Amy Investigates - Whitby's Ghostly Tales
Bridging the River Esk, the coastal town of Whitby in North Yorkshire is a every inch the picturesque fishing port. A mere forty-seven miles from York, this atmospheric spot is a personal favourite of mine. It is also the ideal setting for spectral shenanigans. Angry gales add to the drama, taunting the waves and whipping the ruined abbey crowning the East Cliff. Reports of paranormal mischief are plentiful, with claims ranging from hazy manifestations to solid forms, but is there any truth to the rumours?
Stemming from the old Norse for ‘white settlement’, Whitby has a rich and vibrant history. Its lengthy ecclesiastical, maritime, and mining interests placed the town on the map many moons before Bram Stoker. Red-roofed cottages, and more stately Georgian architecture sweep down to Whitby’s iconic harbour, sheltered by the Grade II listed east and west piers complete with lighthouses and beacons. The Romans mined for jet here prior to the abbey’s formation in 657AD under the abbess St Hilda. Two hundred years of peace followed before Viking raiders saw fit to disrupt it. It took a further two hundred years for the dust to settle before another monastery was founded.
Whitby grew from a modest fishing port during Elizabeth I’s reign into one of the largest shipbuilding havens in England in the 18th century. The Georgians’ love of spa towns also helped it to flourish, with new railway connections making the town accessible to those further afield. Frank Meadow Sutcliffe’s evocative photographs documented life in Whitby in the 19th century, successfully capturing its quiet, gritty charm. Misfortune struck on 30th October 1914, however, when the hospital ship Rohilla ran aground and over eighty people perished. Its broken form, a memorial of sorts, still emerges during low tide, a haunting reminder of the tragedy that occurred there.
The Parish Church of Saint Mary is nestled in the shadow of Whitby Abbey. The original 12th century structure has been altered over the years, and its interior modernised to suit 18th century tastes. The church is accessible by steps from the town below, 199 of them (or thereabouts); the original, made of wood, were replaced with stone in 1774. Sometimes referred to as ‘Church Stairs’, it is thought St Hilda devised them to test peoples’ faith. They must have tested the stamina of pallbearers at the very least, and perhaps a couple were lost on the way. A ghostly procession of wheezing coffin carriers could be forgiven for haunting this route, still struggling with their burden up to the church.
Many buried in the churchyard spent their lives at sea. Headstones announcing, ‘In remembrance off’ rather than, ‘Here lies’ mark those residing in a watery grave. Although members of the prosperous Cholmley family are also interred here, along with intrepid Arctic explorer William Scoresby, the two graves ornamented with a skull and cross-bone monopolise much of the attention. Pirates, freemasons, Templar knights, and even Dracula himself have been suggested as possible occupiers. Bram Stoker inadvertently instigated the latter, due to featuring the churchyard in his seminal work. When Dracula’s ship suffers the might of Whitby’s elements, he flees the beach in the form of a black beast to the staggering headstones above. Stoker may have also drawn inspiration from the wrecking of the Russian schooner Dmitry in 1885, which Sutcliffe had helpfully photographed. The real Prince Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler to his pals), is said to be buried in Transylvania. Bones were disturbed in the churchyard after heavy rainfall in 2013, but the prince’s remains did not come to light; if he was secretly buried here his grave remains safe, at least for now.
The site of Whitby Abbey has long been of interest. Evidence dating to the Bronze Age shows this ancient headland was occupied centuries before the founding of the Anglo-Saxon monastery in 657AD. The Benedictine order reclaimed the area after the Viking raids, and lived in peace until Henry VIII saw fit to dissolve it; the site was consequently sold to the Cholmley family who were to abandon it in the 18th century. Ravaged by time and looting, what visitors see today can only hint at its once great past. Yet, despite, or because of its ruined state, this goliath draws a crowd. It certainly made the perfect model for my abbey in The Haunting of Delavere Hall. Much has been discovered since English Heritage became its custodian, working tirelessly to protect it from further ruination.
