Take a walk on the darkside… in York
Take a wander around York at early evening and you’ll be certain to see groups and groups of people being led through the city.Steered sometimes by guides dressed in period costume, or clothes usually more typical of Halloween, these ghoulish walking tours have become a core part of the York tourist experience over recent years, adding to the many other attractions the city offers visitors.
As one of Britain’s oldest and most historically significant cities, York has a celebrated, yet often gruesome backstory. As many archeologists have already discovered, the place is knee-deep in gory history. From the Romans, to the Vikings, the Tudors to the Victorians, each period of this city’s past boasts tales of the unspeakable. What’s more, the place is both beautiful and in places murderous-looking, too. It’s the perfect mix, and perhaps there’s no wonder a whole industry has been built up to entertain visitors with spine-chilling stories from the past. And that’s exactly what this tour is: a whistlestop run-through of this city’s past – the murkier, more gruesome parts of this city’s past.
So there’s no fiction on today’s walking tour. No tales of the supernatural. No stories made up to fit the scene or hearsay ghostly legends. The tour is about York’s history of torture, murder, deadly disease and bygone horror. And, while it’s impossible to prove the accuracy of the accounts or to judge quite how far they’ve been exaggerated over the years, each tale takes it starting point from York’s often awful olden times.
There’s a skeleton nursing a short
One place that certainly does have a fame more questionable than any of the stories told on the tour is the Golden Fleece – York’s so-called ‘most haunted pub’, where the walk begins. The Golden Fleece is something of a must-visit destination in its own right. Full of character right through – from the uneven, higgledy-piggledy floorboards to the jumble of ornaments hanging from every available space – the place is a delightful curiosity and worth a stop-off for a beer, even if you’re not into your ghost hunting.
Tonight I arrive at the pub for a livener half an hour before the outing begins. Pulling up a bar stool, I sit next to a skeleton nursing a short and order a guest ale. The service is friendly and the barman tells me what to expect on the walking tour.
It’s clear many other punters are here for the tour, too. So when our guide arrives, introduces himself and tells everyone the trail will begin in five minutes, it’s no surprise there’s a sudden necking of drinks and a few last-minute trips to the (presumably also haunted) toilets.
The tour starts punctually outside the front of the pub at 6:45pm. Unfortunately, at the height of summer York doesn’t appear especially frightful so early in the evening. In full daylight, buses pass by and locals squeeze along the pavement where our crowd of 20 have gathered ready to begin.
For an eerier experience, if you get the chance I’d suggest taking the tour on a foggy, winter’s evening. York takes on a naturally murderous character on those nights. Tonight it feels better suited to a barbecue than it does a beheading, and it’s certainly trickier to get into the spirit of the occasion when the surroundings are still sun-lit. After all, which of your favourite horror films is presented in bright sunlight?
Putting that aside, our guide this evening is great from the get-go. Dressed in shirt, tie and a long, grey woollen jacket, he’s not costumed in novelty wear like some of the other guides we spot around town this evening. And his storytelling is spot on – informative, suspenseful and sometimes mischievous.
Put you off your dinner
Of course, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here; just to say our guide talks us through a variety of unsavoury stories, including the plight of women once thought to be witches, the grisly end that came to an assortment of Viking leaders, the torture of Guy Fawkes – who was born in the city – the tyrannical rule of various Roman Emperors, and the fear that forced families apart during the plague. As a taster for what you can expect, if you want more information ahead of the trip, try searching “Margaret Clitherow” or the “blood eagle” method of execution. That’ll either put you off your dinner or whet your appetite to sign up yourself.
Flogged with make-believe whips
We don’t walk miles tonight, but our guide makes sure we see many of the city’s fine highlights. So we wander up through the Shambles, past the oldest building in the city, beside the birthplace of Guy Fawkes, and, of course, along the outside of the gorgeous Minster. We also stop by some less well-visited areas, plodding through streets of housing to visit old churches not mentioned in the guide books and worse-for-wear buildings that are only still standing thanks to the addition of steel rods in their walls.
Stories are served up each time we stop, and they almost all require audience participation. Having to the play the part of a Viking leader killed in a pit of snakes, I get off lightly. Other members of our group end up being flogged with make-believe whips, broken, opened-up and thoroughly tortured.
Throughout the course of the evening, everyone’s called up to take their turn. It’s all part of the fun, but if you don’t fancy being singled out and told to howl like you’re having your ribs snapped apart, this tour probably isn’t for you…
A sense of disgust
By 8pm we’ve been entertained with more than a hatful of horror, but the evening’s most interesting and genuinely terrifying story is saved till almost last, when our guide describes the gruesome goings on at Clifford’s Tower (another of York’s popular tourist stop-offs) during a blood-thirsty wave of anti-Semitic riots during the reign of King Richard I.
The tone for this story is sombre. There are no gimmicks nor the pulling out of tour members to act the part of victims. This one’s told straight, and it’s all the more powerful for that fact, leaving a lasting sense of disgust at the religious atrocities that have taken place on British soil through the ages. And, indeed, those that are still rife elsewhere in the world today.
Dinner, drinks and night sweats
On that unhappy ending, and after 85 minutes, the tour winds-up where it began – in the beer garden of the Golden Fleece. Allowing time for everyone to order well-deserved drinks, the group gathers over wooden benches for a final, more light-hearted tale and a chance to ask questions. It’s a fun final session and lasts about 10 minutes before everyone disappears off into the city for dinner, drinks and, perhaps, just maybe, terrifying nightmares at bedtime.
Matt’s top tips
If you fancy an evening walking tour of York, make sure you go on one that’s not chock-full of people. On this trip there were 20 of us, but during the course of the evening we see others that have upwards of 60. On those walks the guides carry steps with them to stand above the throng and literally shout their stories. They don’t seem so fun.
Also make sure you know what you’re getting before you start. If you want ghost stories, there are walking tours that cater for that. If you’d prefer to learn more about the gruesome real-life history of the city, there are those tours too. Do a little research beforehand, and if you’d prefer the latter option, the Terror Trail running daily from the Golden Fleece comes highly recommended.
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About Matt Thompson
Having started out as a student music journalist back in the late 90s, today Matt spends his days writing, editing and talking about reporting styles for a variety of publications and organisations. He’s keen on Britpop and photography, and wears out running shoes more frequently than his wallet would prefer.