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Psychopomps of Central London

Excerpted from A Psychogeographer’s Guide to the British Isles, Vol. 1: London, by permission, &c.

In the Church of St. Anselm & St. Cæcilia on Kingsway, near Holborn Station, there is a statue of St Peter with a golden foot. Place a pin in your maps: many statues have toes or noses or bronze balls brightened by the application of passing pilgrims. Marin Drzic sits in Dubrovnik, shining beakily; in Split, St. Gregory’s toes glow against your skin; the Scots apply to Hume, who lights up the Edinburgh Royal Mile; an older St. Peter in St. Peter’s, Rome, similarly enthroned, is losing his foot to time and friction. What picks our Peter out? He’s wooden. The paint is rubbing off his bare left foot and key.

When did they realise he’d been coöpted by a global narrative and needed a prosthetic to truly belong? Whenever it was, whenever St. Anselm & St. Cæcilia’s Peter acquired his golden foot, you shouldn’t touch it. Reach into the fist-sized hole in the statue’s seat instead and set your palm against the wood. You may feel a heartbeat. Wait until the wood yields like flesh beneath your fingers and a slate-blue shadow falls across the nave.

This is where we begin your journey to the underworld.

I realise you have questions. (I say this to everyone who finds me waiting for them in the church doorway.) The church is quiet, though, and the day is short: ask me later. From St. Anselm & St. Cæcilia, we thread the needle between Kingsway and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, squeezing down the insalubrious passage behind the avocado-laden fruit stand and The Ship Tavern. Take a careful note of the clock on the park gate. What time does it say the park will close? Five to four, when the sun goes down? That’s how long our walk together lasts. You’ll have to keep track, I’m afraid. I measure footfalls, not minutes, and boroughs instead of hours.

Have you drunk from the fountain at the gate before? No? Don’t. There are too many psychopomps ahead of us for you to take shortcuts. As with any journey, where you end up depends on who you met along the way.

But come with me. The street is patched with trees and scaffolding, pavilions on one side, park on the other, strictly fenced off with iron bars. Our second psychopomp, correctly counted, awaits us in the basement of Sir John Soane’s house, which you will find at Number 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Render up your bag to the coatroom, yes, and your buzzing phone and dripping umbrella, and make your way through the gift shop. I’m right behind you. Now, hand over hand, knuckles white on the rail, lower yourself down the narrow steps.

How did I know you’d be at the church? How did you know I’d be at the church? (I say that to everyone too.) I don’t know what brought you here today, exactly, although the reasons never vary very much. Trust me, I’ve heard it all before. Do you see that sign to the catacombs? Turn left.

Pluto awaits us in the crypt. Go down the rows of Roman cineraria, a tiny town of tiny houses, neatly stacked, emptied of ash and bones, slowly drowning in the yellow light that dribbles through the overhead grating. Dead ahead (pun intended) Pluto (monumental bronze bust, seventeenth century Italian, beard beautifully undulated) crowns his column. No, of course you can’t touch him. This is a museum.

If the urbs—its unintelligent old-and-new patchwork, its irrational streets, its dark December corridors tripping over April parks and summer skyscrapers—informs the psychic growth of urbanites as a garden trellis physically informs roses, and as that is the originating sin of these psychogeographically guided walks we must accept it, Number 13 is London in microcosm. Have you visited before? Oh, you came down from Newcastle yesterday? That wasn’t really necessary. The North has its own psychopomps. But as I was saying: consider Pluto, hemmed in by coffins; the ochre Egyptian head and Cromwell’s mislabelled death mask and the obelisks salvaged from oil lamp-posts replaced with gas in 1824; the royal sarcophagus resplendent in the crypt, formerly a wine cellar; and, spiralling outwards, passages folding around passages, pierced by grates revealing glimpses of unexpected truths.

Confide in Pluto. Do you feel yourself changing yet? This is the perfect place to drift.

