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STALKING THE WALKING DEAD IN VICTORIA

Story and Photos by Margaret Deefholts

Tendrils of fog curl around lampposts as I make my way along Government Street. Hunched against a spiteful wind, the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night…" is a nagging refrain that keeps time with my hurrying feet.

At the Visitors' Centre in Victoria, John Adams host of Ghostly Walks, and co-host Martin Thomas, are ready to take a group of us through what is widely believed to be "the most haunted city in British Columbia."

Adams shows us how to discover the energy field that surrounds our physical bodies- unseen but, like the spirit world, nonetheless a reality. And then, our breaths rising wraith-like on the chill air, he points across the harbour where, for a moment, the mist clears, to allow us a glimpse of a white building with black turrets. "It's the old Gatsby Mansion," Adams says, "and it has a gory past…" The boutique hotel's ghosts may or may not still hang around, but a couple in his audience exchange uneasy glances-they're staying there.

Adams makes a sweeping gesture to encompass the entire area. "Never mind that particular building," he says, "there are ghosts everywhere in Victoria." Long before the gold rush days that turned Victoria into a city thronged with prospectors and merchants, the Songhees and the Esquimalt Indian bands lived and died here. Their bones were interred in cairns, or hung in caskets from trees. But when the white settlers arrived, with scant regard for the age-old Indian beliefs, they cleared away the bones and disposed of them in the waters around Victoria.

"And," says Adams, pausing dramatically, "Their energy is still here, embedded in the earth around us! So, beware! Tonight you may suddenly feel a hand on your shoulder, yet when you turn, there's nobody there!" A nervous titter runs through the crowd.

We follow Adams to the lawns of the Empress Hotel, where, as it turns out, I once occupied a haunted floor in the tower, but (darn it!) never bumped into the old lady who walks the floor at the dead of night, or the phantom of Francis Rattenbury, the murdered architect of The Empress and Victoria's Parliament Buildings.

The eccentric couple, Charles and Leah Rogers the original owners of Rogers Chocolates (on Government Street) died in the 1920s but haven't quite left the building. Neither has their even weirder, suicidal son, Freddie. As we huddle against the chill, lights, blurred and mysterious, glow through the metal grilled bay windows, and a trick of mist throws the fleeting outline of a figure against one of them.

Our next halt is in front of a shop called "Seeing is Believing" and ironically my photograph appears to highlight the "lie" in "believing"! However, it's no lie that the ghost who looks out of the window of an upstairs room is none other than Robert Service, whose poem The Cremation of Sam McGee is familiar to most of us. Service lived in the (then bank) building for a while before moving to the Yukon, and had a traumatic experience while looking at the pavement below his window-one which he said would haunt him till his dying day. And…possibly into the hereafter, too, since he still re-visits the upper window of the building.

From here we enter into one of the creepiest areas in the Victoria downtown area-Helmcken Alley and Bastion Square. Macabre tales abound here, and standing at the back window of the very haunted Camille's Restaurant my camera captures a couple having dinner. Are they real, or are they perhaps the ghosts of Brady and Charlotte (aka "Lady Churchill") who dined here regularly before Brady came to a violent end. Is it mist curling against the window, or a plume of Brady's cigar smoke, the smell of which still lingers in the building?

The Marine Building at Bastion Square stands on the site of the old Victoria jail, courthouse and gallows. The dead don't rest easy at this spot. Staff in the Marine Building know beyond a doubt that the place is monstrously haunted. The towering figure of Judge Matthew Begbie, known as "the hanging judge" walks the staircase, while mysterious groans and the clanking of convicts' leg chains have been heard in empty corridors on certain floors of the building. Tonight, standing in a clearing behind the Marine Building where convicted murderers once swung at the end of a rope, it is easy to imagine the sharp crack of a spinal neck bone as a body falls into a pit below the gallows, and the collective intake of breath by a ghoulishly appreciative audience.

As we disperse, I hurry back to the Magnolia Hotel, head down. Pedestrians like shadowy shape-shifters pass silently by me, and skeletal-branched trees, wind-whipped, writhe against an orange Halloween moon.

IF YOU GO:

For more information on Ghostly Walks and other fascinating Victoria walks, click on http://www.discoverthepast.com/

The award-winning Magnolia Hotel www.magnoliahotel.com/ spares no detail in affording their guests superb service and luxury. Sorry, supernatural sleuths, there isn't a ghost of a chance of running into a spectre here-the hotel isn't haunted. The Sanuk Restaurant www.sanukrestaurant.com/ offers fine East-West fusion dishes, and the only spirits you'll encounter come out of a bottle.

Later this year, when the Seeing is Believing store becomes The Bard & Banker restaurant and bar, visitors might meet up with Robert Service in the Sam McGee room.

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts:

1. Believe the "Lie" or 'lie' in wait for the ghost of Robert Service
2. Who hovers behind the windows of Rogers Chocolates?
3. What lurks behind Ghostly Walks co-host Martin Thomas in Helmcken Alley?
4. Is that Brady at the window of Camille's Restaurant?
5. Dusk falls around Ghostly Walks host, John Adams at Victoria's Harbourside.

 


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