With Hallowe'en almost upon us, STEPHEN LEWIS goes in search of York's most haunted pub.

THE intrepid ghost-hunters who staked out the Golden Fleece on Wednesday were expecting some kind of spooky encounter.

The poor Victorian woman who, even in death, is still terrified of her violent husband, perhaps. Or the spirit of Lady Alice Peckett, who has often been seen flitting through the corridors and staircases of the Pavement boozer. Or even the ghost of a small, mischievous boy who has been known to tug at the legs of customers.

But the malevolent spirit of a long-dead judge? That was a new one.

The team from Psychic and Spectral Investigations had set up shop in the pub's banqueting room for an all-night vigil. They were well-equipped with all the usual state-of-the-art ghost-hunting equipment: ouija-boards, pendulums, recording equipment and cameras. And they weren't disappointed.

Ghostly goings-on included spooky shadows that vanished the moment the ghost-hunters turned to talk to them; a mysterious gentleman in a black jacket who was spotted by some of the team running out of a room where a seance was being held; and creepy noises galore that could not be explained.

But most disquieting of all was the evil judge who latched on to medium Nance Turner and seemed set on draining the life out of her.

"He was a very evil character," said York Ghostfinder-General Rachel Lacy, who headed the team. "He just seemed to latch on to her and was draining her of physical energy."

And what made her think he was a judge? The spirit's presence was detected by no fewer than three different groups during the course of the night, Rachel said. "One reported he was somebody who used to sit in judgement. Apparently judges used to stay there."

It's not the first time ghost-hunters have staked out the pub in a bid to find evidence of spooky goings-on. So does the Fleece qualify as York's most haunted boozer?

It is a contender, says Helen Sant, who describes herself as a ghost storyteller and who leads ghost tours around the city. One of her favourite ghosts at the pub is the spirit of a stable boy who was injured by a horse in the days when the Fleece was a coaching inn. The presence of both boy and horse can still be detected in a corridor at the pub.

But there are plenty of other contenders. The Punch Bowl in Stonegate is one. Given it's position in one of York's most historic streets, it's hardly surprising that it should be a bit of a haunted house, says landlord Bill Embleton proudly. "If you look around here you've got the Minster, St Michael-le-Belfry, St Wilfrid's and St Helen's churches - and no graveyards," Bill said. It's an area of York positively oozing with displaced spirits, in other words.

Probably the pub's most famous ghost is that of a former landlord killed in a fire. He was about 6ft 4in tall, Bill says, and got trapped in the pub's cellar during a fire and burned to death. "The cellar has a ceiling only about five feet high," Bill said. "Because he was over six feet tall, people reckon that when his ghost stands up his head can be seen floating across the floor of the bar above."

Then there is the spirit of a young woman strangled by a drunk. "If you go back years this used to be a house of ill repute," Bill said. "Ladies of the night used to frequent it and sell their wares upstairs." This poor young woman was one of them.

"And they reckon it was a middle-aged gent who'd had too much to drink," Bill said. "He was pursuing this young girl, she was rejecting his advances and he strangled her. You can hear her running steps as if she's still trying to get away from him."

Perhaps the most odd ghost, however, is that of the woman who floats behind the bar at an angle, listing over at about 25 degrees. Bill doesn't know who she is - but it is possible she could be the grey lady, who committed suicide and sometimes comes back looking for her lover.

Frank Cartin, landlord of the Snickleway in Goodramgate, has no doubt which pub boats the honour of being York's most haunted - his own. A sign above the door boasts "Most Haunted Pub in Britain" - not such an extraordinary claim when you remember York is the ghost capital of England, if not of Europe.

The Snickleway's resident spirits include a dark, brooding presence in the cellar, described by a former landlord as a "great and utter evil". He's a grumpy old man who growls at you, Frank says. "I've heard things down there," he said darkly. "Although it might just have been something happening upstairs."

There is also the ghost of a young woman who sits on the stairs and an elderly gentleman in an old-fashioned suit who has been seen walking in through the pub's back wall.

"There used to be a door there," Frank said. "It is still there on the outside, but not on the inside." The old gentleman doesn't seem to have noticed that the door was walled up long ago, however, and still uses it to get into what used probably to be his living room."

Apart from the malevolent presence in the cellar, however, Frank insists all his pub's ghosts are friendly. "We've been here 11 years," he said. "It hasn't affected us at all."

Some would argue that you should consider quality as well as quantity when it comes to deciding which is York's most haunted pub.

If that is the case, the Little John in Castlegate, might be a contender, too. Long ago, the pub used to be called the Blue Boar - and it is where highwayman Dick Turpin was laid out after being hanged. The pub is reputed to have a ghost - although whether it is actually Turpin's is unclear.

Then there's the Cock and Bottle in Skeldergate, which must take the prize for class of ghost. It's blue-blooded spectre is believed to be that of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who lived 300 years ago.

Current landlady Sue Sweetman only arrived at the pub in February and has yet to make the Duke's acquaintance. In fact, she admits to being a bit of a sceptic. "I don't really think there is a ghost here," she admitted. "Although I'd rather not be proved wrong."

Some other contenders

Pubs certainly seem to attract ghosts: which may simply be a sign of the spirits' great good sense. "If I was going to come back, I know where I'd choose to come!" says Rachel Lacy, city ghost-hunter.

Whatever the reasons for ghosts' apparent fascination for pubs - and it may simply be that they are among York's oldest buildings - there are plenty of other haunted hostelries. They include:

- The Black Swan in Peaseholme Green - a Victorian workman in a bowler hat apparently likes to sit here fidgeting and tutting, before gradually fading away. And according to Helen Sant a pair of legs without a body attached have been spotted in the pub's private quarters.

- The Roman Bath, St Sampson's Square - celebrity medium Diana Jarvis claimed to have had a vision of two Roman men sitting on an old latrine in the ancient bathhouse in the pub's basement - perhaps the first time ghosts have been spotted on a lavatory. Ghostly footsteps have also been heard.

- Ye Olde Starre Inne, Stonegate - the ghostly wails of civil war soldiers are said to sometimes echo around the pub.

- The Treasurer's House - not a pub, admittedly, but it does have one of York's best ghost legends. Plumber Harry Martindale was installing central heating in the cellars in 1953 when he heard the sound of a distant horn. This gradually became louder - and then a carthorse emerged through the brick wall, followed by a legion of Roman soldiers who looked to be walking on their knees.

Updated: 09:34 Friday, October 29, 2004