“Derby’s the dead centre of England,” Richard Felix, my guide on the ghost walk tells me. Stamping the tip of his umbrella on the old paving slabs and laughing at his pun his face suddenly becomes very serious. “I’m very serious,” he says.
Richard is into the supernatural. He’s been on shows like Most Haunted and even wears a black leather trench-coat. He’s also big on Derby and possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of the old Midlands city. I’m suffering from a bad cold but despite feeling dire Richard keeps me enthralled as we walk the streets on a rainy evening, a testament to his infectious enthusiasm.
We start off in a pub called The Shakespeare wherein Richard tells me the Midlands Hotel where I’m staying, not only once accommodated Queen Victoria but was also haunted. As we leave the pub and walk the old winding streets in the failing light Richard explains how Derby, due to its central location, has become the setting for all manner of events as people passed through the city. Queen Victoria and Edward Lloyd George stayed just around the corner, Mary Queen of Scots was a reluctant guest and Bonnie Prince Charlie took over the city in his bid to take the English crown during the Forty-five Rebellion. He’s even said to have popped in The Jorrocks for a pint. It’s still a pub now and it’s said to be haunted. The bar man below is holding a skull found underneath the cellar. It’s thought to be that of a murdered Saxon woman. They keep it on a cushion behind the bar. Yeah, it’s probably haunted…
Being the meeting point of many roads, Derby had several coach houses serving the carriages that thundered along the cobbled streets. The sides of the entrance arches still bear the battered marks of countless knocks from coaches steered by drivers eager to enter the warmth and safety of the inns. Many now function as pubs and all, Richard tells me, are haunted. Ye Olde Dolphin Inne, Derby’s oldest and reputedly most haunted pub, is said to count the Flying Scotsman amongst its ghoulish repertoire. A man in Highland attire is frequently seen running through the corridors carrying a woman on his back.
A lot of the highwaymen shared the same fate – hanging, or worse, and many spent time in the cells of Derby Gaol, which was where I was spending my second night.
Eleanor and Chris Thompson conduct regular vigils in Derby Gaol. It received its first prisoners in 1756 when justice was decidedly brutal. If you actually managed to get hung it meant that you hadn’t already died from Prison Fever or the foul stench (one person is recorded as having died from the smell of the prison). And they packed them in. Usually cells no longer than the length of an average car held up to eight prisoners, with a layer of straw serving as both bedding and toilet. The law required the cells only be cleaned out once every six months, so as you can imagine, it’s not exactly the Ritz!
Derby Gaol held prisoners for a range of crimes and between 1730 and 1832 there were in excess of 260 crimes which carried the death penalty, including crimes such as being seen in the street with a sooty face and damaging a fishpond! Eleanor talks us through several instances over the years in which groups in the gaol, just like ours, experienced unexplained occurrences – a few resulting in the vigils being cut short, with guests making speedy exits. She then separates us into groups and locks us in pitch black cells…
I can’t say I experienced anything other than the potential side effects of too much cold medicine, but it was certainly an unsettling few hours as we were rotated between the tiny cells, with me nearly tripping up over a mysterious cat on the way. Things became spookier when we conducted a human-pendulum séance to contact the spirits and we became privy to the stories of the many people who had inhabited the same rooms we were glancing furtively around.
I left with a very real sense of reverence for the years of history not to mention for the individuals who became sad parts of it. Upon leaving I thanked Eleanor and Chris and asked about the cat I’d almost tripped over. I was told that there was no cat as such but they were regularly visited by a spectral feline that padded through walls and closed doors.
To experience eerie goings on for yourself in the historic city of Derby, check out Spookyshire, a creepy collection of events taking place in Derby and the Peak District throughout October and Halloween.
Disclosure: Chris Moore visited Derby as part of a hosted trip by Visit Peak District in September 2012.