David Bussell’s thrilling new paranormal fiction series, Spectral Detective, is set in Camden Town, London. While researching this unique and intriguing area, David unearthed a wealth of local myths, ghost stories and urban legends, some of which he wove into the fabric of the Spectral Detective series.
Today, David plays tour guide and shepherds us through some of the peculiar, bizarre and downright macabre locales of Camden, taking stops at haunted pubs, abandoned Underground stations and ghost-infested theatres, to name just a few…
Camden Town is the place goths go to die, so there always plenty of weird on show: pallid skin, kohl black makeup, neon hair, face tattoos and body mods. It’s also a creative hub, home to artists, musicians and poets, so it’s a magnet for the eccentric. But there’s more to the borough than counterculture relics and the ever-present whiff of incense. The area has a storied history of ghostly occurrences, so let’s pay a visit to its ten most eerie haunts and see what’s going down in Camden Town…
1. Regent’s Canal, Camden Lock
The famous waterway passing through Camden is the site of the murder that spurs Spectral Detective’s hero, Jake Fletcher, into action. In real life, the Lock is a somewhat sanitised place, but it wasn’t always that way. Back in the 1800s the wharves and warehouses of the area were inhabited by all manner of scoundrels and thieves. Only the most daring would risk visiting the Lock by night, and they were lucky if they didn’t end up at the bottom of the canal with stones in their pockets.
In April 1909 a letter appeared in the London Journal concerning the Lisson Grove Tunnel. A reader told how, late one Friday evening, he’d been passing through the tunnel when a ghostly arm “stretched out from the brickwork to bar my passage.” He was so alarmed by this that he leaped into the canal and, and when he finally summoned up the courage to resurface, the arm was gone. The bemused witness recalled how he had returned the next morning to examine the spot, but could find nothing that threw any light on the mystery of who, or what, it was that he had encountered.
2. The Black Cap, Camden High Street
The Black Cap was a favourite destination for both ghost hunters and drag artists before it closed its doors a few years ago. Some historians say that in the 16th century, witches used to occupy the site of the bar. Best known of all these was Mother Black Cap, who wore dark gray clothes and had a bit of a thing for killing ex-lovers. As the story goes, the cinders of one unfortunate beau were found in her oven, while another simply vanished after a drunken row. Could one of those spirits be the cause of the inexplicable, terrifying face that used to appear outside the pub and leer in through the window?
3. South Kentish Town Underground Station, Kentish Town Road
Lying dormant beneath the streets of Camden are miles of tunnels, drains and sewers, many closed off and blocked up for decades. In the world of Spectral Detective, which is part of the larger Uncanny Kingdom universe, there are things that live in these forgotten spaces. Things that aren’t human. Things that feed on the people above.
In real life, the truth is less incredible but no less interesting. Take South Kentish Town Underground Station, an infamous “ghost” station on the Northern Line whose entrance has long since been closed. The trains don’t stop there anymore, meaning the only people who get a run of the place now are thrill-seeking “urban explorers” who dodge Tube security, maintenance workers and a lethal 1,000 volt track to sneak in and take photos.
A creepy piece of prose called South Kentish Town was written in 1951 by John Betjeman. It tells the story of a passenger who got off the train one night, only to discover he was trapped in the abandoned station. It was based on a true story.
4. Highgate Cemetery, Swain’s Lane
There have been many accounts of ghost sightings on the grounds of Highgate Cemetery. The most commonly reported one is of a woman in grey said to be searching frantically for her children, whom she butchered. The other is of a robed man who can be viewed from afar watching passers-by from behind the cemetery gates.
Highgate’s most famous apparition, came to be known as the Highgate Vampire after dead animals drained of blood were found strewn around the vicinity. Author David Farrant, who penned the book Beyond The Highgate Vampire, wrote that the sinister being could be something to do with ley lines passing through the cemetery. The mystery of the malevolent spirit remains to this day.
5. Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
Dating back to 1812, the Theatre Royal is said to be one of the most haunted buildings in the country. The resident ghost, known only as the “man in grey” is often seen roaming the theatre and disappearing into walls. The skeletal remains of an 18th Century nobleman were found in a sealed-up passage when the theatre was renovated, a dagger buried in his rib cage. Rumours have it that the man was having an affair with an actress at the theatre, and her jilted lover murdered him for it. Actors believe his presence is a good thing, as he only makes an appearance at the start of successful productions, including Miss Saigon, Oklahoma and The King and I.
6. Hunterian Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields
To the best of my knowledge there haven’t been any ghost sightings at the Hunterian Museum, but with thousands of anatomical specimens on display, including the skeletal remains of a seven and a half foot tall “Irish giant”, a collection of horrifyingly antiquated surgical instruments and a vitrine containing foetal triplets, you wouldn’t want to get locked up there overnight.
7. King’s Cross St. Pancras Station, Euston Road
A fire broke out here in November 1987 and claimed the lives of 31 people. Since then, a distressed woman in jeans and a t-shirt has been seen, screaming and crying, with her arms outstretched. When passing commuters go to comfort her, it is said that she vanishes, leaving behind a distinct smell of smoke.
In the prequel to the first book in the Spectral Detective series, Jake passes through this locale and gains some important motivation from his visit. You can read more about that by getting your free copy of Deathday here.
8. The Flask, West Hill, Highgate
The oldest part of this traditional pub dates back to 1663 when Highgate was just a ramshackle village. Since then, patrons have recounted tales of an otherworldly visitor in the shape of a Spanish barmaid dressed in period clothing, who has been witnessed causing lights to sway and glasses to move around. Others have reported the temperature taking a sudden dip and experiencing a full-bodied appearance of the phantom. It has been said that the ghostly maid hanged herself in the beer cellar when her unrequited love for the inn’s landlord drove her to despair.
9. The Magic Circle, Stephenson Way, Euston
This one’s more interesting than sinister, but it’s where a lot of the action in Spectral Detective takes place and has a definite supernatural flavour to it. The Magic Circle’s HQ is a hidden gem that opens its doors to the public only a couple of evenings a month. The venue is chock-full of mystery, intrigue and priceless treasures, and is a haven for the finest magicians from all over the world to gather and share secrets. It also has a basement museum containing a treasure trove of items from the golden age of music halls, including a sound recording of Harry Houdini taken from an Edison cylinder, and a set of cups and balls used by HRH The Prince of Wales when he took his Magic Circle exam in 1975.
Certain liberties were taken with the representation of the Magic Circle in the first book of the Spectral Detective series. As far as anyone knows, the organisation is not a front for a group of occultists responsible for an escaped demon that is cutting a swathe through Camden Town. As far as anyone knows.
10. New End Theatre Tunnels, New End, Hampstead
The theatre, converted into a Jewish cultural centre now, started life as a mortuary. Beneath it were tunnels that enabled dead bodies to be transported to the slab from the nearby New End Hospital. Though these tunnels are sealed now, theatre staff using them to store props would often share stories of ghostly sounds coming from the backstage areas, as well as a shadowy figure with a skull face gliding from one end of the tunnel to the other. Sceptics have put this phenomenon down to loose wiring and creaky floorboards.
If you’re interested in learning more about Camden’s ghostly past there are many more tales to be heard if you speak to the right people: stories of a halfway house for highwaymen, of ghosts from a demolished asylum preying on the residents of nearby council estate, and of an ethereal woman dressed in Victorian clothing gliding through the tunnels of the Stables Market.
Sleep well, my friend. Sleep well.