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Life in the big smoke

Why England is the world’s most haunted place

It’s been called the first media circus. The country is at war and a huge storm hits London, overturning boats on the Thames and smashing windows, but what really mattered in the spring of 1762 was the ghost craze on Cock Lane.

You can visit the narrow alley today, a clean and sanitised short-cut between office blocks in Farringdon. Back in the 18th century it was a very different street near the infamous Smithfield market. The stench of cattle and blood must have hung in the air. Hundreds of animals were brought to Smithfield every week, some were sold and some were slaughtered. Before the cattle market the square had been the site of brutal executions. Over the centuries death burrowed its way into cobbled stones and the bricks around Smithfield.

In 1759 a young couple, William Kent and Fanny Lynes, moved in with the Parsons family on Cock Lane*. But all was not quite what it seemed with the youngsters. They weren’t married. Kent had in fact previously been married to Lynes’s sister, who had died in childbirth. The pair seems to have fallen in love after her death, but the laws at the time prevented them from marrying.

The Parsons were struggling to make ends meet, but offering the couple a room wasn’t the only way Richard Parsons, a church clerk with a drink habit, was able to buy rounds for his friends at the Wheat Sheaf. William Kent was a loan shark and lent Parsons twelve guineas.

A teenage girl and a ghost

The Parsons had two young daughters and Fanny Lynes struck up a friendship with twelve-year-old Betty. When Kent was away on one of his many business trips Fanny and Betty shared a bedroom on the first floor. And that’s when the hauntings started.

Knocks and scratches could be heard in the room, but no logical explanation could be found for the mysterious sounds. Fanny Lynes became convinced it was her dead sister come back to punish her for running away with Kent.

The noises and scratches became louder and more pervasive. Eventually Kent and Lynes were evicted from the house. It was a decisions that was set to have tragic consequences.

The heavily pregnant Fanny Lynes caught smallpox and died a few weeks before giving birth. The hauntings then intensified. Betty Parsons started suffering from convulsive fits. The Parsons decided to accuse William Kent of poisoning Fanny Lynes. It was now her ghost that haunted the house.

“Scratching Fanny”

Things escalated. The Parsons started charging for access to séances in the house. The ghost became known as “scratching Fanny”. Celebrities came. Rowdy, drunk séances were held night after night around Betty Parsons bed. William Kent tried to clear his name. Fanny Lyne’s coffin was disinterred and opened. The popular press took sides, some accused Kent of murder. Hundreds of people gathered on Cock Lane every night to get a glimpse of the ghost.

After much excitement it turned out Betty Parsons had been creating the sounds by beating her chest and knocking on a piece of wood under her bedclothes. She was taken away from her family to be examined by older male “experts”. Several people were jailed, among them Richard Parsons and his wife.

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“The most haunted country in the world”

I’ve been reading books about British ghosts. I’d stumbled across the saying “the English see more ghosts than any other people” and I wanted to find out more. Was there anything to the suggestion that England is the most haunted country in the world?

One of the best books that fell through my letterbox was “A Natural History of Ghosts” by journalist Roger Clarke. He’s had a life long fascination with all things spooky and became the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research. The Cock Lane ghost story is one of many in his book.

Clarke writes with both excitement and detachment about hauntings, séances and spooky legends of the British isles. He explores how both seeing and hunting ghosts has become important to the tourism industry in the UK. This is a country where the mention of a ghost might bring more visitors to a pub, a hotel or a castle. Perhaps that’s why the English see so many of them.

Nostalgia and boredom

Ghost sightings become more common in times of crisis. During the First World War some Brits had something called a time slip experience. People claimed to have seen an imprint of a more comfortable past, a manor that had burned down appeared to people who walked by the site at the right time of the night, the sounds of old parties echoed through time.

This hints at what is perhaps Clarke’s most interesting explanation of why the English see so many ghosts. Nostalgia and class.

“For most of the last few hundred years, only the upper and lower classes tended to believe in them. The middle classes have always deplored the idea of ghosts … Your middle-class sceptic would say that toffs like ghosts because it is a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.

The twin polarities of the haunted British landscape make it clear: the haunted pub and the haunted stately home … If you were poor, it was because you hoped for the future; and if you were aristocratic and rich, it was because you trusted in the past.”

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*Yes readers with a dirty mind, I know this whole thing sounds like a ghost story from the Viz.

Some thoughts about leaving the city and moving to the suburbs

In November Gerry and I moved from north London to the south east. We left an apartment nestled between a busy train line and one of the main arteries funnelling cars into the city from the north. We moved to a house in the suburbs.

Our north London was mostly a busy, noisy place. There was a Whole Foods store around the corner when we moved to the area and during our five years there the powers of gentrification brought a Foxtons estate agent, a Foxlow restaurant, several yoga studios, pubs full of men with beards and coffee shops charging three pounds for a black coffee.

It’s now the only place in London where you can get the pizza mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love. There is also a shop selling sticks. The rents shot up and I started feeling slightly self-conscious going to the shops in an old hoodie and my tired jeans, everyone else looked amazing, the odd celebrity walked down the street.

