International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
As the sky darkens into dusk, the tide begins its advance and visitors are ushered up the stairs by a fluorescent-vested park ranger – the beach is no longer safe. The overlapping waves stream over the brown sand and begin their climb up the rock face, higher and higher, until the whole surface of the bay has risen almost to the cliff’s edge – an extraordinary 46 feet. With each tide, a hundredth of a millimetre is washed and carved from the oddly shaped rocks, gradually changing the landscape with a constant, inexorable force that will continue until the cliffs themselves are worn away.
It’s 7.45pm at The Five Fishermen, a high-end seafood restaurant in the city of Halifax in Nova Scotia, and a roomful of people are tucking into platefuls of lobster thermidor and seared Atlantic salmon. It is a stylish eatery, fitted out with polished wood and an eclectic range of décor – a huge British coat of arms, an antique dingy and a stained-glass window from a French nunnery – and not one of the customers seems in the slightest bit perturbed that they are dining in a room that used to store dead bodies.
This fine old building on Argyle Street has a colourful history – as Canada’s first public school, then as a well-regarded art school – but its most famous incarnation was as the John Snow and Co Funeral Home. It catered to the dear departed of Halifax for decades, but is best known for its role as the site where victims of the Titanic disaster were brought after being recovered from the sea.
Once news had broken that the Titanic had been lost, three ships from Halifax Harbour were commissioned to go out into the treacherous, ice-packed waters and retrieve the bodies. Upon their return, the rigid class system practised on board the Titanic in life was observed in death: the wealthiest victims were embalmed and carefully stored at John Snow’s, while the poorer were sent to the nearby curling rink to be refrigerated on the ice before all were buried in nearby cemeteries.
‘People ask about it all the time,’ says Sandra Gardner, the restaurant manager, ‘asking if it’s true that the Titanic victims were here, where all the bodies were kept, whether their spirits linger…’ She pauses for dramatic effect. ‘And they do.’
It turns out that working at The Five Fishermen is not for the faint-hearted. Countless tales of ghostly encounters are reported by the staff – cutlery moving on tables, taps turning themselves on and off, unexplained voices, shoulder-tappings and whisperings in the ear. Then there’s the sightings – a translucent, grey-haired man in an old-fashioned frock coat on the stairs; a little girl with sad eyes in the bathroom.
When asked how many spirits were in the building, a visiting psychic reported that there were 76. ‘I don’t find it frightening at all,’ Sandra says with a grin. ‘We’re all friends here, the ghosts and the staff. We get along well. I talk to them all the time. “How’s everybody doing today?” I say.’
Halifax has always been a busy port town, and never more so than today – the industrial harbour to the city’s west is a bulky congregation of tankers, container ships and cruiseliners. Yet down on the historic waterfront, people stroll along a wooden boardwalk among outdoor cafés and vintage-style huts selling fresh battered cod and chips, while new and restored classic boats bob gently in the harbour.