Telling tales of the town’s spooky history

Harry Collett.

Harry Collett.

In what vocation would you make people faint on a regular basis, create a little bit of local hysteria nd wear out 50 pairs of shoes by walking 3,000 miles?

This is all in a night, or 25 years’ worth of work, for local legend and ghost story teller Harry Collett.

This month marks 25 years of Whitby Ghost walk.

Every night at 8pm without fail, rain or shine, light or dark, and for all that time Harry can be found waiting at Whitby’s whalebones on the West Cliff at 8pm sharp.

From there he has taken people from school children to pensioners on a tour of the town, down its back streets and hidden yards and usually left alone spots regaling tales of terror, misfortune and the just simply spooky.

And from these nooks and crannies of old Whitby, Harry’s ghost stories have reached a global audience as far away as Barbados.

Although over the 25 years the stories have largely remained the same, he says each night’s crowd and the reaction is different.

He said: “Some people think it’s hilarious, some don’t. Some think it is a load of old cobblers but that is their view point. You don’t have to believe. I get a complete mix of people and each night is different.

“The other night I had people from the Netherlands, Finland, America, Rotherham and Sheffield.”

He has also seen an increase in the numbers of Chinese and Japanese tourists in recent years.

Without doubt it is the power of social media (and not by Harry) that has spread the word about this Whitby phenomenon. But a lot of it is down to the Heartbeat and Endeavour tourism boosts of the 1990s which further put Whitby on the map and a chance TV appearance.

Someone had written a review of one of Harry’s heritage walks which he had been doing before starting the ghost walks. The article appeared in The Times newspaper’s educational supplement and ITV picked up on it.

Harry appeared on a programme which kids of the 70s would recall titled “Stop, Look, Listen” which was aimed at seven to nine year olds.

From there he had an influx of school trip bookings, but it wasn’t until some teachers started asking for a walk or something the kids could do of an evening after their tea that things developed.

So on August 10, 1991, Harry led his first ghost walk around the town. He said: “It proved exceedingly popular and everybody and their brother wanted to come so we opened it up to Joe Public and it just blossomed.”

Coverage on Blue Peter, Two’s Company and Countryfile further boosted the walks.

They have been held ever since every night. Harry has missed only one when it was impossible to get out of his road due to snow.

He said: “It is a labour of love but I do enjoy it or I wouldn’t have done it.

“Some nights you don’t know whether you are going to get two, 20 or 40 people.

“I remember turning up one night and it was siling it down with rain. There were two people there so you have still got to go. I had put the boards out and the business has been based upon reliability.”

There have been some nights though which have left Harry, now 77, wondering what he has got himself into.

He recalls telling the tale of the lighthouse keeper who died on the steps of his West Pier look out and changing his name to Albert to avoid any backlash. But after one walk a woman told Harry “You’re wrong, he was called George, I went to school with him”.

There was another case where he told the story of remains being found in a room in the Royal Hotel whenit was taken overby the army during the war. A woman on the walk was staying in that very room and convinced it was haunted, demanded another room.

But it was bank holiday weekend, the hotel and all the town’s other guest houses were full so she ended up having to swap rooms with one of Royal’s chambermaids.

And on one walk he had to get the smelling salts out to revive one youngster.

Harry said: “We had a school party, I mentioned the word ‘blood’ and this kid just went out cold. We got him some smelling salts but it happened again.

“I asked the other kids why he keeps falling down and they said it was every time you say the word blood. ‘Do the staff know’ I asked. They said ‘oh no, this is far much more fun, we run around the playground saying it’.” The Whitby ghost walks are certainly not the projected career path for someone who was a youth and community tutor at Caedmon School and ran a guest house for many years and so it has taken Harry (and wife Flora who keeps track of the website and bookings ) well past retirement age.

But is Harry ready to exorcise his own ghosts ? “Watch this space,” he smiled.