While time and tide are a constant threat, they are not the only things troubling the abbey. The site is purportedly rife with paranormal activity including the ghost of former abbess St Hilda. This saintly apparition appears to be a kindly soul who favours a spot by an upper window. People are said to chance upon her contemplating the view, her lips moving in silent prayer. Although some might think this is a stone tape of St Hilda’s life recorded in the masonry, it seems unlikely as this building was constructed centuries after her death. There is also no evidence beyond hearsay to support her ghostly existence. If obscure images of a form meandering amidst the ruins exist, they have yet to hold up to scrutiny.
St Hilda is not the only nun reported to haunt Whitby Abbey. Disgraced nun Constance De Beverly is supposedly bricked up in the abbey wall after falling in love with a knight. Constance surely wasn’t the first nun to be fickle with her vows, but her fellow sisters were not in a forgiving mood. If she had taken a vow of silence, she flouted that too, screaming blue murder to be released. Well, what did she have to lose? Her cries went unheeded though, for many days it seems, before they suddenly stopped. The silence must have been deafening. Not one for keeping the peace, Constance was soon making her presence felt again. Her wraithlike form haunted her executioners, while her body remained entombed in the masonry.
This chilling tale makes for a sinister ghost story, but it bears all the hallmarks of Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, published in 1808. Set in the 16th century, Scott writes of Constance’s ill-fated love for the dishonest Knight Marmion which ends with her walled up in Lindisfarne. ‘The Trial of Constance de Beverly’ by T E Rosenthal depicts the fanciful nature of the legend, yet many accounts of her supernatural endeavours are presented as fact rather than fiction. Interestingly, few mention Scott. It is unlikely he modelled Constance on a 16th century nun in Whitby who suffered such a fate because the monastery was home to men, not women at that time.
The abbey’s bells are also embroiled in paranormal conspiracy. Supposedly, another victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, they were borne down the Donkey Path and loaded onto a ship destined for London. Sailing conditions were purportedly perfect, but that did not stop it from sinking at the Black Nab. Maybe the bells were too heavy, and the ship damaged its bow on the rocks in Saltwick Bay - whatever the cause the monks could be forgiven for drawing some satisfaction. Various versions of the rumour exist, but all involve the bells ringing from beneath the waves even though there is no proof they ever drowned. Perhaps a whistling wind was once mistaken for ringing, and the grieving community rationalised this as supernatural. Adopting a paranormal stance allowed them to cope with the loss of their abbey and bells. This legend has no doubt grown with the telling and is still imparted as truth.
Paranormal activity extends beyond the abbey to the town below. For the past twenty years or so, a black cat of panther-like proportions is said to skulk the lanes at night. Sightings may have been inspired by the Barguest Hound legend, an otherworldly black beast with luminous eyes and terrifying jaw. Lurking in the shadows on stormy nights, this fearsome apparition is remarkably agile for its size; it steals upon its prey without warning. It is also an oracle for forthcoming fatalities and its ghastly howl a portent for death. Thankfully, only those affected can hear it. The beast diligently remains with the condemned for Death to arrive. Well, with such attentive service bestowed upon them, one probably feels an obligation to die! The Barguest Hound is not exclusive to Whitby though, this alarming shadow is said to torment towns and cities in northern England, including York. If such an entity really exists, I am grateful he maintains his distance.
But what of this tale, and how did it come about? Something as innocent as a black dog being present when a person died could be behind it. Witnesses might have thought it a deathly omen when rationalising their grief. As hearsay spread, individuals who experience pareidolia, a visual phenomenon which includes distinguishing shapes in shadows, might see the Barguest Hound lurking in the gloom. An innocent dog barking would heighten their paranoia, and those with a paranormal leaning may interpret natural phenomena as supernatural.
