York is reputedly one of the most haunted cities on Earth - and it is about to feature in two new TV programmes about the paranormal. But what makes it such a psychic hotspot? STEPHEN LEWIS investigates.

LIKE many men, Jonathan Cainer has remained in regular contact with his former wife. In his case, it just happens that she died 12 years ago.

He doesn't see it as being a particularly big deal. "Lots of us have our own little private conversations with people that have left," he says.

"Until she died, I had no interest in doing that at all. After she died, I found that it was easy. To me, it feels very real and I have since discovered that lots of people do the same."

This other-wordly dialogue may be louder here than anywhere else. York has gained a reputation as being one of the most haunted places in the world - and a centre of psychic phenomena. That is why not one but two TV programmes dealing with the paranormal will be filming here later this month.

It is also one of the reasons Jonathan set up his Psychic Museum in the city.

One of Britain's top astrologers, he insists he is no medium. If there has to be a term to describe him, it would be necromancer - somebody who talks to the dead.

A medium, Jonathan says, is different. A bit of a psychic busybody: a kind of telephone switchboard who helps other people get in touch with those who have passed away. They don't have to have known the person they attempt to get into contact with: they just connect them to a loved one who wants to get in touch.

Jonathan doesn't think they are frauds, it is just that he doesn't necessarily think having a third person in the way is the best method of getting in touch with a loved one who has passed on.

"My concern isn't are they real," he says. "Many of them are. It is more how bloody tactful are they being?"

It is bad enough when two people who are alive try communicating with each other, he points out. The last thing they need is a third person getting in the way to pass messages to each other.

It is even worse when one of the parties is dead.

It is not easy at the best of times for the dead to get in touch with the living, Jonathan says. "By and large, they don't want to. I don't think that dead people generally hang around remembering who they were. They get on with whatever it is they have now gone on to be.

"It is difficult to imagine that any self-respecting departed soul would want to hang around when they have got the whole of infinity there."

But if there is something important enough for them to want to contact a loved one, they will do so, he says, and they won't need a medium. "If it can be done, it can be done by all of us."

York's supernatural side is attracting a lot of TV interest right now. Britain's Psychic Challenge, presented by Trisha Goddard, involves a nationwide search for the country's best psychics - and the producers are looking for a panel of 12 people from the York area to act as judges in one of the programmes, which will be filmed here.

Also this month, TV ghosthunter Derek Acorah will be coming to York to make contact with its spookiest citizens, for his TV show Ghost Towns Live.

So what is it about York? Is it really more haunted than other places?

Yes, it is, insists Jonathan Cainer. There are two reasons why the city is such a psychic hotspot. One, Jonathan says, is the obvious one - its sheer antiquity.

Not everybody, when they die, becomes a ghost, he says. If that were the case, the living wouldn't be able to move for the number of ghosts surrounding them.

He thinks that ghosts are associated with some particular traumatic experience - that they are, in effect, a kind of tracing or recording left in the molecular fabric of an old building by some traumatic event.

That being the case, the older a place, and the more filled with old buildings, the more ghosts you would expect to find.

"There is nothing like antiquity to bring out the ghosts." There is more to spooky York than simply old age, however, Jonathan says. The city happens to be sited on the crossing point of ancient ley-lines - invisible lines of power that run across the face of the globe.

Where these lines cross, you have powerful centres of earth energy. York sits right on top of one of them - in fact, Jonathan says, the lines cross beneath York Minster. "It sits right on top of a cosmic energy centre."

That cosmic energy is conducive to psychic experience, Jonathan says - and is the reason why "even going to work in a Stonegate sandwich shop is no ordinary experience."

It is also why he opened his psychic museum as close to the Minster as he could get it (it's in Stonegate).

Rachel Lacy, York's self-styled ghostfinder general, agrees that it is the ley lines which are ultimately responsible for York's spookiness - though she had always thought they converged beneath Clifton Green, she says (perhaps that explains why houses there are so expensive?).

Rachel, who has been approached by both of the TV programmes which will be filming in York, adopts a fairly hard-nosed attitude towards ghosts. She certainly believes there are many things in this world that can't be understood, but she doesn't believe that every ghost story she hears is true.

She likes hard evidence - which is why, with her outfit Psychic & Spectral Investigations (PSI), she likes to conduct all-night vigils in some of the city's spookiest locations, armed with cameras and other recording equipment.

She has, she insists, seen things she can't explain - and has, on occasion, photographed them too.

One such instance was at the Ebor Inn last October. It was about 1am or 2am, and she took a photo in the bar area. It was only when scrutinising the photo a couple of days later that she noticed, lurking in the mirror behind the bar, a person who hadn't been in the room at the time the photo was taken.

When Rachel showed the photo to the medium who had been with her on the vigil, one of those hair-raising moments occurred that ghost hunters so love to talk about. "She said: 'I think that's one of my family who died when I was a child'," Rachel says.

Sceptics may scoff: but it is all about keeping an open mind, insists Jonathan Cainer.

In the deep need that many people feel to believe in the paranormal, there is something akin to religion, he says.

Others, sceptics among them, are afraid to acknowledge the possibilities. "Scepticism is a wall thing that can protect lots of people from experiences they are not ready for," he says.

York's psychic museum

One of the aims of Jonathan Cainer's Psychic Museum, in Stonegate, is to conduct experiments to demonstrate the truth of paranormal phenomena.

They include experiments into dowsing and into premonition or precognition - the ability to "see" into the future.

Andy Dextrous, the consultant who works on many of the experiments, says premonition is perhaps the paranormal ability for which there is most evidence. Subjects at the Stonegate museum have been told that in one hour's time they will go into a neighbouring room, where there will be a photo of an object.

Then, when a cue word is given, they are asked to start drawing whatever comes into their mind - and if what they are drawing resembles anything, to add the detail. An hour later, they go through and see the photo.

A parapsychologist from the University of Liverpool had confirmed the results were way above what would be expected from chance, Andy said.

The interesting thing was that at the time the subjects started drawing, the photo had not even been chosen - it was selected only once they had finished drawing, by a computer.

So what was happening could not be simple telepathy - it had to be people "seeing" into the future.

* The Psychic Museum does guided tours - by appointment only - and also plans this year to run more intensive workshops on psychic development. To find out more, phone 0800 138 9788.

Some of York's most famous ghosts

* The Roman Legion. Plumber Harry Martindale was installing central heating in the cellars of the Treasurer's House 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.

* The resident spirits at the Snickleway, in Goodramgate, which claims to be the "Most Haunted Pub in Britain", are said to include a dark, brooding presence of "great and utter evil" in the cellar. There is also an elderly gentleman in an old-fashioned suit who has been seen walking in through the pub's back wall.

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

Updated: 11:27 Tuesday, January 10, 2006