One of the best things about London? Stories. That’s real stories of course; true stories. Every street you walk down and every building you pass has countless stories, remarkable events or larger-than-life characters associated with it. After more than 1,000 years of history, you get a real wealth of tales, personalities, and fascinating goings-on that bring London to life with even the tiniest bit of surface-scratching.
While I’ve known this for all the time I’ve lived here, the fact was brought more vividly to life when I took Treadwell’s Books’ occult walking tour.
Treadwell’s itself is a unique place. Part bookshop, part esoteric cultural centre, it sits in the heart of Fitzrovia, historic heart of Bohemian culture in London, surrounded by the one-time homes of famous poets, painters, spiritualists and all kinds of occult figures. It has an in-house Tarot reader, a wealth of dedicated esoteric texts and magical equipment, and it runs an extremely popular course of talks and lectures by leading occultists and academics. These cover such wide-ranging subjects as the history of belief in witches, hypnosis and trance induction, and the prevalence of Mummy-related myths in Victorian England. It’s a remarkable place.
Beginning at the bookshop itself, the tour quickly moved into Fitzrovia proper, stopping outside the former haunts of famous occult figures. Well-known magician and counter-cultural icon Aleister Crowley (a big favourite of The Beatles: his face appeared on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover) was a regular in these parts. He used to drink at the famous Fitzroy Tavern, which was frequented by poet Dylan Thomas and writer George Orwell in later years. Crowley’s top tipple was a highly illegal cocktail known as the Kubla Khan Number 2, a heady mix of gin, vermouth and the opiate laudanum, downfall of countless famous writers and artists.
Walking on among the handsome Victorian townhouses and bustling pubs, another London was brought to life before our eyes. One that took place in the upper-rooms of these same buildings, looking out over a different city, back when Fitzrovia was a vice-riddled hotbed of arts, expression, and the pursuit of arcane knowledge. Today vestiges of its roots live on in its many art galleries, bookshops and traditional pubs.
From painters descending into murder and madness to spiritualists channelling the spirits of dead loved ones, the area bristles with stories and characters. We learned about exorcisms and cursed sarcophagi in the British Museum, and about Renaissance alchemist John Dee, a favourite of Elizabeth I, who was known to conduct conversations with angelic beings. He also worked as Elizabeth’s secret agent, and it’s from Dee that the number 007 came to be associated with spying. This was the code used on correspondance between Dee and the Queen: the two zeros represented Dee’s spying eyes, and the elongated seven a part-magical, part-mathematical symbol. A number of Dee’s occult tools, including his obsidian summoning mirror – used to summon spirits – can still be seen in the British Museum.
The tour came to an end in front of the magnificent Freemasons’ Hall by Covent Garden. We didn’t go inside, but tours of this unique building are run daily – and I’ll certainly be exploring this next. We left our brief journey with a scintillating sense of the mysteries and wonder just beneath London’s surface, in its buildings and the lives of its former residents. Both the walking tour and Treadwell’s Books played a part in this, encouraging visitors to look harder, and explore.