So I decided to go on a foray into the world of dark tourism. “What is dark tourism?!” I hear you cry – well if you haven’t seen the docuseries on Netflix (I highly recommend it!) and you can’t be bothered to Google it (lazy) it’s tourism associated with death and suffering. I never knew it was a thing until, in the name of research for a blog post I’m working on, I watched the aforementioned show on Netflix.
It turns out, I’m already a bit of a dark tourist – it’s kind of the explanation for my love of Edinburgh, and why I visit it so often. When asked why I love Edinburgh so much, you’ll hear me say “I just love its dark history!” – that’s right, I love the sinister and macabre past, but what I love the most, is that it doesn’t shy away from it. Edinburgh holds it’s hands up and acknowledges that this is what made the city what it is today.
Having watched the show, it seems there are various levels of involvement of dark tourism – there’s kind of an entry level where you don’t get too involved. Like walking tours (ghost/killer etc), visiting haunted locations, London/Edinburgh Dungeons etc. Getting a bit more hands on – goes from museums to visiting places like Chernobyl, shark cage diving… where you get a bit more up close to death, but still (almost) entirely safe. Then there’s next level – on the show, David Farrier (the documentarian) participated in a faux illegal border crossing between Mexico and USA, where the participants are attacked by very realistic actors who steal from them and plant drugs on them – it gets a little too real for the participants. He also tries an extreme haunted house where he needs to sign a disclaimer that in the event of his death, the owners of the event won’t be held accountable. Most of the haunted house includes variations on well known torture devices, such as waterboarding.
I thought I would try coming in on entry level – I’ve lost my passport, so can’t travel anywhere to visit dark tourist locations, and even if I could, I have a huge respect for sharks which involves me not entering their personal space, and I hope that feeling is mutual. Though if a shark breaks into my house I’ll be impressed and selling the screenplay to the SyFy channel. However, I digress…
I have an annual pass for Historic Royal Palaces, and so decided I wanted to make the most of it and visit the Tower of London – a prime dark tourist spot. So I booked a room in a hotel opposite and started scouting other dark tourist locations in and around London, to make the most of this opportunity.
I found this blog which gives a list of the top 10 dark tourist destinations in London. I looked each of them up in turn, and after reviewing opening hours and closures since posting, I whittled it down to a do-able list.
So after work on Friday, I hopped on the train and headed into the city. My plan was to get to my hotel in Tower Hill, drop off my bags and head out for an early Jack the Ripper walking tour. Unfortunately (well… actually, fortunately in my eyes) my hotel was so much nicer than I was expecting. I was given a free cocktail and free films on demand. So I popped out and got supplies (snacks and pic n mix from a Co-Op down the road) and watched A Star Is Born. That film hits me right in the feels. Anyway, after a great night’s sleep in the biggest, comfiest bed I’ve ever slept in and a shower in the nicest waterfall shower I’ve ever been in, I was ready to get my dark tourist boots on.
So I thought I’d kick off with Highgate Cemetery – I’ve always wanted to go (I’ve always loved graveyards… like I said, I’ve been a dark tourist for years without knowing it) and I’ve been told it’s amazing. I did some Googling and it was clearly a big deal – so many famous bodies rotting beneath it. So I headed off.
I arrived and was just absolutely blown away by the sheer number of grave markers, and the variety. There were your typical Victorian-gothic, but also some new-age ones, statues (including a large impressive one of Karl Marx). I only visited the east cemetery, as I was short on time, and the weather was turning, but I walked a loop around the cemetery.
I booked an Uber to take me back to the station – my back was hurting and I’d hardly even started.
I got on the underground, headed for Bunhill Fields Cemetery. I thought it might be similar to Highgate, but I was sadly mistaken. This cemetery wasn’t nearly as cared for, nor did it appear to garner as much interest nor was it as open as Highgate. There were 3 grave markers outside of the locked gates – one for John Bunyan (of particular interest to me, as he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, which he famously wrote whilst imprisoned… in Bedford Prison next to where I went to school for 9 years), one for the poet, William Blake, and one for Daniel Defoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe.
From here my plan was to head to Borough Market. My sister and her husband can’t stop talking about empañadas they’ve had there. I’ve tried to go a few times, but always on a Sunday when the market is closed. I arrived very hungry… and the place was heaving. I mean – unbearable. I’m not a lover of massive crowds at the best of times, but I still have a little anxiety and my panic attacks used to be triggered by large oppressive crowds. I needed to get out. So I skipped lunch as I struggled to get out of the crowd. It was honestly one of the worst experiences of my life. Too many people in a small place. But it gave me a stark insight into the life of a Londoner in years gone by. Oppressive – no personal space – the sounds and smells of the city.
In my escape from Borough Market I got a bit lost. I couldn’t work out where I was in relation to the Old Operating Theatre Museum which I was attempting to visit next. Eventually I sorted myself out (after wandering around the grounds of Guy’s Hospital for ten minutes) and was outside the museum. I walked my way up a tightly winding spiral staircase into a small gift shop – where you could purchase tickets to the museum.
This small museum was originally part of St Thomas’ hospital one of London’s oldest hospitals. St Thomas’ hospital moved across the city in 1862 and in the move, this operating theatre in the attic of a church was sealed up and forgotten. Almost a century later, a researcher of the history of St Thomas’ decided to investigate the attic. Although part of the operating theatre had been removed, there were still parts in tact.
It really is a small museum – the majority of interest is held in a large, single room. The operating theatre has been restored to how it would have appeared before it closed in 1862. There are displays and information about the introduction of anaesthesia, of the use of herbs, displays of the instruments of surgery, and history of medicine. There’s an interactive display about making pills, and for those who aren’t afraid of seeing internal organs up close… there are displays of infected organs and healthy organs.
