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Life in the big smoke

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.

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.

Ghosts and gangsters: A couple of notorious London pubs

London has a colourful past. It’s a city jam-packed with quirky stories and odd folktales. These streets have seen a lot, from mad Victorian killers to brawling gangsters to bombs falling from the sky. All those stories and memories are still here. You can still visit the pub where Jack the Ripper’s victims drank and have a pint in the place where the infamous Kray twins killed a man. Here are some of the city’s most notorious pubs.

The Ten Bells


 

the ten bells spitalfields Image via pinterest.

The Ten Bells is a popular pub next to Spitalfields Market. It used to be a bit scruffy, with toilets full of scribbles and graffiti. Now it’s a popular hangout for bankers and people from Essex, just like most of the pubs in the area. I’ve only been there once since it was redecorated a couple of years ago and the only thing I can remember about that evening is chatting about increasingly girly stuff over several pints of ale. But that’s perhaps not such unusual way to spend time in the Ten Bells. The pub is famous for having been a favourite of two of Jack the Ripper’s victims, Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly.

Back then Spitalfields was a very different place, the worst slum in London, with over-crowded housing, desperate poverty and landlords charging a nightly rent for flea infested beds in a drafty rooms. Many women in the area ended up working as prostitutes. Some of them walked the streets, others picked up customers in the pubs. The Ten Bells was one of their haunts.

The pub was opened in 1851 and according to Wikipedia Jamie Oliver’s great great grandfather was the landlord in the 1880s, around the time when Jack the Ripper was stalking the streets of Spitalfields.

84 Commercial Street, London E1 6QG

The Blind Beggar


 

the blind beggar Image via Spitalfields life.

On Whitechapel High Street sits The Blind Beggar. It’s quite an unassuming pub, and by that I mean that it looks like any other slightly downtrodden boozer where men huddle together to drink lager and watch sports. Unless you know the history of the place it’s difficult to imagine that it was there the infamous Kray twins shot gang rival George Cornell in front of a bunch of witnesses.

The murder took place on the 9th of March 1966 and was the beginning of the end for the brothers’ reign as kingpins in the East End underworld. A couple of months earlier Cornell had called Ronnie Kray, who was bisexual, a “fat poof”. Kray bore a grudge and when he saw Cornell at the Blind Beggar that day in March he pulled out a 9mm luger and shot him once in the forehead. Even though Kray was identified by several witnesses they all refused to testify against him and he was not arrested until two years after the killing.

The Kray twins ruled London’s underworld in the 60s. They ran “The Firm” and were involved in robberies, arson and protection rackets. Before their downfall the twins even ended up becoming semi-celebrities, mixing with famous musicians and politicians and appearing on television.

The Blind Beggar was built in 1894 on the site where an old inn had stood since the 1600s. The pub is also famous for being the location for William Booth’s first sermon, which led to the creation of the Salvation Army.

337 Whitechapel Rd, London E1 1BU

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese


 

ye olde cheshire cheese Image by Bobo.

This isn’t exactly a notorious pub, but it’s a famous one, one of the most famous in London according to some. Its vaulted cellars are thought to be part of a 13th century monastery. The site was home to an inn which burnt down in the great fire of 1666. Most of the pub was rebuilt the next year, making it one of the oldest in the city. Fifteen monarchs have reigned whilst people have been enjoying pints under its roof.

Since Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese can be found on Fleet Street, where most of the national papers had their headquartes back in the day, it’s also been a favourite haunt for journalists and writers. Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and Voltaire are all said to have drunk there.

The pub also had its own parrot, Polly, who is now stuffed and can be found in the ground floor bar. Polly was known for mimicking customers and her death in 1926 was announced in newspapers around the world.

145 Fleet Street, London EC4A 2BU

The Prospect of Whitby


 

the prospect of whitby Image via pinterest.

This pub was originally known as “The Devil’s Tavern”. And if you weren’t a smuggler or a pirate it wasn’t the place for you. The Prospect of Whitby was first built in 1543, making it the oldest pub on the banks of the River Thames. It became known as a smugglers’ den in the 17th century. After a fire destroyed the original pub in the 18th century the new building was renamed after a ship that used to anchor nearby. The pub has come a long way since then. When a luxury restaurant was opened on the pub’s first floor in the 1950s it became a popular spot for European royalty.

57 Wapping Wall, Wapping, London E1W 3SH

The Morpeth Arms


 

This pub used to host 19th century prisoners on their way to the colonies. These men and women could be held in solitary confinement for six months. Outbreaks of cholera were common and many got scurvy before they had even set foot on a ship. Some of didn’t make it further than to these cells and their restless spirits are still said to haunt the pub basement. In the main bar customers have been known to complain that their drinks have been knocked out of their hands by an unseen force (sounds like a good excuse to get a fresh pint).

58 Millbank, SW1P

The Grenadier


 

the grenadier pub Image by George Redgrave.

The Grenadier is one of the most famous haunted pubs in London. In the early 1700s it was a popular gambling den for soliders. Around that time an officer was caught cheating at cards. He was flogged to death for his crimes. According to the pub’s owners his spirit never left.

It’s believed the solider died in September, which is when the paranormal activity picks up. Customers have reported a shadowy outline of a figure walking across the floor and vanishing suddenly. Other pretty standard ghostly behaviour has also been reported: rattling chairs, moving objects, strange clouds of cigar smoke and mysterious cold spots. Staff are said to have heard groaning voices coming from the cellar.

The pub’s ceiling is covered with notes which have been put there by visitors who hope to get rid of the ghost by paying off his gambling debts. I’m guessing the pub owners are quite happy it doesn’t seem to have worked, yet.

18 Wilton Row, Belgrave Square, Hyde Park Corner, SW1