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Fancy a drink in spirited surroundings this Halloween? Many London hostelries have truly horrible histories and could fit the bill in more ways than one.
My childhood chum Casper the friendly one aside, I didn’t believe in ghosts. At least not until I organised an event in Wales. Alone on a back staircase of the venue, Swansea’s Grand Theatre, I experienced a disquieting phenomenon. The temperature plunged dramatically, then from nowhere, a hazy white mass suddenly appeared and blocked my progress… before disappearing through a wall just as swiftly. An employee informed me I’d met ‘Jenny’, an Edwardian actress who, after her last performance at the theatre, fatefully boarded a New York-bound liner… RMS Titanic.
Although this persuaded me that ghosts do indeed exist, unfortunately (or should that be fortunately?) the only spirits I have encountered in London’s pubs are in gantries. But those more attuned to the afterlife than I rate The Grenadier in Belgravia as one of the city’s most haunted boozers. Rattling chairs, objects mysteriously repositioned overnight, ghostly groans, footsteps in empty rooms, the face of a man that appears at a window: such are the calling cards of a not-so-sharp card sharp who met his end here. The pub was once the Duke of Wellington’s officers’ mess, its cellar home to a notorious gambling den. One night, a private was caught cheating at rummy by fellow soldiers who battered him so badly that he expired. Supernatural scamp ‘Cedric’ – whose party trick is to alarm guests by blowing cigarette smoke into the air – once went so far as to stub out a lit fag on the hand of a brewery employee, an ex-copper, having first snapped the pipe and turned off the beer tap the man had been inspecting. Believable? Doubters may reckon the only alarming phenomenon in Belgravia is its stratospheric property prices.
In Georgian times, those who were unable to meet the exorbitant interest rates might have found themselves banged up beneath The Viaduct Tavern. The fine Victorian gin palace is built on the site of Newgate debtors’ gaol. Today, you can visit what are thought to be its old cells. In a dank basement, prepare to meet the ghost of a prostitute murdered within, and another restless spirit that taps drinkers on the shoulder, locks staff in cellars and causes rolled-up rugs to levitate.
Spooky houses abound in Camden Town. According to no less an authority than Bram Stoker, The (Mother) Black Cap – haunt of drag legends Regina Fong and Mrs Shufflewick before they shuffled off this mortal coil – was named after Mother Shipton, a psychic who foretold the Great Fire of London. The gay pub’s resident spectre is possibly that of a landlady whose lethal home brew occasionally killed unwitting drunkards. However, the features of shadowy revenants that have been seen in the pub are never visible in photographs.
Directly opposite, The World’s End was formerly The Mother Red Cap – after Jinney Bingham, the ‘Shrew of Kentish Town’. Branded a witch, the crone nevertheless attracted various handsome lovers who subsequently died in mysterious circumstances. One such unfortunate was found cremated in Bingham’s oven, the hag only escaping the gallows after a witness swore the chap had said he often hid inside it to escape Jinney’s jealous rages. One fateful night, hundreds of locals reported seeing another lover, the Devil himself, penetrate Bingham’s portals never to re-emerge.
The next morning, nervous investigators discovered Ma Redcap stone dead, her face twisted in terror… but no sign of Old Nick. Jinney’s ghost is among those said to stalk the World’s End. Scarier still is the pallid Goth coven that convenes at its music lounge, Underworld, drawn to bands such as Headstone Horrors, Your Demise and Wretched Souls.
As the Mother Red Cap, the pub was frequented by the forerunners of today’s black cabbies, highway robbers en route to their office, aka Hampstead Heath. Sitting high on the Heath, and mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, atmospheric pile The Spaniards Inn is apparently haunted by the ghost of alleged regular patron Dick Turpin and his getaway vehicle, Black Bess, whose hooves can be heard clattering in haste across the car park. Cynics can re-live the video of a séance in which investigators attempt to commune with the crim in the inn.
Criminal activity of a different type plagued 19th-century Smithfield. Keen to supply surgeons with cadavers for their experiments at nearby St Bartholomew’s hospital, mercenary thugs are said to have drugged and murdered drunks falling out of The Rising Sun. Could hapless victims’ footsteps be the noises heard running across upstairs floors? Other reported poltergeist activity here includes sheets mysteriously tugged off beds occupied by staff and, in the bathroom, a shower curtain pulled open. As a startled landlady bathed, she felt an ice-cold hand caress her back – presumably while the music from Psycho played on her radio.
Over in Bayswater, a crime of passion begat the haunting of Old Mary’s Bar, as the cellar at The Mitre pub is known. The not-so-old Mary was a comely Jacobean scullery maid caught one night in flagrante delicto with Milord Craven by the enraged Milady Craven, who plunged the nearest available Sabatier through the hired help’s hussy heart. Today, the girl’s forlorn spirit roams the spooky den. But should you feel a stabbing pain in your chest after drinking Bloody Marys here, put that down to too much Tabasco.
And should you need more tips to keep your spirits up, check out the boxes for other spooky venues for a Halloween drink, and opportunities to meet up with fans of horror and the paranormal.
A ghostly mutt manifests around closing time. It’s seemingly searching for its tail, severed in a fracas as thugs set about its master at this South Bank boozer circa 1700.
Upmarket ghostbusters might order a suitably Gothic Aqui Estoy cocktail, served in a skull, at The Langham’s bar. Afterwards, check into the grand hotel’s room 333 and prepare for the bed to be shaken by the bright ball of light that signifies the presence of a revenant Victorian doctor. Dumped after a honeymoon-night quarrel escalated and his wife demanded a divorce, the doctor threw himself out of the window to his death… having first murdered the missus.
The Pimlico pub’s cellars were once cholera-plagued cells where convicts awaited deportation. The ghost of one wretch who died trying to escape haunts the pub, while another, who topped himself rather than be transported Down Under, knocks drinks out of customers’ hands and smashes bottles against the floor. ‘Strewth, Bruce! Brisbane ain’t that bad.’
Poltergeists, gusts of wind and the ghost of Annie Chapman – picked up here by Jack the Ripper – have been reported at this crepuscular Spitalfields joint. Hell’s belles!
A mansion belonging to the powerful Neville family once stood here, but was burnt down in the 17th century. The ghost of Richard Neville, clad in surcoat and breeches, is reputed to haunt the cellars – warranting a visit from the investigators of Sky TV’s Most Haunted.
This feature was published in the autumn 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.