An exclusive extract from Richard Jones' Walking Haunted London: 25 Original Walks Exploring London's Ghostly Past.
Walking Westminster to Piccadilly
Start: Westminster Underground Station (Circle and District Lines)
Finish: Leicester Square Underground Station (Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly lines)
Distance: 3.2km (2 miles)
Duration: 1¾ hours
Best Times: Can be done at any time, although the preferred time is on Sunday morning when the West End is least crowded
Refreshments: Gordon’s Wine Bar (passed on the walk by only open weekdays) and numerous sandwich bars and cafes in St Martin’s Lane
This eventful walk cuts a swathe through the heart of government and explores the streets around Whitehall before descending into the gloomy depths of the claustrophobic Adelphi arches. It emerges onto the bustling Strand, where a ghost once plagued the Queen’s bank, then descends into a subterranean shopping arcade for a magical encounter. The final section leads you on a stroll through theatreland, taking in ghosts that have appeared in several top London theatres. It passes the Banqueting House, all that now remains of Whitehall Palace, and catches glimpses of the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, whose clock better known the world over as Big Ben. Although parts of the route are very crowded, other sections go through quiet and secluded backwaters, where you will be luck to meet another living soul.
Old Scotland Yard and the Banqueting House
Leave Westminster Underground Station and turn left onto Bridge Street. Cross Victoria Embankment at the traffic lights and go down the broad flight of stairs on the other side of Queen Boadicea’s statue. You are overlooking a section of the Thames where a phantom boat, crewed by three men whose faces are hazy and unclear, drifts lazily through the mist and miasma of early autumn mornings. Slowly it glides towards Westminster Bridge and sails beneath it, never to emerge on the other side.
If you stand here on 31st December, as the old year passes into the new, you may glimpse a shadowy figure that springs onto the parapet of the bridge and leaps headlong into the murky waters of the river. Local tradition holds that on that date and at that hour in 1888 Jack the Ripper killed himself by leaping from Westminster Bridge.
Backtrack across Victoria Embankment, turn right off the crossing and continue until you reach the massive and distinctive gates of Scotland Yard, on the left. Designed by Norman Shaw and described by A. P. Herbert as a ‘very constabulary kin of castle’, the building, which dates from the 1880s, is faced with granite that was quarried by the convicts on Dartmoor.
Formerly the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, the building housed the Black Museum. Attendants working in the midst this gruesome, fascinating collection of crime memorabilia would frequently see the ghost of a hooded women drifting aimlessly about the museum. One attendant watched mesmerised as the manifestation drifted towards him and vanished when he challenged her, only to reappear on the far side of the room. He then realised, in horror, that she was headless.
Continue and turn left into Horseguard’s Avenue, at the end on the left is the Banqueting House, built in 1622, and all that remains of old Whitehall Palace. Among the many ceremonies that were performed in the hall (the spectacular ceiling of which was painted by Rubens) was that of ‘Touching for the King’s Evil’. The King’s Evil was the disease known as scrofula. As early as the reign of Edward the Confessor, it was believed ‘the disease’ could be cured by the touch of the King, who possessed the divine, hereditary right to serve his people during his reign. There are records of dramatic cures being effected. A young gentlewoman, Elizabeth Stephens, miraculously recovered the sight in her left eye when touched by Charles I in 1640. His son Charles II is estimated to have touched 92,107 people during his reign, although in the year before his death the crowd that came to be cured was so great that several were crushed to death.
Above the main entrance, a bust of Charles I commemorates that bitterly cold day in January 1649 when Charles Stuart stepped onto the scaffold made a brief speech declaring himself the ‘Matyre of the People’, and was beheaded.
Cross to the centre of Horseguard’s Avenue and stand by the statue of Spencer Compton, eighth Duke of Devonshire. With your back to the statue, look across Whitehall to Horseguards, the finest remaining example of Palladian architecture in central London. In 1901, the Duke of Portland was organising Edward VII’s coronation procession when one night he dreamt that, as the coronation coach passed under the arch at Horseguards, the crown at the top became stuck fast against the roof, bringing the entire procession to an embarrassing halt. So vivid was the dream that be decided to measure both the coach and the arch. He discovered that, since Queen Victoria’s coronation, the ground beneath the arch had been raised. Had it not been for his precognitive dream the procession would have been halted here.
The Wraith that Haunts the Admiralty Building
Continue along Whitehall, cross over Whitehall Palace, and outside number 55 (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) look across the road at the dark brick Admiralty building. This was built by Thomas Ripley in the 1720s and later enlarged to become Admiralty House, home of the First Lord of the Admiralty. In the latter half of the 18th century the office was held by the Earl of Sandwich, who lived here with his mistress, Martha Ray. She had also become involved with a penniless soldier, later to be an equally penniless clergyman, James Hackman. When Hackman failed to persuade Martha to leave Sandwich, his love turned to insane jealousy. Once night as she left the performance at a Covent Garden theatre, Hackman came rushing from the shadows, drew his pistol and shot her dead. Her ghost has haunted the Admiralty building ever since, and was reputedly seen earlier this century by Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan.
In June 1969, several newspapers reported that the politician Denis Healey, then Secretary of State for Defence, and his family were being visited by her restless spirit. Healey was said to have seen her ghost on several occasions in the living quarters at the Admiralty. He also told reporters that, far from being frightened by her, his children were very fond of ‘the lady’ and had come to accept her as another member of the family.
Continue along Whitehall and cross over Great Scotland Yard, named for the London palace of the Scottish kings that once stood here. In the summer of 1829 the newly founded Metropolitan Police established its headquarters in the buildings that adjoined the street, since when the two names have become inextricably linked.
The National Liberal Clubs Poltergeist
From Great Scotland Yard go first right into Scotland Place, left into Whitehall Place and pause on the corner of Whitehall Court, outside the National Liberal Club. Build in the 1880s, this massive turreted building is a local landmark that frequently catches the attention of passers-by on the nearby Victoria Embankment. During the 1890s the rooms occupied by the secretary of the club were disturbed by strange knocking noises that seemed to emanate from deep within the walls. The family carried out extensive investigations and by a careful process of elimination discovered that the phenomenon only ever occurred when a certain German servant girl was in the vicinity. Although convinced that she was in no way consciously responsible for the sounds, the secretary sacked the unfortunate girl and the mysterious noises ceased immediately.
Gordan’s Wine Bar and the Ghost of Pepys and Others
Continue to the end of Whitehall Place, go over the pedestrian crossing at Northumberland Avenue and keep ahead to the right of the Playhouse Theatre, passing through the shopping concourse of Embankment Place. Turn left into Villiers Street and, just after the garden railings, go right through the iron gates to pass down the steps to the wine bar.
This deliciously eccentric establishment, once a favoured haunt of the writer Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), has been referred to as ‘the tavern time forgot’. The accumulated dust of decades and the yellow glow from the forest of beautifully evocative candles greet you as you descend a steep flight of worn stairs into this atmospheric basement. Pipes clad in ill-fitting lagging meander across the blackened ceilings, cobwebs cling to model Spitfires and yellow copies of old newspapers cling to the walls announcing nostalgic headlines such as ‘ALEXANDRA PALACE BURNS’ or ‘MRS SIMPSON READY TO GO ABROAD’. In places the pain peels from the walls, in others the walls peel from the paint. Beneath the low brick ceiling of the cavernous vaults, staff have frequently had the unnerving impression that something is watching them from the darkness, and customers have complained of an unseen hand that taps them on the shoulder as they sit enjoying a glass of wine...