Some people travel to England to learn English, to do business, to watch a West End play or a football game.
Others travel to Britain to meet a ghost. Don’t laugh: this is big business. Owners of castles try to lure overseas visitors with a promise of a meeting with their dead ancestors, stately homes offer Ghost Hunts, and there is a host of specialized providers who can arrange a trip for you through various parts of the country, with a private driver who can spirit you away on a customized “haunt jaunt”.
Read our first ghoulish London walk here
But here’s the thing: you don’t have to search out castles up and down the country to meet a ghost. It is London, after all, which is the country’s most haunted city. Other than in some Scottish castle, however, where you can just lie down at night and wait for the ghosts to pull away your blanket, you have to go and meet them. And, of course, know where to find them.
Which is exactly what we shall set out to do today, starting our visit of London’s netherworld in the West End.
Tracking down the ghosts of London
Take a train to the underground station Embankment, leave through the riverside exit and turn left. Very soon, you will spot the ancient obelisk called Cleopatra’s Needle – but it is not the obelisk itself that is of interest to us but the stairway behind it.
Many unhappy souls have walked down these stairs with a burning desire that the cold river would melt their too, too solid flesh and help them shuffle off their mortal coils, and many passers-by late at night have seen morbidly pale ladies wade into the waves or jump into the river from the wall – without ever hearing as much as a splash.
These ghosts are nameless and faceless, which is not something that you could say about the next apparition we are trying to meet.
Cross the Embankment gardens in your back towards the Savoy Hotel and continue into Robert Street, before taking a right turn into John Adam Street. This is the realm of Anne Boleyn who spent some happy years here before her fateful marriage to King Henry and is said to roam the streets at night, perhaps looking for her old home, called Durham House, which no longer exists.
The ancient palace, originally the home of the Bishops of London (before Henry VIII took it away from them so he could give it to his mistress), stood more or less in the place of today’s Adelphi Building, a magnificently Gotham-esque Art Deco office block which actually looks rather spooky in its own right, headless queen or not.
Turn left into Adam Street, cross the Strand into Bedford Street and turn right into Long Acre until you get to Covent Garden.
Drury Lane Theatre on the piazza’s eastern corner …
… is considered the most haunted building in London.
Have your pick: you may meet the legendary clown Alberto Grimaldi, looking for his head which was apparently sawn off just before his burial (nobody quite knows why), the Victorian vaudeville artist Dan Leno who is rehearsing tap dancing routines in unoccupied dressing rooms, or many other restless souls of actors who refuse to accept death as a good enough reason to stay away from the limelight.
The star of the cast, however, is the Man in Grey whose attire – powdered whig, frilly shirt – appears to point back to an older date than the year in which the current theatre was built (1812). It seems that today’s Drury Lane has inherited him from an older theatre in the same place (built during the Restoration in the 1660s).
The Man in Grey always follows the same routine: he appears in the morning around the theatre’s upper circle and then disappears through a wall – always, note this, the same wall. When the theatre was renovated in Victorian times, the developers, having heard the story, got curious and decided to break open this wall – to find the skeleton of a man, clothed in grey with a dagger sticking out of the rib cage.
The Drury Lane Theatre may be London’s most haunted house, but all of its ghosts are rather good-natured, even welcome as omens of good luck: when the Man in Grey is seen, the story goes, the current show is going to be a hit.
The next stop on our journey, conversely, is London’s most badly haunted house. To find it, walk down Shaftesbury Avenue and continue across Piccadilly Circus into Piccadilly before turning right into Berkeley Road, just opposite the Ritz Hotel.
The house on no. 50 Berkeley Square is, in many ways. a complete mystery: unusually for a haunted house, nobody quite knows where the ghosts come from. No murder must foul, no suicide, no mysterious death was reported before … that fateful night in the 1870s when the daughter of the house expected a visit from her fiancé – and they sent the maid up to prepare his room in the attic.
The young servant’s terrified screams, it is said, could be heard all across Berkeley Square. When the family had run up the stairway to assist, it was already too late: the young woman had collapsed on the floor, muttering to herself “don’t let it touch me.” The maid never recovered from this experience: she was sent to a lunatic asylum and died the following day.
