Maybe we’re just supernaturally sensitive to this kind of thing, but it seems you can’t cross London town these days without running across another Haunted London tour, Ghost Bus or the undead hordes that gather outside the London Dungeon, hungry for brains and tourist shillings.
Clearly there’s something in the air, and when we heard that a new book by novelist, comics and TV writer Paul Cornell not only sought to chart London’s mystical mean streets but also had an eerily familiar title, London Falling, we felt compelled to investigate.
London Falling mixes Sweeney style cop-shockery with sinister urban fantastic elements to produce a paranormal police procedural with a pinch of pitch-black laughs.
Not content with simply reading the book this time, we called our own intrepid investigator, Professor Simon Gilmartin, and equipped him with a map, notepad and change for the bus ride home (just so long as it wasn’t the ethereal old No 7) and sent him out in search of the real-world stories behind London Falling’s sinister settings. Read on if you dare…
First stop, 50 Berkley Square can be found in the deep Monopoly blue of Mayfair, one of those quiet squares of grass surrounded by rows of elegant pied-a-terre's of the one-percenter population.
As the plaque on the front of this old four storey town house declares, 50 Berkley Square is currently home to an antiquarian book dealership dealing in “Rare books, Manuscripts, Autographs.” An enterprise that somehow feels fitting for a house of such haunted repute.
Legend has it that a young woman committed suicide by throwing herself from the attic window and that her spirit not only still haunts this same attic but has been known to scare people to death.
Sometimes taking the form of a brown mist and other times a white figure, she’s claimed to have sent some residents mad, driven others running in fear to their deaths, committed the hired help to the insane asylum and killed noblemen from fright.
With this history in mind we recommend leaving Berkely Square to the signature-buffs and mega-rich.
Charterhouse - the second stop on our tour can be found nestled amongst the flower draped concrete blocks of Barbican and London Wall and leads us to a resistant knot of Old England.
The Tudor building of Charterhouse is nestled in amongst modern office buildings and overlooks a pretty-looking square where manicured green grass hides its original purpose as a plague pit.
The building, now a hospital, was one of the holdouts against Henry VIII when he was on one of his kicks to restructure all things Church in England. The Friar at the time didn't truck with jolly old Henry's multi-wedding brand of Christianity and for his troubles found his arm nailed to the door of the Abbey, sans Friar, as an example to others.
Its bloody tally continued when owner Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, was arrested in the Charterhouse and taken away to be hung, drawn and quartered, because of his plans to marry Mary Queen of Scots.
It’s said that at night the ghostly figure of the Friar can still be seen crossing the cobbles of the Charterhouse courtyard, and that further down the main staircase the spectre of the Duke of Norfolk descends, his head neatly tucked by his side in the epitome of timeless (and headless) ghostly fashion.
London’s Night(mare) Bus Service
Last stop on the tour of the London Falling haunted spots, and we head west in a hunt for a killer Double Decker, the number 7 to be exact.
It was at the junction of Cambridge Gardens and St. Marks Road in 1934 where a young motorist suffered a terrible death when his car swerved suddenly off the road for no apparent reason and hit a lamp post, At the inquest several witnesses spoke of their own encounters with a ghost bus which frequently appeared on that same stretch of road, usually at the Junction between St. Marks Road and Cambridge Gardens, and may have caused the hapless motorist to make an emergency manoeuvre as it bore down upon him.
There wasn't so much spookiness at the rather contemporary London junction when we got there - although the font of the Chelsea and Kensington borough street sign did have a somewhat Gothic air to it - but we did see a number 7. The modern age had turned it into a single-decker but at least it wasn't a bendy bus.
Sadly any hope that it might fade away like a cheap 70's VT special effect was lost when it stopped to allow a queue of impatient Londoners to board; their Oyster cards held aloft like magical talismans and entirely unaware of the ghostly aura that still clung to the bus’s blood-red livery.
Paul Cornell has written some of Doctor Who's best-loved episodes for the BBC. He has also written a number of comics for Marvel and DC, including The X-Men and Batman & Robin. He has been Hugo Award-nominated for his work in TV, comics and prose, and won the BSFA Award for his short fiction. LONDON FALLING is his first urban fantasy novel.
"I had a cup of tea with Howard Brenton who I think is possibly the best living playwright that’s written for the Globe. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Keep the story going. This place eats story’."