England has spawned its fair share of fantasy writers over the years. From tales of King Arthur, to The Hobbit and Harry Potter, this small country has inspired stories of adventure and magic which are loved by children and adults the world over.
It’s little wonder why: with its collection of mysterious stone circles, awe-inspiring caves, enchanting forests, misty moors, craggy coast lines and ancient churches, England is a land rich in inspiring landscapes and the folklore associated with them.
Here are ten of the most magical and mystical places England has to offer.
10. North Yorkshire Moors
Nothing quite evokes the same sense of natural mysticism as an ancient tree, and the North Yorkshire Moors boasts one of the biggest collections of centuries-old trees in northern England. Some are even thought to be around 1,000 years old. These enormous, gnarled trees could well be slumbering Ents, just waiting to impart their slow, ancient wisdom on passers-by.
The North Yorkshire Moors also offer beautiful rolling landscapes of purple heather, and what is thought by most to be a Roman road. However, local legend says the road (locally known as ‘Wade’s Causeway’) was actually built by a giant called Wade to connect his home at Mulgrave Castle to the home of his giantess wife who lived in Pickering Castle.
9. Chapel of St-Peter-on-the-Wall
This simple chapel on the windy Essex coast of south-east England dates back nearly 1,400 years, making it the country’s oldest church. It was built in 654 AD on the foundations of a Roman fort by Saint Cedd, a Christian missionary who had been commissioned by the King of the Northumbrians to convert the local people.
Modern-day pilgrims must now make their way along a rugged path through open farmland in order to visit the chapel, which still runs regular services to this day. Despite the minimalist style of the chapel (visitors are advised to wrap up warmly in the winter months!), the age of the building and the wild, isolated coastal surroundings give it a distinct other-worldly feel, for both believers and non-believers alike.
8. St. Nectan’s Glen
In this ancient woodland in Cornwall, a magnificent waterfall was formed where the River Trevillet whittled through the prehistoric slate. Some say that before King Arthur’s knights set out on their quest to find the Holy Grail, they first spiritually purified themselves at the Glen. It’s true that St Nectan’s Glen was considered a sacred place during King Arthur’s time – a Christian shrine was built there in the 6th century – so the legend is not entirely far-fetched.
Whether or not King Arthur truly cleansed his knights here, no one can say. Yet there’s no denying that St. Nectan’s Glen is now viewed as a deeply spiritual place for many people with a variety of beliefs today. Visitors often leave ribbons, prayers, crystals and photographs at this peaceful and magical space.
If you’re a fan of myth and magic, you may have already seen this mystical list entry on TV. ‘Puzzlewood’ in Gloucestershire is such a unique and enchanting wood that is has been used as a set for popular British shows including Merlin and Dr Who.
The woodland’s distinctive puzzle-like rock formations, locally known as ‘scowles’, have taken millions of years in the making; forces of erosion and uplift worked together over time to reveal a series of underground cave systems.
These unusual geographical features lend themselves not just to setting the scene for much-loved magical TV shows, however. The wood was also the scene of a real-life treasure find. In 1848, three jars containing 3,000 Roman coins between them were discovered by workmen in a small rock crevice. The owner of the hidden coins is unknown, as is the reason for hiding them. This begs the question: Is Puzzlewood hiding yet more undiscovered treasure amongst its caves, stone ledges and ancient trees?
6. Cheddar Gorge
Just over one hundred miles north-east of King Arthur’s stomping ground is Cheddar Gorge – England’s largest gorge. It is thought to have been a hunting ground for Stone-Age cavemen, and is also where Britain’s oldest complete skeleton (dating back to around 7,150 BC) was discovered in 1903.
The gorge is not only historically fascinating; it’s also visually-captivating. Its craggy limestone cliffs, topped with luscious green moss and lichens, and awe-inspiring rock formations within its many caves have earned the gorge the status of being an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’.
In fact, Cheddar Gorge was the source of inspiration behind the fictional Helm’s Deep and Glittering Caves of the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers. In 1916, J.R.R. Tolkien visited Cheddar whilst he was on his honeymoon and was fascinated by its magnificent cliffs and cave systems, which he confirmed in a letter later published in The Letters of JRR Tolkien.
