Haunting the Haunted: Stopping the Clocks in York

How a tryst with a medieval English town taught me to savour hyphenated spaces.  
York, England
York has a unique reputation for being the most haunted European city, which it was awarded in 2002 by the Ghost Research Foundation International. Photo by GO1XM/iStock.

On my first and only visit to York a little more than a year ago, I managed a cursory glance at its quaint medieval magnificence. Ever since, I’ve been devising plans of going back. The charm of these in-between places—tiny towns, quiet cities—that you meet on your way to longer, well-planned vacations, often linger long after you’ve left. With York, the haunting has persisted.

More often than not a modern traveller’s itinerary is so packed with these numerous stops to a carefully picked destination that a thought is rarely spared about traversing these sometimes prominent, sometimes nondescript worlds. They often teem with stories, experiences, and secrets of their own. In our case it was merely happenstance that led us to York. We were headed to Scotland for a road trip after a brief stay in London. York, which falls almost halfway between London and Edinburgh, sounded like the perfect place to meet a friend who was set to join us.

These resting places or stopovers rarely get a fair chance. One checks out of the airport or train station, grabs dinner on the way to the hotel, and succumbs to exhaustion only to chase that early exit the next morning. But given a chance, or a few waking hours, these hyphenated spaces could be mined for insight and wonder into a world unknown.

The unfamiliar in York unspooled as we made our way to our address for the night through its residential quarters. A gust of cold wind and drizzle greeted us at the precincts of the time-worn walled city. That night the sounds of a heaving river were evident. Parking lots lay submerged, a few abandoned cars disappeared under water. It was November 2015, just about a month before the Ouse would breach its banks and wash the whole city away. It would be months before tourists returned to marvel at its cathedrals and castles. York that night seemed like a threatening place, its streets deserted, the wind howling, and its residents visible only through warmly lit glass windows. Its unique reputation for being the most haunted European city, which it was awarded in 2002 by the Ghost Research Foundation International, seemed accurate.

Stormy weather and eerie warnings notwithstanding, we stepped out for a peek into the microcosm that York packs within itself. I hugged myself against the merciless, icy lashes as we walked through the dimly-lit alleyways that criss-crossed The Shambles, York’s and one of Britain’s most iconic streets. Lined with half-timbered 15th-century dwellings, The Shambles derives its name from the Saxon shamel, meaning slaughterhouse. Before the chic boutiques, lace-lined tea rooms, chocolatiers, and trendy pubs took over, the street used to be home to butchers who hung their meat for display a couple of hundred years ago.

It’s surprising what an hour’s rambling can reveal about a town. If familiar, in an Indian town for instance, one could step out for tea or samosa and return with a wealth of information about life in the neighbourhood following an exchange with the local chaiwallah. If unfamiliar, and away from home, one could feel overwhelmed by the revelations of a place that one had hardly considered including in one’s journey. I wandered along the snickets around the imposing Gothic York Minster, whose silhouette towered against the inky skies giving it a shadowy, desolate air. I remember coming to sudden halts, my mouth agape, staring at the crumbling Tudor dens that appeared to close in over our heads, stirred with child-like curiosity. The houses came closest to resembling the tattered lithograph print-filled books from my girlhood.

On the wintry night we walked down its paths, York revealed its essence in little bursts—a couple of still open pubs providing shelter to locals and travellers, and homeless musicians playing to an invisible audience in the the bitter cold outside. Like all cities with an enduring character, York is marked by layers of history and stark contrasts. It’s a place where it would be right to want to “stop all the clocks,” much like how its native W.H. Auden had once written. With its many ghosts of present and past, it continues to haunt me for not staying, for having resisted its singular charms. I’m impatient to return to it—not to dash through it again as a halfway stop but to savour it as a destination.

  • Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.

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