On a steep, narrow road lit only by the light of the moon and the occasional street lamp, just across the road from the place where the sculptor Barbara Hepworth lived out her days in the Cornish seaside town of St Ives, dark deeds are afoot.
The place we are standing outside was a nightclub, once, and a group of friends were telling of a legend about Barnoon cemetery, just up the hill, which overlooks Porthmeor beach. The old stories said that if you walked around a certain grave a set number of times, and uttered the name of the unfortunate buried there, you would see his ghost.
Shanty Baba, dressed in his fisherman’s smock and cap, and holding a three-pronged staff on which hangs a palely glowing lantern, pauses, and closes his eyes, as if to signal to us that in this story-within-a-story, foolhardy actions are on the horizon.
Indeed, says Shanty, his eyes bright in the lamplight, one of the number of this group of revellers was sufficiently emboldened by drink to make the short journey up to Barnoon cemetery alone, with the promise that she would drive one of her friend’s fishing knives into the earth of the grave as proof to be gathered the next morning that she had indeed committed midnight foray.
Now, says Shanty Baba, we will follow her footsteps up to Barnoon, and learn of her fate. He gathers up the small folding stool, which is his portable stage, and holding his staff and lantern aloft, he leads us in silence through the winding, deserted back-streets of the coastal town to where the dark shapes of the headstones await, silhouetted against the starlit canopy of the Cornish night.
“I’m a storyteller,” Shanty Baba tells me, two weeks later, in the bright daylight where his stories have receded from goosebump-inducing horrors to the quaint tales given the gloss of a master orator. Shanty is one of the many people across the country who are conducting their business in the dead of night… the hosts of the ghost walks.
From Bath to Belfast, Cambridge to Cardiff, Whitby to Windsor, you will find them, these modern-day bards who haunt the alleys and courtyards of their home towns, taking parties of tourists around the hidden corners and deserted backstreets and spinning tall tales about murder, mayhem and, sometimes, monsters.
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We love a ghost story whatever the weather, and especially in the seaside resorts you’ll find flyers and posters dotted around for ghost walks across the summer months, sometimes three or four competing walks in one town. Halloween is good for business, as well, and in those cities where the tourist trade isn’t seasonal there will be winter walks carried out on crisp, cold evenings, or given a Yuletide flavour.
And while a ghost story told around a roaring fire is atmospheric enough, there’s an extra frisson to be had from standing in the exact location where some horrific event occurred… and which holds the echoes and unquiet ghosts of those involved in the deeds.
Shanty Baba has a commanding presence as he stands on his little stool, lantern-light painting his face a sickly orange, telling his stories of dark doings and supernatural mysteries around St Ives. Shanty Baba isn’t his real name, of course; he declines to tell me with a short laugh. Perhaps he left it with his previous life, because Shanty hasn’t always been a story-teller; he used to be a chartered accountant.
“Perhaps 20 years ago I went to a storytelling festival in Shropshire and I rushed home to tell my wife that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I got really into storytelling and in 2001 we moved from London to St Ives. I started three walks, one was about spiritual matters, in which I have an interest, one was about local history, and the third was the lantern ghost walk. The ghost walk proved immensely popular and that was obviously what people wanted.”
So Shanty gave up the life of a London chartered accountant and became a storyteller. Presumably with a considerable pay-cut? “You don’t come to St Ives for the money,” he says. “And now I can say that I truly love what I do.”
While he might not necessarily be earning City wages anymore, his ghost walks are by no means just a hobby. There were perhaps 50 of us on his walk a couple of weeks ago. He does the lantern ghost walks three times a week, plus walks catered more for a younger audience and also pirate walks for the kids. He’s also been experimenting with indoor events this summer, but has decided to scrap them; people want to be outdoors, experiencing the stories in the locales where they were supposed to have happened.
“Location plays a huge part in ghost walks,” says Richard Jones. “There’s nothing to beat standing on a quiet street or in a pub or castle where there’s supposed to be a ghost.”
Like Shanty, Richard also describes himself as a storyteller, and says that ghost walks — he’s been running them in central London for 35 years now — are the “last bastion of the oral tradition”.
