Top 10 Most Mysterious Settings in Britain
The island of Britain is bursting with beautiful, enigmatic, and sometimes downright mystical sites. This not only makes the country an excellent tourist destination but also the perfect setting for many atmospheric mystery novels. There were so many places to choose from, I could have easily compiled a list of my top fifty locations. But I’ve whittled it down to these ten, many of which I’ve personally visited. I dare you to stand in these settings—or be transported there by these suggested novels—and not feel your skin prickle with awareness, your breath catch in awe, and your mind spin with possibilities.
- Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria
Of course, no list of mysterious settings would be complete without at least one stone circle, but rather than the more obvious choices of Stonehenge or Avebury, I’ve selected Castlerigg. Located on a hill on a rural lane to the east of Keswick in the astonishingly lovely Lake District, and ringed by blue-and-green-tipped hills, Castlerigg is perhaps the most dramatic of Britain’s stone circles. Folklore suggests that the stones are actually men who were transformed into the sarsens (large sandstone blocks) by witches. There is no shortage of crime fiction set in this area, but The Lake District series by Martin Edwards is certainly a winner.
- Corfe Castle, Dorset
Contrary to most sites, Corfe Castle might be best appreciated when it’s shrouded in fog and mist. These impressive ruins perch atop a rugged hill overlooking the village of the same name and offer expansive views over the Isle of Purbeck and the southern coast of England. Originally built as a royal fortification in the 11th century, the castle residents—the majority of whom were women—valiantly held out against 600 Parliamentary troops in a six-week siege during the English Civil War. In the end, the castle was captured through treachery, and Parliament then elected to have the building “slighted”—destroyed so that it could not be used against them again. It’s no wonder that numerous ghost stories are attached to the striking castle ruins. A crumbling castle always makes for an intriguing setting, and many of the castles featured in Enid Blyton’s adventures stories are said to be based on Corfe.
- Whitby and the North Yorkshire Moors
The entire breadth of the North Yorkshire Moors are shrouded in beauty and mystery, much as the infamously impenetrable mist that often settles over its landscape. But the seaside resort of Whitby in particular sparks one’s imagination. Part of the reason is because of its visually dramatic coastline. The fishing village straggles along the shores of the River Esk, the east bank of which steeply climbs into a windswept cliff. Silhouetted against the sky at the top of this bluff, reached by 199 steps, are the ruins of Whitby Abbey—destroyed by Henry VIII and additionally damaged in 1914 by German battleships—as well as St. Mary’s Church and its graveyard. The cemetery is so close to the edge of the cliff that landslides have unearthed some ancient graves. This is “Dracula’s church” where he made landfall in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.
- Tintagel Castle, Cornwall
Legend holds that this windswept, clifftop castle is the birthplace of King Arthur, and recent archaeological evidence has discovered the remains of an even older settlement beneath the romantic ruined battlements of the 13th century castle perched there today. Whatever the truth, mystery and mist certainly surround this rocky headland. A steep and somewhat precarious climb leads one on a walk back in time and to some astounding views of the Cornish coast. Perhaps the same vantage looked out from, once upon a time, by the ancient kings of Cornwall. Cornwall is a prime location for atmospheric suspense, as proven by Daphne du Maurier’s novels.
- Grime’s Graves, Norfolk
A description that, on the surface, sounds like a rather dull and uninteresting place turns out to be a mind-boggling and astonishing site. Grime’s Graves is a large, neolithic flint-mining complex that operated 5000 years ago, the landscape of which is now strangely dimpled with rippling depressions caused by more than 400 pits. Some of these pits are elaborately constructed, and it is possible to climb 30 feet down through the chalk surface into one of the mines in order to view the flint that was so critical to our neolithic ancestors. The flat, unforgiving landscape of Norfolk and its surrounding area is rife with great mysteries, including the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths.
