Easily missed, but adjacent to St. James’s Park, Cockpit Steps is a small connecting passageway that links Birdcage Walk with Old Queen Street. The steps are Grade II listed for their historical significance. Next time you are in this area, take a little detour over these steps. When you enter at the Birdcage end and emerge on Old Queen Street you almost feel as if you’ve found a secret neighbourhood.
History: Cockpits Steps is so named as it is the last remaining part of a long lost Royal cockpit. Note that there was also a Royal Cockpit Theatre, built as part of Whitehall, that was nearer to Horse Guards and the Banqueting Palace which was a different venue. The cockpit here was built in the 18th Century for the upper classes to attend cockfights - whether to enter their own birds or just to watch and bet. By charging a 5 shilling admission price, this cockpit didn’t taking on the rough character many other pits did. The sport of cockfighting had become popular in Tudor times and had grown to become heavily integrated into English culture. Rules were created and books were published about the sport. This Royal cockpit remained popular but was demolished in either 1810 or 1816 (surveys of the time are conflicting). The curving steps from around it remained.
Ghost Stories: For what its worth, Cockpit Steps is supposedly haunted by a headless woman. The story begins in the late 18th Century when a soldier stationed at Horse Guards murders his wife and beheads her. While trying to hide the body in the lake, he is caught. The first report was in 1804 when The Times reported that on January 3rd, a sentry, George Jones, with the Coldstream Guards reported sighting a headless lady in a red dress. The incident ending up being recorded for posterity when he was summoned to testify in front of a magistrate. Numerous other sightings have been reported. Even as recently at 1972 the apparition was in the news again when a driver hit a lamp post claiming he swerved to avoid a headless woman in a white blood stained dress. Surprisingly he was acquitted of dangerous driving!
Located at: Cockpit Steps (from the north side, enter off Birdcage Walk, just west of Horse Guards Rd - from the south side, enter near the Two Chairmen pub on Old Queen St).
Closest Tube: St. James’s Park