Ghostly highwaymen, a dead, interfering pub landlord and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are all chilling tales that form part of the history of Hampstead, a pretty little village perched on a hill in north London. There’s been a settlement here for over a thousand years, Londoners came here for the fresh air and to escape the filth and squalor of the city below.
Hampstead established itself as a bit of a Bohemian village with residents such as Constable, Romney, Keats and Shelley. Today it is still home to actors, film stars and writers.
Just down Hampstead High Street along from the Underground Station is the pub the King William IV. Local folk lore maintains that a long time ago a doctor’s wife was murdered here by her husband and bricked up in the lower depths of the house, now the pub cellar. It is said that ever since, her ghost has rattled windows and slammed doors in the middle of the night and created a general disturbance in the pub.
Also on this section of the High Street there is the ghost of a young girl. Dressed in a white shroud with her long plaited hair hanging untidily across her shoulders she stands on the pavement looking sadly in at the windows of the pub. It is said that she is the phantom of a patient at a dental practice that once stood opposite. After having some particularly traumatic treatment the poor girl killed herself rather than keep the next appointment.
On Perrin’s Lane there are some quaint brick cottages that line the right hand side of the street.
Church Row is the graceful approach to the parish church and was built in the 18th century. It is considered the most attractive street in Hampstead.
One of the houses near the church is reputed to have been the scene of a gruesome murder of a small child in the latter half of the 19th century. The murderer, a red haired maid, dismembered the body and smuggled the remains out of the house in a carpet bag. People walking along Church Row early in the morning as the day breaks have heard stealthy footsteps shuffling behind them and a red haired woman has been seen moving quickly towards the church, her head turning from side to side as she glances around her.
At the end of Church Row are the gates to the Parish Church of St John. Inside a path descends down past crumbling tombs and headstones. Somewhere near the bottom is the tomb of artist John Constable (1776 – 1837), there’s a real eerie feel down here beneath the large trees that give a shadowy stillness.
It is rumored that this was the church yard in which Bram Stoker (1847 – 1912) placed the vault that housed the undead Lucy Westernra in Dracula.
Not far from the church just up Holy Walk is the pretty Benham’s Place, the cottages here date from 1813.
A little further up is the Catholic Church of St Mary’s, built in 1796 by and for refugees who fled their homeland during the French Revolution.
Further still is a plaque on the wall at the junction with Holly Berry Lane commemorating the site of Hampstead’s first police station.
The house at number 7 Mount Vernon is where Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894), author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island among others, lodged on several occasions.
The Holly Bush Inn sits on Holly Mount and is an atmospheric old inn that was once frequented by Boswell and Doctor Johnson. It also has associations with the painter George Romney, whose house still stands nearby. It was the stables of the house that became the Holly Bush Inn. The pub has a long musical tradition with bands playing there on Sunday nights for many years. Around forty years ago it was customary for a certain band leader to reward the pianist at the end of a performance with an encouraging slap on the back, a tradition that is still carried on by an unseen hand that the current piano player has felt across his back on several occasions.
Beware of a waitress wearing a crisp white linen apron and long dark skirt if you choose to eat here. She may take your order but the pub doesn’t offer waitress service. The landlord on more than one occasion has found himself confronted by angry customers, demanding to know why their food is taking so long to arrive. The waitress it seems is a ghost who, although very polite and obliging, never delivers the order to the kitchen.
Number 5 Holly Bush Hill was the home and studio of George Romney (1734 – 1802).
On Hampstead Grove is Fenton House, Hampstead’s oldest mansion (c. 1693). It now houses the Benton Fletcher collection of early keyboard instruments.
Admiral’s Walk is home to Admiral’s House, notable for its roof, which resembles a ships quarterdeck. It was adapted in 1791 by the then occupant, Lieutenant Fountain North, who used to fire a cannon from his roof to celebrate royal birthdays.
