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Uninvited guests at Britain's haunted hotels

RAF LAKENHEATH -- England --

Many of Britain's hotels have taken on a ghostly aura. Far from scaring off potential visitors, inexplicable phenomena seem to be a highly marketable asset these days.
In hostelries throughout the land, Grey Ladies or Ladies in Black, White, or Blue and occasionally a daring shade of Red are reported to drift through walls and float over lakes, accompanied by spectral orbs and sudden icy chills. Hooves clatter at midnight, ghostly legions march past along old Roman roads, doors lock and unlock of their own accord, and hidden children laugh or sob on secret stairwells.

Historic buildings in atmospheric surroundings - of which Britain, with its long history, has many -- predictably take the lead in these alleged phenomena, coaxing medieval monks, Victorian serving girls or unhappy lovers to revisit old haunts. If some grisly tale of a tragic death can be unearthed from bygone days, or better still, a skeleton in a cupboard somewhere, the psychic portents perk up to no end. Specialists can arrange all sorts of hair-raising experiences involving séances, dowsing rods and Ouija boards for hopeful ghost-hunters, or at least, a promising setting in which they might just happen. Of course, nothing is guaranteed and the chances are you will enjoy a perfect night's rest.

For most of us, the faint chance of some other-worldly experience holds no more than an amusing addition to a hotel stay - at least, in broad daylight. For others, it's a serious quest to prove there are more things in heaven and earth, undertaken only with quantities of recording equipment and a determination to stay awake all night.

Certain hotels crop up repeatedly on the paranormal lists. Cornwall, in south-west England, famed as a land of myths and legends, is a classic venue for ghosts. Guests and staff of the Wellington Hotel in Boscastle have experienced many strange apparitions, dark shapes and inexplicable sounds, including a figure in a period dress vanishing into a wall and an old lady passing through a closed bedroom door. The hotel also lays claim to the mystifying case of a small dog (a real one belonging to a writer staying at the hotel), which suddenly got up and trotted out one night yapping and wagging its tail as if being taken for a walk by some unseen presence.

Another spooked hotel, immortalized in Daphne du Maurier's novel, Jamaica Inn, which was once situated on a wild and lonely turnpike road across Bodmin Moor, has strong associations with smugglers. Disembodied voices speak in the long-dead Cornish language, and a coach and horses crunches across the gravelled courtyard at midnight. In fact, the courtyard was resurfaced with cobbles recently, yet the noise of the metal-rimmed wheels remains the same as in olden times. Even odder is the stranger in 18th-century dress repeatedly observed sitting on a wall outside the inn. He neither speaks nor moves, but bears an uncanny resemblance to a former guest summoned by a message to meet someone outside. He left the bar and his half-finished tankard of ale, and was later discovered murdered on the moor. Has he returned to finish his drink?

Coaching tales are a recurrent theme in some of England's fine old coaching inns. The Molesworth Arms in Wadebridge is reputedly visited by a ghostly stagecoach at midnight on New Year's Eve, its four horses whipped on by a headless coachman. At Dartmouth's Royal Castle in Devon, a mysterious coach with horses draws up at the entrance to collect an unknown passenger and vanish into the night. The 15th-century Holt Hotel at Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire is haunted by the notorious highwayman Claude Duval, a former footman to the Duke of Richmond. He was apparently so popular with lady victims that tearful petitions for his pardon accompanied him to his execution.

A timbered inn called The Feathers, in Ludlow, Shropshire, has several interesting ghosts. One is a woman who tries to drive rivals away by pulling their hair (beware of Room 211 if you're a female staying here). Another is a Victorian gentleman with a dog, and a third seems to be a more modern apparition who confines her appearances to men only. She's a pretty thing in a miniskirt and a see-through blouse who walks straight through cars parked outside. One shocked guest who witnessed this young lady felt in urgent need of a restorative brandy. Relaying his experience to the hotel barman, he was told the news that she had appeared to several guests on previous occasions.

One of London's most haunted hotels is the five-star Langham, opposite the BBC's Broadcasting House. Its spectral residents include a silver-haired doctor who murdered his bride while on honeymoon, and a German officer who killed himself shortly before the outbreak of the World War I. Room 333 is said to be a haunted bedroom, as numerous BBC journalists attest.

Ruthin Castle, now a hotel in Denbighshire, North Wales, has a resident Grey Lady, believed to be the wife of one of King Edward I's lieutenants. She murdered her husband's mistress with an axe in a jealous rage and was later executed herself. The hotel is noted for its medieval-style banquets.

Not all ghosts are sinister or ill-intentioned. In the spa town of Cheltenham's De La Bere Hotel, a 15th-century manor house once used as a girls' school, a former matron paces the corridors at night to check that her charges are behaving. In Scotland, Edinburgh's four-star Royal Terrace Hotel is another much-haunted venue, whose blithe spirits include a nurse in 19th-century uniform, a child from the 1800s, and a gentleman enjoying a drink at the bar. There are also reports of cupboards opening and unbidden noises and movements.

For more information, visit www.hauntedhotelguide.com or www.paranormaltours.com.