London's spookiest pubs

A spooky guide to haunted pubs

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I love a pub with a past, especially a grisly one. i like being hit with the weight of history, like an invisible freight train, as i walk across creaky, well-trodden floorboards, or lean against a bar top bearing scratches from years, decades, or even centuries before. the present instant fades into insignificance for a moment, as i think of everyone who has sat or stood in the same spot. i wonder what they were doing, and what they were thinking about. how they lived, and how they died. 

Generally, i don’t believe in ghosts. i’m usually a pragmatic person, demanding demonstrable proof or scientific evidence before i’ll believe something. but then there are those times when something just feels strange. a shiver on a warm day, as i catch a tiny glimpse of something hard to explain out of the corner of my eye. and for a handful of these chilling moments – all of them in london – i’ve wavered. the city is overflowing with supposedly haunted locations, and among them are a great many pubs. some are centuries old, occupying buildings or sites which have some darkness in their histories, and many visitors claim to be able to sense their macabre pasts. for those who enjoy drinking in the places that would have some of the most frightening stories to tell if only the walls could talk, london has a fantastic density of them. 

Haunting near the heath (The Spaniards Inn, Hampstead)

In medieval times, the bishop of london owned the park area close to hampstead and allowed people to use the track upon payment of a toll. in the 16th century, the spaniards inn was constructed as a tollgate on the edge of the bishop’s estate. the pub is rumoured to be the birthplace of prolific highwayman dick turpin, whilst his father was the landlord, and he supposedly conducted some of his robberies in the area. but this association isn’t the only ill omen in the pub’s past. according to legend, it is named for spanish landlords, francesco and juan, who were brothers. after falling in love with the same woman, they got into a fight which ended in juan’s death. locals have speculated that his forlorn and lovesick ghost haunts the pub still.

Frights by the cemetery (The Flask, Highgate)

A half hour stroll east from the spaniard’s inn, there’s another pub that is shrouded in local legend. parts of the flask date to the 17th century – when highgate was still just a small village – and is located just moments away from highgate cemetery, which opened in 1839 and has karl marx as the most famous resident. allegedly, a room of the flask was once used as an illicit autopsy location after someone snatched a recently buried body. and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a more supernatural explanation for disturbances in the cemetery circulated in the area: the highgate vampire. some locals reported discovering animals drained of their blood and seeing a tall man wearing a hat, who appeared to melt into the cemetery walls. for those interested in braving a walk through the cemetery today, the flask is a great place to stop for a little dutch courage.

Bringing in the bodies (The Rising Sun, Farringdon)

Even today, cloth fair can feel eerily quiet, despite being just a short walk from the bustling smithfield market. in this small street that seems somewhat frozen in time, you’ll find a house that survived the great fire in 1666, as well as a pub with connections to body snatchers, thanks to its location close to st bartholomew’s hospital. the story goes that the gang would drug and murder the punters of the rising sun in order to sell their bodies to the hospital for research. allegedly, several staff members have experienced something sinister in the building in recent decades, including a landlady who felt an icy hand on her back whilst taking a shower.

In the footsteps of the ripper (The Ten Bells, Spitalfields)

In east london, the ten bells is a stunning victorian pub with beautiful tiling. it is located on a corner, and today it’s a great spot to stop for a drink after browsing stalls at the old spitalfields market. but this pub also has a connection to london’s most infamous serial killer. the story goes that in november of 1888, it was the final place that mary kelly, a victim of jack the ripper, would ever enjoy a drink. she was supposedly seen in the pub with a friend on the night before her body was found. and just two months earlier, the body of annie chapman, another ripper victim, was discovered in hanbury street, just moments away from the same pub, where she was also thought to be a regular.

Lives of crime (The Viaduct Tavern, Holborn)

This is another victorian era pub with a link to london’s criminals of the past. the former gin palace is located opposite the old bailey, conveniently close to the former site of newgate prison, such that prisoners could travel via a passageway to their trials. until the mid-19th century there were gallows on newgate street, and the site of the pub could have provided an ideal vantage point for those wishing to get a good look. given this horrific history, it is perhaps no surprise that people working in the pub over the years have reported some ghostly goings on. in his book secret haunted london, author john pullen recounts an instance in 1996, when the then-landlord was working in the pub’s cellar and found himself trapped and unable to open the door.

A dreadful way to die (The Grenadier, Belgravia)

this pub is hidden in a quiet street in leafy west london, and despite its quaint and cosy atmosphere, it harbours a dark past. the building was originally established as a mess area for senior infantry, and it is said to be haunted by a soldier named cedric, who was beaten to death after he was found to be cheating at a card game. the ceiling of the pub is covered in banknotes, which are left by the pub’s customers, supposedly to pay the debt that cedric owes. guests and staff alike have reported some strange happenings in the pub on occasion, such as objects moving or tables rattling. further, some people have even claimed to see a figure resembling a soldier in an old-fashioned uniform. these ghostly sightings are most prevalent in september, which is the month in which cedric reportedly met his awful end.

The demon barber’s tunnel (The Old Bank of England, Fleet street)

When it comes to nasty ways to die, fleet street is a part of the city that has long been drenched in grim and bloody tales. it was here that sweeney todd - the demon barber made famous by victorian 'penny dreadful’ publications - allegedly preyed upon the visitors to his barber shop. the story goes that todd positioned a trap door under his barber’s chair, and that he would cut the throats of his unsuspecting clients and drop them into a chamber below, where they would be butchered to make fillings for the pies prepared by todd’s lover, ms lovett, in her nearby bell yard pie shop. the bodies were said to be transported from todd’s barber shop to lovett’s pie shop via an underground tunnel. today, the old bank of england pub in the old law court’s branch stands on the site that is right between the two places of business (at least, according to the story.) and though the gruesome life of sweeney todd could be entirely fabricated, many londoners remain enthralled by the tale, particularly since penny dreadfuls would typically contain fictionalised retellings of actual crimes of the era.

Illustrations by El Mugid

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