Ghost hunters gather for Halloween

“No cigarettes please,” comes the request, “as the smoke can interfere with our spirit photography.”

It is nearly midnight, a few days before Halloween, in the self-styled most haunted city in Britain, and the ghost hunters are getting to work.

About 20 people—some self-professed psychics, others merely curious—are packed into a 500-year-old bar in the ancient city of York, which claims more spooks per square mile than anywhere else in the country, perhaps even Europe.

Inside the Golden Fleece pub, an overnight vigil and séance is attempting to coax some of the spectres from the shadows as part of the York Ghost Festival, a three-day extravaganza of the supernatural.

It is little surprise that York, in northern England, has a sizeable spirit population—colonised by the Romans and the Vikings, the picturesque city is littered with ancient buildings and can boast 2 000 years of history.

And while tourism is York’s economic bedrock, ghost tourism is becoming an ever-increasing part of this.

Every evening after dark, a series of competing “ghost walks” tramp through the ancient streets, booming-voiced guides in Victorian garb leading trails of jumpy visitors around the best-haunted spots.

Inside the Golden Fleece there are fewer theatrics, just a palpable edge of tension as the lights are dimmed and participants hold hands around a table to summon long-dead former inhabitants.

No shining shapes appear, but one psychic reports seeing a small boy playing with a toy train—one of the pub’s most-seen ghosts, it emerges later—while others say they felt a strange grip around their throats.

“It’s very strange,” said Diana Jarvis, a local medium who is one of the two-strong Ghost Festival organising team.

“There is supposed to be a ghost of a woman next door who was strangled by her husband, but none of the people who mentioned their throats knew about it beforehand.”

Later, photographs taken at the time of the séance show curious glowing balls of light hanging in the air, invisible to the naked eye, which the experts term “ectoplasm”, or spirit energy.

If York’s burgeoning ghost industry can be said to have a godfather, it is Harry Martindale, a retired police officer who put the city on the spirit map 50 years ago with one of Britain’s most celebrated supernatural sightings.

In 1953, as an 18-year-old apprentice plumber, Martindale was working alone in a cellar room at the Treasurer’s House, a medieval building adjoining the city’s cathedral, when he witnessed something that, as he puts it, “changed my life forever”.

After hearing the unexpected noise of a horn, Martindale looked across the room to see about 20 Roman legionnaires and a horse walk out of a wall and across the basement before disappearing again into solid stone at the other side.

“They were human beings. They were as real as you and me standing here,” he said ahead of a public talk recounting his experience, another part of the Ghost Festival.

“I don’t know why I was chosen to see them, but there is no doubt in my mind what I saw.”

Martindale took to his bed for two weeks from shock and was ridiculed when he told friends, but as attitudes changed in subsequent years, he became increasingly fêted.

Later excavations in the cellar had revealed it was on the direct route of an old Roman road leading to a military garrison, while Martindale himself—who had only previously seen Romans in Hollywood films—impressed experts with his accurate description of the soldiers’ clothes and weapons.

Martindale is somewhat of a local celebrity who talks rarely about what he saw, meaning more than 100 people pack into a candle-lit church to hear him tell the story.

Several hours later at the Golden Fleece, one of the mediums has taken time out to inform a delighted local man, who he has never met before, that a ghost the man sees occasionally in his house means him no harm.

“Apparently he’s called Bob,” the beaming local says later. “I’ve seen him around for years but never knew what he was called.
I shall have to say hello properly when I get home.”—Sapa-AFP