Lounging on my four-poster bed in the haunted Prince Rupert Hotel, I open one eye to see if a headless body has appeared. Nothing so far, but its early. Shrewsbury may look like a postcard, with its timbered buildings and cobblestone streets, but a ghostly phenomenon lies within.
Even the route to my room is chilling: Down the hallway where the director of photography for A Christmas Carol saw the man in a nightshirt disappear through the wall. Right at the doorway to Chambers Restaurant where a sleeping cavalier was suspended in mid-air. Past the flickering light, up the creaking stairs, and into the Prince Rupert Suite.
When I asked the bellman if my room was haunted he said no but rooms six and seven are. A jilted bride-to-be hung herself in six, and in seven, a young man killed himself when his betrothed ran off with his best friend.
Fascinated, I mention this later on a town tour with Pam Roberts-Powis, Shrewsbury's Blue Badge Guide. She nods, as if she's heard it before, and says "Someone should introduce them."
No wonder she's blasé. Shrewsbury has many haunted sites: the library, the castle (a nasty bluebeard type there) – even the Victorian train station. According to the booklet, The Ghosts that Haunt Shrewsbury, this is because the Devil hates Shropshire more than any other county in England, and Shrewsbury is Shropshire's major town.
"If you look closely," Pam says, "you can see the Devil's claw marks going up the 15th century St Alkmund's spire. He quite often runs up there to see if anyone is sitting in his chair over at the Stiperstones, a rocky hiking area only a few miles away. Bit of an insecure devil," she adds.
I just wonder why he settles for St Alkmund's when nearby St Mary's has the third highest spire in England.
After the tour, I stop in at the narrow Golden Cross Inn. Dating back to 1428, it's one of the oldest hostelries in England. With its low ceilings, timber beams, and white-washed walls bulging with age, it certainly looks ripe for a haunting, but Colin Brady, the owner, scoffs at the mention of ghosts. This is despite the fact that one of his guests swears she saw a monk at the foot of her bed.
"If you want to see something, you will," he says.
Still fervently denying the existence of spirits, he takes me upstairs to the dining room and tells me that one night while he was alone here, a Queen Mother plate suddenly shot across the floor. Questioning the staff, he discovered someone had just polished the cabinet that holds the plate.
"And that's why the plate shot off the cabinet! It was the vibrations of my footsteps combined with the slope of the floor."
"But Colin," I say, "you've just showed me how the plate rolled lengthwise across the room, and the floor slopes widthwise. Shouldn't it have gone downhill?"
He has no answer for this, and I am still pondering the science of it as I head across the Severn River, which loops around the town, then I stop in at the red sandstone Abbey. Founded in 1083, it was nearly destroyed during Henry VIII's Dissolution. It has every right to be plagued by tormented souls, but it isn't. However, The cream-colored Dun Cow Pub across the street is.
The regulars tell me it's a military ghost, a Dutch cavalier who stabbed an Englishman to death and was hung in the stables outside. As well as knocking glasses off counters and blowing out light bulbs, he's been sighted wearing full military regalia making for a long-gone staircase.
Next I stroll down Wyle Cop to the Nag's Head Inn. The third floor room jutting out over the street has seen three suicides: a coachman, a young woman, and a soldier heading home from WWI. It's all blamed on a mysterious picture of a prophet on the inside of a cupboard door. The room is locked now, but the owner's sister suggests I have a word with her brother about having a look. I consider the consequences: I'll look at the picture and commit suicide, or go mad as local lore claims. I don't see an upside, so I settle for a drink in the pub.
My last stop of the evening is an old coaching inn, the Lion Hotel. Dickens stayed here, and so did Madame Tussaud. The cozy lounges on the main floor are filled with people chatting, but I aim for the back. A ghost of an elderly woman lingers here between the powder room and the stairs to the Adam ballroom – waiting for someone, some say. I head up the stairs for a peek at the ballroom. The locked door gives an inch, but the wind starts to shriek. Spooked, I scamper back down and duck into the loo. At a very vulnerable moment, I realize I am peeing in a haunted bathroom. Very disconcerting.
Through a misty night I walk down Butcher Row back to the Prince Rupert. After a bath in my enormous claw-footed tub, I check behind the curtains to confirm that there is no presence of spirits. At 3am, I wake up and decide it's a fine idea to sleep with the lights on, as I am now convinced I've been followed over by the elderly woman in grey. I might not actually see her, but in my mind she's the spitting image of Madame Tussaud.