Haunts of Jack the Ripper

Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be there. Technically, I had snuck into the Jack the Ripper tour. But I didn’t care. I really wanted to do something “creepy” for Halloween.

You see, the BU London History and Literature Programs include many extra trips and tours. Zoe is in the History Program and told me about how they were going on a Jake the Ripper tour. It being near Halloween, I thought it would be cool to see if I could tag along. Luckily, since they weren’t taking attendance at the tour (so they didn’t know who was going to show up and who wasn’t), I was able to easily insert myself into the group without notice.

We met outside the Whitechapel Gallery. The night was chilly and damp. Little wisps of rain continually fell on our heads, and we shivered in our coats. Some huddled under their umbrellas. The guide began by leading us away from the busy street and into a back alley. We passed a much larger tour on the way. Their guide was holding up pictures of Jack’s victims. After gathering us under an awning, our guide continued by “setting the stage” and describing London’s east end during the late 19th century: the sights, the smells, the poverty. Those in the History Program nodded along. They had already learned this in class.

Then the guide led us down another damp alleyway into a 1980s estate housing complex. He stopped, gathered us together again, narrowed his shaggy eyebrows, and leaned forward: “It’s not here now, but this was where the first victim lived.” The Ripper story had begun.

The alleyway where the Ripper's third victim was discovered. © Violet Acevedo
The alleyway where Jack the Ripper’s third victim was discovered. © Violet Acevedo

He took us through each death, in all the gory details. Periodically, we would move to different location down backstreets and alleyways. Most of the original buildings had long since been destroyed (thanks mostly to the Blitz), but there were still a few facades, a few cobblestones sidewalks that had been around during and even witnessed the legendary murders.

If it had all been relatively empty, the intended haunting effect would’ve been created—the ghosts would’ve shimmered faintly on the damp bricks and Victorian Whitechapel would feel as if it was only a step away. But no, it was simply impossible to create that atmosphere. First, there were the other tours. They would pop up here and there, sometimes made up of dozens of people all vying to hear their guide. And then there was the neighborhood itself. It was not so much the changes in the architecture or the new buildings but the life in the streets. It was a Thursday night and people were out laughing and drinking outside the pubs. The neon and florescent lights illuminated the main streets like Brick Lane (London’s famous curry destination) and people would be hurrying into various restaurants for a good naan. The movement and activity simple continued to break whatever spell the guide tried to put us under with his story.

There was only one spot where the cold and the damp settled in and everything was quiet enough to allow for the past to creep in. It was the final spot we gathered at: a back parking lot officially not on the tour or one of the Ripper-related locations, but it was far enough away from the activity of the neighborhood and the other tours to create some sort of haunted atmosphere. We were also all thoroughly cold and wet by that time, and more susceptible to it all, especially his sinister conclusion:

“And the enduring thing about the Ripper is not so much the number of his victims or how he killed them, but the fact that he was never caught…and it’s been so long that I don’t think we’ll ever know who he is. People can guess and spend their whole lives researching, but we’ll never truly know…And you can take that to bed tonight as you try to sleep.”

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Filmic Oxford

Besides its history, I only really wanted to go to Oxford because of Inspector Morse / Lewis. Call me nerdy, but that’s the truth. The romanticized version of England’s supposed murder capital was what I wanted to see in person.

I booked the bus pretty last minute, so I really didn’t have time to plan what I was going to do. From experience, if you’re in that situation, the official visitor’s center is always the best place to start.

It was raining when I got there. Luckily, I had planned for it, so I marched out of the bus, umbrella in hand. I wandered around a nearby market for a bit and then headed to the visitor’s center. Once there I found out about and booked a filming locations walking tour. After all, that’s what I was here for, right?

While I was waiting, I wandered about some more and had lunch in the Covered Market: an indoor complex of narrow lanes, twisting and turning and lined with everything from cafés to butchers to shoemakers. (I have a thing for markets, if you couldn’t tell.) Eventually the rain had cleared up and even though everything was still damp, it was turning out to be a lovely fall day.

