Emma Jeffreys finds there are more things in heaven and on earth for groups looking to experience something out of the ordinary.
You will want to make sure that no members of your group have a nervous disposition if you decide to take part in one of the many supernatural experiences offered around the country.
Haunted Happenings host ghost hunting experiences in some of the country’s most frightening and haunted locations, including castles, mansions, inns, and hospitals. Carrying out vigils and séances using both scientific and spiritual methods, groups will be joined by an experienced team of investigators and psychics as they search for the spirits and ghosts that lurk within some of the most notoriously haunted locations the UK has to offer. Some of the most popular experiences offered by the company are the Haunted Weekend Breaks, which include two night’s dinner, bed and breakfast at a Haunted Hotel, plus two overnight ghost hunts. Examples include the ‘Cut Throat Weekend’ based at Jamaica Inn in Cornwall and ‘The Lancaster Witch Weekend’.
Groups have the chance to participate in a Victorian séance at Bodelwyddan Castle in Denbighshire, North Wales. The Victorians were preoccupied by the paranormal and many ghost-hunting methods used today originated in the Victorian séance. The night experience includes a tour of the castle, which claims to be one of the most haunted buildings in Wales, a chance to try Victorian séance techniques, a midnight Victorian tea party and a traditional séance. Victorian séances can be booked for private groups of 8 to 16, or you can book onto a public event. In Edinburgh, Mercat tours offer a number of ghostly tours of the city. The ‘Hidden and Haunted’ late night tour exclusively offers groups the opportunity to explore the famous haunted Blair Street Underground Vaults by candle-light and is designed for an adult audience. For the more faint hearted, Greatdays offers a new and exclusive ‘House of 10,000 Secrets’ tour. The two day tour gives groups a glimpse inside the Magic Circle’s Headquarters in London where you will enjoy a memorable evening of magic, watch leading members perform magic right under your nose and see stars on stage perform before your very eyes. This best selling tour only runs on selected dates each year.
A more contemplative experience, but just as unusual, is a visit to a cemetery.
A short drive from Bristol is Arnos Vale Cemetery. Opened in 1839, this 45-acre cemetery is the resting place of Lord Mayors, industrialists, social reformers and paupers alike. Arnos Vale offers an excellent choice of private tours to groups of 12 to 25 persons and these can be tailored, where possible, to your group’s access requirements and interests. The ‘Night at the Cemetery Tour’ explores the graves, folk customs and funeral etiquette of Victorian society before descending into the Victorian Crypt where you will certainly get shivers down your back.
Meanwhile, in north London, Highgate Cemetery also offers group tours. The cemetery is probably best known as the resting place of Karl Marx and the writer George Elliot. Tours take place on weekday mornings only, and are available to parties of up to 30 persons with a minimum charge applicable. Starting in the West Cemetery, visitors will learn about the architecture of the catacombs and mausoleums in this section of the cemetery before completing the tour in the East Cemetery, on a self-guided basis. It is worth noting that, due to popularity, these tours need to be booked well in advance.
Food for thought
Dinner needn’t be just a pit stop on your itinerary. There are some extraordinary dining experiences in the UK catering for groups.
Located in the heart of London, groups can enjoy the exhilarating -5°C experience of Icebar by Icehotel, the UK’s only permanent bar made of ice. Everything inside, including the walls, bar, tables and even your own personal glass is made from crystal clear Torne River ice, which is harvested from the pristine winter wonderland of Jukkasjärvi in Northern Sweden. After a few drinks, groups can warm up and enjoy a meal in the contrasting warmth and comfort of the below zero restaurant and lounge. It can cater for groups of up to 50 people until 5pm if booked in advance and GTOs are advised to contact the bookings team for details of packages.
Also in London, Dans le Noir offers another unforgettable dining experience where diners eat and drink in pitch darkness. After placing your order in the bar and lounge area, blind waiters guide you into the complete darkness of the restaurant for a dining experience that awakens the senses and allows a complete re-evaluation of perceptions of taste and smell. The restaurant can accommodate approximately 60 people in the ‘dark room’ and GTOs are advised to contact the restaurant for details of any offers.
