“Do we live to abolish death? No – we live to fear it and then again to love it, and just for death’s sake it is that our spark of life glows for an hour now and then so brightly.”
-Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
Or, less elegantly, there’s nothing like a good ghost story to chill your blood and make you appreciate like never before the fact that it is still flowing through your veins.
Guess what. This post is not about walls. You’re welcome.
After spending the majority of the afternoon on and around the city walls, more on that later, Kristen and I decided to take in a late-afternoon Ghost Tour.
We both love to be scared. Well, I like to be scared under my own specific set of conditions and I will not watch horror movies. Kristen just loves be scared in general. Please, do get any and all ideas.
We had already bought our tickets so we headed to the famous York Minster to start our tour.
No, before you ask, we didn’t even duck into the Minster itself for a quick peak. This is one of my only regrets from the entire trip.
We arrived at the 1400-year-old building in short order and were greeted by familiar sight – a tall man in an old-fashioned suit and black greatcoat surrounded by a multi-accented, multi-aged gaggle of men and women in various combinations of jeans and (insert type of jacket here). It was reminiscent of walking down Sparks Street back home in Ottawa and seeing the tour groups waiting for the Haunted Walk tours to start. Now, we were those tourists.
We took a leap of faith and showed the man in the greatcoat our tickets, rightly assuming that he was our guide and not just another Sherlock enthusiast. Note to self, buy a greatcoat.
He spoke in a rather brash, theatrical voice that reminded me of John Cleese in his Basil Fawlty days, complete with over-the-top physical comedy – which was either on purpose or he was indeed just extremely clumsy. I honestly couldn’t tell you.
His voice got even louder (a feat I didn’t think humanly possible), apparently in an attempt to speak over the gale force winds, as he soon gleefully informed us that the walk was about to begin.
I should set the mood properly here for this ghost-centric post.
It was a dark and stormy night…
…Nope, the pictures will give it away and I have no Photoshop talents to speak of.
So. Let’s try that again. It was a beautiful, albeit windy, sunny afternoon.
And so began the strangest ghost walk I have ever been on.
Stopping first at the Minster, presumably because it was only 2 feet away, I braced myself for a Quasimodo-esque story involving intrigue, corrupt and cruel authorities, betrayal, murder. You know, all that good stuff.
Or at least something along the lines of the Murder at Canterbury.
I mean the soaring towers were already teaming with gargoyles. The scene was set for something gruesome.
I’m not disturbed. It was a ghost walk. Cut me some slack.
As I shook in either anticipation or because the wind had hit an almost unbearable chill-factor, he began his story in the appropriately mournful tone of Marley’s ghost from ‘A Christmas Carol’.
Actually, for the purposes of this story, let’s call him Marley. I like it.
There had been a terrible accident during some of the Minster’s more recent renovations. And the victim still haunted the building!
Oh this was getting good.
Sometimes, when visitors walked through the regularly silent alcoves of the imposing edifice, they would hear a faint pitter-patter of little feet and then…
Barking. They would hear barking. It was a dog guys. The place was haunted by a dog.
I was willing to give Marley (I just realized the irony of my choice of name considering the first ghost here but deal with it) a second chance as we moved across the square to the house Guy Fawkes was apparently born in.
Oh this should be good…are flames seen sometimes in the windows inexplicably? Do people hear a woman crying for her executed son? What?!
…Uh, er, no. He was just born here. We think.
I’ll give dear Marley some credit. I’ve never heard a birth announcement relayed so dramatically – and I half-heartedly tuned in to the Will&Kate Baby Watch of 2013.
OK. He’s just building up to the good ones. The next one will appease my need for fear.
And it did.
Behind the Minster of the Ghostly Yaps, there was a small cottage-like house that appeared to be trapped in time. There was, I’ll admit, something unsettling about its appearance.
But at this point I was a wee bit jaded and would have gladly put my money on the place being haunted by the ghost of a British Sylvester still trying to catch his Tweety Bird.
His story was so much better. Here it goes, to the best of my memory. I am probably embellishing a little.
When the plague swept through York in 1349, the city’s authorities quickly determined that since the sickness could not be cured, the most efficient way to deal with such a pestilence was to quarantine anyone who showed signs of having contracted it.
Sort of humane right? Wrong. This quarantine did not include any medical help whatsoever, or even the smallest amount of contact with the outside world. It literally meant that you and your entire family were pushed back into your house and then the house was boarded up – with you inside. No one in. No one out.
