Chairman Meow has started playing trick or treat. When it’s time for dinner, he’s all affection, treating us to loads of cuddles and purrs but if food then isn’t forthcoming, he gets up to all sorts of tricks – Tapping the side of your face with a paw, pushing papers off the desk, running dementedly round the house only to freeze suddenly as if he’s seen a ghost.
The Chairman isn’t the only one getting into the Halloween spirit. Halloween is big business now in the UK : It’s estimated we spend a terrifying £300m on the festival. As a Brit, it’s hard not to feel a little sadness at the eclipse of our native Guy Fawkes, but it’s perhaps unsurprising. Let’s face it, this damp little island really doesn’t have the climate for any kind of outdoor activity in October, let alone something involving significant amounts of combustion: Bonfires and fireworks just don’t cut it in the rain. Halloween has no weather worries, no burnt children, no religious sensitivities, just fancy dress fun for all ages. In fact, it’s fast closing in on Christmas and Easter for popularity; And like Christmas, the festivities are starting earlier and earlier every year. With a fortnight still to go, I saw three zombies cycling past – it seems even the Walking Dead nowadays prefer Boris bikes.
Check any list of London’s scariest spots and you’ll almost always find a mention of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a 370m pedestrian subway under the Thames between Cutty Sark and Island Gardens. Opened in 1902, it transformed the lives of shipworkers south of the river who’d previously been dependent on the overcrowded and often unreliable ‘horse ferry’ to get to work in the docks on the Isle of Dogs. It was a magnificent piece of Victorian engineering but more recently, it’s fallen on hard times. Although there’s ongoing work to give the tunnel a much needed facelift, it remains dirty, seedy and crumbling. As the excellent Secret London Guide puts it “At times of low traffic, it feels like the loneliest, most desolate place in London.”
With Halloween just round the corner, it seemed like the perfect excuse for a visit but as I descended the staircase and stepped into the tunnel, my first feelings weren’t of fear but bitter disappointment. Shabby and decaying yes, but frightening? Hardly. For a start, it was just so busy. It never occurred to me it could be this crowded (clearly naivety on my part: I’ve since found out more than 1.5m Londoners use the tunnel every year and it’s almost at capacity!). Far from being a sinister highway, this was more like the fast lane on the M25. As wave after wave of people dashed past, there were certainly some scary sights, but none of them remotely supernatural.
Still, I was here now. No point in rushing off. I might as well make the most of it and take time to explore. It’s funny how the human brain works but the longer I spent in the tunnel, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. Maybe it was the humidity, the stale, slightly foetid air; Or perhaps the echoes, which danced all around and disorientated the senses on a rollercoaster of sound. When a group of lads came through on skateboards I genuinely (ie embarrassingly) panicked, imagining it was the roar of 50ft of river-water suddenly bursting through into the tunnel. The Greenwich Tunnel isn’t a frightening place, it’s a place where you bring your own fears and watch them fester and multiply in the dark corners of your mind.
Halloween is full of ghost stories to inspire fear, but maybe the real ghost is fear itself, that lingering memory of negative experience which haunts us throughout our lives. Even faced with our obvious unhappiness in the country, for months we couldn’t make the decision to return to London for fear of the past – fear of our former shoe-box lifestyle, fear of the cost of living, fear for the Chairman. In the end, it was only the realization that our marriage was more important that put those fears into perspective and gave us the courage to act.
So why did I finally flee the foot tunnel and scuttle back to the surface? They say the only thing you have to fear is fear itself but when an enormous spider suddenly starts crawling towards your leg, I’m happy to make an exception.