Discovering the ghosts of St Albans

FROM murder to prostitution, suicide and all things supernatural, St Albans has enough scandal and sinister occurrences to rival the old streets of London.

And going hand-in-hand with the many tales floating around are of course ghost stories by the bucket load. Our provincial streets have seen royalty killed and martyrs burnt at the stake, leading to some of the most frightful ghost sightings.

Keeping the city’s ghost stories alive are St Albans Tour Guides, with their winter walk ‘Ghostly Goings-On’. The Herts Advertiser was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at the tour ahead of Halloween and witness the city’s spook-factor for ourselves.

Led by the very knowledgeable tour guide Pauline Willis and armed with a large lantern we set off from the old Town Hall feeling a bit more on edge than normal. It was the perfect crisp, cold night to walk around and we eagerly began to learn about the centuries of history the city has witnessed, finding a sufficiently scary story in every dark street and doorway.

Within 10 minutes of walking we were already acquainted with two ghosts – Henry and Charlie – had seen where the Duke of Somerset was killed, and heard enough eye-witness reports to make your hair stand on end.

Buildings new and old featured on the tour and Pauline explained ghosts did not necessarily disappear when an old building was rebuilt: “If whatever happened to that person happened in a particular building, even despite it being knocked down and rebuilt, whatever happened in that building was there, so they will perhaps continue to be there.”

Familiar haunts such as W H Smith evolved from a place where you buy your morning paper into visions of a dire and rotting prison as we discovered the previous use of the popular shop. Staff have also spoken of a mischievous ghost who opens and closes doors. The woeful tales of residents gone by were brought to life by our tour guide as we navigated the cobbled streets, making suspension of disbelief an easy feat.

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As we approached French Row we were gravely warned that various people had “met their death in unpleasant ways”. The street currently houses shops and caf�s but not so long ago a very different trade resided there, with ladies of the night reportedly finding their home in the timber-framed walkthrough which leads into Christopher Place. Paranormal investigators recently took a trip down this path with Pauline and apparently described a whole variety of female ghosts, seemingly waiting for their next customer.

One story that caught everyone’s attention was the tale of a prostitute who was supposedly murdered in The Boot pub in 1840. A visiting soldier reportedly took the woman upstairs for the night, only to come out in the morning covered in blood.

He was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, which was a penal colony in the mid 1800s that we now know as Tasmania. Pauline grimly tells us the landlord’s son has given this story some added fear-factor by admitting it’s felt like someone has been getting into bed next to him on more than one occasion.

The White Hart is said to be one of the most haunted pubs in St Albans, with tales of the ghost of a little girl who died in a fire. We were also told of sightings of the ghost of Elizabeth Wilson, who is said to have lost her head in 1820 when she didn’t duck as the Northampton coach went under the inn’s archway.

When we reached Romeland, we were told this was the area where it “gets spooky”.

After spending five minutes here under an ink-black sky whilst the cathedral bell tolls, it’s hard to disagree with this. Crawling with apparitions of monks, this was also reportedly the area where a Protestant baker from Barnet, George Tankerfield, was burned at the stake by Queen Mary in 1555.

After being exposed to all the tales of the tour, I have found myself studying monuments or alleyways that I’ve never really taken any notice of before. Those easily frightened shouldn’t be put off the walk – it is spooky but essentially it is one of the best and most interesting local history lessons you’ll ever get.

Pauline explained: “We try to establish a historical fact or a reason why a spirit should be hanging around, to try and back up the history as well.”

The White Hart, The Alban Arena, the cathedral, Heritage Close… the list of “haunted” places is endless. So if you’re looking for something to do this Halloween, bypass that predictable scary film and look no further than your city’s own ghoulish history and ghosts for a fright night to remember.