ghosts

London: “Art and Spirit” @ the College of Psychic Studies

And so we happily come to October, best of months, in which all I want to do is breathe, eat, read, watch, and sleep Halloween (to be honest, I do that for most of the rest of the year too, but especially in October). Because I like to try to do Halloween related posts for as much of October as I can, and because appropriately spooky things rarely come my way in London, I’ve been hanging on to this one since August. So you will no longer be able to visit “Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder,” as it only ran for one week in August, but how about I give you my thoughts on it anyway? (Rhetorical question, you’re getting my thoughts whether you like it or not.)

  

The first thing you need to know about me, if you’ve never read my blog before (hi!), is that as much as I would love to believe in ghosts, I am at heart a cold hard skeptic, and these people had no chance on selling me on any concept of an afterlife. So I was relieved that the exhibition was free, because I really did not want to give the College of Psychic Studies money (or any sort of religious organisation money, for that matter). The place was exactly what I was expecting (maybe I’m psychic?) – a big rambling terraced house in South Kensington that the College had presumably financed back in the late 19th/early 20th century during the Spiritualism craze when they were rolling in the dough. The College is open to the public for classes and things (that you have to pay for, of course), but I think the summer exhibition is the only time the whole building is open to the public, and it was hard to tell if they had actually put together an exhibition specially, or if this is the stuff that is always in here.

  

In all fairness, the people working there were very friendly, albeit a bit earnest. The same was true of most of our fellow visitors, who seemed to really believe in this stuff (a couple were questioning why you don’t get spirits on photographs anymore, and talking about how “powerful” all the images were), and I guess good for you if you’re able to embrace your spiritual side, but I am a terrible person, and earnestness makes me uncomfortable (I don’t really have a problem with people believing what they want to believe as long as they’re not pushing it on me or hurting anyone, but I do take issue with psychics and other people who exploit people’s vulnerability for financial gain, and it seems like there’s a lot of supposed “psychics” connected to this college). The people working there also seemed a little confused on whether we could take pictures – two different people told us it was fine, but then we spotted small signs in some of the rooms telling us not to take pictures. So I do have some photos, but not in places where we noticed a sign, so hopefully there won’t be an issue with posting these.

  

So as I’ve said, basically the entire building was open, and you could wander in all of the rooms, but some of them had barely anything in them which made me think that this is the way it normally looks. But the building was huge, and there was lots to see (lots of stairs too, though I think they had a lift). I would say the best bits by far were the spirit photography (as seen above), and the spirit paintings (as seen at the start of the post), which were just naive art, but done by people who claimed to have their hands guided by spirits (I had to laugh at the captions that basically said, “This person never drew before in their lives, and then they produced these [very primitive] paintings, so that’s proof that they must have been guided by a spirit.”).

 

There was sort of a shrine room to Arthur Conan Doyle, who was one of the College’s presidents, which was a bit odd, and then various supposedly haunted furniture, which in theory I love the sound of, but oh man, did they take it seriously. I was also cracking up at how they tried to dismiss the debunking of a seance that featured spirit writing by saying that the people who did the debunking weren’t properly familiar with how seances worked, so they didn’t understand that the writing on the board could occur at any time, even before the seance had begun (and not because the psychic had put it there themselves, of course). It was just all a bit too credulous for me. Still, I was interested to learn more about all the devices used in seances, and about the history of the Rider-Waite Tarot cards, since I do dabble in tarot (just for fun, not for serious).

I’m sure I just sound like I’m taking the piss, but I do think this was an interesting experience – if it hadn’t been a serious exhibition, but had been something more in the vein of the Harry Potter exhibition at the BL or even the Witchcraft Museum (who don’t seem to take themselves quite so seriously), I would have been really into it. As it was, I was just a little too weirded out by the earnestness to fully enjoy myself (I was sort of worried someone was going to try to convert us to spiritualism, though nothing like that happened. I know I said I didn’t want to give them money, but if they’d had that “Psychic Intercourse” poster for sale, I’d have bought it in a second). It was certainly a very unique experience, and perfect for this time of year (though I had no problem getting into the spirit in August, so to speak), and worth checking out if they open again next summer, but I certainly don’t think I’ll be joining the College any time soon. 2.5/5.

 

 

London: Ghost Tour of Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum

I feel like I’ve been jumping around quite a lot on the blog lately, and though I will continue with the Scotland posts after this one, this is the promised write-up of the ghost tour I went on last Saturday night.