How are we doing for time? Let’s go up the back way, so you can see Padre Giovanni’s parlour. Don’t forget to admire the Canalettos in the Picture Room on the way out.

What did you say to Pluto? You can tell me, if you really feel you must. It was your child, or your wife or husband or perhaps your parent, although that seems to be less common these days. Or you needed to find something desperately, or you had an urgent question about the future. Or you were just curious. That happens sometimes.

Oh, it was your daughter. I’m sorry. That is, I’ve learnt to say so, as a matter of politesse. Bethany’s a nice name. Poor Bethany. (Is this helping at all?)

It’s normal to think the air’s acquired a thunderous tempo after you leave Number 13. I wouldn’t bother to put up an umbrella. From here, since Lincoln’s Inn Fields are still open, we’re going to cut directly through the skeletal trees to the Royal College of Surgeons on the opposite side of the square. You’re here to meet Charles Byrne. Collect a visitor’s badge from Reception and head through the security gate. On your left, a framed series of severe bearded gentleman file giltily up a grand staircase. Follow them up to the first floor, where you will find a welcoming doorway, and go straight in.

Now stop. I want you to take this in slowly.

We agreed—I believe we agreed?—that Number 13 mirrors London in all its jumbled, antique, accumulated madness. Now shift your perspective. Here you stand surrounded by the modern city: straight, sterile, confined to glass and labels, nine million beating souls ranked on well-lit steel shelving. Look around you. Animals, arthropods, tumours and arteries, malformed bones and fistulas and foetal tragedies, birds and mice and skulls and teeth, each one confined to its own annotated jar. Carbolic sprays and cat gut ligatures, separately presented. Video clips of terminal diseases. There are dissection tables on the walls; they map out the pathways of the human form.

The modern city is a reflective, planned out thing. It maps awkwardly onto the older city, grown up tumourously around the hills and tributaries and neo-Georgian mansion blocks, burrowing deep to run its sewers and power cables and pestilential transport networks. The older city is a thing of brick and stone and brutal concrete. When you look into the modern city, you see yourself looking back.

Actually, I do remember a Bethany, now you mention it. Last summer, perhaps? Blue hair, pierced nose? We had the longest day together, so I took her to see a puppet show in Little Venice and then to meet the tiger in the Waterloo Vaults. If you read the poem backwards in the Waterloo Underpass, Eurydice appears. I don’t recommend it.

Charles Byrne is through here. Look up: look up again. He is tall, isn’t he?

He doesn’t want to be here and he never did. He wanted to be wrapped in lead and laid to rest at sea, not propped up on his weary feet in a giant-sized vitrine, naked in his bones. After dark, when the Hunterian Museum closes, he rattles and grumbles to his companion in his Sleeping Beauty coffin. No one’s looking now, so you can press your ear against the glass. Don’t worry about leaving a mark. It will fade, but not until the night has been and gone. Breathe very quietly and listen to what the Irish Giant has to say.

If we had more time, I’d take you back to the bandstand at the centre of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where lawyers meet their personal trainers before work, and tell you to contemplate the shallowness of the grass, encroached upon by London on all sides. As you see, though, the sky’s a sullen sunset shade and the lamps are flickering into life, so we should pick up the pace a bit. Just stand here in the street for a moment. What do you feel? How has this walk changed you? Do you see the stone animals stamping their feet on the rooftops of Lincoln’s Inn?

I don’t know where everyone else went. Maybe they went home. Even for the shortest day in December, it’s going to be a cold night.

I think I did bring Bethany this way, since you ask. Like mother, like daughter, I suppose. Was she such a lovely little girl and did you never have the slightest idea? How sad. I thought as much. Parents so rarely do.

At this point, I normally express my condolences again. I can pat your shoulder too, if that would help? Do you miss your daughter terribly? For what it’s worth, she seemed quite wholesome on our walk together, if perhaps gone a little astray.

Yes, she will be waiting for you. Don’t worry, you’re going the right way.