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I was glad to leave, but I didn’t really understand that moving would have a physical impact on me. I had been tense, bracing myself for some unknown disaster, my neck ached, trains interrupted my thoughts, the planes overhead were so common I hardly heard them, my shoulders crept up, my breath was getting stuck in my throat.

We now live on the slopes of the second highest hill in London. To the north is the river, to the south and east two ancient woodlands. After a fifteen minute walk I can be in a forest, a real forest. We have a garden and we’ve spent time digging into the earth, revealing worms, sending beetles and spiders scuttling away. I’m breathing more deeply, I feel less anxious. There is silence here.

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I’ve been reading about how living in cities affect how we feel. A while ago I decided to explore some more of south London and ended up in a bookshop in Greenwhich where I picked up “Headspace – The Psychology of City Living” by psychiatrist Paul Keedwell. The book cites several studies about how noisy, polluted urban living can make us tried, anxious and unwell.

One study at the University of Munich showed that being exposed to the colour green makes us more creative. Portuguese researchers found that “people who lived in areas associated with greater levels of air pollution scored higher on tests of anxiety and depression.”

Another study at the Humbolt University of Berlin looked at how traffic noise, air pollution and lack of green space affect health and showed that the participants who lived in “high burden blocks” had less healthy lifestyles. A study from Helsinki found that “even short visits to an urban park or an urban woodland led to marked stress-relieving effects in city dwellers”.

According to the book there is no need to move away form the city to find relief. Visiting parks and green spaces works just as well, as does exercise. But I have moved and reading about how living nearer green spaces and having a garden is good for you is positive reinforcement for what was a fairly major life decision.

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Central London has some of the most polluted streets in the world . I can taste the exhaust fumes in the city now. The street where we live is so quiet I notice when a car goes by.

It’s not all perfect. This part of London is poor. There are fewer restaurants and no shops selling sticks. Instead of having a bus stop outside the front door I have to walk for about twenty minutes to get to a tube station. So I walk more, down and up the hill to the station, looking out over east London on the other side of the river, listening to the birds, looking up at a few bright stars at night. I’m happier. My calves ache from all the walking.

Since moving here I’ve found out that a lot of other Finns have made this part of London their home, perhaps it has something to do with all the trees.

The first Saturday in the new house

This first night in the house we hammered through the plaster in our bedroom. Big chunks flying everywhere. There was a hollow-sounding area on the lower part of the chimney breast and it seemed like a good idea to find out what lay behind it. An old fireplace, full of rubble and ash. The draft from the chimney stirred the dust. We covered up the hole with a small piece of thin plywood.

This is the first Saturday in the house. The old boiler is roaring next to me. It’s quiet outside. I’m sitting in the office looking out over our garden. The words still seem alien to me. The office. Our garden. Yesterday two cats walked across the lawn, the short-haired tabby one sat on the roof of the shed for a long time, staring at the garden on the other side of the fence where a lady appeared regularly to smoke fags and check her phone. The neighbour on the left has placed plastic tubs full of seeds on top of her fence. The only birds that seem interested in them are the pigeons. When they’ve finished their meal they swoop towards our house, wings outstretched, looking like World War Two bombers. This is my new life.

There has hardly been space for anything else than the new house during the last seven days. We moved on Tuesday and it feels like half a lifetime ago. It’s a steep learning curve of boiler-lingo and electricity-lingo, getting locks changed, issues checked, reading up on asbestos. It’s an old house, the carpets are threadbare, the wallpaper is peeling, everything smells very strongly of curry. I love it.

Not much has been done to this house since the seventies. During our first night here, when everything was still very chaotic and dusty, we discovered that the old doors had been covered up with cheap boards. We prised away the boards and found mustard yellow and pea-soup green four panel doors underneath. There are several different holes in them where previous owners have moved the handles around during the last century.

Is this what middle age is like? Will I now bore people to lip-chewing despair talking about doors and floorboards and all the other stuff we discover when peeling away the layers that have been added to this house since it was built?

The floorboards creek, the boiler roars, but otherwise it’s quiet like London’s never been quiet before. I wake up surprised. No trains outside the window, no traffic, no sirens, no airplanes in the sky. I’ve never realised how much spaciousness there is in the quiet. I feel at home, I feel at peace. So bring on the mess and the chaos of ripping everything out and starting again.

An intimate knowledge of the Blackwall Tunnel

I can smell it before I see it. That’s when it’s time to turn on the button that stops any air coming in from the outside and starts recycling the air inside the car. At least that’s what I think the button does.

For eight months we’ve been driving from north east London to south east London almost every day. We live in the north east and the studio is in the south east. The drive takes around forty minutes and it crosses the river. That means going through the Blackwall Tunnel, the exhaust-fumed Victorian tube linking the East End and the south.

On the A12 going down to the tunnel there is a lot of bad driving. Cars changing lanes without indicating, cars gliding across three lanes without looking, cars speeding faster than all the other cars which are already driving too fast in the first place.

