Hallowe’en is a time when the barriers between the past and the present feel thinner, a time of reflection on those who have come before us, and the stories they have left behind. For us twins, it’s a time when we like to learn a little more about those long-ago lives – and if we can explore those histories with a bit of a spooky twist, so much the better!
We’re lucky that in London, and towards the eastern part of the city in particular, the streets throng with sad and strange stories. Out by Tower Hill, the Tower of London has plenty of dark tales of its own, while the surrounding area also saw some of the worst damage from the Great Fire in 1666.
The nearby eponymous tube station also marks the starting point for the many Jack the Ripper tours that meander their way through Whitechapel every night. But it was here too that, centuries earlier, a very different but no less deadly danger stalked through the streets: plague.
It was this sad episode – or, rather, episodes, as London was unlucky enough to be struck by two major plague epidemics (and a sporadic scatter of smaller outbreaks in between), one in 1348 – the infamous ‘Black Death’ that wiped out half the population of Europe including the same proportion of Londoners – and another in 1665, when another 100,000 Londoners lost their lives (and a year later, even more lost their homes in the Great Fire – not a fun time to live in this city!) – that we had come to learn about, with the good folks from Tales of Plague.
Team Plague run guided tours in the Tower Hill/Aldgate area, exploring sites associated with the ‘Great Pestilence’ and sharing stories of what it was like to live in London during the epidemic. We had first come across them at their fab ‘Pepys Party’ which we attended a couple of months ago, but this was the first time we’d been able to join one of their walks. All very exiting – and we weren’t disappointed.
The tour began nestled in the deep shadows of a surviving stretch of the city’s 1,700-year-old Roman wall, and took us around historic churches, atmospheric back streets, and the location of some of the great pits that were dug in this part of the city, in which thousands of plague victims were buried – often with more care than is popularly believed, we learned – and which Carlytwin often covers in her day job, as modern construction projects bring them to light once more.
Hearing about the death carts rumbling down London streets to collect the newly deceased; the families quarantined inside their houses, sick and healthy alike; the churches who had to build new steps down to their doors because the ground of their graveyards was so swollen with plague dead, we couldn’t help but place ourselves in the shoes of 14th and 17th century Londoners. What must it have been like to live through these terrifying times?
When you think of the panic that the tabloid stirred up over the recent ebola epidemic, before the disease even looked likely to reach our shores, what must it have been like to actually live in the midst of devastating and rapidly-spreading disease, to be afraid of your pets and neighbours, and, in those days before the birth of scientific medicine, to have no idea of what was causing the plague, or how to avoid catching it? Did people live in a constant state of fear or, as the 14th century epidemic dragged on for years, did they become resigned to keeping calm and carrying on?
Leading us through these events was the amazingly knowledgeable Marianne, whose fact-packed talks – sometimes poignant, sometimes engagingly amusing – were offset to great comic effect by interruptions from Alfie the 14th century peasant, a preening Samuel Pepys (who shared extracts from his famous diaries with us), and a sinister plague doctor, all played by the very versatile Jonathan.
We don’t want to spoil any more of the twists and turns that the walk took, or the jokes and surprises that had our group alternately laughing and jumping back in fright – you really need to experience this yourself, it’s an evening full of mischief and fun, with equal measures of thought-provokingness and fascinating facts. We laughed and learned a lot.