I’ve been to some Halloween events at London museums in the past, and while they’re usually reasonably fun, they’re all quite similar, so I wanted to try something a bit different this year.  I found a ghost tour being offered by the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich, and I knew my boyfriend could easily be convinced to go because they were offering a bangers and mash supper beforehand, so that pretty much decided it.  It was £15 a ticket, which included the dinner.

We showed up around 7, and were directed into the cafe, where a rather surly woman plopped down two plates of sausages in front of us without even asking if we wanted them (I’d ordered the vegetarian option, so she begrudgingly replaced my plate with an equally repulsive looking veggie version).  I’m super picky, and sausages disgust me, even the vegetarian version, and I also really really hate gravy, so there was absolutely no way I was going to enjoy this meal, meaning I’m not the best person to review the food portion of the evening.  However, my boyfriend, who thus got two plates to polish off, agreed that it was very bland and unappetizing.  However, the evening was mostly about the ghost tour, so after that ordeal, I couldn’t wait for the tour to begin.

The woman leading the tour gathered together the 25 or so people who had showed up, and proceeded to take us into the museum.  This portion of the tour simply consisted of her leading us to different points in the museum, and saying something like, “there’s the ghost of a soldier attached to this cannon.  No one told him to stand down, and so some people have seen him standing here.”  There was no real history or background given to most of the objects, let alone the history of the museum itself, and no sense of cohesiveness to the tour.  I’d never been in Firepower before, and it looked like quite an interesting museum, but you’d never know it from that tour.

After being led around the museum for a while, we moved outside to the various properties that are owned by the museum, situated around the attractive square.  Though the buildings themselves were interesting, once again, our tour guide’s stories were not, and some of them just straight up didn’t make any sense.  She told us one about the Crown Prince of France (son of Napoleon III), who died during the Zulu Wars, and this lieutenant who was supposed to guard him, and so felt responsible when the Prince was killed.  This Lietenant Carey was thus supposed to haunt the outside of a building where the Prince’s mother was waiting to hear the news about her son, and the tour guide referred to the ghost as pacing back and forth, speaking broken English and broken French.  This story made no sense to me (ghost aside, obviously); why would a British officer speak broken English?  So I looked it up when I got home, and the officer in question was indeed raised in Britain, went to school in Normandy, and was given the job of guarding the Prince specifically because he was fluent in French.  I guess she was trying to say that his speech might have been stuttering or something as he searched for the right words, but the broken English thing was just bizarre.

This wasn’t the only problem I had with the guide.  I mean, the stories were vague and boring, and I didn’t enjoy the tour as a whole, but she didn’t help by repeating the same expressions over and over.  For example, she kept referring to various ghosts as “a bit of a git.”  She literally used that phrase about ten times, and it really got on my nerves.  She also had a really foul mouth (so do I, as you can probably tell, even though I do tone it down quite a lot for the blog) and she kept dropping f-bombs all over the place.  Like I said, I swear a lot myself, so I’m not really one to be offended; I just thought it was kind of inappropriate in that sort of scenario, and I cringed and looked around every time she said it to see if anyone looked offended.  The woman herself was probably in her 50s, and had a son around my age who came along with the tour group, so she was certainly old enough to know better.  I’m not actually sure why she was giving the tour, since she never explained her background or connection to the museum (though she did mention that her son worked there).

In case you couldn’t tell, this tour really pissed me off (see, there’s my foul mouth kicking in again).  It’s such a shame, because the museum looked good, and the area surrounding it was lovely and so full of history, not that you could tell from the tour.  It didn’t even succeed as a ghost tour, as the stories were really lame, and the “hauntings” seemed to all take the form of dull ghosts who just stood there, or the supposed “cold spots” in rooms (because a draughty house in England is real unusual…right).  The sole highlight of the whole experience was that a cute soldier accompanied the tour group to unlock doors for us.  That was seriously the only enjoyable part for me (therefore I’m sure my boyfriend had an even worse time than I did), so it was pretty much a waste of fifteen quid (especially since admission to the museum is only a third of that, and then you’d actually get a chance to look at the exhibits (and any cute soldiers hanging around)). Not to mention that Woolwich is a total bitch to get to from where I live. I’d like to come back to see the museum some day, sans tour, but if they offer the ghost tours in future, I’d definitely give them a miss, unless they find a new, knowledgeable guide to lead them.  This was really the only Halloween activity I took part in this year (other than dressing up like Steve Perry, because Steve Perry is awesome and I always like to incorporate my schnoz into a costume if I can), so I guess I’m extra annoyed that it proved to be such a waste of time.