I don’t drive, yet. I tell myself that I will learn and dare to get behind a British car on a British road sometime soon. But motorways like the A12 frighten me and I wonder how it’s possible to keep an eye out for all of those things that might go wrong. I’ve been promising myself that I will take a few driving lessons and then get behind that steering wheel, but just not this month.

Gerry drives and without the car our commute would take about an hour and a half. We need the car. We also need the Blackwall Tunnel.

A couple of months ago there was fuel spill from a faulty hydraulic crane. The northbound tunnel had to be resurfaced and was shut for 20 hours. We drove to the studio in the morning, wondering why the roundabouts were jammed, the traffic curdling on the roads. The south east seized up.

During the day each car that ventured out added to the problem until most roads around the studio were at a standstill, queues of traffic stretching from eastern Woolwich to Tower Bridge and for ten miles down the A2.

We waited and hoped the tunnel would be fixed later in the evening. Around 6pm they were still working on it, around 8pm they were still working on it, at some point someone announced on Twitter that the tunnel wouldn’t be open until the next morning. So we waited some more, thinking people would start taking their cars and their exhausted selves home. We waited until 11pm and traffic was still bad, but we had to get home ourselves.

It took us thirty minutes to drive a few miles. At the junction to the A2 a tired police officer spoke to each car that crawled toward the traffic lights. He told us there was no point continuing, that the best way to get home was to drive east, take the Dartford tunnel and continue on the M25 home. There was hardly any traffic further east. It took us about an hour and a half to get home.

We were lucky. In 1996, on my birthday, someone drove a Mercedes truck into the steel frame supporting the tunnel. The accident caused one of the worst traffic jams in the city, 250 000 drivers were brought to a standstill for eight hours.

The tunnel is stinky and slow. The sign at the mouth of the northbound entrance telling drivers how many cars have broken down in the tunnel hasn’t changed for months. It’s one of the least safe tunnels in Europe. No one talks about it fondly (“commuting through the tunnel? You’ll learn to hate it”), but without it London freezes.

And almost every morning and evening we use it to dip below the river, sometimes I count the green signs along the walls that tell me how far it is to each exit, sometimes I swear at the car ahead for swerving close to the other lane or the motorbike zipping and roaring ahead, sometimes there’s a traffic jam and it takes ages to get through to the other side, sometimes a wave of break lights turn the whole tunnel red.

When you enter the tunnel there is a wooshing sound, like the sea crashing against the shore or waves rolling overhead. The murky water of the Thames is just above us. I never think about that in the tunnel.

Image by Caleb George.

Meeting Elisabeth Gustafsdotter

Before you moved to London your name was Elisabeth Gustafsdotter. You were born in Torslanda and in your teens you worked as a maid in Gothenburg. You were arrested, you got syphilis, you gave birth to a stillborn daughter. The year you turned 22 you used the money you had inherited when your mother died and escaped to a new country. I wasn’t much older than you when I moved to London, but my city is very different to yours.

I’m sitting on the stairs outside Christ Church in Spitalfields, looking down at the pub you used to visit 130 years ago. It’s 6pm-rush-hour on Commercial Street, the cars and busses chew up the tarmac. Outside the Ten Bells a group of men are drinking pints in the sun, their heads fall back as they laugh, playtime after another day in the shiny office towers around Shoreditch.

Scratch the polished surface and stories of your Spitalfields, the old slum, bubble up. These streets are made to give up their memories of the past almost every night. Thousands of tourists attempt to travel back in time, to hear the clatter of hooves against cobbled stones, to catch the scent of manure, smoke and rotten apples when the cars and buses have quietened and the office crowds have gone home for the evening. Some of those who come here try to solve the mystery that made you famous.

You lived in a small room on 32 Flower and Dean Street. The 29th of September 1888 began like many other days. You cleaned a couple of rooms. You got six pence for the work and in the evening you and your friend Elizabeth Tanner visited one of your favourite pubs, the Queen’s Head. Later you ventured out into the autumn rain on your own to meet a customer. You wore a black skirt and a black jacket with dahlias on the right side. A couple of people remembered you from that night. You hid from the rain in a doorway near Settles Street and kissed an expensively dressed man without eyelashes. You walked on to Black Church Lane where he bought you a bunch of grapes.

At a quarter to midnight you were seen with a man, perhaps another man, on Berner Street. An hour and a quarter later you were dead. You were found in the mud outside the International Men’s Working Club when Louis Diemschutz almost ran you over with his horse and carriage. The wound on your neck was fresh and bleeding. You became Jack the Rippers’ third victim.

Today you’re a legend, bound to the place where you died. Perhaps you, like so many others, moved to London chasing freedom and a life that would allow you to choose who you wanted to be. Perhaps that’s why you lied to your friends and told them your husband and nine children had died when the Princess Alice sunk in the Thames and 600 passengers lost their lives. Perhaps you wanted to tell your own story. Your killer deprived you of that too.

*English translation of my monthly column for SvD Perfect Guide.

*Some of the information about Elizabeth Stride/Elisabeth Gustafsdotter is taken from the excellent book Elizabeth Stride and Jack the Ripper, the life and death of the reputed third victim by Dave Yost.

Photo by Mitch Rosen.