After leaving the Old Operating Theatre, I wandered around the area and stumbled across The Clink. It’s what the area is known as, as several prisons have been located in the area over the years. There was a rather dubious looking museum (it looked like the London Dungeons, I wasn’t convinced of it’s, urm, legitimacy) so I skipped it and started heading back to the hotel… if my back was bad after Highgate Cemetery, it was nothing compared to the pain I was feeling now.
I decided to duck into Southwark Cathedral. I knew there would be seats inside, and somewhere I could take a few more painkillers. I bought a photography pass and wandered round, taking lots of sitting breaks. I was really surprised to see a crypt for Shakespeare. His remains were not buried there, but he was a parishioner. I was also interested to find the remains of a man named Lockyer, who I’d just read about in the Old Operating Theatre.
Lockyer was one of the original ‘Quacks’. He peddled pills that he claimed contained sunbeams. They actually contained something called antimony, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea and, in worst case scenarios, death. When he died, he was worth £250,000 in today’s money thanks to his scheme.
My plan was to join the Jack the Ripper walking tour I’d missed the night before, but I thought I’d hole up in my room for a few hours beforehand to recuperate. In the spirit of my dark tourist weekend, I binge watched iZombie on Netflix for a few hours.
I decided I was feeling well enough to head out again, but decided not to take anything but some money in my pocket and my phone. I figured not carrying a bag might help my back pain. So I headed out – the walking tour was meeting right outside the entrance to my hotel, so I didn’t have far to go. Unfortunately, it was tipping it down. But there was a man with a cart of umbrellas for sale, so I bought one for myself – best decision I made all day.
I headed off with a large group of people on Sandeman’s Grim Reaper tour with our tour guide, Dave. Dave was the perfect tour guide – knowledgeable, unbiased and a great story teller. It was worth venturing out in the rain for. I thought I knew the story of Jack the Ripper, but it turns out the film starring Johnny Depp and Ian Holm called ‘From Hell’ was very fictional. The real story is such a mystery – the kind of mystery I like the best, one that will never be solved. I love not knowing, just guessing and positing ideas and theories.
The tour wove together so much of what I’d seen – and what I was yet to see when I visited the Tower of London the following day. It was like all these different parts of my trip was a tapestry and I couldn’t see the big picture without the walking tour – including my less than pleasant experience in Borough Market. The tour left me with an overwhelming sense of sadness for the people who lived in poverty in London in the past – and how they were abandoned through plagues and serial killers.
I overslept – the bigger than double sized bed was just too comfortable and luxurious. When I eventually got up, my back was really bad. So I had a hot shower hoping it might help, and take all the painkillers I could. I reflected on my plans and decide I just couldn’t do it. So I scratch my plan to go to the site of the gallows in London, by Hyde Park. My hotel is literally opposite the Tower of London, so I left my bag and new umbrella with the hotel and headed over to the Tower.
I’ve already heard the ghost stories about Anne Boleyn from Dave the night before, how the Yeomans (Beefeaters) have all seen her ghost wandering the grounds at various points in time. I decided to take the Yeomans tour – I went round the torture chambers and viewed Sir Walter Ralegh’s “prison” chambers, I read about the two young princes who disappeared, suspected murdered by their uncle, Richard III. I learned how the Tower was built by William the Conqueror and how the Tudors (particularly Henry VIII) renovated the place. I learned that the Krays had been imprisoned there, and that room was made in preparation for the capture of Adolf Hitler (though he obviously was not caught). I saw the Crown Jewels and saw several ravens. All in all – I saw barely anything the tower had to offer – which sounds crazy. But my back was hurting too much and I just couldn’t keep going.
All in all, my first (knowing) brush with dark tourism, I’ve been left a little… underwhelmed. I guess my back pain put a real damper on the weekend, and I didn’t enjoy myself as much as I thought I would. I had such high expectations, and everything (but the walking tour) fell a little short.
The reality of the dark tourism I encountered didn’t leave me feeling like I’d got up close and personal with death like I was expecting. It left me knowing that London’s dark past isn’t so bloody – but sad. Torture has never been legal in the UK and the documented cases are few – similarly with beheadings (not that they were illegal, but there are 440 cases spread over almost 800 years.
The story of Jack the Ripper is of course horrifying. Squeamish readers should skip to the next paragraph. How the killer had brutally murdered so many victims was inhuman, I have no doubt about that – cutting them so violently, and removing organs. Particularly the final victim, Mary Kelly, who was so disfigured she couldn’t even be identified, and her hand placed inside her empty insides, where the killer had removed all of her organs and placed them around her – except her heart, which he kept. Yes – there’s no denying these were horrifically brutal murders.
However, the brutality is not what I was left with. What I was left with, and maybe this was the way Dave told the story on the walking tour, was how poor these women were – how neglected they were by society. How even though there was a serial killer on the loose specifically targeting prostitutes, they had no choice but to go out and continue soliciting.
So, dark tourism wasn’t quite the thrill I was expecting, but it did satisfy my curiosity and fed my continual hunger to learn more about history. Does this mean I’m going to ramp it up and jump in the water with some sharks? Hell no. I’ve seen Deep Blue Sea too many times. My “respect” for sharks is a thinly veiled attempt to hide my fear of death by shark. Am I going to stop exploring dark tourism? No. I’ve started my application for a new passport and I’ve started planning a trip to Paris to see the catacombs, and I plan to blog every part of it.