Episode 10: London's Folklore

Ever wondered whether the stories we hear ring with an element of truth?

Explore with Hazel from London Guided Walks and Vanessa Woolf from London Dreamtime the curious world of London's folklore and how the opaque curtain between fact and fiction moves organically.

Vanessa Woolf is a professional storyteller inspired by the history and folklore of London.Facebook | Instagram | Twitter |

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Full Transcript

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks Podcast.

In the coming episodes, we'll be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places, and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don't know me. I am Hazel Baker, founder of londonguidedwalks.co.uk. Providing guided walks, private tours, and treasure hunts to Londoners and visitors alike. And now bringing you a jam packed podcast during the time of the Coronavirus.

Joining me today in the studio is Vanessa Wolf from London Dreamtime. She's a professional storyteller who was inspired by the history and folklore of London. Hello.

Vanessa Woolf: Hello.

Hazel Baker: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Vanessa Woolf: This is just a pleasure. I'm very excited.

[00:00:50] Hazel Baker: I'm excited too, because I want to know more. I mean, we're both in professions where storytelling is at the heart of what we do. And it's obvious to me why it's so important. But for you, why is it?

[00:01:04] Vanessa Woolf: It's the foundation of how we understand the world. So when we're looking back on our own life, we make narratives about the people who we know and about ourselves and think about your life. You know, it's, you've always got the kind of grandparents who read out the same old stories again and again, and that's how you understand your own life. So our whole life and our whole thought is all structured around stories and a city like London is basically, you may say it's built bricks, but it's not really, it's made of millions and millions of stories.

[00:01:41] Hazel Baker: Come on then. Such as what?

[00:01:44] Vanessa Woolf: Oh my gosh. Well, so there's everybody's personal stories. Of course. And everyone who lives in London has got their own personal stories, you know? And I've got like a million things I've got that have happened to me that have also happened to other people.

[00:02:00] So all our stories are interlinking. And then there's the biggest stories, political stories or the kind of stories of, I don't know, Kings and Queens and politicians and Lords and ladies, and in great inventors and all those kinds of true stories. And then there's the almost true stories, or the nanny true stories, or the stories that are true from one point of view or another.

[00:02:24] And then there's a ghost stories and mythology and the folklore and the legends. Things like the Hackney Marshes Bear.

[00:02:33] Hazel Baker: The Hackney Marshes Bear?

[00:02:36] Vanessa Woolf: The Hackney Marshes Bear. Yes, that's right. So-

[00:02:39] Hazel Baker: I've heard about the Hackney Marshes Dragon, but not the bear.

[00:02:44] Vanessa Woolf: Oh well, last year I was asked to do some Walthamstow storytelling for a fantastic art project, and we invited what they basically did, which is very relevant to what we're talking about, is they just went out into the community.

[00:02:59] There's two artists called  Hewing Witter, and they collected stories from the community from like stories about people's birthdays or people who they'd lost or you know, really personal things to much bigger stories about the local area. And one of them was the Hackney Marshes Bear, and they said, would you like to tell this story?

[00:03:23] There’s these boys in the 1980s who went out in the snow to play football onto the marshes, and they saw this bear and they were absolutely terrified. So they saw this enormous bear, and they found footprints that came running home. They were completely freaking out. Their parents called the police and the police cordoned off the entire of Hackney Marshes.

[00:03:47] They sent like absolutely tons of police officers to go and find this live bear. And the reason that the police has taken it so seriously was that a few months earlier, two corpses of skinned bears had actually been found in the river. And they don't know why there were these two corpses of skin bears in the river.

[00:04:09] They've got theories, you know, that these are bears have run away from the circus, or these are rival taxidermists or all kinds of crazy ideas. But anyway. And then later on, obviously they didn't find a bear. Who was it? Well, I think it was a drummer from Kula shaker released a video that him and his girlfriend had taken of this wild animal that looked very shoddy in the marshes, and they said this was another sighting that was in 2012 but it actually turned out to be someone's very large dog. Anyway, so that's just like, you know, those are stories which people like to believe. People love a good story.

[00:04:53] Vanessa Woolf: They absolutely love it. Like the Highgate vampire, that's a classic example. People love to believe that story.

[00:05:00] Hazel Baker: Go on then.

[00:05:02] Vanessa Woolf: Oh, well, the story is simply that there really, when Highgate cemetery was first built, one of the first coffins that was interred in there was fat of a noble man from Malaysia who had been put in the bear mausoleum and was escaping and going and finding beautiful girls and biting their necks, and then they would sleep, walk into the cemetery, and then Sean Manchester, Bishop Sean Manchester had come and basically tracked this vampire down to a house symphony Bree park, where he opened the coffin. Bishop Sean Manchester says in this house, in Finsbury park in 1973, saw this vampire, decided to cut off its head with a grave digger shovel, which he did, cut off the head immediately.

