Lisa Byrne - nowhere beats Yorkshire for spooks and ghouls

Lisa Byrne

Lisa Byrne - Credit: Archant

Our columnist shares some spooky stories of ghostly goings on around York


Hallway - Credit: Archant

Late autumn and early winter is my favourite time of the year. I love watching the leaves turn a bright, fiery red before falling into mounds of burnt amber on the ground. The weather becomes more unpredictable, it’s mandatory to devour comfort food and there’s nothing better than gazing at a crackling fire, huddled under a blanket while the wind howls outside. But my most adored part of this sprint towards Christmas is the melodramatic festival of Halloween, followed by our glorious Yorkshire landscape being set aglow by raging bonfires on the fifth of November.

Readers of this column will know I’m rather obsessed with the supernatural – having been brought up in York, Europe’s most haunted city, it’s difficult not to be – and I have previously written about what it was like living in a very spooky house on the outskirts of the city.

However, one of my most terrifying experiences with ‘the other world’ took place in a boutique Georgian hotel called The Rookery in London’s ancient Clerkenwell, beside Smithfield, an area notorious for religious burnings during the Reformation. I spent a night there after becoming engaged to my husband David at the nearby St Bride’s Church and we were delighted to have been given a beautiful, historic room with an ornate oak four poster bed surrounded by rather stern portraits of long deceased former occupants of the house.

After supper we went to bed and slept well until 2am, when I awoke lying on my right hand side to feel someone, reeking of pipe tobacco, breathing heavily into my face. Too terrified to open my eyes I whispered to David that someone was in our room. He immediately replied that he had been awake for ages listening to this ‘person’ breathe and wander around. We listened to the spirit move from one end of the bed to the other, feeling him staring down on us for what seemed like an eternity, until we finally heard his footsteps shuffle down the three steps that led from the bedroom into the bathroom and then disappear.

Ghost in the salt mine

Ghost in the salt mine - Credit: Archant

Next morning, David thanked the concierge for our stay, but admitted we’d had a troubled night as there appeared to be a ghostly spirit in our room. The concierge became very agitated, saying that the last couple to stay in our room had left after a horrendous incident. While putting on her make-up in the bathroom mirror the woman saw a man’s face staring back at her and ran out of the room.

London obviously has its scary haunts but nowhere beats Yorkshire for spooks and ghouls. Over the past few months I’ve been lucky enough to meet the great and good of the city. What’s struck me is how, after chatting about the economic boom that’s gripped the city, nearly everyone has a story to tell regarding York’s history, especially of a supernatural nature.

Executives at York Theatre Royal told me about The Grey Lady, one of the city’s most prolific ghosts, who’s been spotted throughout the city. The spirit, believed to be a young nun working at the medieval St Leonard’s Hospice, the crypt of which lies in the base of the theatre, was said to be bricked up alive in a wall of what’s now a dressing room behind the dress circle. Many actresses have asked to change rooms, believing they are being watched and complain that the area suddenly becomes freezing cold and a number of staff and theatre goers have spotted the spirit in the theatre and around York.

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But tales of the most terrifying part of the city – Bedern off Goodramgate – once home to an orphanage-cum-workhouse called York Industrial Ragged School in the mid-19th century, told to me by a local historian would chill the hardest soul. Its cruel master was paid well to round up the city’s waifs and strays who were forced into hard labour but given minimal food and clothing. Many died of illness and malnutrition and rather than giving the children a proper burial, the school’s drunken head would throw the bodies into a big cupboard at the back of the school to rot.

Gradually declining into madness, the master became haunted by children’s voices. Finally, one horrific night, driven deranged by the constant voices he attacked all the remaining sleeping orphans with a knife, killing each one. Today, many people walking around Bedern around midnight have heard, and occasionally seen, children playing, surprised that they are allowed out so late at night.

Bedern is perhaps an area of York to avoid on October 31st if you’re of a fragile disposition, but if you survive Halloween then there’s always Bonfire Night to look forward to.

Lisa Byrne on her haunted family home in York