Ghost Walking

18th October 2013

As the nights draw in and the air chills, it’s easy to believe the dead might rise from their graves to prowl the streets of London. With Hallowe’en just around the corner, Jack Watkins consults a man who knows a thing or two about the city’s spooks…

The most haunted house in the West End lurks in the shadows of the large and stately plane trees of Mayfair, according to Richard Jones, one of the capital’s foremost authorities on all things supernatural. In fact, 50 Berkeley Square has experienced so many creepy goings-on that it’s been allocated nearly two pages in Richard‘s entertaining book Walking Haunted London.

A century ago, pedestrians reported seeing flashing lights in the windows, screams were heard emanating from the depths of the property, and the sound of a body being bumped down the staircase was reported. After a maidservant was so frightened by an experience in one of the rooms that she never regained her sanity, a young man announced that he was planning to spend the night in the same chamber in which the incident had occurred. “I’ll ring the bell,” he told the household, “if I need any assistance.” Not long after he had retired, the bell began ringing furiously… but it was already too late. When the room was entered, the young man was found dead, his face ‘twisted and contorted with terror, his eyes bulging from their sockets’. The coroner recorded that he had died from fright. The house was abandoned soon after that, although some years later a sailor skewered himself on the railings which still stand outside the house, having leapt from the window of the haunted room.

Even today, 50 Berkeley Square has something about it, Richard tells me. “It’s occupied by Maggs Bros. now and the haunted room is used by the accounts department. Every so often, when they see a column of brown mist forming above them, they get out as soon as possible.” A few years ago, when appearing in a BBC documentary on ghosts, Richard got to film inside no 50. “I and the soundman had to stand in the chamber for about five minutes with the lights out. Nothing happened, but we both were very glad to get out of there as soon as possible.”

It’s not surprising therefore, that 50 Berkeley Square is in the itinerary of one of the many ghost walks Richard leads throughout London on several evenings a week after dark. He’s been doing them for thirty years now, and can reel off tales of the supernatural with the spine-tingling ease of an old hand.

“I’ve always been interested in ghost stories,” he says, recalling how he first got started, “but one of my first jobs when I came to London in 1977 was as a postman. As I walked through the old alleyways and churchyards on my rounds, I accumulated stories I’d been told of hauntings associated with them, and that’s what gave me the idea to turn them into walks.” The first one was in 1982. “It lasted for three and a half hours –I just couldn’t stop myself,” he laughs.

Taking in the streets around the Bank of England, it’s now part of his Alleyways and Shadows: Old City Ghost Walk, but these days he’s got the duration honed down to between one and a half and two hours – the running time, in fact, for all the walks. The City walks take place on Saturday nights: “the best time to explore the place, when it is at its most deserted, with all the pubs and offices closed.” The range offered is diverse. Most Haunted explores the vicinity of Buckingham Place and ‘royal’ London, while Ghosts, Ghouls & Haunted Theatres (subtitled Phantoms in the Footlights) ventures into ‘gaslit alleyways, tucked away courtyards and hidden recesses’ of West End’s theatreland. There’s a special Halloween walk, and even a non-ghostly – but still distinctly grisly – Jack the Ripper tour through the East End. The walks proceed in rain or shine, and – especially – fog.

Although he has never received any dramatic training, Richard admits his presentation tends towards the theatrical. For the Old City walks he dresses in the garb of a 19th century undertaker. His delivery of his material aims for unsettling effects. “The walks are more about storytelling than imparting information, lowering the voice and then raising it at the crucial moment to make people jump. When I first started, I was much more matter of fact, but I’d find that little things I did would get a good reaction, and I’d think to myself, ‘That’s good; I’ll keep that in,’ so it grew from there.”

Given that children are sometimes in the audience, Richard’s emphasis is more tongue-in-cheek that truly malign, but there are plenty of people very serious about ghosts who come along and “take it all in,” he observes. “They are the ones who don’t smile much and you think they’re not enjoying it, but often you discover afterwards they’ve enjoyed it the most. Other people come along wanting to enter into the fun of it all, and they laugh out loud at every line.”

So does he believe there really is Somebody There? “Well, I don’t believe that the dead come back to haunt the living. But I do think there is something. The ‘stone tape theory’ maintains that when a person has undergone a strong emotional experience in an area, certain people, most obviously psychics, can pick up on it. This is why you seldom actually ‘see’ a ghost. More likely it’s something you experience, perhaps hearing or smelling something. The lingering scent of tobacco, for instance, seems to be a popular one. My one claim to having experienced anything personally came when I visited Moore Hall, a ruin in a wood in the middle of nowhere down the West coast of Ireland. I was the only person there at the time, but I heard the laughter of children emanating from what would have been one of the bedrooms, as if they were playing a game.”

Walking Haunted London consists of twenty-five original walks and, most helpfully for spook hunters, contains ‘information on dates and times when ghosts are most likely to appear’. There are fascinatingwalks through some ripe old territory, such as Clerkenwell, Southwark and around the Tower of London, all quarters with a long tradition of hauntings. But the book covers just about everywhere from Chiswick to Greenwich. Even Enfield has a walk. Both Highgate and Hampstead get their own chapters, and contain locations which, I can vouch, are creepy enough even in daytime. Try, for instance, the stretch of Heath off the road not far from the Spaniards Inn, leading towards Kenwood. And Highgate’s Swain’s Lane, running between the high walls of the Cemetery, will send a chill down the spine in broad daylight. The lane is supposedly haunted by a tall, worried-looking, pale-faced man who strolls across the road before vaporising as he meets the cemetery wall. So if you’re down that way soon and you see him, don’t forget to say “Hi.” It’s probably me, anguishing over another deadline.

For details of Richard Jones’s various ghost walks including his Halloween special, visit www.london-ghost-walk.co.uk
Walking Haunted London is published by New Holland

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