Friday, 11 February 2011

The Haunted City of York

The ancient city of York is one of the most magnificent cities in England. It is also one of the most haunted.

Nobody is entirely certain how many ghosts lurk among the ancient walls of York. There are certainly dozens of them, maybe over a hundred. Some ghosts stalk the streets and chambers of the city with alarming frequency, others appear only once or twice a year and a few appear so infrequently that some researchers believe they may have left this mortal world for good. The ghosts come in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. There are ancient ghosts, modern ghosts, male ghosts, female ghosts and ghosts so elusive that nobody knows anything very much about them at all.

But be they Roman soldiers, a Tudor gentleman, Grey Lady or enigmatic footsteps in empty rooms, the ghost of York all have one thing in common: York itself. It is a city with a character all of its own, moulded and shaped over more than 2,000 years of history.

There was some sort of a settlement here in Celtic times, but York enters history in ad71 when the Romans built a fortress here and named it Eboracum. Over the years the name has shifted and altered, but it remains rooted in that first designation. The modern name of York is derived from the “orac” element of the Roman name, coming to us by way of the Viking Jorvik.

Amazingly there are still remnants of Roman Eboracum to be seen. The western corner of the fortress was protected by a massive, multi-angular buttress which still stands in Museum Street, while the Museum itself contains fine statues, coins and other remains. There are even Roman ghosts still tramping through the city as their human counterparts once did in life - we shall come to their haunts almost as soon as we enter the city.

On the whole, however, York is a medieval city. It is dominated by the vast York Minster at one end of the city and the powerful Clifford’s Tower at the other. When the Norman conqueror, King William I came here in 1069 he casually burned down the Anglo-Viking city that had defied his right to rule. Then he ordered the construction of a circuit of walls that surrounded 263 acres of land. The walls seen today date mostly from later centuries, but they stand on the foundations laid by William.

The Normans also built a minster, but it was torn down in 1220 and the construction of the present church begun. Work went on for 250 years to produce the magnificent mass of masonry that dominates the city centre, and which contains one of Europe’s finest collections of medieval stained glass. We shall meet that glass again for it is linked to one of York’s phantoms. While the cathedral was being constructed, other teams of workmen were erecting the forbidding fortress of Clifford’s Tower at the southern end of the medieval city. That too has its spectres that we shall meet in this book.

The most pervasive remnant of the middle ages to survive in York is less tangible, but far more influential. The street layout of the city took its present form during this period, picking up names from Viking, English and Norman eras as well as more recent periods. The streets are usually thronged with tourists, and always with locals, but there remains space among them for the ghosts and phantoms that like to wander their old haunts.

Though the street layout remains from medieval times, most of the old houses and shops vanished long ago to be replaced by imposing Georgian residences. When Victoria came to the throne, she brought with her railways and a booming industrialisation that both left their mark on the city. So important was the rail industry to York, and vice versa, that the National Rail Museum is now located here, while old factories and workshops in various stages of decay and renovation abound.

Through all these ages, the city of York has endured. It has been burned to the ground more than once, ravaged by invading armies and yet always it has managed to rise again to greater glories. No less enduring are the ghosts that throng its walls and streets.

It is, perhaps, best to start a tour of ghostly York with the oldest and most famous of all the ghosts that lurk in this ancient city.

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