London is a magical city, but it also has more spooky places than you can shake a sage stick at.
Horror, tragedy, and mystery: London’s seen it all over the last 2,000 years. All of this activity has left an utterly eerie atmosphere in some corners of the city where strange goings-on are a part of everyday life. From the magnificent to the mundane, it’s difficult to find a public building or attraction that isn’t haunted. Even London’s open spaces reverberate with urban legends and the echoes of ghostly horsemen, plague victims, and past executions. Some places are so notorious that you’ll expect a tell-tale chill in the air, but sometimes you’ll chance upon a seemingly pleasant area and your spine will inexplicably tingle.
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WHERE: Highgate, North London
Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 as one of seven purpose-built burial sites to solve the problem of churchyard overcrowding. It’s the final resting place of illustrious names including George Eliot, Karl Marx, the Rossetti family and, more recently, George Michael. Its Victorian funerary architecture of Gothic tombs, long-abandoned graves, and landscaped avenues, create the perfect backdrop for strange occurrences. If these tombs could talk, they’d whisper about paranormal activity, black magic, and vampire hunting. Most famously, a tall, dark apparition, dubbed the “Highgate Vampire” became a media sensation in the 1970s. The press frenzy spurred on wannabe vampire hunters who broke into the cemetery. It also led to a bizarre paranormal feud between two magicians wanting to display their vampire-slaying supremacy by vowing to kill the entity first.
INSIDER TIPThe West Cemetery can only be visited by a guided tour and must be booked in advance on weekdays.
Tower of London
WHERE: Tower Hill
Any building with a “Bloody Tower” and “Traitors’ Gate” is sure to have a reputation that precedes it. The 900-year-old Tower of London has seen enough torture, political intrigue, imprisonment, murder, and execution to make HBO dramas look tame.
Three Tudor queens of England (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Jane Grey) were executed within the Tower and buried in its chapel. Anne Boleyn’s spirit is said to roam the fortress, along with others such as the mysterious White Lady. The most poignant sightings are of two little boys in nightgowns who clutch each other in fear–possibly the two princes murdered during their uncle Richard III’s reign? The Tower is also home to sparkly precious stones, so head for the Crown Jewels when you need a break from the ghosts.
The Ten Bells
WHERE: 84 Commercial Street, Spitalfields
The Ten Bells was once the haunt of the East End’s prostitutes plying their trade. These days, it’s a guaranteed stop on any Jack the Ripper tour since most of his victims drank there. The pub was an ideal place for the Ripper to stalk his prey and murder them on the surrounding backstreets. Upstairs, staff have heard disembodied laughter and experienced being pushed. Be glad you don’t have to spend the night; the apparition of an elderly man has been known to get into bed with residents before vanishing. Spook factor aside, the pub’s tiled walls and original heritage features make it an atmospheric pub to grab a pint if you’re in the East End.
The Theatre Royal
WHERE: Haymarket, St James’s district
The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, is reputedly one of the most haunted theatres in the UK. Actually, a long list of actors–including Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart–have seen the spirit of Victorian actor-manager John Baldwin Buckstone. Staff report hearing him rehearsing lines in his former dressing room, despite the room being empty. Buckstone’s appearances are seen as good luck since the productions he visits enjoy positive reviews and long runs.
WHERE: Various sites across London
Visitors unknowingly walk over the dead in Central London every day. London’s population has been decimated by plagues on several occasions but none more devastating than the Black Death, followed by the Great Plague, 300 years later. The latter wiped out 20% of the city’s population within seven months. All of those bodies had to go somewhere, so they were piled up to five people deep in communal pits dotted around the city.
The largest plague pit was unearthed in Charterhouse Square, Farringdon. DNA analysis revealed fascinating insights into the plague victims’ lives in medieval London, including everything from their age and diet to their geographical origins–mirroring contemporary society, more than 40% were not originally Londoners. Visit the free museum in the Charterhouse to see one of the skeletons on display. It’s said that the spirits of 35,000 victims wander the square at night.
Smithfield is an iconic market where livestock was traded for over 800 years and it’s been a meat and poultry market since the 1860s. Its association with butchery isn’t limited to animals. This macabre spot was the site of countless public executions, including “Braveheart” William Wallace, who was hanged, drawn, and quartered. The Martyrs Memorial commemorates the burning of 277 protestant martyrs during the reign of Queen Mary I. Swindlers and forgers didn’t have it any better than heretics; they were boiled alive in vats of oil or roasted on woodpiles. Pass by late at night and you might smell burning and hear cries and screams.
INSIDER TIPSmithfield is next to London’s oldest parish church, St Bartholomew the Great, which has a resident ghost. It’s also been a filming location for numerous movies, including “Shakespeare in Love” and “Sherlock Holmes.”
Greenwich Foot Tunnel
WHERE: Between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs
In 1902, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel was opened to give dockworkers easier access across the Thames in Southeast London. People report feeling uneasy when walking through the 370-meter tunnel, no matter the time of day. Such phenomena as disembodied voices, footsteps, and the feeling of being followed aren’t uncommon experiences had by visitors. Some have even witnessed a ghostly Victorian couple. The general sense of unease isn’t helped by the disconcerting echoes of other pedestrians and the gloomy, claustrophobia-inducing appearance of the tunnel.
