Dark tourism involves visiting places that have links to tragic times throughout history. Popularity for this genre of sightseeing has seen a steep rise in recent years, as it seems many of us enjoy connecting with the more dark and twisted times in history.
If this sounds like you, then we hope our list of 10 dark tourism destinations to visit in the UK will offer some inspiration for your next trip.
Note: Dark tourism can be a heavy and upsetting subject and we appreciate that it certainly isn’t for everyone. If you’re squeamish or aren’t comfortable reading about historic attractions that centre around death and tragedy, this might not be the right article for you.
1. St Leonard’s Ossuary, Kent
St. Leonard’s Ossuary is a crypt (underground room) beneath the Parish of St. Leonard in Hythe, Kent, that houses the skulls of over 1,000 people.
It’s the largest known collection of human skulls in Britain, but mystery still surrounds where they came from.
First mentioned in text dating back to the 18th century, there have been various theories about who the people are – from Danish pirates killed in battle to men who fell in the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Though, the most common theory is that the skulls were collected from different cemeteries in the area when they closed down.
The architecture of the Ossuary itself suggests that it might have once been used as a Charnel House (a vault or building where human skeletal remains are stored), which lent to its nickname as ‘the bonehouse’.
However, while the idea of thousands of hollow eye sockets might be enough to keep you up at night, there have been no reports of paranormal activity in the Ossuary, if that helps you sleep better…
2. The Poison Garden, Alnwick
Known as the UK’s deadliest garden, the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle is home to around 100 different species of toxic and dangerous plants.
Guarded by two warning signs with a skull and crossbones warning “These plants can kill”, the garden was started by the Duchess of Northumberland in 2005. It was formed as part of an investigation into the evolutionary roots of medicine, and the very fine line between how plants can both kill and cure.
Visitors to the Poison Garden are invited to look but must not touch, smell (and definitely not taste!) any of the plants, because they all have the ability to kill.
In fact, it doesn’t take many berries from the garden’s Atropa belladonna plant to kill. Extracts from Helleborus were once used in low doses as a purgative to help rid children of intestinal worms – but overdoses caused death.
So, if you’re intrigued by how poisonous plants have been used throughout history, a trip to Alnwick’s Poison Garden might be for you.
3. Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast
Dark tourism in Belfast is a thriving industry. Its primary focus is on retelling Northern Ireland’s difficult, and painfully recent, history of the Troubles – a period of conflict lasting around 30 years from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Crumlin Road Gaol held prisoners from 1846 to 1996 and played a leading role in the imprisonment of Loyalists and Republicans throughout the Troubles.
During your visit here, you’ll walk in the footsteps of former prisoners and learn about what life would’ve been like within the prison walls. Interviews of former prisoners are played throughout and offer valuable insight into prison life and into the general conflict itself.
Visitors are free to explore Crumlin Road themselves, or there are Troubles walking tours available to join too. Expect to learn how 800 years of history culminated with the birth of the Troubles in the 1960s, and about what it was like to live in Belfast at the time from people who were there.
4. Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh
Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh is definitely worth a visit for any dark tourists making a trip to Edinburgh. The tale itself is enough to make your hairs stand on end, but experiencing it in person adds a whole other layer.
As the story goes, in the 1640s, hundreds of plague victims were herded up from around the city and forced into the tight quarters of Mary King’s Close. The area was then walled up and victims were left to die to prevent further spread of the disease.
One known local plague doctor, George Rae, would visit the sick and dying in Mary King’s Close, wearing the now-infamous full leather outfit and haunting mask with the long bird beak.
Methods to try and save plague victims were harsh. Rae would slice off the top of the victim’s sores, before using a red hot poker to cauterize the wound. If done early enough, it’s believed this process may have saved lives. Though, when you consider that this was long before the invention of anesthetic, it becomes even more grisly.
Today, Mary King’s Close is available to visit and there are a number of tours available.
5. The Tower of London, London
Probably the most famous of destinations on this list, the Tower of London has a rich and bitter history as a formidable fortress and prison.
While it also served as a lavish palace, the Tower is more famous for marking the end of the line for the many people who were imprisoned, tortured, and executed within its confines.
Spot the Tower’s infamous river entry, Traitor’s Gate, or head to Tower Green where you can stand on the site of famous executions – including those of two former queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
If you dare, you can buy tickets to the Torture at the Tower exhibition to see the terrifying instruments used for torture, such as the barbaric rack and manacles.