We’re going to cut through Bell Yard past the dentist’s and the Royal Courts of Justice, but first I want you to take a look down Carey Street, between the old weathered offices leaning together like gossiping dowager duchesses, towards Chancery Lane. Ahead, a chance parting of pale Portland skirts reveals glass, flinging back the sunset brashly. Isn’t it jarring? It’s as out of place as a Victorian church spire dwarfed by skyscrapers. Throughout the old city, you catch glimpses of newness, forcing its way up between the cracks like spring shoots between paving slabs. But can you hear that bell ringing? Let’s head on to Fleet Street. We’re running out of time.

Bell Yard empties onto Fleet Street just where Fleet Street becomes the Strand, in an act of perfect transubstantiation available only to mapmakers. If you came this way earlier, when the street was clogged with cars and lumbering buses, I understand how it might surprise you to see it empty. Oil lamps flare outside every shadowed doorway. You’re shivering. Are you cold? Your breath smokes in the dimming air.

Turn right, past the lacework and turrets and hungry arches of the Royal Courts. Don’t stop to read the protest banner tied to the railings. In the middle of the street, the distempered dragon tethered to the Temple Bar Memorial flaps its wings and hisses out fiery plumes.

Go towards it. Cover your ears if its roar deafens you. You can walk in the road. There’s no one else here.

You may experience some unease at this point. That’s quite normal. Many people, in fact most people, do. You’ve met three out of today’s five psychopomps and that puts you firmly on the downwards path. When you already have one foot in the underworld, the quotidian becomes disconcertingly profound. But if you want, you can stop now. You can go back to your hotel and empty the minibar and wake up to sunshine and all the noise of King’s Cross Station. You can still leave all of this behind.

True, you would also have to walk away from Bethany. The underworld stands open on only four days in every year and no one gets more than one bite at the cherry. You won’t find me waiting for you at St. Anselm & St. Cæcilia again.

Very well, then let us continue. Until it became inconvenient, the Temple Bar barred the way between the old City of London and the Palace of Westminster; afterwards the gate was taken down, piece by piece, and the Temple Bar Memorial erected in its place. The Memorial is therefore the memory of an inconvenience, standing as it does between Fleet Street and the Strand, an island in the traffic rather than a ceremonial entrance. To the modern city, even the modern city of a hundred and forty years ago, ancient privileges and mapmakers’ distinctions are as nothing to the categorical imperative embodied in the fluid flow of traffic.

But we are leaving the modern city. In the ethereal half-light of the dusk before the longest night, the old forgotten boundaries rise up again, shimmering and translucent, scarified indelibly into the city’s skin by the kings and queens who paused here for permission to enter the City of London. Can you feel the threshold thrumming under your feet? The dragon can. Its resentment is essentially defensive. If we had time, I would take you to find its younger brothers chained up around the City’s boundaries.

Cross the threshold. You may feel some resistance. Break through it.

After this, it will be very hard for you to turn back.

Now we are on the Strand, where there is one last psychopomp for you to meet. Do you see the gold-on-black sign swinging in the wind ahead of you? Squeezed into a single file passage between tall buildings, the shop has a white temple façade, complete with plaster pillars and pediment, crowned with gilt figures and a black-on-gold TWININGS legend. The door is open. Go inside.

Tea has been sold in this shop for three hundred years. Can you smell the fragrance seeping from the ingrained walls? Between close shelves, surrounded by boxes and glass cabinets, you will find a woman who will offer you a cup. Drink from it. Say thank you. If you want, you can buy a box of tea while you’re here.

I am afraid that when you come out it will have started snowing. This happens sometimes.

We’re so close now. Around the corner, the snow has slicked the pavement down Essex Street, which would be full of barristers drinking outside The Edgar Wallace on any other night. Let’s go down slowly. You can lean on my arm, if you like. I’m sorry you left your walking stick in your taxi: that was unwise. As you can see, the last of the light is rapidly fading, which means our time together is almost at an end.

