Oh, what a fright

Night tours of haunted London pique curiosity about city's horror-storied past

October 14, 2007|By Rosemary McClure | Rosemary McClure,Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- The cobblestone street is dark and slick from a drizzly rain; the clouds are heavy and low, swallowing the steeple of nearby Christ Church Spitalfields.

But light spills from the Ten Bells. Inside the corner pub, lagers and ales are being poured, and a dozen patrons are drinking, laughing and lounging on tattered couches and at the dark-wood bar.

More than 100 years ago, during what came to be called the Autumn of Terror, serial killer Jack the Ripper stalked this small pub in London's East End. Two of his victims were thought to have walked out its door into a night of horror.

Today, the pub has become the centerpiece of one of London's most popular sightseeing tours -- the Jack the Ripper walk.

"I've tried to figure out why the tour's so popular," said author and longtime guide Richard Jones, who leads nightly walks through the area where the 19th-century Ripper murders occurred. "It's a very sordid story: five women brutally murdered," Jones said. "You know what's really strange? The majority of the people who take the tour are women."

Jack the Ripper's gruesome offenses would qualify him for membership in any hall of infamy, even in London -- a city with more than its share of grisly crimes and haunted locales. With its long history of murder, mayhem and macabre incidents, London has the daunting distinction of being the most haunted capital in the world.

I explored the city's sinister streets one night last spring on a Haunted London tour. I would have liked to have joined Jones' Jack the Ripper tour or a London Walks tour, both of which were recommended by friends. But when it started raining, I thought they'd be canceled, so I switched to a minibus tour. Not a smart decision. I learned later that the walking tours are held regardless of rain. And the minibus driver (who was also the tour guide) wasn't very knowledgeable.

Still, with London's dark, narrow streets and ancient alleyways as a backdrop, it didn't take much imagination to hear ghosts wailing in the wind; see headless soldiers in the shadows; and feel a chill down my spine when I heard tales of haunted palaces, theaters, prisons and cathedrals.

The minibus tour piqued my interest in the city's colorful history, so I made a few calls. One of the first was to the Tower of London, grim scene of executions and torture, and the source of countless legends and ghost stories.

Almost a millennium old, Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress -- that's its full title -- is a symbol of the nation, looming over the London skyline for centuries. Its checkered history, combined with the British crown jewels displayed there, draws nearly 2.5 million visitors each year. Most want to hear stories about the Tower's famous prisoners, such as Anne Boleyn, Guy Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh, and the beheadings that took place there.

"Head chopping is what it was called," Tower beefeater Chris Morton said, correcting me when I used the word "beheading."

Morton is the Yeoman sergeant in charge of the warders, or beefeaters, who guard the Tower at night.

"Heads were chopped off with a block and an ax," he said. "Head chopping continued until 1747, when it was thought to be barbaric. Then hanging became the favorite method of execution."

Yeoman warders like Morton -- known for their colorful blue-and-red jackets -- have guarded the Tower since the 14th century. Thirty-five share the duty today, living in Tower apartments and houses with their families -- 120 full-time residents at one of London's spookiest addresses.

"A bit like living in Disneyland," Morton said. "You can never get away from your work."

"But what about the ghosts?" I asked.

"Some people live here for years and never see anything; others are here only a short time and say they feel or see things. Not me, though," he quickly added. "I've never seen anything."

Among those who have felt an otherworldly presence is Janice Field, wife of the Tower's resident governor, Geoffrey Field. It's the couple's home -- called the Queen's House -- that is said to be haunted.

"It may be a female ghost," Morton said, "because if a woman goes into certain rooms, the ghost appears and physically throws her out. It's happened to Janice several times."

Some storytellers say Boleyn, beheaded by order of her husband, Henry VIII, in 1536 -- it was not a "head chopping" because she apparently was slain with a sword -- was imprisoned in the house until her death and often appears there. Others say she haunts the Tower's Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, where she is buried.

Our discussion about Tower ghosts seemed to be a bit much for Morton.

"A lot of those stories were made up by the Victorians," he said. "They just wanted people to visit the Tower."

"Tourist stories?" I asked.

"Exactly."

Plenty of tours and tales

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