An Eerie Afternoon in Edinburgh

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Being stuck in the UK this year (normally not a problem, but I do miss fall), where Halloween-type events don’t tend to happen until on Halloween (or at least the week of), means I haven’t been able to do the run-up of creepy destinations that I featured last year.  However, I couldn’t let the holiday pass completely unremarked upon, so I can offer reviews of a ghost tour and an art exhibition that featured a few drawings of Death.  But no pictures of either, sorry.

My boyfriend and I took a train to and from Edinburgh for a long weekend, and then rented a car to drive up to the Highlands (more on that in future posts), which means we didn’t spend a lot of time in the city, but we arranged to drop our rental car off a few hours before our train left for London so we would at least have an afternoon in Edinburgh.  We went there for our anniversary two years ago, so we’d already seen a fair bit of the city; therefore, this time I wanted to explore some of “hidden” Edinburgh.

I’d wanted to go to Mary King’s Close on our first visit, but by the time we rocked up they were already booked up for the day, so I looked into booking advance tickets this time.  However, once I realised how much it cost, I decided to look up some reviews to see if it was really worth it, and the general consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t (a lot of the reviews mentioned how most of the experience was just watching videos projected on the walls, which made it sound very similar to the Dover Castle Tunnel experience that I didn’t really enjoy, so I was put off going).  I thought we could at least go on some sort of ghost tour, even though we were slightly limited in our choices by not being there in the evening.  I picked Auld Reekie’s Original Underground tour solely because theirs was the only one early enough to allow us adequate time to catch our train home.

It turned out we were the only people taking the 2 o’clock tour that day, which on one hand is a scenario I dread because we are not very talkative people and we never ask any questions at the end, but on the other hand, it was kind of nice to not have to listen to other people’s stupid questions.  After awkwardly hanging around the front of Tron Kirk for a while as our guide tried in vain to attract more customers, we set off, heading for the famous South Bridge Vaults.  Basically, there’s a bridge with multiple levels of vaults under it that were built in the late 1700s to serve as storage space for the businesses above.  However, because they were so unpleasant and damp, they were soon abandoned and inhabited instead by the homeless of Edinburgh; even they couldn’t take the grimness for long, and eventually the vaults were filled with rubble to make them inaccessible..that is, until modern tour companies got their hands on them.  Nowadays, it seems like access to the vaults is divided between the city’s tour companies, meaning you pretty much have to pay to see them.  Most of the companies charge between £8-£12 for 45 minutes-an hour and a half tour

Because we were the only people on the tour, our guide gave us the option of the underground tour we had initially booked, the ghost tour, or a bit of both, so we of course went for a bit of both.  This consisted of a mix of rather basic history, and the usual sorts of ghost stories, but I was certainly entertained.  The vaults are pitch-black inside, the only illumination coming from a few candles and our guide’s flashlight, and there is constant moisture dripping from the limestone ceiling, so they don’t need much embellishment to make them scary, though some of the ghost stories didn’t hurt.  I was very interested in the history of the people who actually lived down there: they were crammed fifty-deep into smallish rooms, huddled together for warmth and safety, and it’s rumoured that Burke and Hare chose some of their victims from the wretchedly poor inhabitants of the vaults.

There’s a local Wiccan coven that has been given permission to use one of the vaults, which is rather swankily decorated with pentagram regalia (I used to dabble in Wicca as a teen, so I can identify witchy paraphernalia).  According to the guide, they had initially been allowed to use one of the other vaults, but quickly asked to change to further down the tunnel, as there was some bad mojo in the first vault.  Of course, we were taken inside that room, where there’s a stone circle in the centre that apparently trapped a malevolent spirit.  We were invited to step inside the circle, and though, as I’ve said, I only believe in ghosts sometimes, I wasn’t taking any chances and stayed on the edge of the room.  I’m sure it was just the atmosphere and anticipation, but I did have a distinctly creepy feeling inside the room, as though maybe something was watching me.  There’s also a poltergeist room, wherein the guide tells you a story about the scary things that have happened there (people feeling a ghostly touch, being dragged towards the walls, etc) and then abruptly flicks off her flashlight…my boyfriend admitted to being a little creeped out in there.

Since we were fairly quiet throughout and didn’t have any questions, our tour ended early, so our guide offered to show us the medieval torture room to make up for it.  It was the usual collection of nag’s bridles, thumbscrews, and various other implements that either weren’t actually used at all, or certainly not as often or in the ways that people think they were, but it’s to be expected really (at least there wasn’t an Iron Maiden).  Our guide also mentioned witches being burnt at the stake, which I was skeptical about since I know witches in England and America were hanged, not burned, but I’ve looked it up since and apparently they were occasionally burned at the stake in Scotland, though more commonly killed first by strangling, and then their bodies were burnt.  Either way, it’s still a horrible and senseless way to die, and is depressing to think about.

