A Haunted Pint of Old Peculiar

The fireplace at the Black Swan Inn

Within the tiny city of York, circumscribed by the ruins of the medieval wall, there are myriad pubs.  I have not been to them all, and will probably never get to all of them.  York is also the “most haunted city in England.”   And I would believe it.

Even my own cottage seems to have a ghost, or so one of my house guests claims- he came down from the ceiling to greet her.  She described someone who looked a bit like Minty off Eastenders.

Ghosts are a part of the tourist trade here– men in stilts and archaic clothing hawk nightly tours, and on any night you can see similarly dressed men spinning yarns for gaggles of tourists who gasp and laugh at their storytelling.

Many of the churches are haunted but if one were to do a ghost-for-ghost accounting I would bet pubs would win out.  Just the other night I was in the Black Swan, a beautiful 15th century inn inside of the city walls.  It has an archetypal look, like something out of a fairy tale, with  black beams and iron fireplace, decorated antiques of rough domesticity– kettles, pots, bed warmers.  The space is intimate and friendly– you can hear everyone’s conversations and on the night I was there it was a convivial, fascinating crowd– ramblers, older women in bright colours sitting together, a woman in a cocktail dress with her suited-and-booted date.

At one point the pub was packed with a ghost-trail tour which ascended the stairs looking for  “Legs”.  He is, you guessed it, reduced in the afterlife to a pair of limbs.  There are other ghosts here:  a woman in white (isn’t she always?) looking after the fire, a man in a bowler hovering by the bar, waiting for someone.

The woman beside me kept looking around– at the Toby jugs on the shelf, lit from beneath and looking like disembodied heads, jolly trophies.  The iron chandelier, empty of candles, kept swinging of its own accord.   Over a door behind the bar hangs a set of Morris Dancing knives, woven in the shape of a pentagram.

These knives first became known to me watching the Wickerman as a girl in the early 80s.  (My parents forbid me to see it, which of course made me even more curious, and in many ways this film has had a formative effect on my imagination but that is for another post.) The knives appear in the famous masked “chop-chop” scene, where the be-wigged Lord Summerisle, played by a histrionic Christopher Lee, sends foaming barrels of ale into the sea.

The woman next to me shuddered and declared the place “creepy,” staring at the knives which I suppose could be a bit sinister.

Sword Morris Men in Hastings, May Day 2010

But I associate them with the joyful virility of this style of Morris, where men weave and interlace using the swords in a snaking puzzle.  (If anyone knows the name of this troupe pictured above, let me know so I can credit them.  They were amazing.)

That night at the Black Swan I had a Copper Dragon’s Golden Pippen, malty and light with a delicate bitterness, perfect served though the sparkler.  Then I unwisely changed to Theakston Old Peculiar, one of my favourite beers.  This pint tasted sour, as if the lines were not cleaned properly.  Next to Landlord, Old Peculiar has to be the most wildly varied cask ale I’ve ever had– no two pints are ever the same.  But this one had none of the characteristic dried fruits and dark malts, all the sweetness siphoned out of it.  I blame Legs.

15 Responses

  1. Your writing is SO GODDAMN GOOD these days. I’m sorry the Old Peculiar wasn’t up to scratch!

    • Thanks for reading, Liza! I’m using the beer blog as an excuse to really talk about anything! Haha. Xoxo

  2. Hey Ally

    Just catching up with your Northern adventures – is it permanent? York is such an amazing place to visit and drink – am very envious!

    • Hi Boak, thanks for checking in! It is permanent. Mike (I think you met him at the White Horse once?) got a job up here and we have relocated. I am loving life up here– fascinating, friendly & there is amazing beer. I miss London though. Next time I am down we’ll have to see if we can get in some knitting & beering.

  3. I can’t name that side (they prefer that to ‘troupe’, although ‘team’ is acceptable), but the style of dance is rapper, originally from the Northumberland and Durham area. Rapper is the name of the swords they use.

    I’m not a dancer myself, but I’m friends with the Southport Swords, who organised the DERT tournament (Dance England Rapper Tournament) in Liverpool a couple of years ago (motto: You’ll Never dance Alone), at which I helped. I was surprised how many young dancers there were, including all-female sides, one of which came from Aberdeen, even though rapper is not a Scottish dance form. Apparently they go out at weekends dancing around Aberdeen pubs and get all their drinks bought for them.

    More on rapper here.

    • Neville, thanks for enlightening me. I have to say the Rapper was the favourite dance I saw that day in Hastings. Would love to go the the festival in Liverpool if it happens again, or, really any Morris events up North.

      • Southport Swords (not knives) are hosting a one day morris dance event in the city of Liverpool on 19th May 2012. There will be sword dancing, rapper dancing, north west morris and cotswold morris on display. Loads of real ale pubs in the city and Liverpudlians are soooooo friendly. Email Southport.swords@gmail.com for details if you are interested in this.

    • The trouble with tracing those dancers is that black breeches and white shirts are a pretty common outfit; those hooped socks are fairly distinctive, but I can’t find anyone owning up to them online. The good news is, as Nev says, that there is a lot of this stuff about – if you start looking around you’re sure to find some local sides. (I don’t dance out myself, but I’ve got friends in Bollin Morris.)

  4. http://theculturevulture.co.uk/blog/people-and-places/the-haunted-pubs-of-leeds/ – Hey Ally! Here’s that other article we spoke about re: haunted pubs in Leeds. Just some associated reading! See you soon!

    • Thanks, Leigh! I look forward to reading this. See you soon!

  5. Black Swan Rapper are based in York. They are young, highly energetic side that I’ve seen on several occasions, and they always get the crowd going when they dance. You can see them in a very unusual setting here.

    • It really is magic! Paul O’Grady is quite the sport to try it.

  6. Tried the Blue Bell yet? Good Lord, what a pub that is…

  7. Team in photos is Stone Monkey Sword Dancers http://www.folkspace.free-online.co.uk/stonemonkey/monkey.htm

    I believe the set of swords in the Black Swan were won at DERT by Black Swan Rapper (named after the pub).

  8. What sort of a difference to the taste of a brew do things like temperature, bubliness (this sort of thing – http://www.wesureservegoodbeer.com/pouring_the_perfect_pint.cfm) make?
    In your opinion for example, does a Fosters that is a bit more gassy taste better or worse? Can things like this change your opinion of a pub, or is a Carling the same wherever you go?

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