There are endless possibilities for discovering London on foot, but this time I felt a need to indulge in an exploration of the macabre. Evoke before your inner eye the image of swirling London fog barely penetrated by the yellow light of gas street lamps. Imagine unsavory characters up to no good lurking in the depth of alleys; or ghosts in haunted houses rattling their chains and frightening people to near death. Literature and British history are full of these images and here you can take the opportunity to vicariouslyexperience a delicious frisson without actually putting yourself into physical danger by embarking on two walks; one guided and one on your own.
50 Berkeley Square
Who would have thought that London’s most haunted house is located in the elegant residential district of Mayfair, at number 50 Berkeley Square, to be precise. I heard about it quite by chance and was surprised to discover that few Londoners know about it. All the more reason for me to check it out. I admit, I undertook my ghost walk in broad daylight, strolling along New Bond Street because I fancied this spot for window shopping. Then, turning left onto Bruton Street, past one of London’s most original pubs, I approached a triangular building wedged between the neighboring modern houses and alighting in Berkeley Square which features some of the oldest plane trees in London. On the opposite side of the square is number 50, a Georgian town house with an exterior that doesn’t look like anything special. No plaque or note indicates that you are standing in front of a London house with a chilling history and reputation. For about 50 years, the premises have been occupied by the prestigious antiquarian booksellers, Maggs Bros, who, given the house’s history, must be very brave souls indeed.
There are several chilling stories about number 50. One of them concerns a Mr. du Pre who locked his lunatic and extremely violent brother in the attic. When the brother died, his soul couldn’t find peace and has haunted the house ever since. More than one person has unexpectedly died of a heart attack while staying in a corner room in the attic following reports of terrifying appearances and highly unusual noises. There are also detailed accounts of a sailor who used the abandoned house to spend the night, then jumped out of the window rather than face the horror that occured during the night. The tale was told by his fellow sailor who just ran, abandoning his unfortunate companion.
As late as 2001, one of the Maggs Bros employees is reported to have been working in the attic room when a brown mass suddenly slid from one end of the room to the other. A customer, who at the time, was climbing the stairs to the attic when his glasses were snatched off his nose by no apparent being. Rumor has it, that the very walls are so charged with supernatural forces that you can come to harm just by touching the building’s exterior bricks. Well, I chose not to touch the bricks. Nor did I hear or experience anything terrible either. I simply saw row upon row of interesting books displayed on the premises of Maggs Bros. But, who knows, the story is a good one, and so typically English.
Jack the Ripper Walk
Jack the Ripper was a Victorian serial killer who, in 1888, brutally murdered and mutilated at least 5 prostitutes in the dark alleys of east London and threw terror into the hearts of Londoners. To this day, the crimes remain some of the most notorious unsolved serial killings. And, rumors run wild as to the identity of the murderer. He was, of course, never apprehended and the killing spree finally ended. But the words Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper are forever linked in the minds and imaginations of Londoners and visitors alike. It is small wonder that a Jack the Ripper walk, which follows in the footsteps of the notorious murderer, has become a popular activity for visitors to London.
There are several tours on offer and I chose the one offered by Jack the Ripper Walks, which costs GBP 8 per person and must be booked in advance over the internet as tour capacity is limited. It lasts approximately two hours and is conducted by knowledgeable guides, a few of whom are published authors.
As chance would have it, a light rain fell as I began the tour, an appropriate background for the walk. The meeting point is outside exit 4 of Aldgate East tube station where our guide waited with a sign reading, ‘Jack the Ripper Tours’. Our excited little troop huddled under umbrellas in the growing dusk while shivering due to the cool, damp air as well as the fact that we were about to enter the archway of Gunthorpe Street. It was here that the Ripper’s first victim, Martha Tabram, was observed with a stranger on the 7th of August 1888, never to be seen alive again. Her mutilated body was subsequently found at the end of this very alley.
The streets and alleyways of Whitechapel and Spitalfields haven’t changed much since the 1880s, which lends a flavor of authenticity to the grizzly stories told by our well informed guide. It was fascinating to hear the many theories as to the identity of Jack the Ripper and to view the actual pubs where the murdered prostitutes would gather to drink themselves into a stupor before being vicimized.
It was a delightful, scary tour that I am happy to recommend. I’ll, therefore, say no more as I want to maintain the suspense of one of London’s most interesting and well executed guided tours.
Written by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte for EuropeUpClose.com