Cambridge is a city that has always attracted ghosts. From its marshy beginnings at the edge of the fens, it has been a liminal place where boundaries between land and water, solid and spectral, are blurred.
That’s the theory of spooky storyteller Leigh Watson who is one of the Blue Badge Guides running Ghost Tour walks around the city after dark.
“I think Cambridge has so many ghosts because it is an ancient place, but also if you go back before they drained the fens it was one of these places on the edge, a wet place that was on the edge of marshes, solid land and water; it was on the edge of where it was possible to live,” says Leigh. “If you enjoy the early history of Britain, the fens was a marginal space between land and water and there was an idea then that boundaries were potentially very dangerous; if crossing that boundary goes wrong, you could end up not quite where you planned to be.
“When they drained Flag Fen they found all these offerings thrown into the water because of the belief that a boundary was a dangerous place.
“Folklore is full of stories about the fairy folk who, if you stepped off the pavement into the road without looking, could snatch you away and take you to the land of the fey. It’s the reason why husbands carry the bride over the threshold because when she crosses that point, from chaste daughter to married woman, that is when a sinister being could steal her soul or exchange her.
“Another reason we get ghostly activity in Cambridge is because it is full of old buildings and one theory holds that if you disturb a building you disturb its psychic energy. So, often a ghost will appear after major work has been done.”
Leigh’s tours take brave visitors to the back lanes of the city and to the gates of some of the colleges, but her favourite spot, and the one with the most ghostly tales about it, is Little St Mary’s Lane.
Leigh says: “The most haunted place in Cambridge is definitely Little St Mary’s Lane, it’s not quite heaving with them but there are various strange and spectral happenings down there.
“Little St Mary’s was on the edge of Cambridge, just outside the town, a boundary between town and country. East Anglia’s famous demon dog, Black Shuck, is supposed to sit at the town end of Little St Mary’s Lane waiting for unsuspecting people. He is a huge black dog with red eyes and the story is if you see Black Shuck you are dead within the year, others say you get a year of bad luck. But I also read that Black Shuck has a gentlemanly side and if he sees an honest, upright, sober lady out at night, he will protect her.
“He walks King’s Hedges Road and Arbury Road, which were the edges of the old hill forts, and he also gallops up and down the Devil’s Dyke.”
Other ghosts that appear around Little St Mary’s Lane include a woman who can take three forms. “Sometimes she appears as a young woman, sometimes as a woman in her 30s and sometimes as a very old woman,” says Leigh. “When we were trained, the guide told us she must have been happy in her life to appear at these different stages. I look at it with a Pagan mindset and one of the major influences for pre-Christians was the moon. The moon is a constant 28-day cycle in the sky and in pre-Christian times she was a triple goddess. She was the young virgin girl of the new moon, the mature woman of the full moon, and she is the death crone of the waning moon, so I wonder whether we are remembering a story from an earlier time rather than seeing a ghost.”
Other ghostly presences include a large animal moving around the Little St Mary’s churchyard.
“People have said if they go to take a photograph the batteries in their camera have gone flat, or if they manage to take a picture they will find an extra body in there. I always say on a ghost tour you never worry about losing a guest, you worry about getting an extra one!”
She also heard tales of a haunting at the end of the lane, just outside Peterhouse. She explains: “It was said there was a horrible spectral being that sat on the gates over by Peterhouse, but it’s now gone.
“A long time ago Peterhouse suffered a higher than usual level of depression. It was believed to be down to this horrible presence. So the college had an exorcism and they found that after that everything went quiet and whatever that presence was had gone.”
The residents of Little St Mary’s Lane are well used to the ghost tours visiting their street and although some ignore them, others are proud of their ghosts. “There’s one house haunted by someone playing the piano,” says Leigh. “One time I was taking a tour down there and they must have heard us outside as they shouted through the window ‘Yes! It’s this one!’”
The stories have been passed down from guide to guide but they also collect their own tales by talking the people of Cambridge.
“I will talk to anyone,” says Leigh. “If you get people in the right frame of mind they will tell you the most interesting stories. A lot of my stories have come by word of mouth, from college porters and people who have experienced things. If you say to some people do you believe in ghosts, they say ‘No, that’s silly’. But get people chatting and they will tell you some very strange goings on.
“I was told a story by one of the custodians of the Fitzwilliam Museum, who witnessed it. He just said he had been involved in this very strange ghostly experience. It was a long time ago when I went into the Fitz and we started chatting. The story comes from before the Fitzwilliam Museum had its extension on the side. They were having an evening event and a disabled lady was attending in her wheelchair. She’d had to come in through the back of the museum to get the lift.
“His job was to go down to the car park, meet this lady and wheel her to the lift and take her to where the function was taking place. He admits the museum can be very scary at night, and although people who work there at night say they have heard echoing footsteps, they always tell themselves it is their own echoing footsteps they are hearing because it is a big building.