While black hounds and big cats are busy bothering the streets, a former owner is said to bother Bagdale Hall Hotel. This characterful Tudor hall was built in 1516 and inherited by naval officer Browne Bushell on his father’s demise. Unfortunately, his good fortune was not to last - he was executed in 1651 for treason after switching his support from the Roundheads to the Royalists. Bushell’s hazy form is now rumoured to haunt the staircase whilst he also has the disconcerting habit of materialising in guests’ bedrooms. Challenge him and he responds by melting away. As if this isn’t enough, Bushell has also been charged with poltergeist activity in the kitchen and has a penchant for throwing pots and pans. Perhaps he’s not a fan of the menu.
Bushell is not the only spectre said to linger at the hotel. Disembodied conversations, and the sound of children playing have been heard in supposedly empty rooms, while shadowy forms make use of the stairs. Accounts of lights being turned on without prompt and people suddenly feeling uneasy have also been reported, but while there is a plethora of anecdotal testimony, solid evidence continues to elude. Peoples’ beliefs have the potential to bias their experiences, and those privy to the alleged phenomena may inadvertently prejudice natural causes with a supernatural spin. Ghostly feet may be blamed for creaking floorboards rather than the central heating, while a draught could be mistaken for children whispering. False impressions of silhouettes hovering in the gloom could be the result of an individual being rudely awakened, and their brain struggling to catch up. Those disturbed during REM sleep might think they see Bushell’s ghostly figure as this state can cause hallucinations. Bushell fades away as the viewer becomes fully conscious. Sudden, inexplicable feelings of anxiety or paranoia felt by some at the hotel could be down to changes in the geomagnetic fields or even infrasound; this is an area being researched, and it would be interesting to know if the hotel has ever taken part in any studies.
Phantom coaches prove particularly popular in Whitby, especially those favouring the night. Sunset is said to rouse the Barguest Coach, pulled by six ghostly horses. Numerous versions of this tale exist, as is the habit of hearsay, but they all revolve around a recently buried fisherman. One edition has the coach-cum-hearse materialising on the town’s cobbles, while another places it on Green Lane, accompanied by two riders. The sight acts as a magnet for mourners who trail behind to St Mary’s Church. On reaching the churchyard, spectral sailors alight to collect the remains of their fallen comrade. As if this tale isn’t dramatic enough the sailors return to their coach and depart in haste. Heading towards the cliff, the vehicle topples over the edge and disappears.
This is not the only spirit carriage alleged to haunt the church. Another can be heard after dark, approaching St Mary’s with great urgency. Waves crashing on the rocks below fail to muffle the thunderous hooves driven mad by their driver’s whip. The horses stop abruptly in front of the church, to be confronted by nebulous forms lingering by the entrance. Something about this welcome party is not to the horses liking, they rear up before melting into the night. For all its theatrics, however, this high-octane scene does not reveal any clues as to the cause. One is left wondering what inspired this rumour.
The east and west pier lighthouses are also said to be haunted. Well, with paranormal activity affecting most of Whitby, it would be impolite to leave them out. A former lighthouse keeper frequents the west pier lighthouse after dying there during a storm. The light had gone out, or so the story goes, putting boats in great peril. Not one to shirk his responsibility, the lighthouse keeper hurried through the downpour to right the wrong. He was successful in his endeavour, but on walking back down the stairs, made slippery with rainwater, he fell and broke his neck. His lifeless body was discovered sometime later lying next to the entrance. His spirit has purportedly been seen dashing towards the lighthouse and sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. But did this character, who sacrificed his life for others, really exist? No memorial marks his selfless act, which seems remiss if the story is true.
Another, more perturbing account attributed to the west pier lighthouse is of a ghostly figure who interacts with the living. Several editions have been reported, all focusing on a one-armed apparition with an apparent malicious streak. One account has him coming to a sticky end after falling from the building onto the rocks below, while another states he suffered a heart attack and fell down the stairs. Whatever the cause of his untimely demise, some believe his ghostly form now lingers on the stairs intent on tripping up unsuspecting visitors, while others have him lurking where he tumbled over the edge, intent on dealing innocent bystanders the same fate. One could argue that he is not malevolent, simply lonely, but whatever his purpose, this rumour is devoid of evidence, yet still presented as fact. There is no record of a one-armed man dying at the lighthouse, and if there really was a spirit intent on endangering lives it would hardly be open to the public.
