THE plan had been to walk home from Denmark Hill, a brisk three-mile trot down through Camberwell and Walworth and onwards north towards the Thames.
The skies had cleared to offer some late autumn sun and a gentle breeze sent the dead leaves scuttering in the gutters.
As an invisible raven squawked from the bushes, or was it a wayward gull separated from its scavenging flock along the river, I judged there would still be time to make it home by nightfall.
I had dropped my wife at King’s College Hospital where she was signed up as a Covid vaccine volunteer and where she now faced the reality of having blood extracted and an experimental dose injected.
To calm her understandable nerves, she joked of bloodletting and Dracula and vampires. Her mood became more solemn though as we emerged from the station, opposite the ominous tower of the Salvation Army college.
She found the unfamiliar neighbourhood unsettling, with something indefinably sinister about the jumble of King’s buildings, across from the Edwardian facade of the Maudsley psychiatric hospital and below the crest of the hill.
The Maudsley is the country’s leading institution of its kind but has had its share of controversy over a century of treating the mentally disturbed. Its first superintendent, a former asylum doctor, embraced eugenics and raised concerns by experimenting with hormones extracted from animal organs.
It still hosts the occasional debate on the psychiatry war of the 1960s. That conflict pitted the likes of R.D Laing, who believed we should all be allowed to go mad to reveal our true selves, against those who promoted medicines and electric shocks, once routinely administered at the Maudsley.
As I left alone through the King’s compound, the skies had darkened, the breeze had intensified to piercing gusts. Abandoning the idea of a walk, I turned up the hill and towards the elaborate Victorian pavilion of the local station.
In the 1920s, its waiting room was the unofficial home of the so-called Mystical Church of the Comforter, a cult led by Elizabeth Mary Ann Eagle Skinner, alias The Messenger (today’s picture), who fitted it out like an ancient Egyptian temple.
“Everything is done by symbols, and the badge worn by the members is a dove, standing in a circle with a seven-leafed branch in its beak,” a contemporary wrote.
Maybe my wife was right about the weird psychogeography of this particular corner of Camberwell.
It’s an area with more than its fair share of ghosts, even for haunted London.
I went to school at the bottom of the hill, next to the churchyard at St Giles. Over the years, the spectre of a former priest is said to have startled those who risked cutting through the narrow ill-lit passage to the old vicarage.
Believers in such things speculate it is the grieving phantom of an Edwardian vicar whose daughter, Rose Kelly, married the satanist Aleister Crowley. Her marriage to The Great Beast drove her to insanity and she was committed to an asylum.
As I reached the station, a dark cloud had descended bringing the first spatter of a coming storm. On the platform it turned into a torrent that forced the few waiting passengers to shelter in the stairwell.
We scampered aboard as the first of the thunder burst. The woman behind me was on her phone. “I can’t talk now, Rache. There’s thunder and lightning. I’m really scared!”
If you’re reading this at twilight or alone towards the midnight hour, then sleep tight, pull up the covers, and I wish you a Happy Halloween.