Winter Ghost Stories

Frozen_PondThe frozen pond in the Palace grounds near to the hauling lane where ghostly figures once terrified the villagers.


Everyone loves a ghost story, especially told in the dark winter months – and our ancestors were no exception.  Apparently, through the centuries, many tales were told concerning a number of ghostly figures that once haunted this very locality and chilled the heart of every villager who stepped out at night.

In the 1890s, a local historian, one Mr. William Camidge – and let it be said, a respectable citizen of York – spent much time talking to residents of the city and surrounding villages.  He wrote up his findings as articles for the Yorkshire Gazette and eventually published a collection in a small book entitled, Ouse Bridge to Naburn Lock.  Mr. Camidge found that ghosts and their wanderings were part of the local folklore of York and beyond.  His attitude was one of scepticism and he treated such stories as nothing more than pure fiction. Despite this, he thought it worth devoting a whole chapter to the spectres that reputedly walked the area around Middlethorpe.  Take them or leave them – this is what he learned.

The Headless Woman

Long years ago, on the hauling lane [tow path] that runs along the river down to Middlethorpe, a lady without a head walked every dark night, to the dismay and terror of many people.  She was invariably clothed in white and the tale told of her death gave effect to her appearance.  It was asserted that the woman walked by the river one summer night and, coming to the hauling lane where a clump of trees had braved the storms of centuries, she was cruelly murdered by decapitation.  In death, bent on pursuing her murderers, she came forth at the witching hours of night, just as the boom of the Minster clock broke upon the still hour of midnight. Headless, but wrapped in a shroud, she wandered to and fro along the river bank and, when wearied with her fruitless toil, she returned to her dusty bed.  Every inhabitant of Middlethorpe and Bishopthorpe could, many years ago, tell of seeing her, and describe her walk, her waiting, and her headless form.

Archbishop Scrope’s Procession

The most veritable ghost was the one supposed to be that of Archbishop Scrope, who walked the road to conduct his own funeral procession.  The Archbishop, it will be remembered, was tried in 1405 at the Palace, under the instruction of Henry IV.  Found guilty of treason, he rode to his execution which took place in a field near Clementhorpe just outside the city.

The most persistent story told of his ghostly appearance was related by a man who made his living as a slaughterman, and by doing odd jobs for the butchers of the city.  This Robert Johnson, accompanied by an apprentice, was sent to a farm beyond Bishopthorpe to fetch some sheep.  As they returned in the darkness, nearing the hauling lane, each suddenly saw a coffin suspended in the air and moving slowly along in the direction of York.  It tilted occasionally, as if borne on the shoulders of men who were thrown out of step by the rugged character of the roadway.  The coffin was covered with a heavy black pall of velvet, fringed with white silk.  Behind it, with measured tread, walked a bishop dressed in fine linen, bearing in his hands a large open book, over which his head was bent; but from his lips, no sound came.  On went the procession, with the steady precision observed in bearing the dead to the grave.

While the men’s sheep kept pace, they would not be driven past the strange sight.  Both man and boy felt as if the power of speech had left them; for the moment, both were paralysed. Perspiration poured from them so that they bore the appearance of having been in the river.  They felt as if the atmosphere was so heavy that it would not permit them to breathe.  The spectral procession continued to move at a leisured pace till it came to the field where the Archbishop was beheaded.  There the vision disappeared.

Robert Johnson and the apprentice made their way home in silence and were put to bed in a state of shock where they remained for several days.   When sufficiently restored, their story was repeated with particular detail and gained universal credence from the fact that many villagers and citizens had experienced like sight and sensation.  The boy forsook his business and went to sea, lest he be compelled to take a similar journey, whilst the man ever after avoided that road at nightfall, but never swerved from declaring his story true.

The Rattling Chains

One night, a man called out of bed the tenants of a small cottage not far from Middlethorpe.  He assured them he had heard and seen a ghost.  Exhausted with fright he sank upon a chair and had to be plied with brandy before he could tell his tale of terror.  When removed to his home two or three hours afterwards, great concern was felt for his life.  In the morning, the story broke amongst the villagers.  They were keen to talk over, not only the sight and sound of that night, but of many a night before when others had been terrified by unearthly noises and strange appearances at the same spot.  [The place in question happened to be the pinfold – not the one we are familiar with, but probably the one, long since demolished, near the turn off for Middlethorpe.]

Later on that day an old Irishman who travelled with a donkey and cart, especially in this neighbourhood, brought the ghost into sad disrepute.  “Every night,” he said, “when my work is done, I feed my donkey in the lanes, and then before going home I lodge him in the old pinfold.  To keep him from running away I fasten his fore feet with a pair of old handcuffs bound together by a piece of chain.  When a strange foot passing by breaks the slumbers of the poor beast, he raises his head and stretches his feet, rattling his chains in the effort – to the dismay of the pedestrian.”

The chronicler, Mr. William Camidge, was quietly confident that this explanation not only got rid of this ghost very satisfactorily, but also provided a similar hypothesis for almost every spectre in the country.  Who can tell?  Once the sun goes down, walking the dark lanes of Bishopthorpe and Middlethorpe will never be quite the same again.  Sleep well!