From ghostly university dons and a phantom penguin to the museum’s creeping lions and a scary knight, Cambridgeshire is populated with urban myths and legends to make you shudder.
A unique pairing of foggy fenland and closed colleges conspire to lend Cambridge its special atmosphere, says Natasha Dawn from Black Shuck Cambridge Ghost Tours, who explains that this waterlogged crossroads has long provided an ‘extraordinary environment for mythology to grow’.
Ghosts haunting the city’s colleges do indeed provide many of the county’s urban legends. Peterhouse College authorities even arranged for an exorcism to take place in the 1960s to banish an evil presence that squatted malevolently on the gate of the St Mary The Less Church. The spectre was blamed for Peterhouse students, whose windows overlooked the cemetery, taking their own lives. More recently, college staff including Peterhouse’s bursar and two butlers claimed in 1997 to have seen a ghost, with some staff refusing to enter one particular room thereafter.
Natasha Dawn finds the Old Master’s Lodge at Corpus Christi College particularly spooky, and she claims that ‘the phantom energy of an older master who hanged himself has made people collapse on our tours’. The don in question was Henry Butts, who died in 1632 but whose noisy spirit was said to be responsible for scaring college cooks in the 1880s. Sightings have persisted thereafter, despite an attempted exorcism by students in 1904.
Many of the city’s urban legends are less unsettling. One phenomenon occurring at midnight in the city centre sees the lions keeping vigil at the Fitzwilliam Museum creeping down the steps for a drink from Hobson’s Conduit. This legend recently inspired a poetry project between Michael Rosen and local primary school children. The lions have company on Trumpington Street, where it meets Little St Mary’s Lane, as a girl in frilly Victorian dress and ribbons can apparently be sighted scampering down the street.
Newmarket Road is home to the oldest surviving building in Cambridge in the form of the enigmatic 12th century Leper Chapel as well as Abbey House, which was built in 1580 from the remnants of Barnwell Priory. Sightings there include a solemn grey lady and reports of muttering and singing in empty rooms as well as sheets being pulled off sleeping guests. It is said that a nun was walled up alive there after an affair with a lover at the priory was exposed. The road is also home to another reported spectre: a tall figure resembling a penguin is said to be the ghost of a plague doctor wearing a beaked mask.
The sometimes misty fenland around Cambridge has unsurprisingly attracted a large number of urban legends going back several centuries, with the Gog Magog hills just south of Cambridge mythologised as the burial place of giants Gog and Magog. The hills have even become part of a ‘Cambridge Camelot’ myth, for they were once said to belong to King Arthur. As midsummer approaches, nearby Wandlebury is said to receive an annual visit from a ghostly knight invoked by many a foolhardy student who must shout, ‘Knight to knight, come forth’, whereupon a ghostly knight rides out to meet the challenge.
The land has spawned other legends. Black Shuck Cambridge Ghost Tours is itself named after a devil-dog thought to have been stalking the flat fields of the Fens since the 16th century, howling on moonless nights and cursing all those who see him. A more fetching and benevolent version of the shuck also exists and involves a ghostly dog that escorts women to safety across the parks of Cambridge.
Perhaps he belongs to the ghost of a fiddler who offered to follow an underground passage said to run from King’s College to the Old Manor House in Grantchester two miles away. Playing as he made his way down the tunnel he was never seen again, though on certain nights his fiddling can still be heard across the meadows.
Despite the best efforts of science to explain away all talk of myths and sightings of ghosts, it seems that Cambridge’s urban legends will live on, and people will continue to think twice about venturing around Peterhouse all alone on a cold, dark night...