I love to start an adventure with a train journey, and luckily for me Leicester is only a few stops away on my local mainline so I was able to enjoy comfortable, fairly stress-free travel. Quite aside from my rather romantic affections for railway journeys however, I had a good reason to begin my trip at Leicester station as it reputedly has a ghost of its own. A phantom postman nicknamed Henry has been sighted here, no-one seems to know why he favours the rail line as his haunting ground but he seems to be a good-natured spirit, more often sensed than witnessed.
Leicester railway station – home to a phantom postman nicknamed Henry.
The heart of Leicester is only a short walk from the station. Once across the busy road I soon came to the New Walk, a pedestrian avenue running straight into the city centre. Flanked with historic buildings behind sentinel bare winter trees and, with a freezing fog still hanging in the morning air, it was a suitably atmospheric start to the day.
Navigating the bustling town I was concerned that my visit was going to be noisy and crowded, but arriving at my destination was like stumbling into a hidden pocket of history. Tucked away right in the middle of a busy city centre it was slightly surprising to find the very well preserved 14th century Guildhall with its bowed walls and weathered timbers. It seemed quieter here somehow, more peaceful. The eerie strains of choir song occasionally drifting from the next-door Leicester Cathedral added to the out-of-time ambience.
The historic heart of Leicester
The Cathedral Church of St Martin has become rather famous of late for housing the tomb of Richard III. The King was re-interred in the cathedral in March 2015 after his remains were discovered underneath a Leicester Car park in 2012, and there are now reports that his phantom might have followed him to his final resting place, with a recent witness claiming to feel his presence and even capture a photograph showing his likeness appearing on the paved floor!
I must admit though, that the newly revamped visitor centre ‘experience’ of the cathedral somewhat detracts from the atmosphere I recall from my visits prior to the tomb installation, but this possibly just speaks more to my peculiar liking for dusty, somewhat deserted places.
Personally, I like to amble rather aimlessly through historic buildings – losing myself in the history of the place and feeling the stories that must echo from the walls if only we could hear them. Consequently I was pleased and grateful not to be herded into a tour group at the entrance to the Guildhall, or to have to skulk around under the glare of watchful guides posted in a corner of every room as I have found in some places, but here I was free to wander and soak up the atmosphere. There was historical information on display, but I didn’t find it obtrusive and could easily block it out in my mind’s eye. Sadly though, the resident ghosts weren’t included on the information boards so I was glad to have done my research in advance.
The first thing you come across is the internal courtyard and even this space has its own ghosts. The apparition of a large black dog has been spotted in the courtyard, as well as that of a black cat which is also sometimes seen in the great Hall.
The courtyard where a phantom dog and cat are seen
I went first into the Mayor’s parlour, which has plenty of associated paranormal activity. As soon as I walked in I noticed the room had a heavy, oppressive feel to it although I didn’t automatically deduce this to be paranormal in nature, but I was surprised when I was checking my research later to discover that a common report is for guests to feel an oppressive presence in this room. There are also reports of locked doors flying open by themselves.
The mayor’s parlour where doors open on their own, video footage has been captured and haunted portraits grow legs!
Interestingly, this happens to be the room where some video footage has been filmed, reputedly paranormal in nature. Watching it for the first time I wondered if it could have been caused by passing car lights, but having seen the location for myself I am now fairly certain that this explanation at least, is not possible as the windows face only the internal courtyard and are shielded from the road.
It has to be said that the mood of the room is not at all lightened by the rather stern looking portraits which seem to glare at you from the wall. One of which is a portrait of the Earl of Huntington and has a rather astonishing ghost story of its own. It’s reported that shocked witnesses have seen a ghostly pair of legs manifest from the portrait and I have to say I’m quite glad I didn’t experience that one for myself!
The haunted portrait
The Great Hall is the oldest part of the building. Built in 1390 it was originally used by The Guild of Corpus Christi – a group of business men of some power locally. They were a religious and political community and formed the basis of the town government. They used the hall as a meeting place and for banquets and feasting, but it has had many lives and seen its share of turbulent times. As well as boasting a haunted staircase where guests risk the misfortune of tripping over a ghostly cat, apparently burglar alarms have been triggered with no logical cause. Perhaps most notably though, the troubled spirit of a Cavalier soldier has been witnessed in the Great Hall.
The Great Hall where the spirit of a Cavalier soldier is seen
There is a somewhat pleasing logic to this particular haunting as in 1645 Prince Rupert attacked Leicester City on behalf of the King and a last stand was made by the defenders outside the Guildhall before surrendering to the King’s Army. The Royalists entered the Guildhall, looting the town archives and carrying away Leicester’s Great Mace amongst other valuables. Standing in the deserted Great Hall, with its grand timbers arching above me, it was easy to imagine the drama that must have unfolded here – the trauma and lives cut short – and it seems little wonder that some of those tormented souls may still echo within these walls.
