From Roman legionnaires to executed highwaymen, the ancient city of York is believed to be the most haunted in Europe. A reluctant Joe Shute goes in search of the restless spirits which stalk its streets.
It is 3.57am and I am awake. A light shines from the hall and floorboards creak upstairs. The four-poster bed casts eerie shadows against the walls, hung with wonky paintings whose black frames stand out in the dark. Everything is utterly still, bar my girlfriend Liz’s breathing and a few distant cries from the Shambles outside.
There are five ghosts in the pub, and only four bedrooms, I huddle into the duvet and try to forget about those odds, counting down the minutes until the witching hour ends and dawn cracks through the curtains.
The nights are long in York, said to be the most haunted city in Europe. No more so than in the Golden Fleece – its most haunted pub – where we are staying. The building’s most famous ghost is Canadian airman Geoff Monroe, who, in 1945, fell out of one of its windows on to the street below.
Another spirit dressed in 17th century clothes has a penchant for strolling through the walls. People staying in our room have heard voices whisper to them in the shower, and on one occasion the bedroom door was slammed shut with mysterious hands holding it fast.
My uneasy sleep has not been helped by the fact we have spent the evening walking the city’s streets on The Original Ghost Walk of York, led by Mark Graham. Millions travel from across the world every year to seek out York’s ghosts, with four different tours taking place each night across the city.
Mr Graham’s, however, is the longest and has now been going for 33 years. The former fireman, originally from West Yorkshire, estimates he leads 10,000 people a year through the city, while previous customers include Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfus, and, most recently, the comedians from the Mighty Boosh. “They told me they were staying in the Hotel du Vin and it was haunted by a small child,” he says.
His official tours always start from the King’s Arms Pub on the banks of the River Ouse, but he meets us before at the Golden Fleece whose chequered history he is all too familiar with. Almost immediately, he launches into gruesome tales; the street outside our bedroom window, he grins, was where public torture was once a common sight. The road is nicknamed Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate as a result.
York is a city built on bones, roamed by the spirits of former residents who have never been able – or willing – to lay to rest. From the Roman and Viking settlers, to medieval plague pits, to the likes of Dick Turpin hanged at York Racecourse in 1739, every fresh archaeological dig uncovers new stories, and sometimes gives startling credence to old tales.
Such was the case with plumber Harry Martindale, who died last year aged 79. In 1953, he was installing a new central heating system in the cellars of Treasurer’s House, in the shadow of York Minster, when he heard a distant horn. Suddenly, a detachment of Roman soldiers marched through a brick wall led by a dishevelled soldier draped across a carthorse. Mr Martindale described the troops as wearing green tunics and plumed helmets with astonishing attention to detail, and claimed the legs were cut off at the knees. Yet few people believed him.
Only 20 years later, an excavation revealed an old Roman Road, the Via Decuma, passed right through the cellar and had been buried 15 inches below the surface. Mr Martindale, who had become a devout Christian as a result of what he had seen, was vindicated.
His tale is one recounted with relish by his friend Mr Graham as he leads our ghost walk through the streets of York, long black coat swishing behind him, mountain ash cane in his hand. “Everything fitted Harry’s story”, he says, gazing up past the iron Victorian lamp posts and into the starless sky.
Yet despite his occupation, Mr Graham claims to never have been directly confronted by a ghost himself. “I have seen shapes and shadows many times but I have never seen somebody. The most common ghost story that people tell me is grandparents visiting their grandchildren. That was my own experience with my grandfather when I felt he had come into the bedroom. He was there, but I didn’t want to see him.”
That notwithstanding, York’s ghosts certainly seem attracted to him. At an old address next to St Andrew’s Evangelical church, on the site of an old orphanage, his daughter Eve used to regularly be visited by the spectre of a man followed by two children walking up the stairs and past her bedroom. He would doff his hat, then disappear.
Every year, he collects new stories, although he maintains faithful to his favourite tales. Take June Laycock, a former barmaid at the Black Swan on Peasholme Green, who once fell victim to an evil spirit inside the pub when opening it up, alone. She heard a noise, leaned out through a hatch and felt herself gripped around the throat. Each time she struggled, the stranglehold only grew tighter, until two customers walked through the door and the spirit disappeared. The owner of the Guy Fawkes Inn, opposite York Minster on the birth sight of the famous plotter, has told Mr Graham a story of another near miss. Fawkes was a pupil at St Peter’s School in York which has an annual bonfire but has never put a guy on the top, until 20 years ago when teachers attempted to place one there to raise money for charity.
On November 4 of that year, a mysterious figure was spotted on the staircase in the Guy Fawkes Inn. After being chased into a room by the owner brandishing a bottle of beer and an ornamental sword, it disappeared through a wardrobe. Four hours later, a fire broke out in the building next door. It had started, so says Mr Graham with a gleam in his eye, from the wall which the wardrobe was pressed against.
Our group paces the streets behind Mr Graham in a hushed silence, yet despite the graphic content of his tours, he never aims to terrify. “I don’t want the stories necessarily to be scary. Although in the past we have had a lot of people fainting. It is usually men, aged 18 to 35. Rather, I want the stories to be disturbing. It is about getting somebody to think, instead of just shocking them.”
We circle Clifford’s Tower and the Castle Museum, another former execution site, before making our way to York Minster. It is here, on a cobbled street littered with drifts of fallen leaves, that two of our party – 20-year-old Josie Oldfield and her boyfriend Nick Crooks, who are visiting the city from their home in Sheffield – see a ghost.
The apparition they describe is a tall man, pale, dark hair, standing in a doorway and then vanishing into thin air. “We both saw him,” Mr Crooks insisted. I’m a computer engineer and a man of science, but it was really weird.”
A sighting is rare on a tour, and it is only during the long wait until dawn when his words start to rattle around my head. A night in York can make believers of us all.
Joe had a tour with Mark Graham from The Original Ghost Walk of York: 01759 373090 or visit www.theoriginalghostwalkofyork.co.uk He stayed at the Golden Fleece pub: www.thegoldenfleeceyork.co.uk