I am lying in a coffin in the catacombs beneath London Bridge while a clairvoyant calls to the spirits around me to make themselves known. This is not your normal Saturday night in the capital. But then Haunted Happenings – the team that has invited me on tonight’s “paranormal investigation” – definitely don’t do normal. Hosting weekly ghost hunts in castles, stately homes, prisons and even caves around Britain, they also, I am assured, don’t do hoaxes; and perhaps in the London Tombs they don’t need to.
By day this is a tacky horror-themed tourist attraction but when the tunnels were being excavated in 2007 they were found to house the remains of plague victims. The builders carrying out the job reported numerous strange goings on and insisted on working in pairs for fear of being alone in the dark recesses. While the skeletons have since been moved to Blackheath Cemetery – their place in the tunnels taken by a collection of macabre displays – the site still contains traces of many souls, some of which we are hoping will speak to us today.
The experience begins at 9pm, after the regular tourists have departed. While scaring yourself silly might seem an odd way to spend an evening, I’m comforted by the fact that ghost hunting has a long tradition in the capital. The Ghost Club was founded in London in 1862 and is the world’s oldest paranormal research organisation, counting Charles Dickens and WB Yeats among former members.
Our host, Jayne Hendy-Clews, begins the evening by instructing us in the use of dousing rods, EMF and K2 meters, all of which apparently register changes in the electro-magnetic field that might indicate the presence of something otherworldly (or, we are warned, the presence of an iPhone).
As we switch off the lights she reminds us that: “We work in the dark so that you tune in to the energy field around you. The best bit of kit in this room is you.” We tour through the dark maze of rooms, stopping at different “vigils”, or paranormal workshops, where guides use a variety of techniques to help us try and make contact with the other side. In a claustrophobic cavern called “the sewer”, with arched black walls that reek of centuries-old damp, we use a slate ouija board to reach a spirit called Jack.
Later, beside an 18th-century carriage and a stuffed horse, we try to contact the “Shadow Man”. This time our technique is “table-tipping”, a method of spiritual communication dating back to Victorian times. When we place our hands on a folding table and lock fingers, the wood starts to vibrate, then begins to rock violently from side to side, suddenly upending on two legs and sliding across the floor.
Of course, given the other people, this doesn’t quite count as conclusive proof of an afterlife. After several more sessions and a lone vigil (during which the “spirit of a playful boy” fails to move a sweet in my outstretched hand) I finally leave the tombs at 4am. My scepticism is more or less intact but I’ve also rediscovered the feeling of being a wide-eyed child, afraid of the dark. That’s excitement enough for one night.
Ghost hunts with Haunted Happenings (www.hauntedhappenings.co.uk) cost from £45