[00:05:49] This vampire turned into a gigantic spider and attacked him, and he fought it to death with a shovel. And that was the end of the Highgate Vampire, so that's his story. So yeah. So David Farron, he was the president of the British Psychic and Cult society. And his version of the story was that actually, it wasn't a vampire, it was a ghost. It was an eight foot ghost with glowing eyes. But anyway, the point is, he basically said that Sean Manchester was lying about everything and only what he said was true. And Sean Manchester said that they'd be fair. It was lying about everything. And people strongly believe these stories.

[00:06:27] Hazel Baker: And what else?

[00:06:30] Vanessa Woolf: The Brompton cemetery time machine.

[00:06:32] So you may be familiar with the concept that there is the Hannah Courtoy Mausoleum the middle of Brompton Cemetery was designed by Samuel Warner, the inventor, and Joseph Bonomi, the architect  and Egyptologist, and it is in fact a working time machine or possibly a teleport.

[00:06:55] So that's the legend. I worked with Steven Coats, who's a cult researcher and a musician, and we came up with the story and we told it at midnight in the cemetery and everybody came along and I thought it was great fun. And I have to say at the end. I don't think I'm breaking any confidence is here to say I was a little bit surprised by the very serious way that some people did take it.

[00:07:24] Like, you know, they were asking me a lot of details afterwards about, you know, how it could work and can we get it open and could you get a key this way or this way or this way? And you know, to me, I, I love these stories and I enter into them completely when I'm telling them. However, there is a little bit of me that keeps my distance as well. I can't believe every story that I tell, although I do believe that, and I'm telling, I do believe when I tell them I somehow, I do believe them, but as soon as I've finished telling them, you know, I go back into, I guess, the real world.

[00:07:56] Hazel Baker: Yeah. I completely get where you're coming from on that one. I have similar feelings when I'm doing ghost stories. 

Vanessa Woolf: Yeah. 

Hazel Baker: Because they’re not my stories.

Vanessa Woolf: Yeah.

[00:08:05] Hazel Baker: And then I'm coming back to that, the vampire, I was researching a tour about paranormal activity in the West End, and I found the first ever registered vampire attack in London. That was in 1913 in Coventry Street. 

[00:08:23] Vanessa Woolf: Wow, Coventry street. How very interesting.

[00:08:27] Hazel Baker: Yeah, so a busy place linking Piccadilly circus and Leicester Square

[00:08:34] Vanessa Woolf: Wow. Yeah. I do think it's interesting, you know, the way these things come in waves, so you know, you get like, people get very kind of hysterical about vampires or something like that for a while or something like SpringHill Jack, which is an interesting one, isn't it?

[00:08:50] It was like for a while, everyone was like, they was seeing SpringHill Jack everywhere. And then the next thing. They're going the, you know, onto the next thing as it were. And I think, you know, with fam pyres it's a bit like UFOs, isn't it? So people see you at first. There's a sort of time for seeing UFO, which I think was perhaps in the 1950s and early sixties and then there was another sort of wave in the nineties.

[00:09:16] When everyone was interested in kind of the X files and crop circles and things like that, and then everybody started to see your photos again and now it seems to have kind of gone out of fashion and people have got other explanations for these weird things. I do think there are things out there, weird things out there.

[00:09:34] I do think that I have had a couple of experiences myself, including one extremely scary one in Highgate Cemetery. Genuinely scary. That does make me hesitant to just dismiss the whole notion of the supernatural. Couple of scary things. But I wouldn't, you know, on the other hand, I don't kind of just buy into everything wholesale.

[00:09:57] Hazel Baker: No, no. As you said, you've got to put yourself in a place in order to tell the story. And to me, that may be people take it a little bit too far sometimes,

[00:10:10] Vanessa Woolf: But I kind of like that too. I love it when I feel that people are really entering into it because what that means is they've gone on a journey with me and that's the whole point of being a storyteller. I always imagined the stories, you know, let's say a story last half an hour or 40 minutes. During that time it's like taking someone or pass the audience with you on a journey. I feel like a Sherpa going up a mountain of unmarked, and because I've told the story before, I know where I'm going and I take, I show them this place, I show them this place, take them here, take them there.

[00:10:45] And they are all imagining the story along with me. So they're all picturing it in their heads. And people say things like, Oh, I could really hear the crackling of the campfire, or, you know, I could feel those cold winds blowing, or, you know, whatever it is, I could really see him on his horse or whatever.

[00:11:04] And that's when you feel like you've really made something magical because storytelling is supposed to be magical, I think. And when people really enter into it in their imaginations. Then you've done something magical. You've transported them. And when I go, when somebody says to me, Oh, you know, Oh, I'd really be interested in hearing a bit more about some character in your story.

[00:11:31] That's a great tribute to the power of their imagination. You've taken them with you on the journey. Yep.

[00:11:38] Hazel Baker: It's easy to remember, isn't it? As well with stories? Is this the setup? It's the suspense is the cause and effect a lot easier to remember. I have the same sort of thing with during the tour guiding.