5. Chanctonbury Ring
Chanctonbury Ring is an Iron Age hill fort in West Sussex. The hill is topped with a crown of beech trees which were planted in 1760 by a local land owner, and whilst there may not be anything particularly impressive about trees on a hill, the area has long been linked to strange and spooky goings-on.
Perhaps the oldest superstition about Chanctonbury Ring is that if a person runs backwards around the Ring seven times, they will summon the Devil. He will then offer them a bowl of milk, soup or porridge in exchange for their soul. The site has also been dubbed a ‘hot spot’ by local ufologists after a number of unexplainable sightings; it’s allegedly haunted, with numerous tales of ghost hunters and psychic groups being scared away or assaulted by vicious unseen entities, and like a half-rotten cherry on an already unappealing cake, English occultist, Aleister Crowley thought the Ring was “a place of power.” Spookay!
No list of mystical English destinations would be complete without a mention of the most famous of all the henges – Stonehenge. Even though Stonehenge is of course the most popular henge, we definitely know the names of the other ones too, am I right? Erm…
Many myths and theories have been attributed to this mysterious site. For example, one legend says that the wizard, Merlin instructed a giant to build it for him. During the 1600’s, the idea that the monument had been built by Druids became popular, and is still a widely held belief today. However, radiocarbon dating suggests this could not be the case, as Stonehenge was constructed long before the time of the Druids.
Despite the fact that no one really knows for sure what it was used for or who it was constructed by, over 1 million people visit this prehistoric monument each year. And as for why they do, well, that is certainly no mystery: Stonehenge is estimated to be around 5,000 years old, making it one of the most ancient man-made landmarks in the world.
3. Margate’s Shell Grotto
This is how the popular story of the grotto’s discovery goes: In 1835 in Margate, Kent, a little boy was lowered into the ground after a hole appeared whilst his father had been digging a duck pond. The little boy returned from the hole with fantastic tales of a system of tunnels decorated with shells. What the pair had discovered was a mysterious set of passageways, as well as a rectangular chamber, all covered with a total of 4.6 million shells arranged in elaborate mosaic images of gods, goddesses, trees and beautiful patterns.
The majority of the shells used in the mosaics belong to sea creatures found around the British Isles, such as oysters, mussels and cockles. Yet there are some from further afield, such as from the Caribbean. Samples of mortar suggest a variety of different types of adhesive used, including what appears to be Roman cement.
How true the story of the Shell Grotto’s discovery is, no one knows for sure. However, one thing is clear: to this day, nobody has been able to work out who constructed it, why it was built or what it was used for.
For some, Glastonbury is most famous for its annual music festival (although the festival is actually held seven miles away in Pilton). However, there is much more to Glastonbury than porta-potties and tents full of hippies.
Glastonbury is believed to be the legendary Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was laid to rest in Glastonbury Abbey. As water levels were once much higher in the area during the time of King Arthur, Glastonbury Tor may indeed have been an island.
It is also believed that Jesus Christ may have paid a visit to the town. Dr. Gordon Strachan, a Church of Scotland minister and academic, claims that the idea of Jesus Christ visiting England as part of his educational endeavours is not too far-fetched a theory. He even suggests that Jesus may have helped to build a church here:
“St Augustine wrote to the Pope to say he’d discovered a church in Glastonbury built by followers of Jesus. But St Gildas (a 6th-Century British cleric) said it was built by Jesus himself. It’s a very, very ancient church which went back perhaps to AD37.”
In our top spot for mystical and magical places in England we have the truly enchanting landscape of Tintagel, on the north coast of Cornwall. This is possibly where the most famous English legend took his very first breath.
Legend has it that King Arthur was born in Tintagel Castle – a castle of which the ruins still remain on the edge of a dramatic wind-swept cliff, and which are open for visitors to explore. Not only this, but ‘Merlin’s Cave’ lies beneath the castle ruins. The legendary home of England’s most beloved wizard looks out onto a secluded beach cove, where a waterfall cascades from an adjacent cliff edge down onto the sand. This is where Merlin is said to have raised and taught the young King Arthur.
Some pretty impressive credentials for a small Cornish town. However, with such a captivating coastline of cliffs, caves and waterfalls, and breath-taking views out across the Atlantic Ocean, Tintagel is totally mystical enough, even without the stuff of legends.