“He took the lady in a wheelchair but had to leave her for a couple of minutes to collect something and when he came back she was sitting chalk white in her wheelchair, death grip on the handles. And as he walked up to her she said ‘Who is standing behind me?’
“He said ‘There’s nobody, madam’. She said ‘Yes, there is someone who crept up and I know they are standing behind me and only have evil intent for me’. He said she was almost hysterical. He turned her around and showed her there was no one behind her but she said ‘I’m so sure I heard them walk up. I felt their presence and I felt the evil coming from them’. At the end of the evening he took her back and she begged him not to leave her alone. He said nothing has ever happened like it since but all he could say was that the woman was absolutely terrified.”
Other favourite tales are about the phantom who walks around Cambridge’s famous Haunted Bookshop. “The lady in the Haunted Bookshop told me herself about their ghost who appears as a young woman dressed in white. She is supposed to walk into the bookshop and go upstairs. She looks so real that some members of staff have followed her upstairs to serve her, but when they get into the upstairs room there is no one there. It is what I call an echo or a shadow ghost. She is sufficiently real looking that people believe she is a customer.”
There is also a dreadful tale, somewhat backed up by the graves in nearby churchyards, of a couple of young lovers who met with tragedy in the 1700s and are now said to walk around Corpus Christi College searching for one another.
“This is the story of a lovely young lady, Elizabeth Spencer, who fell in love with the wrong man,” says Leigh.
A widower, Dr Spencer, had become master of the college and moved there with his daughter. She fell in love with a student called James, but her father did not approve. And one day when her father was out she had invited James to the master’s lodge for tea.
“She hears her father come back unexpectedly and he is climbing the stairs. So Elizabeth panics and tells James to go into the cupboard and be quiet until Daddy is gone.
“When her father comes in he is suspicious and he says we must pack and go on holiday. She has no choice but to obey him. They leave immediately for a month and when she comes back she asks about James but nobody has seen him for ages. There is no sign of him. Suddenly fear chills her heart, she goes into the master’s lodge and opens the cupboard – there is James dead inside. The cupboard could not be opened from the inside.”
Poor Elizabeth has a nervous breakdown and dies a few months later. She is buried in St Benet’s churchyard and he is buried in St Botolph’s.
“When I was being trained,” adds Leigh, “I was told that on Christmas Eve you can see them walking hand in hand. But I did a ghost tour last year and one of the guests was a porter from Corpus Christi. He said at night, when there are no students, they often hear footsteps walking around the college and no one is there. What the porters say to each other is that it is James and Elizabeth searching for each other.”
Leigh is fascinating on her subject and is also able to weave in local legends and knowledge about pre-Christian practices.
“I come from a long line of fenland witches – there’s fenland oozing through my veins on my grandmother’s side,” she says. “I was for some time a member of Cambridge Pagan Fellowship and I’m very interested in pre-Christian times. What interests me is why some people see ghosts and some people don’t. Some people just seem more susceptible or open to that experience. It’s almost like meditation, you have to find this space in your brain to allow these things in, but you also need to be able to shut that space down because otherwise you would find your world unmanageable.
“I’ve had some very strange experiences and certainly I have seen ghosts. The last ghost I saw was my neighbour who died and I saw him in his garden for several weeks after he passed. I knew what I was seeing. I was seeing his echo or shadow. A lot of people see that sort of ghost, I call them gentle ghosts. The spiritualist view of this is that the person who has died is still trying to come to terms with the change in their existence to whatever happens beyond the grave, so they are doing what they have always done – making a cup of tea, weeding the garden… of course their nearest and dearest will see that ghost because they are attuned to that person.
“A psychologist would say your brain creates this experience because you don’t want to lose them.The same event could be explained as something in your head or, by an alternative believer, that the person has not quite severed their connection to this world. And gradually they will move on to what lies beyond the grave of which we have no idea.
“My belief is that they are echoes or shadows and that often they are repeating an action. There is a ghost in the Museum of Cambridge of a puritan soldier who just walks around in what was the bar. The Cambridge Chop House also has ghosts from the Civil War who just walk around doing what they always did.
“In a place like Cambridge, which is very scientific, you might say with the logical part of your brain that what you saw was just a shadow, but we have a part of our brain that is very aware of danger that has allowed us to survive as a species. Two witnesses might interpret the same situation differently.”
- The tours are back up and running after the sad end of Visit Cambridge, which closed as a result of lack of tourism during the pandemic. The tours had previously been booked through Visit Cambridge but are now available through the Blue Badge Guides’ new website, haunted-cambridge.uk or by email at email@example.com. Ghost Tours start at 6.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays from October 2 until March when the clocks change.
- Daily walking tours of Cambridge are also being run at 11am and 1.30pm from the Guildhall,outside the old Visitor Information Centre, led by official guides of Cambridge. Just turn up. They can accept groups of up to five people. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org