- Dryburgh Abbey, Scottish Borders
The Borders region between Scotland and England is riddled with fantastically intriguing sites: castles, manor houses, lonely hillsides, and ancient abbeys. My favorite of these is the soft red sandstone ruins of Dryburgh Abbey, tucked into a curve of the ambling River Tweed. From the moment of its founding in the 11th century, it was repeatedly damaged during the Border wars between Scotland and England before its ultimate destruction in 1544. Regardless, the building’s remains are still a place of solemn beauty and mystery. It’s no wonder that two famous Scots were buried in the abbey’s ruined north transept: author Sir Walter Scott and WWI commander Field-Marshal Earl Haig. The grounds are said to be haunted by the Nun of Dryburgh, a mythical figure written about by none of other than Sir Walter Scott in his poem “The Eve of Saint John.”
- Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland
Built by the Romans in AD 122 at the behest of Emperor Hadrian, this massive stone wall stretched 73 miles from coast to coast across the narrowest stretch of northern England. Though its exact purpose is still debated, the wall—as well as forts, settlements, and various military complexes manned by nearly 20,000 thousand troops—were expansive and impressive. Remnants of those fortifications still remain today, and while standing upon the best-preserved segment of the wall at Housesteads Roman Fort and staring out over the rolling Northumberland landscape, one feels a stirring and almost eerie connection with the past. It’s almost as if the Romans who defended the wall never entirely left. The bleak Northumberland hills are populated by more than one fictional sleuth, including Vera Stanhope from the series by Ann Cleeves.
- Northern Snowdonia, Wales
No top-ten list of mysterious settings would be complete without mentioning Wales. This ancient land alone could support a list of fifty or more magical and atmospheric locations. So I’ve chosen to focus on the area of northern Snowdonia surrounding the village of Betws-y-Coed—“the prayer house in the wood.” This land is filled with miles of magnificent countryside chock-full of rippling rivers, glens, dense woods, and glorious mountain peaks. Upstream lies Swallow Falls, the highest continuous waterfall in Wales, while downstream is the charming Fairy Glen. The smaller and perhaps even more picturesque village of Capel Curig lies a short distance to the west, and beyond that the almost fantastical summit of Castell y Gwynt. One excellent series set in Wales is Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries.
- The Scottish Highlands
Once again, I know this is a broad choice, even broader than the previous selection. But there are so many splendidly mysterious settings throughout the entire Highlands that it is impossible to choose just one. There is a magic all its own to the Highlands, especially in places like Glencoe. This dramatic valley surrounded by rugged mountains has to be experienced to believe. Called “The Weeping Glen” because of the brutal massacre that happened there in 1692, and because the cliffs seem to literally weep water when it rains. Standing in the midst of its somber beauty, you can’t help but feel your heart and blood stir. Locations like the Isle of Skye, with its mist-shrouded, almost fantastical landscape, only further that emotional connection to the land. And there are no shortage of glorious castles and ruins, be it the stark shell of Ardvreck Castle on a rocky promontory in the far north, the remnants of 16th-century Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, or the romantic and much-photographed Eilean Donan Castle. Numerous fictional sleuths, including M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth, wander these hills and glens.
If there were ever a landscape fashioned purely for mystery, it would be Dartmoor. A place out of time, even to this day much of Dartmoor can only be explored on foot. But any walkers must be wary of the treachery underfoot and overhead, for the ground is riddled with bogs and marshes, the weather is notorious for its quicksilver nature, and out on the expanse of the windswept moor one can easily become disoriented. The granite-shattered tors and local legends of ghosts, beasts, hedge-witches, and fae only add to the atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used this to terrific effect in one of Sherlock Holmes’s most famous cases, The Hound of the Baskervilles. A walk through part of Dartmoor is a must for any visit to southwest England. Just be careful you don’t become pixie-led.
Author Bio: Anna Lee Huber is the Daphne award-winning author of the national bestselling Lady Darby Mysteries, the Verity Kent Mysteries, and the Gothic Myths series, as well as the forthcoming anthology The Jacobite’s Watch. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she majored in music and minored in psychology. She currently resides in Indiana with her family and is hard at work on her next novel. A Brush with Shadows, her sixth Lady Darby novel, will release on March 6. Visit her online at www.annaleehuber.com.