A frequent spectral entity said to manifest on Whitby’s cobbles is that of Gadgy Clarke, commonly known as the Oyster Man. Once a familiar sight around town, Clarke would peddle his wares in the many hostelries. He was going about his business one chilly November night when he entered the Golden Lion. A man called John Smith was there, getting tipsy with friends. Little is known about Smith other than his habit of disappearing for periods of time. Some thought him a smuggler or a highwayman, and generally bad news - whatever his reputation, it did not help him the night he mocked the Oyster Man. A scene ensued, and Clarke accidently stabbed Smith in self-defence who died of his wounds. Clarke was found innocent of murder, but he still blamed himself and is said to have died of remorse a year later. Who knew selling oysters could be so perilous! Death appears to have appeased Clarke’s spirit though, and he is back touting his oysters.
This account may seem plausible at face value, but is it true? The Golden Lion opened in the 18th century, which narrows the window of opportunity. But where is Cadgy Clarke buried if he existed at all? And what of John Smith? There are a number buried in Whitby, including three in Whitby Cemetery. One headstone bears the following inscription:
‘John Smith - Master Mariner. Who died Dec 15th 1862, aged 53 years.’
Could this be the Smith felled by the Oyster Man? It is not implausible his reputation has grown with the telling, and he was a master mariner rather than a smuggler or highwayman. It would account for his absences, and The Golden Lion would have been open at this time. The incident is said to have occurred in November, but it is possible Smith did not succumb to his injuries until mid-December. Lack of evidence makes the legend difficult to verify.
The White Horse and Griffin is another hostelry plagued by eerie goings-on. Former landlady Mrs Bowler is said to prowl this coaching inn, a formidable woman who managed the establishment in the 19th century and was nasty to those she did not like. Karma played its role, however, when she slipped down some stairs and broke her skull. Clearly, the good folk of Whitby should be mindful of steps! Seemingly, Mrs Bowler shows a reluctance to leave; she is blamed for making some guests feel uneasy. Death has failed to mellow her mean streak apparently, even though any record of her is woefully scant.
Both the Pavilion, built in 1878, and the B&B Arundel House are also inconvenienced by paranormal activity. Apart from being an early riser little is known about the shadowy squatter alleged to haunt the Pavilion. The ghost has been sighted in the mornings, flitting from room to room. This apparition is said to be something of a voyeur; people sense they are being watched by an invisible companion, which makes them uneasy. Phenomena at Arundel House are also prolific, with incidents occurring in every room. Objects being thrown or moved, slamming doors, electrical equipment coming to life of their own volition, unexplained knocking, footsteps, and a ghostly woman are just some of the incidents reported. With so much activity going on, it is surprising the owner has time for guests.
Whitby offers all manner of activity, but how many of these incidents are said to be paranormal because of its reputation for being a hotspot for all things ghostly? Visitors wishing to experience something otherworldly are more likely to interpret natural phenomena as supernatural. It little helps these phenomena are impromptu and sporadic, and thus difficult to evidence or replicate. Lack of homogenous taxonomy and methodology to support or debunk the anecdotal evidence makes it challenging, as accounts are often documented arbitrarily, with a lack of even basic detail to enable further investigation. The dearth of well-known figures haunting the town is also striking. There is no mention of a vaporous Captain Cook boarding HMS Endeavour; he seemingly snubs his former home in favour of a quieter afterlife. Nor is there any mention of the town’s former whaling industry, which haunts local conscience. One can imagine a great leviathan slipping silently out of the harbour. And what of those lost at sea? A team of shadowy lifeboats searching for survivors of the Rohilla would seem fitting; the cries of those in peril drowning out the sound of the abbey bells. I would settle for a white bearded gentleman complete with his oversized camera, quietly capturing the heart of this coastal town, for Sutcliffe’s pictures are the real haunting of Whitby.