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!

4 thoughts on “Swains Lane”

  1. Hi,I’m researching family,my great,great grandfather was Thomas washbourne Dunkley.
    A monumental stone and sculpture mason,living at 2 dunkley yard in 1981.
    I wonder if he saw anything,given the connections? No family tales to pass on tho!

  2. Hello again,

    I have just bought your book after discovering you have quoted my experience already.
    I am excited and gobsmacked to find it included in your book!

    I look forward to reading the rest of the book.

    Thank you,

    Declan Walsh (Delcatto).

  3. Hello,
    having found your website and read some of the stories I felt I had to tell you of my experience on Swain’s Lane.
    I used to work at a community NHS unit near Parliament Hill Fields and I often walked to work from my flat just off the Archway Road. A lovely walk in the summer but on a cold, damp autumnal morning…I would walk briskly. There were a number of ways to get to work but the quickest one was via Swain’s Lane. It was steep and quite narrow in parts and as you near the halfway point to your left is the East section of Highgate Cemetery. I have visited the cemetery many times as a legitimate visitor and as a kid during the 60’s / 70’s who climbed over at night with his mates. It is fair to say that I had a pretty good knowledge of the cemetery.

    This particular morning (6.30 a.m.) in November 1991 I was walking towards the cemetery gates when I spotted him. He was walking directly towards the gates and about 200 yards away from me. I don’t know how I knew it, but I instinctively knew something was wrong. He was extremely tall, well over six feet in height and he was extremely thin. He wore a long black cape-like coat and a top hat. His dress looked Victorian in style and he appeared all black. He also carried a small package. However, he walked directly towards the gates which I and every other local knew was locked to prevent intruders gaining entry. I watched as he walked straight at and through the gates, not once altering his stride or reaching out to open the gates. I stood frozen to the spot and stared at the gates. I kept thinking “Those gates are locked.I know they are locked”.
    I walked towards the gates whilst keeping to the right hand side of the road, keeping some distance between myself and the figure who had disappeared once he had entered the cemetery. The gates were securely chained and padlocked. To get in one would need the key or would have to climb over. I stared at the gates and I realised that I had seen someone not human. It’s funny what details stick in your mind because as well as his extreme height, thinness, the clothing and the blackness of the figure, he also appeared to glide and there was no sound. The ground was littered with leaves yet I heard no sound from him nor did he take any notice of me.
    I have to confess I made it into work in record time and one of my colleagues stated “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost”. When I told them what I had seen I was met with laughter and ridicule.
    However, I know what I saw that morning and I remember it distinctly to this day. As to whether it was a vampire…I have absolutely no idea as to the existence of vampires although I do believe I saw an apparition. I also took another route to work for the next few months.



  4. Hi,

    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.




Leave a Comment