Britain’s long history and the romantic sensibility of its people are perhaps two reasons why tales of spooky encounters are so common – and it’s in our oldest cities that you’ll find the most ghost stories
Of all the ancient cities of Britain, York seems to be the most haunted. Visitors can join three different ghostly walking tours of the centre and even board the Ghost Bus, a vintage London Routemaster painted black, with a commentary from its driver.
Very few historic buildings in the city lack a ghost. At York Minster, young Dean Gale, a clergyman who died in 1702, is occasionally spotted in the pews listening to sermons. At the York Museum in Tower Street, a man in Edwardian dress sometimes paces up and down at night (but he will disappear when approached). Meanwhile, at The Golden Fleece, a former coaching inn and York’s most haunted public house, there are said to be five spirits in residence including Lady Alice Peckett, whose husband was Mayor of York in the 18th century, and One-Eyed Jack, who sports a 16th-century frock coat and pistol.
Strangest of all, at the Treasurer’s House in Minster Yard, people working in the basement have occasionally seen a cohort of marching Roman soldiers. They are visible only from the knees up, but this is because the Roman road that runs under Minster Yard is 15 inches below the current level of the cellar floor.
Chester, on the Welsh border, comes a close second when it comes to haunted cities. A medieval monk sometimes wanders through the cathedral pews, and a vengeful ghost called Jenny, who drowned in the waters of the River Dee many years ago, still lurks beneath the water, ready to grab the ankle of any passing man and drag him down to a watery grave. Another unhappy woman haunts the Bear & Billet in Lower Bridge Street. Locked in her room, the chambermaid starved to death. Today, her ghost sometimes moves furniture around, but she only ever manifests herself to men.
There are quite a lot of mistreated chambermaids and abandoned fiancées haunting Chester, but the Sofa Workshop in Watergate Street – housed in a 600-year-old building – is haunted by a young boy. In the 18th century, boys were employed here to clean the powdered wigs of gentlemen. This was done with arsenic, which is said to have killed him. Today, staff claim they can hear the child sobbing and often feel as if they are being watched.
Also in Watergate Street, half-timbered Stanley Palace is home to three ghosts. Sometime a giggling child is heard; at other times people have seen a white-hooded Dominican friar and a woman in 17th-century clothes. Occasionally, when she doesn’t appear, her clogs can be heard walking across the wooden floorboards.
Not surprisingly, a city as old as Oxford has a fair number of ghosts too, including Colonel Francis Windebank who, during the English Civil War, was shot by a Royalist firing squad for having surrendered his post. The execution took place in 1645 on Dead Man’s Walk just behind Merton College. On a dark night the colonel can be found there in the company of other Oxford apparitions as in medieval times Dead Man’s Walk was the route that Jewish funerals took out of the city.
Another Royalist executed in 1645 was Archbishop William Laud, who was beheaded in London by Parliament but buried in St John’s College, his alma mater. Students working late at night in the college library have claimed to have seen Laud, candle in hand, kicking his head along the library floor like a football.
Just outside Oxford, Rosamund the Fair, a former mistress of King Henry II, haunts the ancient Trout pub – often featured in Inspector Morse. Rosamund was living as a
nun in Godstow Priory on the other side of the Thames from The Trout Inn when Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, tracked her down. Eleanor forced Rosamund to drink poison and today her sad ghost is sometimes seen as a shadowy figure on the first floor of the pub.
Because many of Britain’s public houses have such long histories it’s not surprising that for many the word ‘spirits’ has a double meaning, particularly in London. The Grenadier in Belgravia was once an officers’ club. Here, in the early 19th century, a poor soldier called Cedric was clubbed to death by fellow officers when he was unable to pay his gambling debts. Today, Cedric’s ghost moves chairs around the pub and breaks the odd glass, but is not considered malign. In fact, he is so popular that drinkers attach pound notes, euros, and dollar bills to the pub ceiling to pay off poor Cedric’s debt.
On Hampstead Heath, The Spaniards Inn is a 16th-century pub haunted by a Spanish traveller who died in a duel over a woman he loved, while a woman in white haunts the garden – female ghosts are often in white or grey.
Meanwhile, in Spitalfields in London’s East End, there is a room at the top of The Ten Bells pub that no one likes to enter. The ghost of George Roberts, the pub landlord in Victorian times often appears here. As he was murdered with an axe the apparition can be quite gruesome.
Near St Bartholomew’s Hospital, The Rising Sun pub was once a dangerous place to drink as, in the 19th century, body snatchers use to spike drinks of the unwary, murder their victims and sell the bodies for medical research at the hospital. None of the victims has reappeared to demand vengeance, but a pair of barmaids living above the pub have been terrorised by a poltergeist that insisted on removing the sheet covering them.
In Edinburgh, the 19th-century grave robbers Burke and Hare provided a similar medical service, digging up dead bodies for dissection.
Today, it is believed that they haunt Niddry Street vaults off the Royal Mile. It was in these catacombs that the pair hid the corpses they would sell for research. There is much poltergeist activity in the vaults, particularly in one room, which lies in perpetual darkness because any light bulb installed instantly explodes. A number of electricians have failed to understand or solve the problem.
Beneath the forbidding shadow of Edinburgh Castle, there are many haunted houses. Deacon Brodie, the respectable locksmith who lived a double life and inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was eventually hanged in 1788, but many people have attested to seeing Brodie’s ghost walking along Brodie’s Close (where he used to live) in the company of a demonic, fire-breathing horse. Similarly, the Quaker Meeting House on Victoria Terrace is frequented by a 17th-century figure who once lived there. His name was Major Thomas Weir and he was a soldier – and devil worshipper. He was executed in 1670, but still haunts his old hangouts.
In the castle itself, visitors have reported encountering the ghosts of prisoners from Britain’s French and American wars who never returned home. There’s also a phantom piper and a headless drummer, who are noisy at night.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Of course, it’s impossible to say how much of this is true, but a good ghost always brings in visitors, from the sceptical who wish to prove it all nonsense to those who just want to be frightened witless. The question is: which one are you?