Finally, it was time for the tour. We gathered outside the visitor’s center and the guide, a charismatic, middle-aged woman, began with a basic history of the city. She pointed out where parts of the medieval city wall still stood and told us about how old the colleges were (around 750 years, which is mind-bogglingly old to an American whose whole country is just over 250 years old).

We eventually made it over to Exeter College where they’ve filmed several movies and TV shows. We walked into the chapel where they’ve shot numerous Inspector Morse / Lewis scenes, including Morse’s last. We were shown the dormitories used as the set of the fictional Jordan College in The Golden Compass. We took notice of the Old Parliament building where they film pre-Victorian parliamentary scenes in historical movies. And finally, we gaped at the windows of the infirmary and library of the first two Harry Potter movies.

We were then led to the Radcliffe Camera, site of not only many scenes in Inspector Morse / Lewis, but also Young Sherlock Holmes, and even a Bollywood film. Next, down some winding lanes, was Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs. (There’s only one despite what you might think with its constant appearances in films and TV shows, especially in Inspector Morse / Lewis.) From there, we walked through the coal-stained alleyway often used for Industrial period pieces and gloomy prison entrances (sometimes located across the world like in one Tom Cruise movie).

Then through alleyways and sports fields, we made it to Christ Church College. It’s open to visitors (within limits) all year round, and as you would expect, the place was packed. But being a part of a tour group, we were able to skip the ticket line and head right in. It was here that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll) and plenty of other famous Britons went to school. But the college is also known for its Harry Potter connection. Scenes were shot in its corridors and staircases, and its great hall inspired the Hogwarts recreation. It was all a bit hard to believe that people my age still studied here.

By that time, two hours had passed, and it was there that we gave our thanks and said adieu to our tour guide. I’m not usually one for tours but that one was worth every penny.

I wasted away the remaining time by taking a wonderful meal at Vaults & Gardens near the Radcliffe Camera and strolling through the cobbled streets at sunset. The clouds were now just wisps in the sky and the remaining light that reflected off the stones was the stuff they glorify in paintings: Pure golds and blues filling planes in a way that impressionists could only dream of. There was even a rainbow. I fell in love with the city then and when I left, I felt I had saw and experienced something special, something out of the movies.

Last day with Amélie

The one thing (among many) that they don’t accurately portray in the movies is the crowds. Whenever they show the sunny streets or winding lanes of Paris, they are never populated by masses of tourists with selfies-sticks and backpacks.

We went to Montmartre today after we checked out of our Airbnb. Ah, Montmartre: the Paris neighborhood that is home to the Moulin Rouge (and the red-light district) and Amélie. Since we had only little time and large backpacks, we had to pick and choose what we were going to see. Zoe’s choice was Sacré-Cœur, the basilica at the top of the hill. We took the back steps up to the top and therefore were much surprised by the massive crowds we encountered in the front of the church. Right below us, was the plaza where Amélie gave back Nino his notebook full of torn photographs, but instead of being pleasant and spotted with a few milling couples and families, it was chilly and packed with people. Easy to see why, though. Both the basilica and the view were gorgeous.

We shuffled into the church behind packs of people and walked along the sidelines as a Sunday service commenced. Non-worshiping visitors were taking pictures and talking despite the large signs telling them not to. The small gift shop inside was also packed.

After we were back in the open air, I led us around, searching for the café Amélie “worked” at and using a picture of a map as my guide. Our route took us through the cobbled, winding streets of the movies. This time, they actually were sparsely populated and picturesque. (Every fiction has a root of truth.) We finally found the place through a bustling street. The café was also busy, but we were shown to a table quickly enough. The layout (save the cigarette counter which has been removed for more seating) was basically the same as in the movie. There were more tables and the décor had been updated, but it was still recognizably Amélie’s café. And if that wasn’t clear enough, there was a large signed picture of Améile hanging in the back and basically a shrine to the movie in the toilets.

