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.
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.