With its gloomy streets and bloody history, London is ripe for encounters with the restless souls of wronged citizens and wicked queens… Robert Szmigielski packs his ectoplasm and braves the pavements. (Photos by Erik Erxon).
“How do you murder the King of England and get away scot-free?” Boomed a deep voice from above a flowing black trench coat. This was the dilemma facing me and around twenty others in a dark corner of the City of London. Huddled together on a freezing, gusty evening perhaps was not the ideal time to contemplate such a scenario, but, nevertheless, we listened intently.
“How do you kill the head of the English royal family,” the voice continued to quizz us, “in such a way that would not show up long after his death?” There was a pause and a ripple of curiosity ran through us. No, we were not fresh recruits in a subversive anti-monarchist movement – armed with a Tardis and vial of Polonium 210. We were the captive audience of the London Ghost Walk and our guide, the author Richard Jones, was gleefully recounting one of his favourite tales. The wretched King in question was Edward II… the method of execution a red-hot spit, rammed up His Royal Highness’ arse by two assailants, killing him outright.
This wicked deed was ordered by none other than his very own ‘trouble and strife’, the enchanting Isabella who craved Blighty for herself and her native France. However, despite her impious behaviour, Isabella was a devout Catholic and, concerned that the murder would not fly with St. Peter come Judgement Day, she demanded to be buried as a monk in attempt to fool God’s loyal doorman. Her vengeful son Edward III had other ideas, however: he buried his mother in her wedding dress and threw the preserved heart of his father in the casket for good measure – thus scuppering her hopes of eternal rest.
“And here on misty autumn mornings,” Jones’ bellowing voice sings to a crescendo, “You can often see a beautiful but angry ghost, skulking amongst the tombstones, clutching before her the still-beating heart of her murdered husband…” Yikes!
Those well-versed in the history of the capital will tell you that tales such as Isabella’s are not unfamiliar. London has always been a ghost town – a city of great tragedy, loss and constant upheaval. As historian Peter Ackroyd wrote in London: The Biography, “London is a city perpetually doomed. There have always been epidemics and waves of death within the metropolis.” Plagues and pogroms, blazes and blitzes… for Jones it’s natural that claims of lost souls wandering the streets of modern day Londinium abound, and why his walks are so popular.
“They’re great stories of things happening in history that have come back to haunt London,” he tells me, as we sit supping our pints in a local pub following the 90-minute tour. “The past and the present mingle nicely. For example, right next to Newgate Street, a busy main road, overlooked by Merryl Lynch’s towering modern office and you’re surrounded by old railings, antique gaslights – you are standing on centuries-old gravestones. An ancient burial ground.” It was over this street and others that we had obediently followed Jones through the dark, gloomy, late-December streets of the City, hearing a series of delightful tales along the way. We learnt of Scratching Fanny on Cock Lane (yes, really), of the anguished screams of human experiments emanating from the Royal College of Surgeons, and the friend of Charles Dickens who scared the spock out of Patrick Stewart when he was appearing in ‘Waiting For Godot’ (incidentally, Jones’ favourite scary anecdote).
But, tales aside for the moment, I wanted to know how and when Jones’ obsession with the paranormal began. “I used to have an old Irish uncle that used to tell me ghost stories as a kid. I loved it.” he tells me. ”But what got me into the really spooky stuff was the original ‘Great Expectations’. I can still see that image to this day, when little Pip goes into see Miss Haversham for the first time….”
As somebody who has shaken and stirred his way behind the bars of the West End, I didn’t find the London Ghost Walk particularly frightening per se. (For me the frenzied rush before closing, during which cocky drinkers would down a Jeroboam of sambuca in 10 minutes, would usually result in the city’s most terrifying transfigurations -Isabella’s ghost had nothing on Big Trev from Billericay!) However, the Ghost Walk was very informative, and, thanks to Jones’ well-honed gift for storytelling, highly entertaining, as well as a great way to get out and experience hidden parts of the city other tours (and locals) tend to ignore.
But as I prepare to switch of my digital voice recorder, I decide to ask our guide a final question he has no doubt heard countless times before. “Yes, I believe that there’s something there, and the term ‘ghosts’ is as good a name as any,” Jones says. Although he doesn’t believe it’s the dead haunting the streets of London, he sees it as a collection of ‘place memories’; spaces where people once experienced strong emotions. “I think they leave an imprint; something certain people can hear, smell, or feel. But they don’t have to be sorrow or terror,” he emphasizes. “They can be happy emotions, too.”
Unlike a terrified, convulsing Big Trev. Last we ever saw of him, at All Bar One in Leicester Square, he was on the floor by the fruit machine in the foetal position – where he was heard, smelt, and stomach-pumped, by the wonderful people from St. John’s Ambulance. Now that was a truly scary London encounter.
For more information, tour/ticket prices and booking check the official London Ghost Walk website.
More Creepy Crawlies & Terrifying Tours!
Looking for other scary London attractions? Here’s a run down of some more frighteners…
Jack The Ripper Tour
Richard Jones is your guide again… this time following the footsteps of the notorious serial killer ‘Jack The Ripper’. History buffs with a taste for the macabre will love this gruesome walking tour of the East End and the chance to see original Victorian photos relating to the crimes.
A more visceral than cerebral scare, the London Dungeons offer a theatre full of fearful rides and recreations… such as the Drop Ride of Doom and the Boat Ride to Hell. Encounters with Sweeney Todd and Jack The Ripper await the brave-hearted.
London Bridge and London Tombs
Two terrors for the price of one. Lavish special effects and actors bring London Bridge alive through the ages in this interactive adventure, complete with pick pockets and criminals. And prepare to don sword and shield to repel a Viking invasion! Meanwhile you may wish to brush up on zombie lore before entering the London Tombs… watching Shaun of the Dead won’t be enough to save you!
The Tower of London
Famous for Beefeaters, ravens and the Crown Jewels, this notorious prison has seen more than its fair share of executions in its 900 year history. Sir Walter Raleigh and a headless Ann Boleyn are amongst the A-list of ghosts who continue to haunt this tower of terror.
Ghost Bus Tour
If you thought London transport was a nightmare at the best of times, then you should definitely avoid this hellish ride. Your creepy conductor acts as guide for this sinister sightseeing tour, which takes place in the only surviving bus of the Necropolis transport company which ran hearst services in the capital until 1967.
If you prefer to be petrified over a pint, then check the Fluid Foundation’s guide to London pubs with horrible histories.