It’s around 10pm, it’s cold outside. Thick fog from Bodmin Moor clasps the Jamaica Inn, where my travelling companion and I are spending the night. The barman has kindly let us visit the inn’s museum after hours, so we can learn more about the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s historical novel Jamaica Inn, before we leave in the morning. Dark shadows lurk around us as we watch an educational video about smugglers and lawbreakers in the area. The lights are flickering. We can’t tell if it’s deliberate. The video goes on to explain that there are dozens of ghost stories surrounding Jamaica Inn. “A shadowy figure has been spotted moving through the restaurant,” says the voiceover, “and a ghostly figure has been spotted in the most haunted room in the inn, room four”.
Room four is where we’re staying the night.
Next Monday, Emma Frost’s (The White Queen, Consuming Passion) new three-part series tells the twisted story of Jamaica Inn. Built as a coach house in 1750, this renowned building became a smugglers den between the 17th and 19th century. Novelist Daphne du Maurier stayed here for three days in 1930 after getting lost on the moor, and her time here inspired the gritty novel of the same name, filled with smugglers, violence and sex.
Today, the roadhouse is a dubious beacon against untamed Cornish countryside. The uninviting exterior is made of hardy stone and grey Cornish slate. In the cobble-stoned foreground, Victorian-style street lamps cast light over a giant rusty anchor and some medieval-looking stocks – used to humiliate law-breakers in the olden days. Inside, the building is chock full of tributes to Daphne du Maurier and smuggling. Rooms in the old part of the house are named ‘Francis Davey,’ ‘Harry the Pedlar’ and ‘Squire Basil’ after characters in the Jamaica Inn novel, a plaque in the bar reads ‘on this spot Joss Merlyn was murdered’, a nod to the threatening smuggler from the tale, played by Sean Harris in the new series. And there’s a whole room full of Daphne du Maurier artefacts and trinkets in the inn’s adjacent museum.
Other parts of the dimly lit building are scattered with stuffed birds, hanging rifles, copper pots, vicious looking wooden farm tools and paintings of tall ships. The décor no doubt helps fuel the ghostly stories surrounding the property, which is said to be one of the most haunted sites in Britain.
Cornish local Julia Lawrence has worked at Jamaica Inn for more than a decade, and as we leave the museum she tells us more about the strange occurrences she’s witnessed. “You get loads of stuff happening, there are often shadows moving,” she explains. “A few years ago I was stood behind the bar talking to one of my colleagues, who was facing me. She looked at my face and said ‘what’s the matter?’ and I said ‘somebody has just walked past you'”. Lawrence explains that night-time is the worst for ghostly goings on, and certain rooms are more haunted than others.
“I won’t go into room five,” she says, “I feel so sorry for anyone I check in there. It’s meant to be where a lady and her child were murdered – the story is that the child was illegitimate.”
Naturally, we were more interested in room four, our ominous abode for the night. Legend holds that a pirate haunts it, explains Lawrence. “He has a tricorn hat on and he walks through the beds,” she says. “Recently we’ve had people who have seen someone sitting on the end of the bed. They must have been a bit freaked out.” Our faces turn pale.
The ghost stories haven’t seemed to put off Jamaica Inn’s new owner though. Surrey businessman Allen Jackson made the timely purchase five weeks ago after spending two years scouring southern England for the right hotel. “I wanted a trophy hotel,” he explains, “something different”. Jackson viewed the property for two hours, and on the way back to Surrey rang the agent with a bid £250,000 over the £2 million asking price. “I signed after one visit,” he says.
Intrigued by the smuggling legacy, Jackson has discovered the secret routes used to move contraband from the coast to the inn, and he’s already seen his fair share of weird happenings. “Last week, we had [tourism company] Haunted Happenings at the hotel,” he says. “We were all standing around in the museum at one point and it started to get darker, which is supposed to mean a spirit is around, there were some strange knockings too.
“But my own strange observation was a fortnight ago. I was in the bar at lunchtime and there were seven glasses hanging up at eye level and one of them started swinging backwards and forwards. I said to one of the girls who had been working here for years ‘why is that glass swinging backward and forwards’ and she said ‘oh he’s around’, I said ‘what do you mean he’s around?’ She said, ‘there’s all sorts of strange things happening here.’ The glass kept rocking for a quarter of an hour.”
As we climb the rickety stairs up to our ‘haunted’ room for the night, we can’t help feeling a little anxious about how the night will play out. The room is clean, has Tudor beams overhead, antique furniture and sloping floors, but are we woken in the night by some grizzly goings on? No, just by the extreme heat in the room. I reach over and feel the radiator, it’s icy cold. Spooky.
Watch Emma Frost’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn on Easter Monday at 9pm, on BBC1. To find out more about the original Jamaica Inn see here for more details.
Visit Cornwall with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details