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Who was Anna’s Woman in White?

St Mary's Tower, York

York is rumoured to be swarming with ghosts, with many a sinister tale to accompany them. Even the mundane properties, more au fait with bleach than crystals, are allegedly haunted. Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised though, spooky snickleways are ten a penny, and dank, dark basements are rife. York really is the perfect stomping ground for ghosts.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Anna. She is incredible for many reasons, not least because she’s a talented writer, artist, actor, and more intriguingly, paranormally sensitive. While some have witnessed a ghostly figure or two, few experience them as regularly as Anna does.

We were chatting at a Christmas party when conversation strayed onto my books. I write about Porter Biggleswade, a York-based paranormal investigator who conveniently sees ghosts. The apparitions thought to haunt the ancient cobbles are a source of inspiration for my work. I asked Anna if she had ever seen a ghost, and it was then she admitted to sharing Porter’s ability.

I was immediately hooked!

Being paranormally sensitive is something Anna finds difficult and draining at times. Not all ghosts go quietly about their business, the more sinister spectres seem determined to intimidate and torment. I asked her to share one of her experiences and she relayed one which took place in September 2010.

Anna was on a date with her now fiancé Rich. Having been out for an evening of fun and frolics they were whiling away what was left of the night canoodling by York Minster. They were at the western end, overlooking High Petergate and the former Purey Cust Hospital.

It was around midnight, and still mild for that time of year. The couple were understandably absorbed when Anna caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Looking across the square she saw a woman passing through the door of a townhouse and re-emerge a few minutes later.

Now, one may challenge the integrity of such an account, not least because a woman managed to pass through wood. That, I believe, is a skill very few possess. However, it was her appearance that really struck Anna. The woman wore her waist-length hair wild and loose, while her shapeless white gown shrouded bare feet.

She remained by the door and simply stared at Anna.

To say Anna was terrified is an understatement. Having a kiss and cuddle was one thing, but not with an audience, and a ghostly one at that. The bonhomie of the evening plunged as quickly as the temperature, something both Anna and Rich felt.

‘I felt weird. I knew we needed to get home quickly. I felt an urgency to get home,’ Anna told me.

Rich had been quick to oblige.

They walked down High Petergate towards Bootham Bar. It was still freezing, and the atmosphere was becomingly increasingly strained. Anna sensed they were being followed. Her paranoia was well-placed for they were indeed being stalked by the ghostly form of dishevelment.

The couple walked through Bootham Bar, crossing the road towards Bootham. The woman continued to skulk, but from the other side of the road; she stayed close to St Mary Abbey’s precinct wall. Anna was fearful, she didn’t know if the woman was going to follow them all the way home. And to what end? But, on reaching St Mary’s Tower (at the junction where Marygate meets Bootham), the spectre paused before repeating her trick of melting through a door. The couple stalled long enough for Anna to see her appear at the window above the door before disappearing in plain sight.

A mysterious woman in white, materialising in the dead of night to induce feelings of sorrow and dread, well, it certainly ticks all the boxes of a good ghost story. And, there is an addition to this remarkable tale - one I find particularly curious. Anna saw the woman for weeks after, whenever she was passing St Mary’s Tower. The woman never strayed from the door, apparently content with just being seen.

So, who was this woman, and why was she so intent on capturing Anna’s attention? Anna got the impression of a woman in her mid to late thirties, but she may easily have been younger. Her dress, or lack of gives little clue as to which century she may have belonged.

Anna admitted to assuming it was York’s infamous Alice Smith aka Mad Alice, who is said to haunt Lund’s Court (formerly Mad Alice Lane). Anna was working at York Dungeon’s at the time, and there was talk of putting on a production about Alice. Anna had misgivings about this, the woman was a victim of domestic abuse before being executed at York Castle for murdering her husband. This apparently took place in the 1820s. I did some digging but failed to find any record of an Alice Smith being executed during this time.

My own flight of fancy centred on the former Purey Cust hospital. I held a romantic notion that a patient fled the hospital (again, very Wilkie Collins-like), and sought sanctuary at a neighbouring house. Unfortunately, my whim didn’t stand up to scrutiny either - the hospital was built as a nursing home in the early 20th century, before being taken over by the Nuffield Hospitals in the late 1960’s. It was hardly the setting for a figure of tragedy.

Following our conversation, I suggested to Anna that we make a short film about her experience; she could retrace her steps whilst giving her account. She agreed, and we set out one chilly February morning with the Minster in our sights. We were loitering at the western end, staring at the townhouse where Anna had first seen the ghostly figure when she suddenly felt the urge to approach it. She was drawn to the basement window. She sensed the woman had had some connection with the property’s cellar, although she hadn’t felt it at the time.

We moved on from the Minster to St Mary’s Tower. We were standing next to the building when Anna was suddenly overcome by nausea. I thought she was going to cry; and the temperature, already cold, fell further. We weren’t expecting such a reaction – it forced us to move away for fear of shaming the pavement.

A little distance helped. I suggested we go back to see if it happened again. It did, but not as intensely. Anna felt the urge to touch the door, she indulged it before her hand strayed to the stones. Whatever she was feeling was coming from the fabric of the building.

This striking, two-storey structure was built around 1324 as part of the precinct wall of St. Mary's Abbey. The tower suffered much damage during the siege of 1644 when a mine was exploded underneath it. History has it that two people were pulled alive from the rubble, but many more died a slow and agonising death. The tower was rebuilt after the siege, and any scarring may relate to the demolition of houses built against it rather than the siege itself.

The spectre’s actions imply more than a routine haunting, especially as Anna would pass St Mary’s Tower at different times of the day. Plus, the woman appeared determined to follow her. Maybe she lived at the house by the Minster and had some connection to St Mary’s Tower. That she was a woman who had suffered a sudden or tragic death, thus leaving unfinished business behind. Whatever her story, something drove this restless soul to reach out to Anna.

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