Hidden Highgate Canvas

Swains Lane street sign (c) Dave Milner

Swains Lane

This steep and unforgiving lane, practically vertical in places, separates the East and West cemeteries at Highgate. It takes its name from the pig herders who from at least the 1300s used it to drive swine from the higher ground above Highgate down to Smithfields Market.

A high stone wall encloses Highgate Cemetery West on one side, and other walls and fences border the East Cemetery, giving the lane a claustrophobic feel. At night it is dimly lit, and eerily silent, so perhaps it is unsurprising that many apparitions have been encountered here over the years. But the sheer volume of these frequent sightings indicates that these conditions have more to do with the sympathetic environment afforded to this unpleasant apparition, than the imaginations of the sane, ordinary folk of Highgate which it preys upon. Over the decades healthcare professionals, pensioners, students, taxi drivers and businessmen have all claimed to have seen something extremely untoward in the lane.

Swains Lane

The majority of witness reports pertaining to Swains Lane revolve around a humanoid figure, estimated as between 6ft and 8ft tall. Sometimes it wears what appears to be a top hat and long coat, sometimes it appears cowled. Sometimes its face is visible, revealing gaunt cheekbones, sometimes only its eyes glint red or amber out of the darkness. In the immediate vicinity a similar if not identical figure has been seen at the back of Highgate West Hill, in Waterlow Park, inside the cemetery itself, and pretty much everywhere in the portion of Swains Lane which ascends from the main cemetery gates. Sometimes the entity is reported as being seen from a distance, standing motionless; sometimes it appears from nowhere rather like Spring-Heeled Jack and on one occasion in the mid 1960s  it was seen to slither over the cemetery wall in the form of a dark mass before rearing up to assume a human shape.

A letter from David Farrant to the Ham and High in 1970 pre-empted a glut of sightings of this entity during the early 1970s, when on occasion it was known to throw witnesses to ground. People who came forward included an old lady whose dog whimpered in fear and refused to go near the entity, and a young nurse who was rescued by a passing motorist when the impact of the entity knocked her to her hands and knees in the road.

Letter Ham and High Orig letter 6th Feb and The Ghost of N6 13th Feb 1970

The letter also resulted in weeks of letters pages filled with such reports from locals as a ‘ghost’, which frightened two nurses returning home from night duty up Swain’s Lane by seeming to walk towards them from inside the cemetery gates; a ‘figure’ in Swain’s Lane which appeared from nowhere only to run towards the witness and then vanish; and a ‘terrible apparition’ seen gloating through the bars of the main cemetery gate.  R. Docherty of Highgate West Hill recalled many tales being told about ‘a tall man in a hat who walks across Swain’s Lane and just disappears through a wall into the cemetery’.

Reports of the figure making an appearance have continued more or less consistently since then, but do seem to happen in clusters. The mid 1990s and mid 2000s were periods when it seems to have been particularly active. One summer night in 2005 Martin Trent of nearby Oakeshott Avenue had a disturbing encounter with a tall, darkly clothed figure by the East Cemetery gate, which he recalls on film for the first time below:

As recently as 2012 members of the North London Paranormal Investigations team encountered a male entity in eighteenth century dress, which you can read about here:


and here:


No photographic evidence of the entity as it is described by witnesses has come to light as yet.  However an astonishing sequence of photographs taken in December 2011 are certainly worth considering as potential evidence of paranormal activity in the area. The photographs below were taken by Redmond McWilliams, who had visited Swains Lane with the intention of ascertaining whether it was possible that a human assailant could be responsible for the 1970s assaults (I am also presently investigating a 1994 assault by a top-hatted entity but more on that to follow). Redmond concludes that human agency was a technical possibility. You can read Redmond’s guest blog which details his investigation here.

Photograph No.21.  Another shot of the cemetery interior and again the same anomaly. (c) Redmond McWilliams

Photograph No.21. Another shot of the cemetery interior and again the same anomaly. (c) Redmond McWilliams


Photograph No.31 A shot of Swains Lane (just yards from (and to the left) of the North Gate. Take a look at the bottom left where  you see the same wispy anomaly but this time with an almost serpentine shape and arrangement. (c) Redmond McWilliams

Photograph No.31 A shot of Swains Lane (just yards from (and to the left) of the North Gate. Take a look at the bottom left where you see the same wispy anomaly but this time with an almost serpentine shape and arrangement. (c) Redmond McWilliams

What are we to make of the photos though? Redmond saw nothing amiss at the time. I have had sight of the files straight from the camera they were taken on, and the numerical sequence is rather disturbing. If whatever is captured in the photographs was behaving in any kind of conscious fashion, then it appears to have been accompanying Redmond down Swains Lane.  Redmond’s camera is not the only reporter of white shapes snaking out of the top gate; these have also been seen with the naked eye by unconnected groups of people, one accompanied by a dog which, like the old lady’s, reacted with extreme fear.

There have been far too many sightings and uncanny experiences in Swains Lane to cover in detail in this location post, but I will be returning to this subject in much greater detail – both in my forthcoming book Haunted Highgate, and on this site.

See also – “He swears a lot for a ghost!”

N.B. :- Swains Lane is not only the haunt of supernatural predators, it is a very dangerous place to visit at night alone for very mortal reasons. If you are crazy enough to go there at night, take a personal alarm – or better still, stay home and read the accounts of people who DID go there at night – and regret it!

Have you had a spooky experience in Swains Lane? Share your story below!

One Response to Swains Lane

  1. James January 22, 2015 at 2:56 pm #


    Interesting article, I am sceptical though, I have been up and down that lane many times and never seen anything. After reading this I will actively check it out over the course of this year, and see what happens.

    Regarding the last two photos, they just look like cigarette smoke to me. Im assuming the photographer was not smoking at the time, but like I say I am sceptical.

    Keep up the good work and I will continue to follow to see what new evidence arises.



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