Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Down at the Old Bull and Bush

I have been recently reading a collection of books on the subject of haunted Britain published by History Press. I have been given the task – which is not at all onerous as I do enjoy the subject matter – of writing some reviews on a couple of them. So today is the turn of the pubs of London.

Haunted London Pubs (David Brandon and Alan Brooke - History Press ISBN 978-0-7524-4760-5 £9.99) was a very enjoyable read whilst sitting out on the patio in the sunshine, apparently – according to Jon – whilst looking like some updated version of Yoko Ono in my big floppy hat and dark glasses. The fact that I was sitting in a vain attempt to achieve the slightly uncomfortable position of having my legs raised higher than the mid part of my body as I was suffering from rather alarming swollen legs and feet is another matter, but one that would surely shatter any look-a-like competitions with the ubiquitous Ms Ono I am sure.

London is an old city – and as any old city it has long-gone places of interest and macabre fascination. Since its origins in the late 12th Century and its eventual removal in as late as 1783 the infamous gallows, Tyburn, stood at what is now the busy modern-day junction of Edgware Road, Oxford Street and Bayswater Road (There is a plaque in the traffic island to mark the spot, but I wonder how many people walk across that junction today totally oblivious of the chilling events that used to take place there?). During Elizabeth I’s reign the original gallows was upgraded into the famous triangular gallows known as the ‘Triple Tree’ enabling up to 24 people at a time – 8 on each beam - to be executed. I suppose, in those days, this was one way to escape over-crowding in prisons if you can look at it with such morbid wit – no tv to amuse you or degrees to learn to enable you to be released as a new person back then, let alone the chance to win millions on the lottery......

The bodies of those executed used to be thrown into a nearby pit and in the 19th Century many bones were found after excavations took place.

It would come as no surprise, therefore, that this particular part of London has become known for ghostly visits from the departed. One particular pub, “The Mason’s Arms, claims to be situated on the site of the dungeons where prisoners were held before their hanging. The present pub cellar is said to be haunted by earlier inhabitants, many of whom had plotted abortive last minute escapes from the fatal ‘Tree’. Part of the escape plan may have involved using a tunnel that was reputed to run from the dungeons to Marble Arch, but it was sealed up over twenty years ago. On the cellar walls are fittings that were allegedly used as manacles for the prisoners.

It is uncertain whether the pub really did use the cellar to keep the condemned of Tyburn, but it is possible that the cart that conveyed them to the gallows stopped there for the last drink.” The authors go on to explain that: “A ghostly figure has been seen wandering around the cellar and staff have commented on the creepy atmosphere down there. It has also been claimed that phantom hands have turned off the beer barrels

It became a tradition that those condemned would stop at various pubs along the way to have a drink – in order to numb their senses of the inevitable at the end of their journey and many of these pubs report strange goings on.

Dick Turpin pops up a lot too. The book does make the comment that he seems to get about a bit as his ghost does seem to appear in quite a few pubs. It seems our most famous highwayman was a bit of an 18th Century bar-fly.

This is a very interesting little book and it would make a fascinating trip, indeed, to visit all those pubs mentioned in person.

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