Ben Toone speaks to the guide of York’s (and most likely the world’s) first ghost tour, Mark Graham, and delves into York’s sinister past and spiritual activity
In 1953, 18 year-old Harry Martindale was working in the basement of the Treasurer’s House when he witnessed a troupe of Roman figures, complete with badly-dyed green tunics, spears and armour, who were seemingly walking on their knees through one wall to the next.
No one believed him until some years later when archaeologists began digging around the Minster and found remains from Roman occupation, including the great North Road- the route of which ran exactly where Harry had seen the apparitions. Not only were there signs of Roman occupation, but the road ran one foot lower than the basement’s floor, where the soldiers’ feet would have been.
This world-famous story of the Roman soldiers in the Treasurer’s House was the foundation of what was supposedly the world’s first ghost walk, right here in York. Despite there being a graveyard-to-graveyard bus tour in the late sixties, called ‘Ghost Tours Incorporated’, which looked for Gangsters’ graves in Chicago, Mark Graham, guide and owner of The Original Ghost Walk, assures me that his tour is “definitely an original creation” as far as they are aware. Tours have been running since 1973, but Mark himself has been a guide since 1982 after being “poached” from being a voluntary guide, and took over the business in 1987.
We chose to meet in the King’s Arms, Mark’s pre-tour haunt (excuse the pun). A witty Yorkshire man, he enthuses about the tour and York’s history, occasionally lapsing into his story-telling persona. The use of suggestion with a monotone voice for the grisly detail has caused problems in the past. “We have had people who have claimed to see things on the tour, people who’ve fainted as well. We have to alter the stories now because so many people have fainted,” explained Graham. “It was on executions. I’m not sure whether it was the story itself or the way it was delivered. I think it’s a technique, we did it by accident. So much so that you could almost guarantee someone fainting per night if you wanted to. I wouldn’t, because it’s no fun”.
Much of this fainting occurred in one of the most haunted areas of York (along with the Treasurer’s House) which is on the castle green near the Castle Museum, where public executions took place. There aren’t any places in York, though, where Mark wouldn’t go to due to spiritual activity. “There are only one or two pubs where people feel a tightening of the throat and collapse at the bar. Whether that’s the supernatural spiritual, or spirits of another kind I’m not sure!”
Although unsure that York is the most haunted city in Europe, he admitted that as a tour operator he should say that he does think the city’s size and history mean that people are more aware of the possibility of ghostly goings-on. “I think the reason why York has so many ghost stories is because it’s so old; it has lots of history.
“But I also think when people come to York (often from big cities) they haven’t really thought about the depth and history. When they come here, their minds open, if you like, they are suddenly in awe… they realise for the first time that their blood runs very deep.
“People are more perceptive, more open, more in tune and in feeling with the place. But I also think that, because it’s not a big city, people can relate anything that does happen to something that happened in the past because the documents are there. Whereas if you live in a big city – a modern city, if something unusual happens you start thinking it’s an aircraft going over and so forth. You start thinking of other things, whereas in York there are past experiences to look back on.”
The walks are extremely popular. They run every night of the week from the King’s Arms pub and there have been visitors from almost every country in the world. A vicar from Whitby and the author of Shadowmancer has been on the tour as well as the Church of England’s exorcist, Reverend Willis, “he said that he had done 150 exorcisms in Yorkshire. For eighty percent there could possibly be an explanation other than supernatural, but for twenty percent there was something else.”
Mark has also been on Most Haunted, UK Living’s ghost hunting television programme, with a spin-off soon to visit York. “They try their best to be genuine but in the end they are entertainment. A ghost story, as far as I’m concerned, or at least the most interesting ones […] don’t have a beginning or an end, [it’s] just an event that’s happened. For people like me, that event can be really interesting, but for TV it could be boring, so that they have to razzamatazz it up. But it takes away from people who are a bit more serious. I think they do a good job and they’ve opened the door for a lot of people.”
After the interview I went on the tour, which was excellent. Unlike some of the more theatrical tours, The Original Ghost Tour is all about the story-telling, but the lack of gimmicks makes them no less entertaining since Graham captivates his audience. The tour covers a large part of the city centre, moving from Clifford’s Tower (named after John Clifford who was hung there from a gibbet for a year) and ending by the Minster, with the stories varying from the strange to the humorous and gruesome. They included the cheating ways of the Witch-Finder General with his retractable knife and the subsequent spiking alive of witches, bad smells connected with ghostly activity, and children’s laughter and poltergeist activity on the site of an orphanage by St Williams College where many orphans had died from maltreatment.
Mark weaves these with traditional favourite ghost stories, such as the wandering hand of the 2nd Duke of Buckingham’s ghost in a York pub and the ghostly goings-on in The Black Swan and Golden Fleece, alongside newly found tales to keep the tours fresh and exciting.
“It’s like theatre, we find new stuff and bring in new stuff. It helps the guides and the audience. Recently we’ve been doing quite a bit of work in the Viking Museum [Jorvik] and we discovered that there’s a lot of poltergeist activity there. I like that one because some of the stories we’ve been telling there have actually manifested themselves in the museum.”
The museum had been a hotspot for activity since they discovered the site in the mid seventies. “In one particular room in the museum, which is the last room before you go up to leave, there are human remains- relics. Staff claim that they have seen figures, felt a presence- felt something cold- and I’ve got letters from people who describe what they’ve experienced as being spiritual, and that they have been in the presence of someone they once knew”.
Although he received many more stories of ghostly goings-on from members of the public, they could not be told on the tour due to being “too personal”. He did tell me, though, about three Yorkshire teenagers one of whom worked in a shop in The Shambles and was warned of ghostly footsteps following him down to the basement. Laughing this off, initially, he was terrified to find that the warning rang true.
Earlier I had asked Mark why so many people are fascinated in ghosts. “It’s a question I’ve often been asked and it’s an answer I don’t really have. I guess everyone’s got their own reasons. But I think it’s the unknown, basically, I think it’s something you can never [pause]… end. You kind of wonder. I think that’s what it’s all about: to wonder. We’re all going to die and we wonder what it’s going to be like.”
He himself has never actually seen a ghost, “I’ve seen shapes and shadows that people claim are ghosts, I’ve also heard voices that people claim are ghosts, but I think you’ve got to want to, and I don’t want to”. Mark does, however, have celestial dreams, or out of body experiences, something he brings into the walk; something he has experienced from an early age. He also believes in the possibility of a multi-dimensional universe being the reason for ghosts, “If that’s the case, there are probably these things everywhere.” He did insist, though, that first and foremost he is a story-teller, not a psychic investigator. “If there is such a thing as a ghost, judging by all the evidence I’ve had and from what people have said and what I’ve read, I tend to think it’s how perceptive we are of the things around us, but I think that there’s a law about the afterlife, and that is that it can’t ever be proved. Because if it could, life would be meaningless… so there are messages for individuals to help them through.” “It’s the element of doubt that gives life purpose”.
The Original Ghost Tour runs throughout the year, leaving from outside the King’s Arms pub at 8pm (up on the bridge when it’s flooded).
There’s a concessional rate for students of £3.