Emerging at last into the weak Scottish sunlight, we were definitely in need of some warming sustenance, so we headed over to the Baked Potato Shop, an all vegetarian establishment.  They had an array of intriguing toppings (ok, some of them were straight up gross, but I’m pretty sure a hummus potato would be delicious, since I love dipping chips in hummus), we were boring and just got cheddar on ours, but we had a couple of vegetarian haggis samosas on the side (they were just like normal samosas with a few oats in though, and way too spicy for me).  The tatties were massive and filling though, and much appreciated on the chilly day.  We still had an hour and a half before our train left, so we had a wander through the park, and ended up next to the Scottish National Gallery.

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Normally, I’m not much for art, but they had a free exhibit advertised outside that featured a neat drawing of a skull, so I was persuaded to check it out.  The Scottish National Gallery is nothing like the size of its English counterpart, though they did have very fancy albeit narrow bathrooms, and there were still some lovely and hilarious paintings, like the Sir Henry Raeburn picture of a man ice skating that they seem to use as one of their logos.  The special exhibit I was keen to see was in the basement, and featured the prints and drawings of William Strang, who I’d never heard of, but now I’m a bit of a fan.  A lot of them were fairly normal portraits of his friends, but there were a few featuring Death (as in the Grim Reaper), including one that I think was just called War, that I really liked.  It was definitely a worthwhile stop before heading back to the train station via the Edinburgh branch of Ben’s Cookies (I go up to the High Street Ken location every couple weeks…I think I have a problem).

I had a very pleasant afternoon in Edinburgh; it seems like the city has plenty of dark history to offer, and I always find something new to discover.  I think a ghost tour is a good way to go and I thought the Auld Reekie one was pretty decent; though I’ve no other Edinburgh tours to compare it to, I can’t imagine it makes all that much difference what company you pick.  I would also recommend the National Museum of Scotland, which we saw on our earlier trip; it is huge and amazing, and I also highly recommend the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, though I think it’s currently closed for repairs.

Anyway, I hope everyone has a happy Halloween!  I’m planning on just spending the evening at home, though I am still going to throw together a costume; eating Halloween funfetti cupcakes from the mix I smuggled back from America, and maybe watching my old favourites Hocus Pocus, Braindead (Dead/Alive), and of course some classic Simpsons Treehouses of Horror; but I’m going on another ghost tour over the weekend, so you can expect a write up of that in the near future. In the meantime, here’s a pumpkin version of me that my boyfriend carved!

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London: Merge Festival, including Bompas and Parr’s “Sensed Presence”

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So, the Merge Festival.  I am the last person who would go to a music festival (I don’t do camping, I’m not a big fan of live music, and I’m certainly not up on any of these new bands (I stopped listening to new music sometime in high school, so anything past the early 2000s is not for me, and to be honest, I mostly just listen to Journey and the Eagles anymore anyway)); fortunately, Merge is an arts festival, so there was no queuing for hours to use a disgusting Porta-Potty required!  This still wouldn’t necessarily be my thing, but this festival was entirely free and not crowded because the installations were fairly spread out, plus I had already booked tickets to the featured Bompas and Parr event.

You may be familiar with Bompas and Parr from their work with unusual jellies, or their recent installations at Kew Gardens.  I went to play their “cake minigolf” on the roof of Selfridges a few years back and consequently made it onto their mailing list, which means I now get inf0rmed about their latest projects before the general public, and thus have a shot in hell of booking tickets before they sell out.  So when I read about “Sensed Presence,” I immediately snapped up a pair of tickets for me and my boyfriend.

The event is now sold out, so I suppose there’s not much point telling you about it, but obviously that’s what I do, so here goes.  The premise behind it was that of a “multimedia seance,” wherein you would be put alone in a room of a supposedly haunted museum, wearing this special helmet (a Koren helmet) that is meant to stimulate the part of your brain responsible for religious and paranormal visions.  Me being me, I booked this, felt smug for a minute at grabbing a spot, and then the smugness instantly turned to panic as I freaked out about the idea of sitting alone in a ghost room.  I mean, I don’t really believe in ghosts, but it’s one thing to say you don’t believe in ghosts when it’s broad daylight; quite another when you’re left alone in a dark room with spooky sound effects.  I honestly was debating whether or not to even attend by the time the event rolled around, as I’d had a couple weeks to be anxious about it, but curiosity won out over cowardice (even if I don’t exactly believe in it, you all know that I am fascinated with weird shit, including the paranormal).