And like Shanty Baba, Richard also ran away from a conventional job to join the storytelling circus. Originally from Stoke, he moved to London in the late 1970s to take up a job as a civil servant, a position that did not, to be fair, make his soul sing. Flicking through the Evening Standard he saw an advertisement for postmen jobs, and on a whim decided that was what he was going to do.
“So I went to be a postman in the City of London,” says Richard. “I worked a lot of nightshifts, and on my break I would wander around the area, sometimes even looking at the graveyards, and I began to collect stories.”
Those stories would come from other posties, or from the clientele or staff of pubs and bars, from police officers and other nightshift and early-morning workers he would meet on his rounds. He began to assemble quite a portfolio of scary tales, sometimes straight from the horse’s mouth.
“In any gathering you’ll get people who believe in the supernatural, people who aren’t sure, and people who say, ‘I don’t believe in it at all… but this funny thing happened once to someone I know…’.”
Telling some of his stories to his colleagues, Richard was asked by a co-worker who had relatives coming over from America if he wouldn’t mind taking them around a couple of places where his stories took place, graveyards and such. It was such a success that Richard began to wonder if he couldn’t actually do this for a living, so he tentatively put an ad in the paper in June 1982 saying he was hosting a ghost walk around London.
“That first night, 18 people turned up,” says Richard. “By the 1990s it had really taken off, and now I’m getting about 50 people for each walk, though that can go up considerably around events such as Halloween.”
He was approached by a publisher to make a book of walks of haunted London, which set Richard off on a new path as an author, travelling around Britain finding the folklore and ghost stories with which he’s filled, so far, 21 books.
But the ghost walks are his first love, and he’s constantly finding new tales and legends. He also runs a walk around Charles Dickens-inspired locations, and indeed points out that Dickens himself used to take people around spooky locations in London.
“I suppose people really started doing ghost walks commercially properly in the 1980s,” he says. That’s chimes with what Simon Unsworth at Nottingham Ghost Walks believes. Simon began doing his walks 21 years ago, and says: “When we set up, the main established ones were York and Edinburgh, but now they’re all across the country. I think what happened was that general heritage walks were very popular, but people liked the odd ghost story that was thrown in to those, and wanted more, so ghost walks developed.”
Most ghost-walk hosts will be suitably attired to some degree, from Shanty’s maritime-meets-artist get-up to Richard’s frock coat, to Simon at Nottingham’s penchant for steampunk-style dress. A bit of theatre is required; as Simon says: “Nobody wants to come to a ghost walk run by a bloke in jeans and a T-shirt.”
So what do they want? Why do they keep coming in increasing numbers? Richard says: “Because they love to be scared, and they love a good story. We might think ourselves quite sophisticated, and have all this technology, but we still enjoy being frightened.”
Does Richard believe in his stories? “I don’t think we should try to apply scientific methods to the idea of ghosts, because that takes away some of the mystery,” he says. “I don’t believe there are actual ghosts haunting people, but I think I do subscribe to the Stone Tape Theory, which says that buildings and physical things can absorb traces of people’s lives from history.” He pauses, and reflecting on his 35 years in the ghost walk trade, adds with a laugh: “Maybe I’ll end up haunting my own ghost walk route!”
Shanty Baba, on the other hand, is a firm believer. He spent a year in India, in the Himalayas, and says he learned techniques which enable one to have a full experience of the supernatural. He’s willing to pass on at least one of those secrets to his ghost walk clientele, but mainly they are there for the thrills.
“People just love stories,” Shanty says simply. “We are a storytelling species. We love to have that brush with the unknown.”
At the top of the hill, in Barnoon cemetery, Shanty gathers us around the dark gravestones, and continues his tale. The lone reveller from the nightclub did indeed brave the night of the churchyard, did indeed find the supposedly haunted grave, and circled it the requisite number of times, speaking the name of the dead man in order to see his ghost. Then she plunged the knife into the soft earth as proof she had been there. But then, when she tried to leave…
Ah, that would be telling. If you want to know how that story ends, you’ll have to seek out Shanty Baba in the shadowy alleys and byways of St Ives long after the sun has set…