I have to admit that my favourite room was the library, although as someone who spent many years working in libraries perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The rooms were remodelled to house the Town Library in 1632 and boasts the accolade of being the 3rd oldest public library in the country. I felt a more vibrant atmosphere here than in any other part of the building, a sense of activity still present, as though this room was no mere museum piece but still in use, despite the ancient volumes being locked away behind glass cabinets.
There is some dispute over whether the ghost that frequents this room is a grey lady, or a monk in robes, but it is often seen standing in front of a King James I Bible which can be seen on display. It is reported that the Pages of this Bible are turned by an unseen hand and, if closed, it will be discovered the next day once more opened, often to a particular passage in Dueteronomy.
For my part, I was fascinated by a mirror at one end of the room, and for no reason that I could discern. I was drawn to it as soon as I walked into the room, though I failed to find any information about it or its origins. By pure chance I was later talking about my trip to a friend who had visited the Guildhall some years previously. As soon as I mentioned the mirror she knew exactly what I was talking about and told me she had encountered the same inexplicable attraction to it, for no plausible reason. Its story remains but a perplexing mystery and I’d love to one day discover its history; if indeed, there is any.
I then descended to the prison cells, where there is a rather grisly looking reconstructed gibbet on display, Leicester apparently being one of the last places in England to display the bodies of hanged convicts in these awful-looking contraptions. The cells themselves provide a bit of a jump scare if you happen to peer through the viewing hatch, but it’s definitely not paranormal in nature and I won’t spoil it for you!
I did find however, that this part of the building had a rather brooding and oppressive atmospshere – and bearing in mind the nature of its use – perhaps it’s not surprising that paranormal groups report the cells to be a hotspot for paranormal activity. A phantom policeman has also been sighted around the Guildhall, with heavy footsteps being heard in the constables cottage. The Guildhall served as the first Borough police station when Leicester’s police force was formed in 1836. So perhaps the footsteps are those of a constable, still going about his ghostly beat.
This brought me to the end of my Guildhall exploration, but after a quick re-caffeination, I had a couple more places to see.
Only a short walk further on is the Church of Saint Mary de Castro (meaning Saint Mary of the Castle).
The rather splendid interior of the Church
The church itself is rather magnificent on the inside, and a very knowledgeable guide told us proudly that this was in fact the church that Richard III had attended in life – not the Cathedral where he was famously interred. But alas, he didn’t seem to think Richard himself was still haunting this rather marvellous example of ancient architecture, which was of course, slightly disappointing!
The area around the church and it’s classically creepy-looking graveyard are a different story though. Disembodied footsteps have been reported in the vicinity, and the graveyard is supposedly a favourite haunt of local legend Black Annis, who we’ll meet at the next point of interest – Rupert’s Gate.
Disembodied footsteps may follow you in the vicinity of the church
If you walk past the church and under the gateway of castle house, you come upon the Turret gateway, also known as Rupert’s gate. It originally separated the Newarke Religious precinct from Leicester castle, and an information board delights in telling you that Richard III’s body was possibly carried through here after his death at the Battle of Bosworth.
However I’m more interested in the apparition of Black Annis, a legendary figure whose tale is far too involved to tell here; but is described as a terrifying figure – with long, sharp talons – and wearing human skins around her waist. She supposedly hangs under the gate, waiting to drop down onto unsuspecting and unaccompanied children, with a view to consuming them for lunch. It’s not surprising that locals have historically avoided the area after dark.
Rupert’s gate, where Black Annis hangs in wait for unsuspecting children.
I continued past the castle mound but declined to climb to the top to take in the view, mainly because by this time my fingers were blue icicles, and I didn’t have long before my homeward train departed. Passing the guildhall on my way back to the station however, I couldn’t resist popping in for one last look, hoping that as it was nearly closing time, most visitors would be heading home. My hunch paid off as the place was deserted, and I could already feel a different atmosphere descending upon the place as the bustle of the day ebbed away in the quiet vaults of the great hall. Looking down from the top of the haunted staircase with only silence and the darkening light of a winter’s day for company, I could tell how eerie this historic edifice would become at night, when the resident phantoms once more walked the halls. My biggest piece of advice to any potential night-time investigators however, would simply be to wrap up very warmly indeed; a beautiful piece of heritage it may be, but it can get deathly cold!
Links, references and further reading:
The Leicester Guildhall A short History and Guide – Pete Bryan. BSC, Sue Cooper. BA. (Leicester City Council)
Black Annis’s Bower (poem) – John Heyrick Jnr (18th century)
Leicestershire Ghost Stories – David Bell (Bradwell Books)
Paranormal Leicester by Stephen Butt – Amberley Publishing (16 Oct. 2013)
Leicestershire and Rutland Folk Tales – Leicestershire Guild of Storytelling (The History Press)