Is Charles Darwin's house haunted?

English Heritage has released a list of its 10 spookiest sites, voted for by members of staff across its more than 400 castles, abbeys and other historical buildings. It turns out our ancient buildings - and not so ancient - are positively infested by ghosts.

Part of Bolsover Castle, top of English Heritage's 'most haunted' list.English Heritage

Tell me more.

Top of the list is Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, where members of staff and visitors often report being pushed, having doors slammed on them and finding objects inexplicably moved. Night security guards have been alarmed by unexplained lights and movement in the empty property, and two workmen were terrified when they saw a woman disappear through a wall.

I'm still a bit sceptical.

At Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire – where Bram Stoker set Dracula – staff have felt unexplained cold draughts in the middle of staircases, stock flying off the shelves and strange taps on the shoulder seemingly from no one.

I like the Dracula connection, but I'm still not entirely convinced.

While cleaning the basement at Dover Castle, a staff member saw the figure of a cavalier, and another has seen the figure of a woman in a red dress on the stairs and along the mural gallery.

Now we're talking. Any headless horsemen?

No, but there is a ghost at Charles Darwin's house, ranked at number 10. A staff member reported that when entering the study once and brushing past Darwin's desk to close the shutters, a quill that lay on the desk suddenly stared spinning and wouldn't cease until she left the room.

Just when I was starting to get interested. I think it was probably a draught, don't you?


But do ghosts exist?

The famous Dr Johnson said: 'All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.' Lots of people experience strange things happening and some say they've seen or heard things they can't explain. That's really a question of what the evidence is and how you interpret it, though, and on that the jury is still out.

So no headless horsemen?

Probably not. Humans have always loved a good yarn, and stories about the dead coming back are guaranteed to make our flesh creep. But we have to distinguish between hard facts – that some pretty rum things happen from time to time – and how you interpret them. So ghost hunters will talk about 'cold spots' in a house as proof of some sort of supernatural entity. It might just be a cold spot.

And a spinning feature might just be in a draught?

Precisely; and the fact that someone thinks they see a spectral form walk through a wall doesn't necessarily mean it's a departed spirit. There could be an equally interesting neurological explanation.

Any ghosts in the Bible?

The famous Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28 called up the spirit of the departed Samuel for King Saul, but that seems to have been a special occasion. On the other hand, Isaiah says: 'When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people enquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?' (8:19). He doesn't say it's impossible, just inappropriate and wrong. But in general the Old Testament view of the afterlife is that there isn't much going on: 'As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more', says Job 7: 9-10.

The Bible seems a bit ambiguous, then.

Not really; it's just very practical. It's talking specifically about trying to contact the dead for advice, and says it's wrong. That doesn't mean it isn't also impossible.

Was your man Dr Johnson a believer?

In the gospel, yes; in ghosts, not so much. Back in 1762, he was part of a commission set up to investigate the 'Cock Lane ghost', which was supposed to be haunting a house not far from St Paul's Cathedral. He decided it was a fraud. But it caused a row between Methodists and Anglicans; Methodists were far more willing to believe in it than Anglicans, who tended to be much more drily rational. Methodists thought they were just unspiritual.

Who'd have thought it?

Who indeed.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods