Prepare to be spooked! Jonathan Manning joins a night-time ghost walk around an historic Yorkshire fishing village
Arunas Staponas Photography
A black tent of night sky hangs over Robin Hood’s Bay, while the murderous North Sea laps at its cobbled slipway. During storms the fangs and bones of fossilised creatures are washed from its cliffs. At its heart the village is a warren of twisting streets and shadow-filled alleyways, its residents fenced in on all sides by the menacing North York Moors. A setting like this is inevitably perfect for supernatural stories to ice the marrow in your bones.
Telling these tales of ghostly goings-on is local storyteller Rose, dressed in a long black coat and velvet top hat, and carrying a flickering Victorian lantern.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, boils and ghouls,” she begins, introducing an evening that’s part paranormal, part pantomime, and hugely good fun.
This is the last week of October, half-term and pre-Halloween, and the promise of spine-chilling stories has drawn a crowd of about 80 people to this walking tour. Safety in numbers and a gaggle of children encouraged to make ghostly ‘wooh-wooh’ noises mean this is never going to feel like the late-night walk home after watching The Exorcist, but Rose has enough accounts of things that go bump in the night to provide unsettling pause for thought.
Whitby, a seven-mile walk up the coast, might be a more obvious setting for a ghost walk, with the haunting silhouette of its gothic abbey inspiring Bram Stoker to write Dracula, but Robin Hood’s Bay’s history and the claustrophobia of its dark passageways offer a disquieting backdrop for a spooky saunter.
The narrow streets of Robin Hood’s Bay
The North Sea, the angry ‘widow-maker’ on the village’s doorstep, had its part to play, filling streets in an instant with the impenetrable fog of sea fret, while prematurely claiming the lives of men who fished and whaled. As with many coastal communities, superstitions to keep sailors safe have run deep for centuries, from not setting sail on Fridays (the day of Jesus’ crucifixion), to putting a gold coin under the mast for good luck, and never mentioning the name of a boat lost at sea. Nor is there any shortage of prayers and incantations for mothers, wives and children to sing to secure the safe return of their loved ones.
When Rose talks of a black carriage pulled by six headless, black horses, whisking the souls of sailors from graveyards and carrying them out to sea, it sounds a bit Hollywood. But when she tells of widows who reported their doors opening and their rooms filling with the smell of pipes that their long-departed husbands used to smoke, it’s more unnerving.
As Rose says, the veils between this world and the next were thinner then.
And like any village that became its own ghost town following the decline of its fishing industry, Robin Hood’s Bay had years to fashion its own myths and mysteries. There’s the friendly ghost who appears with a smile at bedsides, the poltergeist that breaks glasses, the nightmarish footsteps which follow people up stairs, and, of course, the fabled house where no local dare set foot. Visitors beware!
For the spiritually sceptical, Rose cites the evidence of apparitions that have had scores of witnesses over the years, like headless Bert, a local farmer who was decapitated by a train while drunk, and still wanders the old trackbed looking for his head.
Ghosts have also been linked to spirits of another kind, particularly the ‘demons’ who rattled barrels and chains in the smugglers’ tunnels below the village. Rose explains that contraband could be carried from boats in the cove to the top of the hill that dominates the bay and out onto the moor above the village without ever seeing daylight, and there’s more than one suggestion that the scariest ghost stories were spread by smugglers keen to deter Customs officers from venturing onto the streets or moors at night.
There are also long-standing accounts of whistling spectres spooking coffin-bearers who carried the dead past Bronze Age burial mounds on the North York Moors, along a death march celebrated in the 16th-century song Lyke-Wake Dirge with its chorus refrain ‘an’ Christ tak up thy saul’. To this day, the Lyke Wake Walk, which runs 40 miles across the moors from Osmotherley to Ravenscar on the cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay, uses a coffin-shaped badge as its symbol.
In search of more surprises
Guided by Rose’s flickering lantern, we head up the narrow, winding alleys between a mish-mash of tightly packed houses, before stopping outside the old Coroner’s Room and Mortuary, to where corpses would be dragged on stretchers. It’s a good spot for Rose to tell us about teenage sweethearts William and Eileen, who had promised themselves to each other before William was pressganged into the Royal Navy. As he was being abducted, Eileen pushed a ring into his hand and promised to wait for his return. Years later a body in tattered uniform, its skull pecked clean of flesh, was washed up on the shore of the bay. There had been neither shipwreck nor storm, but when Eileen spied the corpse, she recognised the ring on its finger and promptly died of shock.
Reciting poetry, lyrics and folklore, Rose subtly weaves into her world of phantoms and spectres a lament for modern life’s missing connections with the soil, sea, sky and stars. Our ancestors sensed these connections and lived a more spiritual existence. Or maybe it was just hocus-pocus, a way to explain and accept inexplicable and unacceptable premature deaths, and deal with the constant risk faced by coastal communities whose living depended on the sea.
Either way, there’s one more heart-thumping drama on this ghost walk tour of Robin Hood’s Bay. If the spooky tales don’t raise your pulse, the 30% gradient of the path out of the village certainly will!
The Robin Hood’s Bay Ghost Walk with Rose costs £8 for adults and £4 for children. Visit whitbystoryteller.co.uk for further details.
Three more locations to consider...
Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire
Dive into tales of Robin Hood, as well as witchcraft, child spirits and ghoulish military men patrolling the forest paths, on this one-hour guided walk (£10).
The City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour (£16) includes access to Edinburgh’s Covenanters’ Prison and the Black Mausoleum, with the promise of frights and fun in equal measure.
Stay: Edinburgh Club Campsite
Brighton & Hove
Departing from the appropriately named Druid’s Head pub, this ghost walk (£12) visits eight haunted sites, each with its tale of murder, apparitions and poltergeists in Brighton’s Lanes quarter.
Stay: Brighton Club Campsite