The food was some of the best I’ve had in France. It might’ve been my love of the movie influencing my taste buds. I don’t know. But, one thing’s for sure, I will always remember that meal. I literally cleaned my plate.

After we left the café, we had more time to walk around before out train back, but Zoe and I both felt tired and didn’t feel like walking around with heavy packs on our backs, so we went early to the station and hung out until our train home.

Walking through Paris

The weather continued to be chilly, overcast, and damp. Fall seemed to have come all at once, and of course it had to happen while we were in Paris. It wasn’t too bad though. The weather eventually warmed up, and we made the most of it by bundling up and wandering about like all the fictional characters in Paris seem to do.

First, that day, we encountered a meat and produce market blocks from our Airbnb. It was packed with Parisians doing their weekend shopping, all queuing in front of and negotiating with the stall keepers over fresh fish or local grapes. We were too intimidated to buy anything.

We eventually made our way to Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Amongst the fall leaves and cobble stone streets, the tall, above-ground graves and mini chapels/shrines seemed to hold a special power. There was a pressure, a presence that compelled me to walk slowly and speak quietly. The place was full of moss covered stones, sitting beside the new, sleek graves. Past and present united in death.

The spell was broken, however, when we encountered clumps of tourists, huddling around Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s graves. As with every other tourist spot, they were there in force with their cameras and their tour guides. Zoe and I quickly moved on.

We then made our way to Bastille, strolling down the busy, urban streets and counting the dozens of cafés and patisseries along the way. They’re as frequent as Starbucks or McDonalds are in the states. We eventually got to the monument and it was there that we encountered a local craft fair. It was relatively empty and the artists huddled together around tables off to the sides to eat lunch. There was some amazing artwork there, and both Zoe and I ended up buying something. Better to support the local artist than the souvenir chain.

From there we continued and quickly ran into crowds. Here were the hordes of tourists that we missed before. I hadn’t noticed it when we walked along the river the previous evenings, but, at the time, crowds were relatively few and far in between. But now there they were, in full force, gathering around the vintage books and print stalls along the Seine and laughing and pointing in awe and excitement. There was so much English being spoken that I momentarily forgot what country I was in.

We elbowed our way through the masses to the restaurant we had been heading to called Le Rostand (ironically, we went at the suggestion of a guide book). It was a bustling café near Le Jardin du Luxembourg. The food was wonderful, and after a couple hours, we finished and wandered into the garden. A guy was playing classical music on a record player under the gazebo as people strolled along under the orange leaves and grey skies. Zoe said she felt like she was in a movie, and I couldn’t help but agree with her. It rained while we were there and we took shelter under the trees and watched people hurry past under their umbrellas.

Afterwards, Zoe lead the way back to Shakespeare and Co. (and once again, there were the crowds that we had missed) because she wanted to buy a book. I myself bought an English language Indian book about an Indian student at an American university. It sometimes amazes me how global everything has become.

We headed back after that and had a simple meal at a local café. We were exhausted, and we still had to pack. Tomorrow was our last day.

D’Orsay and the Arch

Is it possible to fall in love with a museum? I suppose if it’s possible to fall in love with a city, it’s possible to fall in love with a building.

Anyway, I think I found my artistic soul mate: Museé d’Orsay. Contained within this former train station is nearly 100 years of (mostly) French art from the 1830’s to 1914. It’s got (nearly) all the famous symbolists, naturalists, impressionists, neo-impressionists, and more: Van Gogh, Dega, Renior, Monet, and others populate the iron-strung walls of this building.

We spend about four and a half to five hours there, in which I tried to see everything. I spent an hour in their prostitution exhibit (all very French), taking in the complex images of the French sex trade (illegal and legal). At the gift shop afterwards, I saw Dame Helen Mirren. I was too afraid to ask for an autograph or a picture.

