He came silently out of the midnight shadows of August 31, 1888. Watching. Stalking. Butchering raddled, drink-sodden East End prostitutes. Leaving a trail of blood that led...nowhere. Yes, something wicked this way walked, for this is the Ripper's slashing grounds. We evoke that autumn of gaslight and fog, of menacing shadows and stealthy footsteps as we inspect the murder sites, sift through the evidence - in all its gory detail - and get to grips, so to speak, with the main suspects. Afterward we can steady our nerves in "The Ten Bells", the pub where the victims - perhaps under the steely gaze of the Ripper himself - tried to forget the waking nightmare. (From the Original London Walks brochure*.)Shudder!
I plucked up courage to do the Ripper walk with my sister one icy Friday night. We started from Tower Bridge tube station. Our guide, Shaughan, led us to the sites of the murders and described them all in the grizzliest of details, conjuring up bodies and leaving them suitably disembowelled on the pavement. We were given the clues, the theories of whomightadunnit, of freemasonary, royal involvement and police complicity. I buttonholed our Shaughan at the end of the walk to ask him what he thought of Patricia Cornwall's view that Walter Sickert was the Ripper - our guide was far from convinced. (Will I bother to read the book now?)
As most of the old streets in the City (the original walled square mile) disappeared in the blitz, our corpses lay among the steel and glass towers of the commercial heart of London, but crossing a road into Spitalfields in the East End we made a timeslip, and the air was still thick with ghosts. In a narrow Victorian alleyway we listened to the account of the grusome slaying of the fifth and final victim Mary Jane Kelly: (horriblest detail: her breasts were cut off and neatly arranged on the side table by her bed!).
The walk ended at the Ten Bells pub, apparently the Ripper's local. We didn't go in for a drink. Both of us felt that it looked a bit creepy, and anyway something else had caught my eye.
There across the road was Christ Church, Spitalfields, the church I wrote about some time ago - the setting for the first part of Peter Ackroyd's terrifying Hawksmoor. I dragged my poor sister over there and told her to take a long look at it (Be afraid! Be very afraid!) because now she'd have to read the book - and yes, I found a copy for her the next day.
To further the literary connections of the evening we took a short stroll to Brick Lane (the setting of course for Monica Ali's novel) and had a curry. (Not very good. I felt nostalgic for the pre-Bangladeshi days when the Indian food was excellent. Did we just choose the wrong restaurant?)
*Just to say that - even though I don't have a particularly strong herd instinct and hate to feel a tourist, I strongly recommend this company's walking tours. The last time I was back I did one of Christopher Wren's churches - some of them not usually open to the public, all of them deserving interpretation. I learned so much.
** The Casebook website, which I've already posted a couple of links to, is a brilliant resource if you want to know more about Jack the Ripper.