[00:11:50] I basically have three minutes to a stop to get my information in. On the easiest way, especially if that information is going to be beneficial for the next stop or whatever to link knowledge over there, layer the knowledge, it's easier for people to see, and sometimes I see in their eyes. So they just click and they've just taken what I've said maybe half an hour ago, and now with this extra bit of that magic in that moment has been made.

[00:12:21] Vanessa Woolf: Planting the seeds. Planting the seed.

[00:12:24] Hazel Baker: Exactly! And that just gives me goosebumps when I know go. Yes.

[00:12:33] Yeah, I mean, Rudyard Kipling, he said that's, if in history we're told in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.

[00:12:40] Vanessa Woolf: Yeah. And that is a very interesting thing because of course, the trouble with history is that it isn't just one person's perspective. A story, generally speaking, you will be. In fact, I think it's impossible for you not to give a perspective on the history, so you're not an impartial observer when you're hearing a story, and actually it's, I completely agree.

[00:13:03] And you know, I'm actually do get asked to go into schools and do historical storytelling, which I, I do and I love, yeah. But I do think that you have to be very careful using storytelling for history, don't you? Yeah. Because some people seem to think that storytelling is impartial, but actually it's the exact opposite of impart is exactly the opposite of impartial.

[00:13:29] Hazel Baker: Well that's right. I mean, if you think of maybe the Odyssey, that's written, or created through the eyes of Odysseus, the silver-tongued Greek King. So how's it been someone else? It would have been a very different story. And maybe he'd have got  home in 18 months, not 10 years.

[00:13:50] Vanessa Woolf: Yes. But an even more than that. If you think about the people who actually wrote it, who were men. So I've been telling some Greek myths recently, and I've been very influenced by hearing about the position of women in ancient Greek society, which was basically, they were pretty much slaves, you know. I mean, women, married women just, you know, they had to put up with so much pulling rubbish.

[00:14:14] They had to put up with so much awful stuff. And you know, that was just completely taken for granted. The idea that women could say anything, have public life,  rule anywhere, have any power, is, it was ridiculous. And so when you look at the ancient Greek myths remembering, but it was an incredibly male-dominated voice. So it was much more than even say, medieval stories or, you know, kind of Victorian stories. This came from a society where women were considered to be pretty much worthless. And it really casts a new light on something like Clytemnestra where you've got, you know, the women or, goddess Hera, who's the, she's the queen of wives and she's permanently angry.

[00:15:08] And, because wives just had at the most absolutely worst time ever out of anyone. In the whole of Greek society, apart from like, you know, the kind of most miserable slaves. So anyway. Yeah.

[00:15:20] Hazel Baker: Absolutely. I mean, if you can understand why, and Tiffany goes off on one, you know, because of all of that oppression.

[00:15:26] Yeah, it totally makes sense. Especially when you have the difference between Greek women were viewed basically as slaves. No opinion. And then you had Roman women, very different. As long as you uphold upper levels of society, you had so much more freedom.

[00:15:43] Vanessa Woolf: [00:15:43] Yeah, absolutely. Right. So, yeah, I do think it's very interesting who tells the stories, and that's one of the reasons that I'm very interested in promoting storytellers from diverse backgrounds.

[00:15:56] So as well as my own storytelling, I try and put on events where I try my best to create a platform for people who come from groups, whatever, whose voices are not perhaps getting heard as much as they need to. That's another thing that I'm interested in too. So I just think storytelling is so important.

[00:16:16] Hazel Baker: No, it is. Absolutely. And you do some with the Victorian magic lantern don’t you?

[00:16:21] Vanessa Woolf: Yes. So I'm doing that for our latest online event. The Victorian magic lantern has been in George's family ever since it was made. And we've got a huge selection of glass slides, and I've been using it kind of sporadically for work.

[00:16:40] So I did some at Kensington palace for their Christmas. They had a Christmas sort of advent calendar, and I bought the magic lantern in for them then because apparently, I think it was Queen Victoria when she was a little girl, she used to love the magic lantern, so they wanted stories with the magic lantern, which was really fun and you know, kind of other smaller museums that Florence Nightingale Museum things like that.

[00:17:06] Hazel Baker: That's all from us for now. Don't forget to visit londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast for more detailed show notes, including photos, blog posts, and recommended reading. Now we do have some exciting news to share with you this time, and that is that we are now doing LIVE London Quizzes every Wednesday at eight o'clock in the evening, London, UK time.

[00:17:31] So if you think you know London, then this is your chance to prove it, my friend. Go to londonguidedwalks.co.uk/Live-London-Quiz.php. Tickets are available online and they are per household/team. So I hope to see you there. You can support this podcast by subscribing. That means the absolute world to me, it really does.

[00:17:54] And thank you so much for all your wonderful emails of suggestions of what we can do in the future. They are all on the list and we're ticking them off one by one. And also, if you are enjoying this podcast, then please do consider leaving a five star review on the platform of your choice and many thanks in advance.

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