Among the things I remember vividly about my visit to The London Dungeon is the excitement and nerves I felt before I entered the first dark chamber. As our group of 20-odd people made their way through a dimly lit corridor, we heard a loud scream from the other side of a closed door. Startled, we shrank back, causing our guide, a hunched, dishevelled character called the Black Jester, to cackle with glee displaying his yellowing teeth. I had never been more intrigued by a history lesson.
The London Dungeon is a cross between an extravagant theatre production and an indoor theme park. Visitors walk through various rooms, each of which introduces them to a chilling chapter of London’s history. Some, like the Great Plague and Gunpowder Plot are based on real-life events, while others, like the story of serial killer Sweeney Todd, are literary legends. The rooms aren’t actually dungeons but elaborate sets and each tale is brought to life using goosebump-inducing special effects, and a crew of talented actors and make-up artists.
Our tour began with wounded patients wailing loudly in agony. As we walked past them, the Black Jester related how victims of leprosy were put in prisons between the 12th and 14th centuries, to avoid contagion. His eerie, snigger-filled lecture continued until we heard the sound of water lapping. We seemed to be at a canal with five boats waiting for us in the inky waters. Fumbling in the dark, our group boarded the Tyrant Boat Ride. As we settled down, I marvelled at the production value of The London Dungeon. It was hard to believe I was actually inside a building.
My friend’s hands gripped mine as the boat made its way through the water and ribbons of fog in the air. We whispered to each other trying to guess what was coming next. Suddenly a 3D projection of King Henry VIII’s head appeared, floating above us. The monarch went on to sentence his wife Anne Boleyn to her death for treason. The Black Jester was also convicted for aiding her cause as were his accomplices—our group of 20. We were all to be beheaded at the Tower of London, where we would be transported by boat over the Thames. Between the sounds of rats scurrying in the darkness, the faint stench of rotting garbage, and the booming voice of the enraged king, it was a little difficult to remember that we were not in fact traitors being rowed to our death.
The high-voltage drama was relentless. Every time my fist would unclench, something else would happen. When we alighted from the boats, it was the 17th century, and we were in a room full of barrels of gunpowder in the company of the dapper Guy Fawkes. With a gleam in his eyes, he spoke of his intention to blow up London’s parliament building, an outrageous plan that earned him the distinction of being one of England’s most famed traitors. In reality, Fawkes was caught red-handed, and even today, 5 November is celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day in Britain. Effigies of the man are burned in large bonfires across the country to mark the anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. We left his lair just when he started reciting the famous poem,“Remember, Remember / the fifth of November / the Gunpowder treason and plot…”
Over the next hour we also learnt about Jack the Ripper, the unidentified 19th-century killer, and toured a Torture Room filled with medieval instruments for inducing pain. We walked through the Horrors of the Great Plague where mechanical rats nibbled at our toes and cages full of live rats hung from walls. There were rattling coffins, putrid bodies, and the corpse of a dead doctor. The plague room disturbed even the most steely willed of us, and we were all close to shrieking by the end of it.
Theatrics apart, it is the interactive nature of the shows that really thrills visitors. In the Torture Room for instance, the hooded handler, showed us a tong-like device that was used to clench male privates, causing me to snicker. As a penalty, I was put in a cage for the next few minutes, much to the amusement of the teenagers in the group.
In another room, we met Mrs. Lovett, accomplice to the murderous barber Sweeney Todd. She put the corpses her companion produced to ingenious use: Baking them into meat pies and selling them at her shop. In this retelling of the urban legend of Sweeney Todd, we were customers at his salon. The room went pitch dark, screams of victims filled the space, and Todd’s voice boomed around us, as we were poked and prodded through the seats.
One of the funniest characters in The London Dungeon, though no less daunting, is The Judge, who accuses members of the audience of medieval crimes. Some were convicted of witchcraft, others of murder, and the rest of us were guilty of treason. For our offences, we were all sent to the gallows, which turned out to be a free-fall ride called Drop Dead, meant to replicate the feeling of a long-drop hanging. The ride lasted only a few minutes, but it was a fitting climax to an afternoon of adrenaline spikes. When we finally emerged from the building, facing the gentle River Thames and the London Eye, I felt glad to be alive and in the sun, with all my body parts intact, firmly in the 21st century.
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Down in the Dungeons”.
Getting There The London Dungeon is in the South Bank area, a minute’s walk from the London Eye and Sea Life Aquarium. It is a 5-min walk from the Waterloo tube station.
Hours Weekdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m., except Thursday when it opens at 11 a.m.; weekends 10 a.m.-6 p.m. During peak season (July-Aug) opening hours are extended.
Tickets Adults £17.95/₹1,795 online and £25.95/₹2,595 at the gate; children 4-15 yrs £15.50/₹1,550 online and £20.95/₹2,095 at the gate. You can also get combined tickets for The London Dungeon and other city attractions (www.thedungeons.com/london).
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.