With Halloween just around the corner this column bravely steps beyond the boundary of nature travel and pops its toes into the chilling twilight realm of “supernature” travel.
York is our destination, and ghost hunting our goal.
|A carving of a red devil looks on the city center.|
York is a quirky place. Founded by the Romans, occupied by the Vikings, fortified by the Normans, refortified by the Plantagenet kings, it drips with history.
It is still legal to shoot Scotsmen here, provided you do so with a bow and arrow and from within the city walls. One of York’s extremely narrow alleys (which are known as snickleways) was, for centuries, the official place to beat your wife.
From a ghost-hunting perspective York is ideal.
This ancient city boasts a greater concentration of hauntings than anywhere else in Britain; 140 different specters allegedly strut their stuff and rattle their chains within its towering medieval walls.
For a bit of background to the horrors of York’s past, the place to begin is the York Dungeon. This clammy subterranean establishment, recently refurbished and doubled in size is “Now worse than ever!” according to its promotional pamphlets.
|York is a home to a slew of spooks who haunt many of the ancient town’s pubs (below) and its beautiful cathedral, the Minster (above).|
Britain’s fairgrounds have some of the lousiest ghost houses and ghost trains imaginable — the kind where you blunder about encountering papier-ma^che vampire heads with the wire mesh showing, and getting hit in the eye by ropes suspended from the ceiling. When people leave your average British house of horror they are generally pale faced, not with fear, but with rage that the smirking carny has had the gall to charge a 1 pound admission fee.
The York Dungeon is cut from different cloth. It is, and I’m sure the management will take this as a compliment, thoroughly revolting. The Black Death (bubonic plague), which wiped out one third of Europe’s population in the 14th century, features prominently. As do torture, burning Jews, hanging highwaymen and walling people up alive.
Don’t bring young children.
After graduating from the York Dungeon, phantom hunters are then advised to sign up for one of the city’s numerous “Ghost Walks.”
Many British cities offer guided nocturnal walks with ghastly themes: “Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel,” “Ghosts of London Theater Land,” “Haunted Edinburgh” and so on. York is where the enterprising phenomenon began.
Led by theatrical types in top hats, York’s Ghost Walks involve a guided tour of some of the more notorious haunted houses. In high summer, when the northern sun sets late and York seethes with tourists, the walks can get a little overpopulated. No matter how entertaining the guide’s patter, if you’ve got a gaggle of 700 people (many of them rowdy Italians) crammed in a snickleway, atmosphere is the first casualty.
At this time of the year, though, the tourists are fewer, the walks are less well attended, the night sets in early and you are guaranteed a more intimate introduction to York’s spectral community.
York’s ghosts come in all shapes and sizes.
The most famous made their debut to a teenager named Harry Martindale in 1953 in the cellar of the Treasurer’s House. The Treasurer’s House, by York standards, is a relatively recent affair built in 1648.
Martindale, a plumbing apprentice on a job, was interrupted by the arrival of a Roman legion who marched waist deep through the floor and disappeared through the far wall.
Martindale had the usual difficulties experienced by people who see such things: ridicule, jeers and doubts cast on his sobriety. But then archaeologists became involved. Later excavation revealed that the Treasurer’s House is built upon a Roman road. If the ghostly soldiers were following the road they would, indeed, appear to be legless.
It took 250 years to build York’s magnificent cathedral, and they were 250 years well spent. The Minster, as it is known, is one of Britain’s most beautiful buildings. It is perhaps not surprising then, that one of the masons keeps popping back to boast about his work and ask tourists whether they like it.
Less understandable, though, is his tendency to dematerialize before anyone has time to reply.
Although there are ghosts that attend religious services (Dean Gale, who died in 1702, is still a regular in his favored Minster pew) and ghosts that frequent the theater (a medieval nun has a perplexing partiality for dress-circle seats in the Theater Royal) most of York’s spooks show a fondness for pubs.
A pub crawl is therefore de rigueur for anyone in town in search of spirits.
The urinals at the York Arms are the place to be if you want to bump into a phantom woman. She doesn’t do much. Just appears and has a look. The kitchens at the York Arms are the place to see a petulant poltergeist chucking cutlery and crockery about. The tap room is quiet.
Not so the tap room at the Old Starre Inn, which is opposite the enigmatic red devil carving just off Stonegate in the city center. The Old Starre Inn is positively glutted with ghosts. During the English Civil War, while Roundhead troopers swilled ale, the cellars were used as an operating theater. The screams are still heard.
Dogs have the habit of going berserk in the Old Starre Inn. They’ll bristle, bark and hurtle around. One even hurled itself at a wall, knocking itself unconscious, according to the landlord, who attributes the phenomenon to the presence of ghostly cats on the premises. During renovations two mummified felines were discovered interred in a pillar.
Sexual harassment is a frequent occurrence at the Cock and Bottle. George Villiers, a parliamentarian during the reign of Charles II, is generally believed to be the offender. He only appears to women, often while they are naked in the shower and is frequently in a state of obvious intoxication. Villiers has also been known to fondle females. Times change. Politicians obviously don’t.
Space prevents a detailed account of all York’s other supernatural inhabitants and phenomena — the blood stains that won’t go away, the demon dogs, the cavaliers, screaming skulls, gray women, hanging noblemen and whatnot. For a detailed account we must refer you to the definitive Pitkin Guide to Haunted York.
Did we actually see a ghost?
The honest answer is no. But we had a lot of fun looking.