One of York’s oldest public houses worth exploring further is the characterful Old White Swan on Goodramgate. An old coaching inn, not merely a pub but a pub complex, it has a homely, amenable atmosphere and boasts three bars, eight hand pumps and eight keg taps.
Known to the locals as the ‘Mucky Duck’, this ancient hostelry dates from the 16th century and keenly competes with The Black Swan, The Punchbowl, and Ye Olde Starre Inne as York’s oldest pub. It maintains a good cellar, has a regular quiz night and jazz sessions – the pub is one of the longest-running sponsors of live jazz. Apart from its hospitality its past deserves more than just a mention. Who knows what has transpired within these walls and what tales they have been party to.
The pub consists of around nine old buildings now entered by way of a small glass-covered courtyard. The Stagecoach Bar with its low ceiling and solid beams opens into a small timber-framed room, like a medieval hall, having an enormous brick hearth and gallery, minus balustrade and inaccessible. This is the Tudor Bar; across the courtyard is the Georgian dining room.
Out in the courtyard is a rock with four steps, a mounting stone that was used to assist stagecoach passengers with boarding; at the rear are some timber-framed medieval buildings, maybe one of these played in a role in the following.
On 5 August 1781 following permission from the Lord Mayor of York, the pub’s landlord held a viewing of the eight-foot tall Irishman, Patrick Cotter O’Brien, then the tallest man in the world. Customers paid a shilling for the privilege – a considerable amount at that time. These viewings were held in a building at the rear of the pub – now used as kitchens. O’Brien proved a very popular attraction as people then were keen for new entertainment and diversions. Both the landlord and O’Brien made a tidy profit out of it. O’Brien toured the world displaying his height at a fee; consequently when he died in 1806 aged forty-six he was a very rich man. More recently, evidence declared him to be a victim of the disease gigantism.
Twelve years after his appearance at the pub The Salem Massachusetts Gazette of 15th May 1792, described O’Brien as ‘an athletic make, a great example of proportion, and justly allowed to be the greatest wonder of the age’.
Reports of unnerving apparitions at the pub include figures clustered by the fire that re-lights itself, laughing with each other in the early hours, furniture being tossed about, hushed voices and footsteps. And who arranged the chairs into a circle overnight? The Old White Swan was long thought to be a venue for clandestine papists plotting their escape to Catholic France or members of an unknown secret society. Do their spirits still inhabit the buildings?
Stroll along and find out for yourself; at the very least you’ll likely see the actors from the ghost tour chilling out.