St James’s Park
WHERE: St James’s district
London’s oldest Royal Park is perfectly pleasant unless you run into the “Red Lady” of the lake. The sinister apparition shares prime aquatic real estate with St James’s assertive mallards, swans, and pelicans, which remain utterly indifferent to anything other-worldly. She’s usually seen rising from the water wearing a blood-soaked dress, sometimes accompanied by a gushing neck wound and the sickly smell of fresh blood. In the 1970s, authorities acknowledged the existence of the specter and deemed a man’s motorcycle crash next to the park the result of him swerving out of her way.
Built on the burial grounds of a leper hospital, Green Park adjoins St. James’s Park and also has a dark reputation. Stories abound of wandering spirits and a “tree of death” that both the homeless and birds shun.
INSIDER TIPThe most photogenic part of St James’s Park is on the lake’s Blue Bridge with views of Buckingham Palace on one side and the London Eye on the other.
WHERE: Across London
There are 49 disused “ghost stations” in London’s vast subway network. Aldwych Station is one of the most famous and eerie abandoned stations. Once used to store national treasures during both World Wars, it lives on as a film location for movies. London’s Tube stations were used as air-raid shelters. An additional eight deep-level shelters, each with a capacity of 8,000 people, were also built but have since been bricked up. London Transport Museum organizes occasional tours of Clapham South’s shelter to get a rare glimpse of these secret subterranean passageways.
Some of London’s busiest stations are spooky when the crowds depart. Liverpool Street, Covent Garden, Bethnal Green, Farringdon, Bank, King’s Cross, and Aldgate are just some of the reputedly haunted stations. Construction workers and engineers have to carefully navigate around ancient plague burial pits and disturbing these sites can cause fresh paranormal disturbances.
The Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret
Europe’s oldest surviving operating theater was built in the attic of St. Thomas’s Chapel in 1821. Now a medical museum, its bizarre location makes it even more interesting. A steep spiral staircase transports you back in time to an era where gruesome operations would take place surrounded by a cramped audience of students. Without anesthetics, the tools of the surgical trade were more like torture implements, so it’s good the room was somewhat soundproofed. Unsurprisingly, mortality rates were high, so there’s no shortage of ghost stories. If anything, this place will make you feel grateful you live in the 21st century.
INSIDER TIPCheck the museum’s website in advance to see if you can catch a live talk.
WHERE: Hampstead Heath, North London
The wide expanse of Hampstead Heath is a welcome escape from London’s Zone 1 when you’re experiencing city fatigue. The meadows, woodland, and ponds of the heath inspired C.S. Lewis to create the imaginary land of Narnia and it still has a magical feel. Sometimes, though, the magic verges on terrifying as walkers have reported seeing a phantom horseman hurtling toward them at full speed. The area was once the haunt of highwaymen and maybe it still is!
INSIDER TIPSpaniards Inn at the edge of Hampstead Heath is allegedly haunted by the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin, while his horse Black Bess noisily waits outside in the car park.
WHERE: Coventry Street, West End
Coventry Street, the road connecting Picadilly Circus to Leicester Square, has been ghost-free for almost a century. But it was once the site of a series of strange assaults in a single day. A mystery assailant left bloody wounds on the throats of three men at different times on April 16, 1922. After regaining consciousness in nearby Charing Cross Hospital, the first victim claimed an invisible force pounced on him and drained blood from his neck. Doctors treated two other victims separately later in the day. All three patients appeared to have been stabbed in the neck with a thin tube, leaving the police and doctors flummoxed. No other attacks have occurred, although rumors of the “Coventry Street Vampire” persisted, which was presumably a pain in the neck for the authorities.
Handel & Hendrix in London Museum
WHERE: 25 Brook Street, Mayfair
The composer George Frederic Handel and rock legend Jimi Hendrix were once neighbors–separated by a couple of centuries and a wall. Initially, the 2001 opening of the Handel House Museum was plagued by hauntings to the point where a local priest was enlisted to calm things down. Jimi Hendrix claimed to have seen a nightshirt-clad ghost in his apartment’s bathroom mirror when he lived there from 1968 to 1969. Since 2016, the museum has combined to celebrate both men’s musical achievements. Who knows, you might even get two spooks for the price of one.
The Viaduct Tavern
WHERE: 26 Newgate Street, between St Paul’s and Smithfield
The Viaduct Tavern is slap bang in the middle of the demolished prisons of Giltspur Street Compter and the harsh and notorious Newgate Gaol. This lavishly-decorated corner pub opened in 1869 as a gin palace, which means it’s grander than the average Victorian pub. Of course, gin isn’t the only spirit on the premises that makes guests lose their composure. Legend has it that the tavern’s musty basement cells were once part of Newgate and connected to the main prison by a tunnel. Sometimes the staff will let you have a look if you ask nicely, but be careful as Newgate’s eternal inmates are partial to a bit of door-slamming and messing with the lights. There are also reports of a poltergeist lurking on the upper floors of the tavern.