P.J. Travers immortalised the property as Admiral Boom’s house on Cherry Tree Lane in her book Mary Poppins.
Right next door at Grove Lodge was where John Galsworthy (1867 – 1933), author of the Forsyte Saga lived.
The pretty little cottages on Lower Terrace, was where, at number 2 John Constable and his family had their summer residence in 1821 and 1822. Constable completed several oil paintings here, including one of Admiral’s House, and one of the shed in the back garden.
Judges’ Walk was traditionally held to be the place where justices came to take the air after they had fled London during the Great Plague of 1665.
At the corner of North End Way stands a large yellow weatherboard building. This was once Jack Straw’s Castle, a pub that was completely rebuilt following bomb damage in World War II. It was a favourite of Charles Dickens who spent many happy hours at what he termed “a good ouse” enjoying a “red hot chop for dinner”. Van Helsing and Dr Seward also dined here before their midnight vigil at Lucy’s tomb. “Jack Straw” was a generic name for farm labourers, and this was reputedly the rallying point for Hampstead labourers on their way to join Wat Tyler’s peasant revolt in 1381. Sadly the pub has now been converted into flats.
Down on Spaniards Road is the 16th century Spaniards Inn, named after two Spanish brothers who were joint proprietors and who argued over a woman and killed each other in a dual.
Some time later the pub became the reputed haunt of highwayman Dick Turpin, who is said to have stabled his mount, Black Bess, here. Unfortunately Black Bess was a ficticious horse dreamed up by the 19th century author Harrison Ainsworth.
However a good ghost story is always worth telling and apparently her ghostly hoof beats are said to be heard galloping across the car park in the dead of night.
Dick Turpin himself has been seen inside the pub, a shadowy, cloaked figure that strides purposefully across the bar then disappears into the wall. On the panelled first floor is Turpin’s Bar, where, in winter months, a roaring log fire crackles in the ancient fire place, and customers have often felt an unseen hand tugging gently at their sleeves.
More or less opposite the pub lies a part of the heath that is very lonely and desolate. Two hundred years ago only the brave or foolhardy would have ventured down here. Records show dozens of attacks on travellers, many ending in murder.
Reports have been made about a ghostly, dark figure on horseback who comes riding from the thickets towards walkers. He has been seen by many people including a Mrs Helen Steipel, who was so convinced she was about to be trampled to death by the horse’s hooves that she flung herself on to the muddy ground and waited for the impact. Nothing happened, when she looked up the rider and horse had vanished.
The Vale of Heath is a quiet corner of Hampstead that aquired its name in 1802. It was originally a swamp that was drained to make way for the construction of numerous fashionable dwellings.
At the junction with Vale of Heath and East Heath Road watch out for a grinning, toothless old man wearing a brown Norfolk jacket. He’s been known to follow pedestrians along this stretch of road, his appearance is so real that those who have seen him don’t think anything is amiss until he disappears in to thin air.
Situated on Cannon Place is Cannon Hall, childhood home of the writer Daphne du Maurier (1907 – 1989).
Down on Cannon Lane is an old 18th century lock up. Dating from around 1730 this was where prisoners were held in a dark single cell until other arrangements could be made for them. It is one of only a handful of lock ups left in London today.
On Well Walk, at number 40 is where John Constable lived from 1827 until his death ten years later.
The Flask Tavern on Flask Walk brings us to the end of our Hampstead ghost stories, it’s a cosy pub and takes its name from the flasks that in the 18th century were sold here, to those who came to take the waters at the nearby springs.
The pub is haunted by a 19th century landlord called Monty. A stickler for tradition, and totally opposed to change, he keeps a close eye on those who are now entrusted with the running of his pub. In 1997 the redevelopment of the conservatory caused him considerable annoyance and he disrupted the work as often as he could. Upon its completion he made his feelings felt by moving tables across the floor in front of astonished customers, and by switching off the lights.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Hampstead’s ghostly goings on.