Afterwards, I wandered around, taking in the symbolists, naturalists, and others. I stopped by to see Van Gogh and gazed at the brush strokes and the people vying for a picture of them. Then on to the impressionists (and the crowds). My heart literally sped up at the sight of my favorite painters and (some of) their most famous works. If it wasn’t for the crowds, I could’ve spent hours in that room.

My last stop was a female photographers’ exhibit (which was a bit out of place now that I think of it). While it was a little underwhelming compared to what I had seen minutes before, it was still fascinating and very well done. The self-portraits were fantastic, and I couldn’t help but take a second to gaze into the eyes of the Migrant Mother.

I was thrilled yet exhausted by the time we left. I would come back every day if the museum wasn’t so far.

Afterwards, we made our way to the Arch de Triumph, bumping into several outdoor modern art exhibits including an inflatable Swiss chalet along the River Seine, and a modern installation next to the Jardin des Tuileries. To get to the arch we also had to pass the tourist/international/glitzy/rich shopping district on Av. des Champs-Élysées. A combination of Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus in London, it blatantly lures tourists and wealth in like flies to a porch light. I’ve seen it all before.

After taking a quick picture at the arch, we decided that we were too tired and too cheap to try to look for something to eat there, so we went back to the neighborhood of our Airbnb and ate a café there.

Louvre and Eiffel

It was a cold and damp morning. Zoe was asleep, so I wandered through the supermarket near us and the neighborhood surrounding us, passively observing the middle class Persians and their habitat. They walked past on the street with their shopping bags, hunched from the abnormal chill. Everything was relatively deserted.

It made a marked contrast to what I saw later in the day. Once Zoe woke up we headed to the Louvre. We waited in line outside with the rest of the tourists for 40 minutes to get in. We were surrounded by non-French speaking people, mostly Americans. There was a British couple down a ways that was drinking tea and eating cookies (sorry, biscuits).

Needless to say, we eventually got in. As was expected, the crowds were intense, and after we bought our tickets, Zoe and I decided to split up. I made my way to the top in search of a Vermeer. I never did find it (the area had been sectioned off from the public) though I spend most of the time trying to make my way towards it. In my search, however, I did get to see a whole bunch of paintings that before had only seemed to live in the pages of my art history textbook.

And before you ask, yes, I did get to see Mona Lisa, or rather I saw more of the crowds surrounding her. There were masses of people, all pushing and vying for a better look (or really a better photo) of the famous woman. Their eagerness was unreal.

I also saw the other famous women who call the Louvre home: The Winged Victory and Venus de Milo, both impossibly beautiful and constantly being hoarded by adoring fans (though to a lesser extent than Ms. Lisa).

I wanted to stay and see more but after three and a half hours I was exhausted both mentally and physically. So we left the masses and wandered around St. Germain for food. We eventually found a little café which, coincidently, was also being populated by Americans. Zoe and I grimaced at their loud, brash American-ness as we ate our simple, French food.

It was getting even colder and had started to drizzle by the time we left the café, yet we still decided to walk over to the Eiffel Tower. We made our way through St. Germain and a random Russian/Soviet market, slowly getting closer and closer to the monument. The streets were nearly empty, the tourist-y restaurants and hotels full of people huddled around the heaters. No one had expected this weather.

Which was why, when we got to the tower, it was relatively empty. The beauty of the monument, Zoe’s pleading, and the short lines convinced me to pay the nearly €15 to go to the top. It was a breath-taking sight and it was worth every penny (as they say in the movies), but Zoe and I were absolutely freezing by the end.

We wasted no time rushing back to our Airbnb and falling into the warm sheets.

A Break in Paris

Paris. Like all major, international cities, its streets have been reproduced hundreds of times in film, literature, and more. Its images are so common that they have seeped into our subconscious and have been romanticized to the point of caricature.

I’ve never been a huge romantic when it came to Paris. London was always my city. But my friend Zoe wanted to go for our fall break, and I had no major objections, so I said yes. Plus, it would be one more famous place I could say I’ve been to, that I could check off my sights-of-the-world-list.