No, I won’t be going any further with you. (People always ask that around about now.) My walk ends at the entrance to the underworld, where a new walk begins. When you go down into the dark, you will find five guides waiting to help you on your journey. The longest night lies ahead of you. You have until dawn to find your daughter and, perhaps, to bring her back.

We only have a few moments left. Cast your eyes down the dark street to Essex Water Gate, a piece of 1600s pseudo-Roman bravura complete with triumphal trimmings, originally built to screen the industrial riverside from Essex Street’s polite society, that now stands embedded in the brickwork of a 1950s office. During the day, the view through the arch shows only lampposts and tangled trees and the steps down to the embankment. What do you see now?

Of course you aren’t imagining it. The arch—the pedestals and giant pilasters, the Corinthian capitals, the bricked-up ornamental archivolt—really is glowing. Beyond it, a black river washes against an unfamiliar black horizon. The sky is moonless. There are no stars. A hooded figure awaits you on the further bank. Can you see how his right foot shines?

Below the water gate, a set of worn stone steps leads down to the river, which tonight you will find laps at the lowest step. You must go down the steps and wade across the river. Don’t worry. Unlike the Thames, it is neither deep nor particularly cold. Make your way towards the hooded figure. Greet him respectfully. If you continue with your journey, and I assume that is still your intention, St. Peter will be the first of your new guides.

This is where we part.

Have I ever gone down through Essex Water Gate? No. But I have brought others here—many others, many times—and when I visit St. Anselm & St. Cæcilia, I sit at St. Peter’s feet and he tells me what he sees. Down in the dark, the wind whispers peculiar secrets in your ears and if you turn suddenly (try not to turn suddenly) you may glimpse monsters from the corners of your eyes. Stay with your guides as long as you can. Keep in mind why you first set off on this journey. Your daughter is waiting for you. Don’t disappoint her now.

How many people find their way back?

You know, Bethany asked me that very question. She was smart, your daughter. You haven’t asked me why she found me waiting for her in the church, so I suppose you think you know. Was there some kind of catalytic factor, a loss or traumatic accident, some sort of breakup or breakdown? Is that what you think brought her to me?

Whatever it was, I don’t think it did. She meant to come back. She was looking for an answer. If you find her, perhaps it might give you some comfort to find out what it was?

She asked me to go with her too. Most people do.

Believe me, I think about nothing more than crossing that river. When I first found my way here—and when that was I couldn’t say, but in those days they built with brick and wood and the Thames came right up to Essex Water Gate—I tumbled down the steps and lay in the inky shallows, feeling a bruise forming slowly in the small of my back, until the sun came up. That, too, was the longest night in December and bitterly cold. I recall snowflakes clinging to my eyelashes, just as tonight the snow bristles in your fur-fringed hood.

I came back changed. You will too. I sought out psychopomps, as you see, although some of them are gone now and others I no longer bother with, since all of them will tell you they know where you want to go. Meanwhile people like you—like your Bethany—began to seek me out in turn. That was how these walks began. I took people to find the psychopomps I had found and then to the brink of these very steps. And then I waited for them to come back. Once someone returned, I would know I had found the only guide I needed to the underworld.

You should go down now. The entrance will only stay open a little longer and St. Peter’s patience runs exceedingly short. It was very good—I’m sorry, what was your name? It was very good to meet you, Marjorie. (I believe this is the appropriate thing to say.) I’m sure you’ll find your daughter. If you should happen to come across a fair, frail girl by the name of Cicily, would you be so good as to let her know her sister Annis is on her way?

Don’t worry. You go on ahead. I’ll wait right here for you.

I’m sure I’ll see you very soon.

About the Author

Julia August offers guided walks by appointment only; please also note that the Hunterian Museum is shut for refurbishments until 2021. Her short fiction has appeared in Monstrosities, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Women Destroy Fantasy!, Lackington’s Magazine, Kaleidotrope and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr. Find out more at