Haunted York: The ghostly goings on at Micklegate Bar, Theatre Royal and Treasurer's House in 'most haunted city in Europe'
There are 600 books on ghosts that sit in John West’s personal library at his home in Suffolk, the result of an almost lifelong fascination for spirits and phantoms.
“You can blame my mum for that,” he says. “She had a load of books on ghosts when I was a kid and I was fascinated by the covers, phantom ladies, ghostly monks and ruined abbeys.
“I read one of them, by a chap called Elliott O’Donnell and his was factual ghost stories and I was hooked from then on.”
West published his own book on ghosts in 2019 , Britain’s Haunted Heritage, and last month a second volume followed. Britain’s Ghostly Heritage features a chapter on the city of York.
“It’s supposed to be the most haunted city in the UK,” he says. “London would probably contest that but I do think York is the winner. Apparently there’s over 140 different ghost stories connected with the city. That’s why I thought it needed to be in the book.”
Its haunted reputation is part of the draw for many visitors to York and ghost walks are among the city’s offering for locals and tourists alike.
Leisure tourism brand Visit York describes how The International Ghost Research Foundation once declared it as the most haunted city in Europe due to its bloodstained history and more than 500 recorded hauntings within the ancient city walls.
It says: “Founded by Romans in 71AD the city’s violent and volatile history – including Viking invasions, the Norman Conquest and the Civil War – makes its sinister legacy easy to understand.”
West agrees. “So much bloodshed went on in that city. Jews were massacred, the Romans conquered the area and then the Vikings went there and there were battles.
“I just think all this history and intense emotion has imprinted itself into the fabric of the place. Perhaps some of these ghosts don’t want to leave York, they love it too much.”
West has an old railway poster of York adorning his wall, the city’s historic Minster pride of place. “The first time I went was in the seventies, a school trip,” he recalls.
“I can’t remember how old I was, under 10, and I was just fascinated by the history, the buildings. You could say I’ve had a love affair with York ever since. I love going up there.”
He had family living in the area as a youngster and would often visit the city. Going there helped to fuel his other lifelong interest - a love for history.
“Walking down a street there that you know was originally built by Romans, knowing underneath there’s Roman foundations, I just think is amazing,” he says. “2000 years later, people are still walking down that same street.
“I’m fascinated by the past and how people lived, how we’ve changed since then and the things people did that we wouldn’t do now. For instance you can’t believe that they used to hang people publicly as a deterrent. I just find it fascinating how people lived and their different viewpoints.”
As a film producer, actor, TV presenter and author, West has turned his hand to many topics. But it is history, folklore and ghosts to which he often returns and those that are the subject of much of his words, both spoken and written.
“I do believe in ghosts, I believe in an afterlife,” he says. “I’m not particularly religious, I’m not a member of any church but I believe that your soul lives on…Some of these ghosts are perhaps people who can’t move on for whatever reason. They are too tied to this world, to a person or a place.”
Part of West’s home dates back to the 17th century and he believes it is haunted by a Victorian lady. “When I first moved in there was a lot of activity...She actually pulled the duvet off my bed twice in the night, which was a bit scary...I’ve had personal ghost experiences myself and that’s’ reinforced my beliefs.”
For his latest book, West travelled across Britain, meeting people who outlined their own ghostly experiences. Drawing on that, Internet research and consulting his own personal library, in Britain’s Ghostly Heritage, he presents a collection of his favourite ghost stories from around the British Isles.
In the section on York, he writes of activity at the National Railway Museum, claiming one of the sleeping cars is haunted by a former passenger. “He has been seen looking out of the windows wearing an old fashioned suit and tie. He is described as having ‘something odd’ about him,” West writes.
York Castle Museum can also boast a few ghost stories, he says. Singing has been heard, and apparitions have been seen. “A small dog haunts the museum and a visiting teacher once saw an elderly woman sitting in front of a fireplace,” West writes.
Other places featured include The King’s Manor, St Olave’s Church, York Minster and York Theatre Royal, which is reportedly haunted by a nun known as the 'Grey Lady'.
“She was walled up many years ago for some misdemeanour and she’s been seen watching rehearsals of plays,” West says. “And if she appears, apparently the production is a great success. She’s a good omen so people actually hope to see her there.”
Another story centres around Micklegate Bar, a historic gateway to the city. It used to have a live-in gatekeeper, whose job it was to lock the gate each night and then reopen it at dawn the next day.
All manner of ghostly activity has been reported there, much of it attributed to Sarah Brocklebank, the daughter of an 18th century gatekeeper, who lost her father’s keys, causing the family to be “thrown out”.
West picks up the tale: “Her father disowned her and sadly she went mad and she spent the rest of her life looking for the keys. She burst into a room forty years later when the Mayor of York was entertaining some friends and she said I’ve found them and then collapsed on the floor and died. Since then there’s been poltergeist activity in Micklegate Bar, lights have turned on and off, figures have been seen.”
West’s favourite York story though was featured in his first book and is that of the ghosts of Roman soldiers, which many people have reported seeing at the city’s Treasurer’s House.
“A chap was working down in the cellar and he heard a trumpet blast,” West says. “He thought it was perhaps coming from a radio and then a roman soldier came out of the wall on a horse.
“Naturally he was quite shocked, he leapt off his ladder and saw this line of roman soldiers marching through the cellar…“When the last one disappeared, he ran upstairs and the chap in charge of the Treasurer’s House said ‘oh by the look of you, you’ve seen the Roman ghosts’.”
West says although he counts himself as believer in ghosts he “cannot say for certain what I believe them to be”. “Are they the souls of the dead, recordings or even living people from the past briefly interacting with our own time due to a timeslip?,” he asks at the start of the book.
“All I can say for certain is that I have met too many people who have seen ghosts to dismiss it all as mere fantasy.”
Britain’s Ghostly Heritage, published by JMD Media, is out now.