Carol and Krystal see dead people. Everywhere. The pair of mediums sense lingering souls wherever they go. Saturday night brought them, and us, to the Ragged School Museum in East London for an all-night paranormal investigation - the final event of London Ghost Week organised by Fright Nights.
The Ragged School Museum inhabits a series of Victorian warehouses between Mile End Park and the Regents Canal. The school was opened in 1877 by Thomas Barnado to give poor 'ragged' children an education. It was the largest school of its kind, and operated until 1908, after which the buildings were used for warehousing. Today, the space serves an educational function once again, recreating Victorian pedagogical conditions for school parties and casual visitors.
It's a spooky building, no question. A Hogwarts of staircases wind their way between warehouse floors, most rooms untouched by the decorator's brush for decades. We have unique access to the storage areas. These feel like a museum in their own right, with ancient typewriters, medicine bottles, rusted lathes and forgotten upholstery collecting dust in every corner, as though Miss Haversham were throwing a car-boot sale. The public areas are more organised. Two rooms are kitted out like Victorian classrooms, complete with royal portrait, dunce's cap, and cane.
The Ragged School is not on the canonical list of London's most haunted, but the creepy state of repair and its connection to poor children make it the sort of place you'd expect would pick up a few tales. The Fright Nights website describes unusual (if vague) experiences in the school, 'ranging from feeling apprehensive in parts of the building to the sounds of phantom footsteps'. It's not exactly spook central, but an impressively creaky place to spend the night, nonetheless.
Carol and Krystal began with a thought exercise to open our 'chakras' - energy points in the body, or astral gills that allow congress with the spiritual world. For skeptics like us, it's a bit like sitting in on a church ceremony - impossible to fathom how people can believe in this stuff, but meditative and warming all the same. We felt more at home with the ghost hunting gadgets such as the laser thermometer and video cameras.
After a tour of the building, we split into groups and held short vigils in different rooms. The mediums claimed to sense any number of individual spirits, including a dirty washer-woman, a strict headmaster and the 'residual' memory of a child molestation. Those in the group who'd been attending more carefully to their chakras also claimed to sense things, and a few felt tugs on their clothes.
During the vigils, we would 'call out' to the spirits, asking them to tap the table, or move a glass. Very little occurred, it has to be said. The glass would move around wildly when enough fingers were placed upon it, but there's nothing convincing about that. The mediums were a little perturbed to hear from a spirit called James, who's been following Carol around like a stalker and tends to hog the limelight to the detriment of other astrals who might like to make contact. He popped up in most rooms where we performed a ouija-like vigil but was unable to do anything more sporting than help us push the glass around.
And that's the rub. It's the third time we've done something like this, without so much as a hint of evidence for supernatural activity. According to a recent poll, 40% of Brits believe in ghosts. We won't be joining their credulous ranks any time soon. That said, we would thoroughly recommend the experience of an all-night vigil. It's always fascinating to get an insight into different belief systems, and the chance to explore an historic building by torchlight is priceless. We came away knowing that such events can be genuinely scary for everyone. The true believers and undecided spent an entire night moving between goose-pimples and tenterhooks. And us skeptics? We ain't afraid of no ghost, but we finally got our own dose of the heebie-jeebies walking home through Mile End Park at 5 in the morning.
London Ghost Week is now over, but check out the Fright Nights website for other upcoming events.