6. Lancaster Castle, Lancaster
Lancaster Castle offers a haunting glimpse into some of the darker sides of our history. First used as a prison in 1196, the castle has been the scene of significant trials, thousands of executions, and housed prisoners until as recently as 2011.
Other than the heinous housing and torture of some of the UK’s most dangerous prisoners, Lancaster Castle is also rooted in another dark era of history…witches.
The trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous and richly recorded witch trials in English history. Ten people were charged with witchcraft and sentenced to death during the trials – and, tragically, one key witness in the case was a nine-year-old girl whose own mother, sister, and brother were executed as the result of her testimony.
Guided tours at the castle unlock the fascinating – and often eerie – history of this magnificent monument. You can also drive along the 45-mile long Pendle Witch Trail, which is the lonely road the Pendle Witches took as they journeyed towards Lancaster Castle for trial.
7. Gough’s Cave, Somerset
Recent museum research into the 14,700-year-old evidence found in Gough’s Cave, in Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge, revealed some rather grueling history about our ancient ancestors…
The prehistoric human remains found show clear signs of cannibalism. For example, many of the bones had been chewed by humans, and long bones and ribs had been cracked open and gnawed to release marrow and grease. Other bones show cut marks where soft tissue had been carefully removed; and three skulls were found carefully shaped into cups and bowls.
Perhaps even more unnerving is that it seems that there was an abundance of animal meat available. This suggests that cannibalism was carried out as part of rituals and cultural choice, rather than to survive.
Despite its rather chilling history, Gough’s Cave is fascinating and boasts magnificent rock formations that make it well-worth the visit.
8. Eyam Village, Derbyshire
Also known as the Plague Village, Eyam Village in Derbyshire became famous after the Black Death of 1665 and 1666.
After the plague arrived in Eyam, the entire village sealed itself off from the outside world to prevent the deadly disease from spreading to nearby communities, despite the great personal risk this posed.
While undoubtedly saving the lives of thousands of people in the surrounding area, the village of Eyam paid a high price for their action. Percentage wise, the village suffered a higher death toll than London. Over 14 months, 260 out of the 800 villagers died and many families were wiped out completely.
But the impact on medical understanding was huge, as doctors learned that enforcing quarantines could help to limit or prevent the spread of disease.
Today, there are boards outside the houses in Eyam listing the names of those who died inside; and you can see the boundary stones where merchants from neighbouring villages left supplies for those in Eyam. The museum also gives a history of the village if you want to find out more.
9. Jack the Ripper Tours, London
Jack the Ripper was an unidentified serial killer active in and around the Whitechapel district of London in the autumn of 1888. Though only a threat to a relatively small section of the London community, his crimes had a much greater impact on society as a whole.
Because he was never caught, it remains unknown how many fell victim to Jack the Ripper – but the stories of those that we do know of are enough to send chills down your spine.
Much like many modern serial killers, the mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper lives on today, and has inspired the creation of walking tours, which take tourists back to that haunting time.
If you’d like to come face to face with the haunting reality of Jack the Ripper’s brutal crimes, you might be interested in booking onto one of these 7 Jack the Ripper Tours in London.
10. Monument to the last sin-eater, Shropshire
In this quiet country churchyard in Ratlinghope, Shropshire, stands a monument to Richard Munslow, who was the last known ‘sin-eater’.
Munslow, who was buried in 1906, had an unusual – and rather disgusting – profession that involved eating his meals over a corpse. The idea was that, by doing so, he (the sin-eater) would consume and take on the person’s unconfessed sins and free them of any punishment.
The practice of sin-eating was typically undertaken by the poor, who’d often be shunned by locals who feared they’d taken on evil spirits.
In some areas, the ritual was thought to guarantee the dead an untroubled passage into heaven; and others believed that it prevented them (along with their sins) from returning to the Earth in ghost or spirit form.
Campaigners raised £1,000 in 2010 to restore the grave, which is free to visit in the grounds of St Margaret’s Church in Ratlinghope, Shropshire.
We continue to be intrigued by the lives of our ancestors – and quite often, it’s the darker, more gruesome parts of history which draw us in the most. From infamous serial killers to prisons and poison gardens, we hope this list has given you some dark tourism inspiration.
That being said, as mentioned above, we appreciate that dark tourism isn’t for everyone.