Was there perhaps something evil lurking on the top floor? The daughter of the house remembered the “musty smell” that she had complained about, soon after moving in, “rather like an animal in a zoo”.
Don’t be silly, her fiancé said, a certain Captain Kentfield, and to prove that this was just “mumbo-jumbo and old wives’ tales”, he said that he would spend the night in the room. 30 minutes after the hosts had heard him close the door, terrible screams were coming from the room, followed by a gunshot. The family rushed to his aid but found the Captain dead on the floor, his face twisted in terror.
And this was not the last time the murderous, musty-smelling ghost put in an appearance: in 1872, Lord Lyttleton stayed the night in the attic and emptied his shotgun, warding off an unseen attacker. (The same Lord Lyttleton who was told by a mysterious Lady In White, seven years later, that he “would die within 3 days”. Three days later the Lord, 35 years old and in seemingly perfect health, was indeed dead – an event that Samuel Johnson called “the most extraordinary thing that happened in my life”.)
And in 1887, sailors from the HMS Penelope stayed overnight, and by the morning one of them was found at the bottom of the stairway after he had apparently tried to run away from the house.
Mayfair, the area around Berkeley Square, is now firmly in the hands of hedge funds and billionaires, …
… but in the 18th century, this part of London had a decidedly bohemian reputation.
This was probably what attracted the composer Georg Friedrich Handel who bought a new house in 25 Brook Street and lived there for 36 years until he died in 1759. Happily he lived, it seemed, and peacefully he died, but yet …
During the restoration of the building (it is now the Handel Museum) a few years ago, several encounters with “spectral presences” were reported by builders and people from the Trust that oversaw the project, and the case was considered serious enough to call in a Catholic priest to perform an exorcism.
It turned out that the prime suspects did not include the composer himself, and attention was focused on two sopranos (Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni) who had vied for the maestro’s favours.
It also turned out that another bohemian musician who had lived in the adjacent house 200 years after Handel – the rock wizard Jimi Hendrix – also claimed to have seen a ghost on the premises. (But then again, of course, it may well be that Mr. Hendrix’s visions were chemically rather than spiritually induced.)
There are no questions as to the identity of the ghost in the Langham Hotel on Regent Street further to the north. Room 333 is haunted by a Victorian doctor who killed his wife on their wedding night and then jumped out of the window. So much is clear.
This case, however, is unusual in another respect: whereas most ghost stories, we might as well admit it, have indeed – to quote the unfortunate Captain Kenfield – an air of “mumbo-jumbo and old wives’ tales” hang around them, this story comes with a certification of a BBC journalist, James Alexander Gordon, who woke up one night in 1973 to see the ghost staring right in his face. When he asked his nightly visitor who he was and what he wanted, he approached Mr. Gordon, it is said, “with vacant eyes and outstretched arms” – upon which Mr. Gordon deduced that discretion was the better part of valour and ran out of his room.
After all these unearthly encounters, some earthy sustenance may be what is called for now, and as it happens, one of West London’s most picturesque pub restaurants is near-by, called The Grenadier on Wilton Mews in Belgravia (just south of Hyde Park). A bright red sentry box stands outside …
… reminding the visitors of the pub’s military background: before it became a “public house”, the building was used as an officers’ mess for the nearby barracks.
On the premises of this mess, a young army officer was once fatally beaten by his comrades for cheating at cards. I guess you can already tell what’s coming.
Yes, the Grenadier is also a haunted place. Dozens of people over the years have reported what is, for London’s (rather many) haunted pubs, the common assortment of apparitions: slamming doors in the middle of the night, moans behind walls, unseen hands rattling tables and chairs.
Rather more unusually, however, a superintendent from Scotland Yard once had his hand burnt by an invisible cigarette. Cedric, the name of the Grenadier’s house ghost, appears to be blissfully unaware of the management’s strictly enforced no smoking policy. Perhaps, when you meet him, you should also tell him that it’s bad for his health.
More ghosts of London next week – when we meet the restless souls who haunt the city’s business district.