They basically left you there until there was no more sign of life, or the Black Death had left the city – whichever came first. Side Note: The disease ravaged the city for a year and returned 5 times, eventually killing 1/3 of the its residents.
In this particular house, a woman and a man had contracted the plague so they were promptly put under the ultimate form of house arrest.
This would have been a horrendous enough story without the addition of the 3rd player: their young daughter. I want to say she was about 5 years old at the time.
Now, by all accounts, the little girl was showing no signs of having contracted the disease. She was sick-by-association only.
The house was boarded up for months. There wasn’t much protest from the parents as they were already dying. But people who braved walking past the house reported seeing a little girl through the cracks of the boarded-up windows. She was crying, constantly, and begging as best as she could to be let out.
She didn’t last long, they say. I mean, she was a child. But when they finally opened up the house they found her body completely clean – not a single mark of the disease on it. Through all that, she had never taken ill. She died, needlessly, of starvation. Punished because her parents had become wholly unwilling victims of the plague.
Marley concluded this story with the cliché but much appreciated “some people still see the little girl in the windows today. She’s still trying to get out.”
Creepy, disturbing, horrific. Yes, all these things. But exactly what you’re looking for on a ghost tour right?
I figured good ol’ Marley had redeemed himself. Things could only go uphill from here.
Well, um, if Crazy Town is situated uphill then yes. Yes things did go uphill.
We were suddenly joined by another older gentleman in a greatcoat, but this one had a top hat. No, seriously, he just sauntered up out of nowhere and joined the group.
Marley walked off, telling us he would join us again soon and that he was leaving us in very capable hands.
You must understand that made this announcement in such a way that led us to believe he was planning a scary surprise. He may have even been wringing his hands as he said this…A sure sign of mischief, as we all know.
In hindsight, I’m pretty sure this was just a pre-arranged smoke break and his buddy was helping him feed the habit. Spoiler alert: no surprises ahead.
I honestly can’t remember any more of the stories they told us. But our determined hosts continued to lead us around town, taking turns simpering and smirking and gasping in succession as they relayed tales of absolutely ordinary occurrences in history – including a rather long description of the shortest street with the longest name in the city.
OK, OK that was pretty great. It’s called “Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate”. What’s not to love! But scary? No.
Though, in their defense, I think I spent the last quarter of the walk in a haze of horrified humility after making the very loud, very public mistake of mixing up the biographies of General Wolfe and Isaac Brock. I even have a portrait of the latter on my wall for goodness sake. Let this be a lesson to you kids – never brag about your peripheral historical knowlege. It’s frighteningly easy to screw up.
After I hastily explained to my thoroughly disinterested sister where I had gone wrong in my historical timeline (off by half a century! Gasp), she assured me that no one actually cared and…hey look, we’re at The Shambles!
Now these, these were cool. As I wrote in an earlier post, J.K. Rowling loosely based her Diagon Alley on this particular cobblestone street haunted by overhanging upper stories leaning in at terrifying angles as if trying desperately to touch and finally collapse.
Intriguingly, it also used to be known as the shiver-inducing moniker “The Great Flesh Shambles”.
You would think that this kind of creep-factor would mean some excellent ghost stories from our multiplying hosts.
Yes, blood had once run down the street but only because it had used to house the town butchers. Not a vegan myself, throwing unused animal parts into the streets was certainly unappealing and probably unhygienic but I wouldn’t call it terrifying.
Not even if it’s described by the ghost of Jacob Marley himself. And especially not if your host is not in fact the ghost of Marley, but merely someone you have ironically nicknamed thus.
So, what did we learn from our walking ghost tour of York?
- The plague was awful and made people do terrible things.
- Some famous people may or may not have been born in York at some point.
- The city is disproportionately haunted by animals.
We turned to leave our theatrical hosts who were already melting into the dark… Oh I give up. They were very clearly walking away from us in broad daylight. Probably heading for another cigarette break before starting their next tour, talk about shattering the illusion!
I happened to glance at the wall to my right as we turned back onto The Shambles.
“The House of
Who was Martyred in York March 25th, 1586″
Turns out, upon further research, the poor woman was executed for harbouring Catholic priests. She was crushed to death with her own front door.
…Wait. We heard about ghost dogs but not about a bloody martyr?!
As I said. Weirdest. Ghost Walk. Ever.
But, I tell ya, as much as I love ghost stories, after spending the day hearing about child-plague-victims and crushed martyrs, my own spark of life is looking pretty bright indeed.