Houses of horror: True sceptic Michaela Strachan sets off to find Britain's most haunted house…and gets spooked herself
21:30 GMT, 10 August 2012
They came for the women at dawn.
Knowing they would die on the scaffold, the innocents condemned as witches spent a miserable last night in the tiny cottage lock-up called The Cage, chained or strapped to the wall of their cell in utter darkness.
But do their restless spirits still horrify those who come to The Cage today For her new television series Great British Ghosts, on Yesterday, Michaela Strachan visited the property and others like it to find Britain's most haunted house.
Michaela Strachan has swapped really wild for really scary on her new TV programme, Great British Ghosts
For wildlife presenter Michaela it was a totally new experience – and one she approached with a healthy dose of scepticism.
'This was a bit of a break from the norm for me,' she says, 'But I thoroughly enjoyed it. We weren't doing an actual ghost hunt ourselves, but finding out about the ghosts and the history of the places we visited.'
Most of the people she met, however, were true believers. The Cage's current owner, Vanessa Mitchell, has no doubt that her property is shared with unseen guests.
'It's the most frightening house in Britain,' she says. 'It's extremely haunted and I can't live there any more – nor can anyone else.'
Vanessa and her four-month old son Jesse were forced out of The Cage by a campaign of spooky phenomena: footsteps, the sound of women and children weeping, cushions thrown through the air and mysterious bloodstains appearing on the floor.
'There have been deaths, suicides, diseases, depression and divorce,' she says of those who have tried – and failed – to live in the tiny 16th century former jailhouse in the village of St Osyth, near Clacton in Essex.
'No one can live there for any length of time, and it regularly goes on sale.'
John Chapman, a former tenant, agrees. 'I didn't believe in ghosts, but one night I was alone in the house and I heard footsteps climbing the stairs to my bedroom,' he admits. 'Then I saw the door handle actually turning – yet I knew there was no one there. After that, I left.'
Chris Palmer, a psychic investigator, suffered a more physical ghostly experience – he was pushed down The Cage's stairs by a spook he calls an entity'.
Chris says, 'We were setting up cameras to take photographs of the entities when I felt a violent shove in my back – but there was no one there. Luckily I landed on a colleague and didn't hurt myself.'
Now Vanessa only rents The Cage to psychic investigators and short-stay guests. She says, 'They say the dead can't hurt you, but I know they can.'
Another Essex place of judgement and punishment is the Old Courthouse Inn in Great Bromley. As its name implies, the former courthouse, which is now a B&B pub run by Vinny and Sarah Ranzulla, was where criminals were tried – and often taken straight outside to the gallows.
Ghostly goings-on at Powderham Castle in Devon
It is haunted by a woman in a maid's uniform, and guests have complained of a feeling of being watched. The pub's ghosts have been caught on camera by spirit snapper Ron Bowers.
He's taken scores of photographs there, which have shown shapes witnesses claim were not visible to them.
Justice meted out at the Old Courthouse may have been rough but at least it was swift. But debtors banged up in Derby Gaol languished there for months or years, sometimes driven to suicide by despair.
The prison, now a museum run by local historian Richard Felix, also claims to be Britain's most haunted building. Richard says the 'torment and terror of its past lingers in the very fabric' of the building.
Visitors to the museum have seen the oak cell doors close on their own, have smelt the scent of roses, felt sick and been pushed and shoved by unseen hands.
The really wild Michaela as we used to know her, here on Michaela's Animal Road Trip
At a seance held in the gaol, a heavy table pushed a visitor close to a burning fire, and Richard has seen a ghost gliding along a corridor. He recalls, 'I was on the phone in the office and it was 3.20pm on a bright afternoon. I was so startled I forgot I was on the phone.'
Richard believes the man in black 19th-century clothes was the unquiet spirit of George Batty, a rapist hanged in 1825 when the jail closed down, or perhaps the spirit of the jail’s last warden, Blyth Simpson, who objects to his successor's presence. Richard says, 'He still thinks he runs the place – he resents me terribly'.
A genuine victim of injustice – burned alive in 1555 under the Catholic Queen 'Bloody' Mary for preaching his Protestant faith – was George Marsh. The scene of Marsh's trial, 15th century Smithills Hall in Bolton, Greater Manchester, is haunted by his ghost.
Joan Sheppard, a museum tour guide, thinks she's seen him – and felt his rage. Joan says, 'I was in the Green Room where Marsh was questioned, the hall's most haunted chamber, when I saw a man in the mirror.
'He had white hair and was looking at me. Then something grabbed my wrist and held me so tightly it bruised.' Since then, Joan has been too scared to enter the room alone.
Not all haunted houses are the sites of sin and suffering, however. Another Bolton museum, the half-timbered Tudor house curiously named Hall i' th' Wood, seems to be inhabited by its former owners, the wealthy Brownlow family.
But, says ghost hunter Jason Karl, they are fading away with time. 'Where once you could see a whole human form, nowadays all we see is a pair of disembodied legs climbing the stairs or sitting on a bed, accompanied by a sense of oppression or dread.'
And did Michaela encounter anything that made her a believer Well, while filming in the Hall her camera crew heard the sound of children playing outside. They went to the window… but there was no one and nothing to be seen. Spooky, eh
Great British Ghosts starts on Friday 24 August at 9pm on Yesterday channel.