It was a beautiful, clear night. Nearly a full moon. We left at dusk, night fell quickly and soon we were gliding along The River Cam peering at the ancient stone buildings of the colleges in search of the rumored dead who still haunted the grounds.
It was October 31st, 2009 and I was in Cambridge, England. I had explored this distinguished university town during the day but at night, I discovered it’s haunted history.
Punts have been pushed along the River Cam for centuries. This night there were 7 other ghost groupies / partiers and me anxious to see what the colleges had in store as we floated past “The Backs” – the college gardens that back onto the River Cam.
The head of Cromwell and other spirits
Everyone was bundled up warmly for the evening as we would be sitting in the punt, not pushing it. An experienced punter would take us down the river pausing to relate ghost stories along the way.
We learned of phantoms and ghosts that included pilots and monkeys, a womanizer and a shamed politician, a remorseful lover who murdered the only doctor who could save his girlfriend’s life and another lover who suffocated while hiding in a kitchen cupboard. And, of course, there is the story of the floating head of Cromwell.
The 1600s were a complicated time in British history. The monarchy was overthrown mid-century with Oliver Cromwell becoming the Lord Protector. When Cromwell died of natural causes in 1658, he was given an elaborate funeral fitting the head of state. However, in 1660 the monarchy was restored and the following year Cromwell’s body was exhumed for a posthumous execution.
Cromwell was hanged in his shroud and his head cut off and displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall. His body was discarded in a pit but his severed head remained on that pole for twenty years. Over the centuries, the head knew several owners until finally, in 1960, it was buried at Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge. Since its burial, the head has been seen floating around the grounds and even looking into windows.
Telling ghost stories and flirting with the notion of paranormal activity is great entertainment, especially on Halloween. But, is there more to it? There wasn’t that night but I won’t go so far as to say that there is nothing to it at all.
Where will you spend Halloween?
Janice Waugh is author of The Solo Traveler’s Handbook. This post on Halloween in Cambridge was first published in Solo Traveler, the blog for those who love and those who long to go solo. On the blog you can also get a free ebook, “Glad You’re Not Here: the solo traveler’s manifesto”.
The punting company that did the tour was Scudamore’s.