I’ve always wanted to visit York. It is home to some of the most influential cultural figures in the western canon. The city is a veritable treasure trove of WH Auden, Ted Hughes, and Jordan North.
The sprawling countryside vista combined with the earthy, golden-rich palette of autumnal fields is said to have been a major source of inspiration for JMW Turner. It is alleged that the artist, famed for his landscape paintings, found Yorkshire’s hills and dales so aesthetically pleasing, he was reduced to tears. It was his fascination with this rural idyll that led Turner to return, time and time again. With the spirit of Turner etched firmly in my mind, I now had to hop on a train and take a relatively short trip north.
There’s something I find quite endearing about trains. I don’t mean in an anorak-wearing, note-taking nerdy way. Perhaps I am being overly sentimental, but I have always thought of a train journey as one of the great joys of life. As the landscape rolls by, an overwhelming feeling of peace and isolation consumes me, as I sit there, undisturbed and enclosed in a warm and comfortable space. That little sense of excitement as the train heaves itself out of the station. As the 09:59 East Midlands train leaves Norwich, I sit back and pick up my copy of Rob Kirkup’s Ghosts of York.
The reason for the trip was Halloween. From doing a little research, I learnt that York was supposed to be the centre for all things supernatural. Kirkup’s book tells me the city has had over 500 separate recorded hauntings. Depending on who you listen to, York has been dubbed the most haunted city in England, Europe or the world.
Neither I, nor my partner accompanying me on this sojourn, are big believers in spirits. When it comes to ghosts, we just like to share in the spectacle. In other words, we enjoy watching Ghost Adventures, laughing at the contrived histrionics of grown men shouting at nothing in the darkness.
The long weekend we had planned had been put on ice. A potent mix of Covid restrictions combined with rail strikes meant we had not been away for two years. In that time, we missed a few minor birthdays and one major anniversary. So I raided my savings and decided to make it a memorable experience.
Friends, Romans, Highwaymen
It may sound like a crass stereotype, but if there’s one thing Yorkshire is known for, it’s value for money. Having spent a lot of time in Leeds and Bradford in a former life as a roadie, I could always rely on having change left after a night out. A few minutes after rolling into York station, my thesis was powerfully disproved. This was a very expensive city.
The accommodation was lovely. A four-star hotel just a few minutes’ walk from the centre. But at £200 a night, our budget was already blown. The economists are correct; every decision is a trade-off, and convenience does come at a cost. We were, after all, slap-bang in the middle of the tourist zone. The leftover budget was the opportunity cost we had to accept.
As soon as we dumped our bags, we set out to explore the city. The first thing we did was to go and look for Dick Turpin’s grave. Look is the operative word. It turns out we walked straight past it twice. Years of foreign travel have taught me one thing: when in doubt, ask a local. We did. And we got sent in the wrong direction. When we did find it, it was a bit anticlimactic. A lonely looking tombstone in an overgrown garden. Still, if it wasn’t for that misguided native, we would’ve missed out on a stroll across the city’s Roman wall.
Founded in 71 AD as Eboracum by the Romans, the city is no stranger to invaders. When the Vikings arrived in York in 866, they brought with them binge-drinking and rampant destruction. From our 72-hour experience, the city seems to be home to a new, slightly more palatable invasion – that of raucous hen and stag dos. We must’ve spotted five separate groups of women in wedding gowns staggering through the city centre, with two engaged in a duel with inflatable penises.
Most joyously haunted
By far, the most memorable part of our adventure was The Shambles. I’m sure I’m not the first to comment that the architecture closely resembles something straight out of a Harry Potter book. When I noticed a shop selling wands, I was convinced I was walking down Diagon Alley. The short street is fascinating. I found myself drawn to the jettied floors that overhang the streets. I could swear the opposing upper floor windows were close enough you could shake hands across the narrow cobbled street.
At the bottom of The Shambles was York’s most haunted pub, The Golden Fleece. Over a dozen spirits are said to haunt the pub and its guest bedrooms. A local told me about Lady Alice Peckett, who is said to roam the corridors of the hotel and occasionally move furniture in the bar. Yet the closest thing to a chilling spirit I discovered was tequila on the rocks.
Although we saw little in the way of supernatural activity, I did enjoy the spectacle. One of the most endearing sights of the whole trip was the sight of hundreds of children with torches frantically searching for small little ghosts that had been hidden around the perimeter of York Minster.
While our time away did little to assuage my spiritual cynicism, it did reinforce my belief in the innocence of youth. Like grains of sand in life’s hourglass, that childlike naivety and gullibility slowly slip away from us as we grow older. It was a pure joy to behold. And that is what I will take away from our trip.
Before I go, I have a question for York natives. Is it normal to have someone dressed as a Squid Game character performing a late-night live DJ set?
We loved York and are planning to come back. But please, stop with all the stag and hen-dos!