And there we were, recovering from being scammed out of €60, digesting delicious yet rich French food, and relaxing in our residential Airbnb (we have the whole apartment to ourselves). Zoe was exhausted from the early start, and I was feverously reading guide books and roughly planning our next four days.

We went to Notre Dame already. That was the first thing we did after checking into our Airbnb. We traveled all the way to the top of one tower and gazed at the ever-expanding city below us. It was beautiful.

We walked along the river after that, constantly referencing Midnight in Paris (the only movie about Paris that we’ve both seen enough to reference) and observing the famous love locks.

After a two hour dinner at a delightful, French tearoom called La Fourmi Ailée (literally The Flying Ant), we took refuge from the rain in Shakespeare and Company. I felt like a proper fictional character at that moment. All I needed was to be carrying a romantic novel under my arm and then bump into a handsome, sensitive guy with a sense of humor.

But sadly, reality rarely mimics fiction.

From Paul to Potter

Since the London Eye is overrated (and overpriced), to give our friend Alexa a view of the city, Zoe, her roommate, and I decided to take her to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Built between 1675-1710, the building has seen an amazing amount of history: From the fallout of the British civil war to the Blitz (in which it served as both a navigation point for the Germans and a rallying point for the English). I had been meaning to visit since I came to London.

I wish I could show off photos of the breathtakingly ornate and elegant interior, but pictures are expressly forbidden within the cathedral.  What we were allowed to take pictures of was the view from the dome. You see, included within the ticket price is the ability to climb all 528 steps to the top, first to the Stone Gallery and then to the Golden Gallery. And I thought the inside of St. Paul’s was breathtaking…

After we were back on Earth, our legs aching from the exertion, we hurried to catch out bus to the Warner Brother’s studio to do what else but see the Harry Potter studio tour.

Alexa and Zoe were ecstatic, the giggling-uncontrollably, unable-to-stop-smiling type of ecstatic. I was excited but much tamer. While I’m a fan of Harry Potter (both the movies and books), it simple wasn’t as big of a part of my life as it was for them. But once we were grandly shown into the Great Hall at the beginning of the tour, I began to understand what they were feeling. The place was beautifully designed to engage people in not only the Potter-ness of everything but also the craft of the movies. It brilliantly showcased all the detail and talent involved within the making of all eight films. Everything was a monument to classic movie magic (literally and figuratively), and it was the film geek in me that became ecstatic.

Playing the Tour Guide

Strange to say, but after living here for about a month, I had to play the tour guide. My friend Alexa, who is studying abroad in Dublin, came over for the weekend. She’s friends with Zoe and I, and since Zoe was in class the afternoon Alexa came in, it was my job to show Alexa the sights.

I knew the perfect route to take her that would check the maximum amount of tourist boxes: it starts in Piccadilly goes through Trafalgar and ends in Westminster, giving her the opportunity to see the Trafalgar Lions, Big Ben, the Eye, and much more. I had walked the route on Day 13 so knew my way around (relatively).

Alexa leaning through the gates at Westminster to take a photo. © Violet Acevedo.
Alexa leaning through the gates at Westminster to take a photo. © Violet Acevedo.

As we made our way to the most famous clock in the world, I was amazed at how familiar it all seemed: The rush and bustle of the streets, the noise and pollution of the road, the twisting and turning of the route. I walked with purpose and was only slightly hesitant. Don’t get me wrong, things were still new to me and the crowds still had a tendency to bombard my senses, but I was much more confident navigating through the streams of people and maze of streets this time around. Whereas, Alexa, as new to the city as I once was, tagged along behind me, confused and overwhelmed.

We eventually met Zoe and another friend at the Eye, deciding afterwards to cross the river again in order to search for somewhere to eat. We ended up choosing the Sherlock Holmes Restaurant (I’ve been having a particularly Holmes-filled week), which served classic English pub fair. I had a fantastic steak and ale pie and Alexa had a classic toad-in-a-hole (bangers and mash with Yorkshire pudding). As was expected, the upstairs dining room was decorated with various Sherlock Holmes posters and advertisements. There was even a little glassed-off room that contained a dusty recreation of Sherlock Holmes’ study.

