York is famous for its history, a rare city preserved and showcased for all to discover. The story goes that the Romans founded York in 71 AD, though archeologists suggest life existed here 8000 years earlier. It is thought that from the 5th century Anglo Saxons began to settle, before Vikings captured the city in 866 and for almost a century ruled the kingdom of Jorvik. The following medieval years became prosperous for York, and many of its buildings, streets, walls and infrastructure remain from that period. Much of its folklore stems from the 16th to 18th centuries, when important figures and significant stories developed right here.
Much of the above is celebrated across the city, at tourist attractions like the Jorvik Viking Centre and Ghost Walks. It is also all around, on ancient streets such as The Shambles, in the landmark city walls, and at incredible buildings like York Minster. In the pubs too, the past oozes from within, as many of its oldest still stand strong, and far from hiding a murky history, famous tales have become a point of interest, with pubs displaying their grizzly bygone days.
The question of what is York’s oldest pub is not as simple as it sounds, and has become a point of contention, with various claimants. The official recorded answer is Ye Olde Starre Inne, licensed in 1644, and proudly proclaiming the fact on its street-crossing overhanging signage since 1733. The boozer itself is an attractively quaint entrance through a skinny alley and courtyard into a grade II listed building that remains full of character throughout, with traditional decor of flock, wood, fire and ale, though spruced up and expanded a little by its recent Greene King owners. The site’s cellar was used as a temporary hospital during the civil war, and ghosts of the past are said to reside here, including screaming patients, an officer, an old lady on the stairs, and two black cats in the wall. Enjoyably terrifying.
Other alehouses, however, suggest they may have been here first. On the same street, Stonegate, The Punch Bowl is another 17th century preservation, tidied up by Nicholson’s whilst retaining its unique heritage; it is so called because The Whig political party used to convene here for their drink of choice, punch. Another of theirs dates back even further, to the 16th century building on Goodramgate that houses The Old White Swan. Besides the distinctive architecture, the pub’s claim to fame is that the world’s tallest man stood 8 feet high here for paying crowds over 200 years ago.
Nearby, The Snickleway Inn keeps some features potentially from the 15th century, and is believed to have once been a brothel. The evil entity which haunts the site is kept mostly quiet by the venue’s welcoming vibe and regular music nights. From the same era, The Golden Fleece has maybe the strongest claim to being York’s oldest pub, being named on records from 1503, and likely to have been used as a drinking establishment from then. It may also be the city’s most haunted, appearing on the tv show of that name, with 15 spirits sighted here upstairs and down, including Lady Alice Peckett and One Eyed Jack. It all sounds rather scary, but for the living is an invigoratingly popular place to not only drink but also stay overnight.
Other pubs such as The Black Swan and The Red Lion have moved into places built even earlier, and have their own oddly appealing ghost stories, plus parts of medieval bars such as House of the Trembling Madness are tracked back to the 1100s. York’s spooky happenings continue into more recent history, and the city’s connection with the dead also spreads into nationally famous folklore.
Two well known villains of the past are not forgotten by pubs that stand on landmark locations in their lives and deaths. The Blue Boar may now be a resting place for York’s locals and visitors to sit down and sup up after a hard day working or touring the city, but it is better known as the ultimate resting place for Dick Turpin. After being sentenced to execution for horse theft, the notorious highwayman’s body was displayed to the public in this very cellar, and far from hiding this truth, The Blue Boar unveil the space as an enjoyably grizzly spectacle to this day.
The Guy Fawkes Inn is nowadays a nicely run and admirably comfortable thirteen room hotel and public house, but it certainly remembers remembers its 5th of November status. The pub is built on the birthplace of Guy Fawkes, modern day bonfire starter and infamous for trying to blow up parliament in 1605, who appeared on this exact spot of earth in 1570, and the pub continues to tell the anarchic tale of his 35 impactful years.
But York is not only about the ghost stories and haunted histories, for there are other intriguing yet grim goings on besides, that evoke much interest amongst current visitors. The King’s Arms, for example, is in what seems like an enviable position next to the River Ouse, with a sun-soaking beer terrace; but in a city where the rivers regularly break their banks, that also means it is at danger of flooding. Rather than focus on the problems that come with that, the pub has turned it into a positive, by chronicling the times that York has flooded on a plaque of water level markings up the wall.
Indeed, all of the above are showcasing their own unique story, turning their potentially unpalatable pasts into the star attractions, and alongside the character, charm and tradition that each exudes, provide an irresistible reason to go.