Different people experience the same location in different ways.
For many visiting St Paul’s Cathedral this week their surroundings will evoke poignant memories of the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, which was held 30 years ago this Friday. Other visitors will be captivated by the history and awe-inspiring magnificence of Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpiece. The thoughts of many others, of course, will be dominated by the cathedral’s status as a House of God.
For me, though, the most alluring aspect of St Paul’s is its ghost lore.
Its best-known ghost story concerns the apparition of an elderly clergyman, who is accompanied by a high-pitched, tuneless whistling sound. This phantom is said to haunt All Souls' Chapel, at the cathedral’s west end, on the ground floor of the northwest tower.
In 1925 this chapel was dedicated to the memory of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and to servicemen killed during the First World War. As it was being redesigned workmen discovered a small door concealed in the stonework, a door that stood at the exact spot where the spectral clergyman would always fade into the wall.
St Paul’s has at least two further ghost stories, recorded by the Irish writer and ghost hunter Elliott O’Donnell. O’Donnell wrote numerous books between 1904 and 1958, many of them collections of ostensibly true ghost stories. His writings were highly popular, very colourful, and always entertaining - if not necessarily the most reliable sources of information.
As fortean and folklore writer Scott Wood elegantly phrased it in a “Fortean London” article for the Londonist website: “Reality and prose blur with O’Donnell, supposedly true accounts come across as ambient horror stories with ghosts, monsters and mild peril but no plot or resolution.” Personally, I agree with Scott, but see what you think.
One of O’Donnell’s tales - in Ghosts of London - involves an American lady and gentleman who visited St Paul’s one summer’s day in 1899. As they walked down the central aisle they were badly frightened by a “great black cloud” that rose up from the floor before them and ascended some 20 feet into the air before suddenly vanishing.
Fortunately for posterity, O’Donnell just happened to be visiting St Paul’s that same day. Although he did not see the cloud himself, he spoke to the couple almost immediately afterwards and they told him that the mysterious cloud had seemed to be alive.
O’Donnell recorded his second story in the same book, claiming it was given to him by another lady. While resting in the cathedral one day, this lady noticed a woman kneeling in one of the aisles ahead of her, apparently searching for something on the floor.
She started to approach the kneeling woman, intending to offer her help, but stopped when she felt someone touch her on the shoulder. She instantly turned around, but there was nobody behind her. When she looked back for the kneeling woman, she too had vanished.
A few days later, at around the same time of day, the lady spotted the same woman kneeling in the same aisle. As before, she started to approach the figure only to feel another tap on her shoulder. Again, she swung around at once to find ... nothing.
She’d had enough, and hurried out.
St Paul's Cathedral is open for sightseeing from Monday to Saturday between 8.30 a.m. and 4 p.m. On Sundays, it is open only for worship. For full details see the cathedral’s website.