Later, we walked the streets of Soho, passing through the lights and noise of the various clubs, bars, and restaurants that populated the area. We elbowed past more crowds and eventually wandered down a side street and to a tearoom. It just shows what kind of people we are that amongst our alcohol-filled surroundings, we chose to go in a tearoom to eat cakes and tarts. (Though, we did end up having a quick drink in a toned-down rugby pub Covent Garden.) As is the way with my friends and I.

Sherlock Holmes and Tea

221b Baker Street is, of course, the famous address of the most well-known fictional detective in the world. Today, the Sherlock Holmes Museum is located there. It was a one bright Tuesday afternoon that I visited.

I went with a group from the Boston University Abroad program. The Student Activities Office offers us discounts on tours and activities in and around London. Most are too structured and not worth it. Some, like this one, are. Included within the £20 program price was the admission to the Sherlock Holmes Museum (average ticket price: £15) and afternoon tea at the Sherlock Hotel (average price: £20). Basically it was two for the price of one. Since I had been meaning to go to the museum and can’t say no to a good cup of tea, I jumped at the chance.

The entrance  to the Sherlock Holmes Museum.
The entrance to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. © Violet Acevedo

Most of the other people in the BU group were from various Asian countries and were studying business or finance or something similar. Overall, they were mostly interested in Sherlock Holmes, but there also was one American guy studying pre-law who knew little to nothing about the famous detective. The extent of his knowledge was the Robert Downey Jr. movies. He said he choose to take tea and go to the museum because he “wanted to get out more.”

We eventually all arrived at the 221b Baker Street after meeting up with an RA and taking the tube. Outside was a cheesy sign and an old fashioned bobby standing guard at the door. He marked off our tickets (which were really just informational pamphlets), and we were gestured inside.

Sherlock's Mantel. © Violet Acevedo
Sherlock’s Mantel. © Violet Acevedo

Up some noisy, narrow stairs was Sherlock Holmes’s bedroom. It was small, cluttered, and decorated with Victorian antiques. A deerstalker sat in a glass case on the bed. There were no signs except the occasional small slips of paper explaining what story an object came from. Most of the rest of the museum was like that. Crowded with antiques and sly references to the written stories (a knife pining correspondence to the mantel, a Persian slipper filled with tobacco, a “manuscript” of a Sherlock Holmes story on Watson’s desk, etc.)

It was as if we were looking into the real home of the two characters, fact and fiction blurring to create a musty Victorian flat. Cool if you’re an avid fan, boring and mystifying if you’re not. I know because that’s what the American pre-law major looked like as he wandered around.

Moriarty's wax double. © Violet Acevedo
Moriarty’s wax double. © Violet Acevedo

On the top floor were the wax works: unnerving models of villains from classic stories such as “The Red-Headed League” and “The Speckled Band.” Some familiar faces were also there such as Irene Adler and Moriarty. They stared at the visitors with unwavering glares.

Overall, I was fairly underwhelming. The museum was interesting but poorly designed. They did a very bad job of catering to the whole range of Sherlock Holmes fans from novice to avid. Things were labeled haphazardly and briefly.  And guides, besides the pamphlet/ticket, were not easily available. Compared to the interactive and informative experience at the Jane Austen Center in Bath, the Sherlock Holmes Museum was a huge let down.

The afternoon tea was good though. The Sherlock Hotel was only a couple blocks down from the museum, and despite the name, was decorated in a very modern and genteel way. They placed us in a back room and gave us a couple coaches and arm chairs to sit on and two coffee tables to eat off of. The tea was satisfying and the food was delicious. Not too rich but very flavorful. All of the finger sandwiches, cakes, and especially the scones were eaten in relish. Completely worth the £20. I imagine even Sherlock Holmes himself would’ve been pleased.