Ghosts by Gaslight - A Big Bus Company Ghost Walk (and Pub Crawl)

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 29 August 2005

A couple of weeks back my wife and I took one of the open-topped bus tours around London run by The Big Bus Company. As part of your ticket a few walks around the centre of town are thrown in. One of them is a ghost walk, so naturally we took them up on the offer.

'Ghosts by Gaslight' promises to be a pub crawl filled with grisly tales of London hauntings. It starts quite slowly, the first stop-off being a twenty minute wait in the Sherlock Holmes pub by Charing Cross to allow any stragglers or late running buses to catch up. It is one of those pubs in London that I have visited several times, but only ever on an organised walk or some sort of pub crawl.

We then passed through some back streets to a house that used to be occupied by Benjamin Franklin's brother, in which 14 bodies were recovered, apparently the victims of medical dissections. We then ended up back at Embankment, walking past Gordon's Wine Bar (where a ghostly tug on the collar can be felt from a delivery boy who died falling down the stairs there) to York Water Gate. The water gates behind Victoria Gardens date from when before the Embankment narrowed the Thames, and the York Water Gate is haunted by a drunken boatmen who drowned there whilst waiting to pick up his fare.

Our next stop was just behind the water gate, where not only is the ghost of Samuel Pepys seen, but that of a suicidal young lady running to throw herself into the river. Our guide was certainly packing the stories in, as turning the corner and walking a little further we were at Durham House, haunted by Anne Boleyn. (Presumably when she isn't busy spooking out either Hampton Court or The Tower of London). This was hard to take seriously, not because of the story itself, but because parked opposite was a van with a waiting workman sitting in the front seat, who kept lifting his head from his newspaper to look at our guide with an expression on his face that said "What the fuck are you talking about, mate?".

The guide's best story involved Cleopatra's Needle, and was told whilst we stood on Adam Street, in view of the currently scaffold shrouded monument. It tells of two different policemen accosted by a woman urging them to come to the banks of the river because someone was about to jump in, only for them to reach the Thames and see a women in identical dress throw herself over the edge.

The walk was slowly leading us up to my old stomping ground from when I worked in Bush House, via The Strand - where we were told the story that The Savoy would not let anyone dine on a table of thirteen, instead using a statue of a cat, Casper, as a 14th guest - and Somerset House, where Nelson apparently appears (though not, it should be noted, when we were there watching Idlewild the other week).

The next pub stop was due to be The Devereux, a favourite haunt of the homepage team when we worked by Aldwych. It has a ghost story attached to it about the Earl of Essex, but as far as we were concerned it was a ghost pub - our guide had forgotten it was a Saturday and that the pub would be shut. Instead of supping there we headed along Fleet Street, and then cut up towards High Holborn.

Our guide was good fun, but in truth with the evening being a bright summer one, and the ghost stories being very generic, it wasn't that great as a ghost walk. Especially when you know as a Londoner that dragging the Jack The Ripper story into the evening has a considerable geographic inaccuracy. Even more especially as the set-up to talking about the entirely fictional Sweeney Todd.

Once we got to High Holborn we went to the Cittie Of Yorke pub by Chancery Lane station. This is a lovely old pub that we visited for special occasions when I worked at Holborn. It has a timbered vaulted ceiling, and plenty of intimate booths where back in the day lawyers and their clients would confer in confidence.

Our final stop was to drop people off at Holborn station, and then a beer in the Princess Louise. By now the international group had been whittled down to the hardcore drinking nations in the party - two Australians, the English guide, myself, and my South African/Scottish wife.

We had a good chat with the Australians, and got the best haunted story of the night from them.

Earlier in the day they had been on the bus and the guide started talking about Samuel Pepys. As he did so the Australian woman's daughter moved seats in the bus and sat down next to her, rustling her complimentary plastic poncho. She turned round to talk to her, only to realise that the seat was empty, and her daughter was still sitting a few rows back on the bus...

And the gaslight in the walk's title? Well that comes right at the beginning, as the place where we convened, on the corner of Trafalgar Square by the newest wing of the National Portrait Gallery still has gaslights.

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