Situated on the banks of the River Humber in Hull, you will find the award winning aquarium, The Deep. Located in the heart of the aquarium, diners in The Two Rivers Restaurant are treated to a Mediterranean menu with a Yorkshire twist whilst being surrounded by some of Europe’s best aquatic displays. Sharks, rays and turtles are just some of the fantastic species that may swim by you whilst enjoying your meal. Diners also get the chance to explore the exhibits on the main floor of the attraction throughout the course of the evening. It is open on Friday and Saturday evenings from 7pm and due to popular demand, they are launching a brand new night called Deep Blue Thursdays, taking place on the third Thursday of every month. Group bookings are welcomed.
Man Made and Natural Wonders
There are a host of wonders around the UK certain to take your group’s breath away.
Opened in February this year, The Shardin London is the highest vantage point from any building in Western Europe and the only place you can experience the whole of London all at once. Guests depart from the ground floor in kaleidoscopic’ lifts, which use video screens and mirrors to create the effect of soaring through the iconic ceilings and roofs of London. Travelling towards the pinnacle of The Shard, ‘pass’ through the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Rubens ceiling at the Banqueting House in Whitehall, the spiral staircase at Monument, and the British Museum’s Great Court glass roof. There is an indoor viewing galley on Level 69 where visitors can explore the city around them using ultra high-tech digital telescopes, or for a more profound experience, guests can go higher to the viewing gallery at Level 72 where, guests are surrounded by the giant shards of glass that form the top of The Shard. Group bookings are welcomed although time slots are currently restricted to between 09.00 am and 11.30 am.
An equally impressive, but older, vantage point can be found at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. It can be explored in several ways – one of the most popular of all being The Gorge Open-top Bus Tour. The more active visitor may wish to undertake the three-mile Cliff Top Gorge Walk, or climb the 274 steps, up to The Lookout Tower, where the rewards on offer are the breathtaking views. At Cheddar Gorge, however, it’s not just the views that attract but the chance to experience the magic and the splendour of the Cheddar Cave’s natural underground wonders. Gough’s Cave is widely recognised as one of the most beautiful stalactite caverns in the world and is where Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest skeleton, was found. Nearby Cox’s Cave is a shimmering, brilliantly coloured underground sanctuary with calcite sculptures, dancing fountains, mirror pools and music evocative of a more spiritual world. Group rates are available.
Painshill, the 18th century landscape garden in Cobham, Surrey, has recently announced that the fully restored Crystal Grotto will re-open in July. Hundreds of thousands of crystals including calcite, gypsum, quartz, and fluorite have been used to recreate this extraordinary folly, which dates back to 1760. Despite a completely natural appearance the Grotto was in fact created by the Hon Charles Hamilton who used timber shapes and moulded stalactite plaster decorations covered in crystals to create the natural illusion. From July Grotto tours will be included in the historic tour of the property and groups of 10 or more are advised to pre-book.
One of the most extraordinary of National Trust properties is Calke Abbey, near Ticknall in Derbyshire. This country house, in the middle of an ancient deer-park, somehow survived when many houses of its ilk were demolished in the mid 20th century. What makes it even more extraordinary, however, is its incredible array of contents. The owning Harpur Crewe family were avid collectors, and rarely threw anything away and sometimes didn’t even unpack what they did have! The family were somewhat eccentric and kept themselves to themselves; electricity was only installed in principal rooms in 1962, and when a room was full, or no longer needed, the door was closed and everything inside left as it was. So there are bedrooms full of toys, display cases with natural history collections of birds’ eggs, fossils, stuffed birds and butterflies and a lamp room full to the hilt with lamps.
When the National Trust acquired the house in 1985, conservators painstakingly photographed and catalogued the contents of every room, before removing the items so essential repairs could be made to the fabric of the building. Contents were then replaced – including wall paper to the walls and even a matchbox to its original position proping up a broken china dog in a cabinet in the Entrance Hall, ensuring the house regained its unusual atmosphere of gentle decay. Touring the house offers a peek into an extraordinary, now long gone, world. Groups are always welcome at National Trust properties and Calke Abbey is no exception. Self guided tours of the house are available from Saturday to Wednesday between April and early November, a timed ticket system operates and groups can prebook a time. There are discounted rates for groups, and coach drivers and GTOs for parties of more than 15 receive free entry to the house and garden. A garden tour can be pre-booked with the gardener and refreshments can also be booked in advance of your visit.