Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Bath Ghost Walk

After quite some time taking and reviewing tours all over the place, I finally made it onto a ghost walk. I was expecting something very camp but chance had it that I ended up on a more reputable one with no jumping out from the behind the bushes or fake vampire teeth. We gathered outside The Garrick's Head and Christian, our guide, started off with a story about a ghost in the pub, which allegedly predicted the death of three actors who stayed there.

I listening to the ghost stories unfold and as I did so I was also asking myself, "What are the qualifications required to give a good ghost walk?" Blue badge guides learn history, geologists learn geology, and so on. I had to think about it and look at what Christian was doing and conclude that the main thing you had to learn is how to tell stories and how to look out of the ordinary. Storytelling is essential because with this sort of tour there is usually nothing to see: it goes with the territory. As for looking different, that lifts everything out of the mundane. Christian, our guide, was certainly friendly enough and able to hold the stories together but he also had an unusual character that made him difficult to quite locate. I don't think that is a bad thing at all but it is in contrast to those who, when they open their mouths, you see only to well who they are and where they are coming from. A ghost tour given by a loud mouthed painter decorator would just not cut it. 

We next had some grizzly story of lovers slain back in the glory days of Georgian Bath. Our guide got quite involved in the story and mimicked the sword thrusting into the body. People in the background clocked this was a ghost tour, made spooky gestures and said 'whhoooo!' from time to time. I imagine it doesn't matter how good a ghost tour guide you are, you will routinely face this sort of public reception on the street. Heritage tours don't face this mocking treatment, this lack of respect seems mostly reserved for ghost tours and it basically boils down to finding it funny to pop the spooky bubble. To be fair though, I noticed only five or six people doing this in the hour and a half but still, that's five or six more than I've seen on any other tour of Bath. 

We were reminded at the beginning of the tour of David Prowse the Bristol actor who played both Darth Vader and The Green Cross Code man, a figure used to popularise road safety in the UK in the 1970s. This was a light-hearted way to tell us to be careful when crossing the road and this was necessary as Bath streets are narrow and often busy with traffic. Having a good sense of optimal crossing points and waiting times is important for a guide as it can ensure the tour is safe and save 'dead time' if you'll excuse the pun. I think this ghost tour made a pretty good job of it but I also remember how the Bizarre Bath Tour actively used these moments of waiting at the lights for gags so that they were not experienced as time out. That won't work for all walks but I do now start to see patterns in the way the different tours cross the city and how these routes are routinely punctuated by traffic lights.

In some ways ghost stories are generic and are very similar from one city to another. When they are tied to local celebrities, however, or when they tell you something about the nature of the city or a building, they become something else, they even have the potential to become a subversive form of local knowledge. For example stories of fallen aristocrats becoming ghosts in Bath are more fitting than stories about fishermen ghosts or farmer ghosts, which you might expect to hear elsewhere. When the ghosts also use the familiar architecture in unfamiliar ways they add another dimension to the tour. Putting together a good ghost tour must then take some work and I could see that this Bath ghost tour had been complied with care so that there was variation and local interest in the supernatural tales. Here we got to hear about the famous Bath architect John Wood, who has cropped up on several other Bath tours, but never in connection with a ghost, namely The Bride of Death. 

Moving on to the Gravel Walk, we sat down and heard about the time the mayor of Miami took the ghost tour in Bath. It's not all tours that are willing to talk about different and unexpected things that have happened on the tour previously. I quite like these histories of the tours themselves as long as they are there to develop the existing theme, as this one was, rather than as entertaining asides that break the flow. Come to think of it though, a tour of tours is, in a way, made up only of asides with the content of the tours removed.

The tour did require participation but the demands were thankfully modest. One of us was beckoned forward to play the part of a story's protagonist. This was more a law and order story than a ghost story and the man on the left had to say what he'd do if he were in the shoes of a petty thief. He was given the name of this character but did not have to act at all. This was done to make us understand his position, I suspect, and the rest of us were later asked to play the jury which prompted some jokes about Daily Mail readers wanting to hang him high.

We listening to a story of duelling in the park while darkness fell, prompting the lamp. It could have been because we were removed from the street or it could have been because of the story but, one way or another, I became acutely aware of the background sounds: seagulls raising hell, passers by walking up the Gravel Walk, a window closing for the night. Good sound is essential to building suspense in horror movies and ghost walks can similarly benefit from this sort of attention. There was another point on the walk when our guide used the natural acoustic of the circular space but only to reference it not to try and scare us. My sense was that this tour went some way to exploiting the potential of sound in a way that other tours have not. I think there is a more that could be done but I was happy to be made aware of the sounds around me at all as most tours seem to regard them as an obstacle to be overcome. I remember taking a sound walk with Sound Fjord Gallery in North London a little while ago which was devoted to listening to environmental sound. That was fascinating and I now see how it could inform tours more generally. 

We came to the Royal Crescent and at this point it struck me how we were visiting more or less the same sites as the heritage tours, only we were describing them very differently. The Bath ghosts all seemed to haunt elegant places: there were no 'budget ghosts' stuck in the Iceland lamenting their minimum wage former existence or the dodgy chicken kiev that did them in. Maybe the city's upright citizens really wouldn't be seen dead in those places.

I have often wondered whether tour groups change the phenomenon they are describing through their presence and we got a resounding yes to that question. An elderly lady who still lives on the Circus is haunted, reportedly, by a poltergeist. The story of this ghost was once included in the ghost walk and the guide indicated which building was afflicted. We were told that one evening this resulted in some people who had been on the tour knocking on her door wanting to see the ghost for themselves. Naturally, she would have none of it and made a complaint to the tour's operator. Consequently, the group is now just told it is one of the buildings but not which one.  

The tour concluded where we started. A real Daily Mail reader was sitting waiting for the theatre show to come out. I find that newspaper is a scary read, in its own way, and I'd rather take the Bath ghost walk to calm my nerves than read another story about 'Al Qaeda on the NHS.' The tour not only includes hauntings but covers other dark material and does so in a welcoming and rather local way making it an integral part of the Bath tourist options and not the bogey man that I had imaged it might be. For a first ghost tour I think I landed lucky and got a decent one but part of me is secretly now longing for a truly awful one, the spiritual soulmate of the Hammer House of Horror. There's time enough and tours enough to find that one too.

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