Meet the York Ghost Merchants and find out more about one of our most haunted cities
In seeing what became York’s most famous ghosts, Martindale helped it become a city where ghosts are good for business.
In 1953 Martindale was 18 and an apprentice heating engineer. He was sent to Treasurer’s House to install a new central heating system.
Working alone in the cellar, he attached a single light to the ceiling. On his second day, standing on a ladder as he knocked holes in the ceiling, he heard what he described as “just the blare of a note.”
Then he saw the “plumed helmet of a man holding a long, battered trumpet-like instrument appear from the very wall beneath him”, as John West writes in his new book, Britain’s Haunted Heritage.
That first man was followed by around 20 other Roman soldiers, visible only from the knees up. Eventually this would, as West writes, become “one of the most famous ghost stories in the world”.
But in the moment, Martindale had more immediate concerns. He fell from his ladder in shock and asked a doctor to sign him off work for two weeks. After that he kept quiet about ghosts for 20 years, breaking his silence for a television programme in the 1970s.
Asked later in life if he believed in ghosts, Martindale said: “I only believe in what I saw.”
Meet the Yorkshire family who are part-time VikingsBut York took to his Roman ghosts and other spirits. In 2002, it was declared the most haunted city in the world by the Ghost Research Foundation International. The institute registered 504 hauntings – a surprisingly precise number for something so diaphanous.
Two men happy to believe in ghosts are Bloodworth and McArthur, masters of The Sorrowful Guild of Master Ghost Makers. Although their faith has less to do with the existence of passing spirits than with running an imaginative business.
Angus McArthur and David Bloodworth own the York Ghost Merchants, which opened in the Shambles last summer. They bill themselves as the makers and sellers of the original York Ghost and purport to be the only ghost merchants still trading in the 21st century.
As such claims suggest, Bloodworth and McArthur are both serious and playful in their work.
Angus has run Snowhome, a York shop selling inventive and artistic gifts, for 19 years but plans to step away from that business next month. David used to be creative director at Elvington firm Paragon Creative, which built museums and theme parks until it went out of business.
Joining them in the shop is Wendy Dent, an interior designer who is married to David. Wendy is ‘front of house’ and the person most likely to greet shoppers. All three dress in Edwardian styles which match their small and characterful shop.
This used to be a baker’s where the bread was produced upstairs in a hot and busy kitchen. The three ripped everything out downstairs and retro-fitted the place into a timeless wood-lined shop, designed by Wendy and built by David. That old kitchen upstairs is now a workshop.
How Imelda Staunton made a success of acting by ‘leaving self-esteem at the door’When they signed the lease, they had nothing more concrete than the ghost of an idea and four months to come up with something. “There were some nervy moments,” says David.
Angus just felt something was missing from York’s ghost scene. “There were ghost tours which operated every night and were very successful and popular, but there was nothing else to celebrate that status,” he says from beneath the rim of his Edwardian hat.
“York Ghosts are little curiosities, they’re souvenirs, they’re keepsakes, talismans, charms. They are a bit more than a plastic knick-knack.”
The box for the small ghost has a peephole alongside the word “Boo!”
They sell handmade ornaments, with more expensive special edition ‘ghosts’ released on a Friday. These are contracted to outsider makers, with solid bronze and aluminium ghosts having been made by a family-run foundry in Sheffield. There have been oak and yew ghosts, pewter ghosts and coppersmith ghosts.
Wendy steps over to a painting on the wall and pulls it open to reveal the “cabinet of curiosities”, a collection of the one-off ghosts. Next to this a recessed stage lights up so customers can position their ghost for a photograph.
They have a broad range of customers, Wendy says. “We designed the shop and the interactive experience, that is something that appeals to everyone. It can appeal to a local, a visitor, an older person, or a younger person.”
These ghosts are an old-fashioned idea, made and sold in the one small shop as goods used once were. Yet the logic is modern, conceived as a riposte to the internet. “What people are buying into is the whole experience which is what the high street now requires,” Angus says. “People want an experience when they come shopping, otherwise they’ll buy stuff online. They want a unique product as well, otherwise they’ll go on Amazon.”
Future ideas include storytelling nights in the shop. Entry would be secured by a limited-edition ghost that would act as a ticket.
Angus agrees to take me upstairs to where the ghosts are made.
“We can let you sniff lightly into the workshop but it’s a place of secrecy,” he says, swearing me to silence under solemn pledge of that sorrowful guild.
As it happens, I climbed this precipitous staircase years ago to interview the baker. The small room above the shop was crammed with hot bread ovens in those days; now it has a sense of calm, with ghosts lined up awaiting completion.
Plans to turn Georgian York townhouse into a 21st century civic hubThis is where David, the chief maker, spends much of his day. “I used to fly all around the world doing stuff and have 30-odd people and now I don’t have anybody,” he says.
Not that he’s complaining. “I’ve got a seven-year-old child and it’s been an epiphany for me.”
Back downstairs, the shop is filling up. “What’s the idea?” says one puzzled woman.
David says he enjoys these moments. “The greatest thing is when somebody comes in and dismisses it and then goes out with three ghosts.”
And here, for Angus, is the obvious question: do you believe in ghosts? “I believe in the possibility of something, I believe in the grey areas of life.”
There is a Martindale link too for Mark Graham, who runs the Original Ghost Walk of York with his wife, Sharon
“Harry took me on my first ghost walk in 1981,” says Mark. The late Peter Broadhead created the ghost walking company in the early 1970s, and Mark and Sharon took over in 1987.
“I was always into history and mystery, and a love of storytelling,” he says. “I’m not a psychic investigator more a collector of tales.
York retains its stories because the buildings retain the history and people do feel more in tune with the past.”
Mark has never seen a ghost but has heard voices and seen shadows “and what looks like faces of people from the past.”
He adds: “We lived for many years near the old orphanage in Aldwark and heard children singing and clapping hands and shapes moving. The actual location of the building is not fully accepted but the ghostly goings-on cover a broad area.”
Mark believes York still has tales to tell. If you’d like to be spooked, his walk starts outside the King’s Arms on the river at 8pm every day.