On the way there, we stopped to see another installation on the same street, “A pound of flesh for 50p,” which I keep calling the Melty House (the pound of flesh thing kind of implies that the wax is made of human fat or something, and I definitely don’t think that’s the case).  It is essentially a full size building made of wax that is going to gradually be melted over the course of the festival (the last day of Melty House is 26th October, so you still have time to see it!); you can see the degree of meltedness it was in last weekend in the pictures at the start of this post.  Apparently there used to be a candle factory on that spot in Southwark Street, hence the wax theme.  Honestly, I think it’s quite an attractive looking house; if it were made of brick, and not on Southwark Street, I’d happily move in, but as it stands, Melty House is just going to be a puddle in a week or so.  Having seen that, we headed up the street a little ways to the Kirkaldy Testing Museum, where the Bompas and Parr event was being held.

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(If you have managed to score tickets to this event, I’m going to issue a spoiler alert from this point on, unless you don’t mind knowing what happens.) We had to surrender our phones upon entering, so there was no chance of taking pictures of anything, but the museum itself looks kind of neat.  I’d never been before because I think they have pretty erratic opening hours, but we were given a brief tour before we were due to start our “experience,” and had the dominant object in the room explained to us, which was a bridge testing machine.  Only one person could take part in Sensed Presence at a time, and I opted to go first because I was scared shitless and just wanted to get it over with.

I was taken down a pitch black set of stairs (the girl working there had a flashlight, but I still almost tripped) and instructed to knock three times at a door in the back of a room filled with various testing devices , red light, and some swirling mist.  As you may have guessed, a large part of the experience was the theatrical build-up.  A man answered the door, and had me sit down to watch a 5 minute video about the helmet.  This kind of freaked me out, because I was left alone in this room with my ears covered by headphones, so I was kind of concerned someone was going to sneak up behind me, and so I kept whipping my head around.  Nothing happened except the video though, which was kind of freaky in itself as it consisted of people talking about the “spirits” they’d seen whilst wearing the helmet.  Again, this was all about creating atmosphere, and adding to your sense of unease.  When my turn to don the helmet came, I was led into another dark room, this one filled with a big squishy chair and large machinery (part of the museum’s collections) and had a squishy head cover and then the helmet placed on my head (although the people originally testing the helmet were blindfolded, that wasn’t the case here, presumably so their lighting effects didn’t go to waste).  A timer was set on the purposely outdated computer screen next to me for ten minutes, the guy working there left (though I had access to a panic button, and he was just in the next room), and the sounds of Buddhist chanting and throat singing filled the room, whilst light effects played on the wall opposite me.

I suppose I’m kind of like Father Ted in the “Flight into Terror” episode, in that I am a total worrywart, and get super anxious in the lead-up to doing anything remotely stressful, but when I’m actually in the middle of doing said thing, I’m completely calm.  That was certainly the case here, as I’d been freaking out prior to entering the museum, but I felt a-OK sat in that chair.  I’m relieved to say I didn’t “see” anything, but my head did feel kind of odd.  It may have just been a placebo effect, but I definitely felt this weird hotness and pressure on my brain, and I felt weirdly emotional, like I was going to start crying for no reason at all. The time also seemed to go by really fast, though they may have had a tricky fast clock; it’s hard to say as I wasn’t staring at it the whole time, but the first six minutes went by in what felt like one.

I was asked to sign the guestbook and write a little bit about my experiences; flipping through the pages, I saw that most people experienced something similar to what I did, though a few were claiming sightings (a few more said they were too scared to even go in, which led to my feeling of smugness returning).  Overall, I do think it was a cool experience, and I’m really glad I went…if you did manage to get tickets for the last weekend of the event and you’ve come here for reassurance, don’t be scared, it’s not that bad!  As the man working there told me, “It’s all in your head, so you can’t see anything that isn’t already in your mind,” (which wasn’t really reassuring as I have an overactive imagination and some terrible things running through my head, but still).

Although some of the events have finished, a few more run through this weekend, so there’s still time to check out some of the Merge Festival if you haven’t already (though most of the cooler sounding things have admittedly ended).  It’s all kind of centered around Southwark and London Bridge, so there’s always Borough Market to stop at if nothing else, plus I really like that area around this time of year; all the history and the dry leaves lying in the street give it a nice spooky feel.  Also, there’s a pretty cool art exhibition in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall called “Catching Dreams,” featuring the art of prisoners (a couple pieces are shown below, since I popped in for a minute on my way over to Southwark) so you could probably do a whole day of Banksidey fun, if you were so inclined.

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