This is where a curious spectre can be spotted: A plane identified as a Lancaster Bomber can be spotted at random doing a low run in the area.


Not exactly a UFO, since it gets readily identified, it’s also not impossible for this to be some sort of historical recreation flyover. Except that would be the first thing checked once a bomber from World War 2 gets sighted, and there just aren’t matching records of such a plane taking off or landing. Not to mention the records of the work required to get such an antique airborne. There don’t appear to have been any fatal accidents during training, but 53 air crew died over in the actual raid in Germany. Maybe they sometimes come back home?


This isn’t even the only ghost plane sighting Derbyshire has. An inexplicable Douglas Dakota plane keeps getting spotted around the county skies as recently as 2017.


This must be something which must bother UFOlogists no end. It’s got to be quite the confusing dead end to a lead showing up for mysterious objects in the skies only to have locals turn around and say “nah, that was just the ghost planes again”.


SECTION BREAK – The mermaids of the Lake District


Okay, this is something of an odd one. The Lake District manages to have two different mermaids, very much a case of it being weird it happened twice given that this is a national park with no coastline.


Derbyshire has the less murder-y one, something of a surprise given that it’s Derbyshire. The Staffordshire part of the Peak District gets the Demon Mermaid, which I will definitely be coming back to in the near future.


Now, there’s a strong hint of this mermaid’s existence, given that it inhabits Mermaid’s Pool not far from Kinder Scout, the highest peak in the Lake District. The site is believed to have a history of being used in Celtic water worship rituals. Unusual for an inland lake, Mermaid’s Pool is salinated. There’s also a nearby waterfall which appears to flow upwards in high winds, so this body of water certainly stands out.


Ironically, the Staffordshire Demon Mermaid got the really appealing water to haunt and Mermaid’s Pool is quite a forbidding place. It looks like a portal to some otherworld without any need of aid from the stories it has surrounding it. The water is just salty enough fish can’t live in it, and no animals will drink from it. There’s even a rumoured connection to the Atlantic ocean deep in the caves below, although exploring that may be asking for trouble even if there isn’t a mermaid to disturb in them.


The waters themselves are supposed to have life giving qualities, potentially even being a key to eternal life. But this is at the whim of the pool’s mermaid. She appears at midnight Easter Eve when the waters are said to be at their most potent, and if she takes a liking to a supplicant the miraculous rejuvenation powers of the pool can be gifted to someone. The problem is if the mermaid decides they don’t like you. Know what else magical water is good for? Drowning people the mermaid doesn’t like.


You can also kneel down by the waters and stare into them any time you feel brave enough. The mermaid might grant you visions of future events, but may also drown you if they decide they don’t like you.


There’s quite a high drowning to blessing ratio here, it’s probably best to keep your distance should you visit.


SECTION BREAK – The Black Hounds of Derbyshire


With a new area to explore on the podcast, I had to go in search of one of my all time favourites: The regional black dog folklore.


Derbyshire has an odd slightly difficult to quantify one. They’re not an obvious fae creature like York’s shapeshifting Barguest, but they’re not something easily identified as a ghost like a Church Grim. The multiple potential origins of the Gabriel Hounds are a very mixed bag.


They are most associated with the sound of yelping in the night, a sound that can be referred to as “Gabble” or “Gabriel Ratchets”. Should no easy answer be assigned to what is making these noises, they are taken as an ill omen. Potential bad luck for those who hear them, or even a full on imminent death omen. Any actual sightings assigned to these noises gets the traditional Black Dog imagery, but there’s no individual entity at hand here and the Gabriel Hounds are supposed to move in a cacophonous pack. Where they may originate is quite the grab bag of folklore.


Gabriel Hounds can be linked to The Wild Hunt, being the regional variation of spectral hounds which roam ahead of the Hunt that could tie them to pre-Christian Sidhe tales.


In some stories they were unbaptised children cursed to roam as hounds until the end of time (a common bit of Christian fearmongering which tends to mutate older folklore).


There’s a Derbyshire specific story of a squire who would hunt on Sundays instead of going to church, that one day drove his hunt on to church grounds. This cursed him to find no rest in death, and he must now continue to hunt on stormy nights.


The name Gabriel Hounds can also be tied directly to the Archangel Gabriel, and the noise the hounds make is the angel spurring the Black Dogs that bear his name onwards in a hunt for the spirits of the damned.


The Gabble noise associated with the hounds, which may be an older linguistic origin before Christian angels get involved, are usually attributed to strange bird noises echoing in the night. Not an uncommon idea, but it feels a little dismissive of the lifelong locals who probably know what a goose sounds like.


Rule of thumb:


If it’s honking noises that pass over your head, even if the noise seems weird thanks to valley acoustics, it’s geese. If it’s a massive pack of ghostly Black Dogs passing through walls and hedgerows making a blood chilling racket as they run down the damned, probably not geese.


SECTION BREAK – Last stop, a haunted pub


If we’re doing a haunted part of the British Isles, we have to do a haunted pub!


The George & Dragon Hotel in the delightfully named town of Belper has quite the reputation.


On the surface level? The George & Dragon offers a lovely British pub experience. They’re highly rated on Google coming in at a solid 4.5 stars, with a love of rugby shared by locals who can fully book out the venue on game days.


But as with so many British pubs, there’s some fun spooky stories to be had. One night the current landlady was alone upstairs in the bathroom, and the doorknob started to rattle. She says she wasn’t scared, just thought it was someone trying the door. So she opened it to look, and she was all alone up there. So she closed and locked it, only for the whole door to start rattling in its frame. Opening it again, the corridor was once again empty.


It would be at that point I would decide I didn’t need the bathroom so much. Certainly not that particular one.


There’s a manifestation I’m starting to see common across haunted pubs, and there’s the spectre of a child which can be sometimes be seen running around the public rooms. There’s the tale of one of the hotel rooms where a woman hanged herself and her shade can sometimes be spotted in there. On one occasion, a clear light orb appeared the day before a pet died in an accident which the landlord speculates was a warning the death was coming.


A relatively recent event has led to something interesting being attributed to the pub, as the landlady got in touch with a local psychic to hold a séance. I normally don’t dip into what mediums say too much, as there’s far too many confirmed hacks to take a random medium at face value, but something very interesting turned up when this unnamed medium took a run at the George & Dragon. To quote them directly:


“In the bar entrance to your right is a corner where a door once was, which is now blocked up. In the area where the door was is a bench seating area. There are jolly and mischievous spirits there. I will not visit as there are other spirits deeper in that place – you don’t want them coming through!”


Whether this was supernatural insight or a bit of a spicy tale thrown in is up for debate, but it’s a curious one. That an old blocked up door could be a gateway you don’t want to mess around with is somewhat chilling to contemplate.


SECTION BREAK


That’s all for this episode, with Derbyshire getting the nod from me as the most haunted county in England. It doesn’t have the condensed paranormal chaos of some of the old cities, but taken as a whole there’s a lot to see, or else a lot to avoid depending on your disposition. Expect a return to Derbyshire in the not too distant future, I want to head over there and dig down on the scene!


Definitely reach out and let me know what you think. Additional leads are very welcome, not just for Derbyshire.


Next episode is this year’s Halloween special, then we’re moving on to part three of this series with Edinburgh: The most haunted City of Scotland. Once we have Edinburgh done I will be finding a way to get all of you to vote on which of the three you think is the Most Haunted for Britain! I’ll find something fun to do related to the winner.


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