Three hundred and fifty years ago, London was in the process of being ravaged by the Great Plague. Between 1665 and 1666, around 100,000 people – a quarter of the city's population – died.
Plague pits were dug across the city as the disease spread, into which victims were tossed in an attempt to halt the epidemic. There are still burial sites under what is now a Sainsbury's in Whitechapel, Golden Square in Soho, Green Park, Pitfield Street in Hoxton and numerous other locations.
We've known these pits were there, but, until recently, none have been excavated. Then the digging for the Crossrail project uncovered a huge burial site near the original Bedlam hospital, where the new east entrance for Liverpool Street station will be. The burial site was in use from 1569 until 1738 and contains more than 3,000 skeletons, a large proportion of which are thought to be plague victims. In total, 20,000 Londoners were buried in this small plot of land in the 16th and 17th century.
A team of archaeologists began excavating last week, which has caused a bit of tension among those concerned with this kind of thing. There are some who believe the dead should be left in peace and that, because they're exhuming so many remains, a great wave of spiritual chaos is about to hit London, as if it weren't a weird enough place to live already.
As an intrigued disbeliever, I decided to go down to the excavated plague pit with two people who fear this coming tide of psychic bad shit. The first is a ghost hunter: Barri Ghai, founder of The Ghostfinder Paranormal Society – a group that investigates hauntings and supernatural phenomena.
The second is professional clairvoyant Lidia Frederico, who specialises in spiritual protection services.
"The disturbance of so many bodies is likely to trigger some form of paranormal activity," Barri tells me as we make our way to the entrance of the site, next to Liverpool Street station. "I've seen many cases where people experience spiritual energy as a result of building work."
From outside, the Bedlam burial ground looks like any other building site. The sides and roof are covered so there's no way of seeing what lurks within. The day we meet it's sunny, it's lunch time and the area is busy with office workers darting out for their M&S meal deals. As far as I can see, no one seems to be behaving strangely as a result of some acute spiritual disturbance. However, Lidia can already sense something and pulls her jacket close around her.
"There's not a peaceful energy here," she says, shivering.
Inside, the site feels like a film set. The ground is packed with skeletons. Real skeletons. Not joke shop Halloween props or foam skeletons built for a movie shoot. Real ones. It's hard to get your head around seeing skulls and ribcages poking out of the earth in the middle of London's Square Mile. A team of archaeologists are working quietly, uncovering the remains as we watch from a viewing platform. Outside, London buzzes by. It's pretty surreal.
Lidia starts crying.
"I can see shadows everywhere," she says. "They're in pure pain and confusion. This is sacred ground. Wherever people are buried, energies start to establish. They're aware they're being disturbed now. I can hardly breathe."
I look back at the bones in the ground and try to image them as tormented souls; Liverpool Street as a 17th century plague pit. If the £650,000 studio flats and luxury chocolatiers of Shoreditch in 2015 are mildly horrifying, the scene in 1665 would have been straight from hell: whole families barricaded into houses to die, limbs rotting and covered in seeping sores; "dead carts" piled with bodies winding their way through panic-stricken streets to places like this. In his book, A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe described seeing a body-collector perving on the corpse of a young girl, another man laughing as he swung two dead children by the legs.
"The terror was so great at last that the courage of the people appointed to carry away the dead began to fail them," he wrote. "Nay, several of them died, although they had the distemper before and were recovered, and some of them dropped down when they have been carrying the bodies even at the pit side, and just ready to throw them in."
Lidia is looking grim. She approaches one of the security guards and asks to speak to whoever's in charge. She wants to warn the archaeologists that they're in personal danger and should stop the excavation immediately. At the least, she wants them to cleanse the souls off their shoes with salt water before they go home.
"They're tapping into something very serious," she warns, but the security guard just nods in a confused sort of way.
Barri is less visibly disturbed, but he's worried too and says he feels as though he's walked into a "blanket of energy, like a fog". He agrees that the Crossrail project is unleashing something dangerous into London's ether. Both he and Lidia are aghast that millions of commuters will soon be exposed to this mass awakening.
"Given that the area being excavated has 3,000 unmarked graves, it's highly likely that the spiritual energy will be felt by lots of people," Barri says. "Once the ticket hall has been built above this and thousands of people are walking through here every day, people will pick up on the residual energy that's been embedded in the ground."
The Bedlam burial ground was in use for more than 200 years and it's not only plague victims who were buried here; during that time, London had civil wars, the Restoration and the Great Fire. The site is also thought to be the final resting place of some important historical figures, including Robert Lockyer, executed by firing squad in 1649 for his role in England's first democratic political movement, the Levellers.
Last year, when preliminary excavation began, Crossrail's archaeology team began compiling a register of people buried at Bedlam. Of the 20,000 people whose remains ended up wedged into this plot, around 5,000 names have been added to the list.
Lidia may now be in contact with one of them. "He's a little boy called Peter," she says, her eyes filling with tears again. "He's saying, 'Mummy's not here.'"
When I tell Lidia that 400 skeletons have already been removed, she spreads her hands and rolls her eyes in weary exasperation: "Well, of course. They've separated him from his mother."
Skeletons removed from the Bedlam site are being taken to the Museum of London Archaeology for testing by osteologists. DNA tests on bones from other Crossrail sites have already yielded insights into the lives and deaths of long-dead Londoners and, in particular, into specific strains of the plague virus. Once this work has been carried out, the skeletons will be reburied on an island off England's southern coast. The ground on this island will be consecrated, a nod to mainstream magical thinking.
Still, maybe these bones do deserve a "proper" burial. Catharine Arnold, author of Necropolis, a book about how London deals with its dead, says that one of the remarkable things about the plague was how quickly all visible memory of it was erased.
"The number of deaths was catastrophic," she says. "In modern London, this could only be caused by something like a terrorist atrocity or a nuclear bomb. It was such a grisly time that, by the end of 1665, when the plague had died down, authorities were keen to plug the plague pits as soon as they could. Then, a few months later, you get the Great Fire of London – conspiracy theorists believe it was started deliberately to prevent another outbreak – and that destroyed so much of the city.
"But although we have a monument for people who died in the Great Fire, there isn't one for the people who died in the plague. It was such a calamity, it was almost as though people wanted to forget it ever happened."
Barri, Lidia and I walk outside, back into the warm afternoon. I glance around, but, as yet, no City boys with demon eyes are scaling buildings, no ectoplasm drifts from the construction workers eating their lunch on a wall.
A busy tube station will soon be built here; one in which you'll not only have to contend with lost tourists and angsty commuters, but also, perhaps, the undead. I imagine battling to the Oyster machine past ghostly hordes of plague victims.
But maybe we'll be OK. Lidia says she now feels obliged to return and perform a spiritual clearance, laying the souls to rest. She's very matter of fact about her burdensome gift.
"That's me off to Ikea for some candles," she says.
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