YORK, England -- "If . . . you . . . are . . . here," boomed a sepulchral figure in top hat and cape, "for the Ghost Hunt, follow me." And we were off, a collection of visitors and one King Charles spaniel, trailing our guide into the heart of York, which claims the title of most haunted city in England with 140 spirits at last count.
Indeed, no ghost -- or ghost story -- could remain long uninvestigated in a place where no fewer than five ghost walks depart every evening in summer and on most nights throughout the year. Perhaps the most mysterious aspect is how so many groups can simultaneously explore York's winding snickelways (small paths or narrow lanes between buildings) without running into one another. Last August, I followed a different guide each night for three nights in a row, and while the groups often visited the same sites in the compact city center, we never met competing tours.
Two thousand years of human habitation have built a colorful repertoire of ghostly players in this ancient, walled city, drawing upon layers of Roman, Viking, medieval, and Victorian history. Enough stories exist to allow each company to pick and choose its favorites.
Named "City Tour of the Year" by the York Tourism Bureau , the Ghost Hunt serves up supernatural tales with a dramatic chaser. Its creator, Andy Dextrous , led our tour, clanging his death bell to gather spirit-seekers together at the foot of the Shambles , a narrow medieval lane lined with shops and cafes in half-timbered buildings. His black Gladstone bag served as a prop cupboard, supplying everything from the bell to a trick knife.
Dextrous recounted fewer stories than the other guides, but performed each as a vignette, complete with audience participation. Every guide visited the Treasurer's House in York Minster , where some 50 years ago a plumber's helper claimed to see the shades of a Roman legion marching through the cellar. Only Dextrous brought a horn and asked a group member to re-create the legion's ghostly blast.
"Out of a brick wall appeared a Roman soldier on horseback and many more behind him. Their legs seemed to disappear beneath the floor." Cue the horn.
"Bleehhttt," sputtered into the expectant silence. Laughter swept any lurking ghosts back into the night.
The second walk I took, called the Original Ghost Walk of York , began nightly treks over 30 years ago and believes itself the first exclusive ghost walk in the world. Participants assemble every night but Christmas at the Kings Arms by the River Ouse, which has flooded so often over the centuries that the pub closes only if water rises over the bar.
Guide Mark Graham solemnly told our group, "Every ghost story I tell is, of course, perfectly true -- some more true than others."
And tell ghost stories he did, dozens of them, of haunted shops and museums, dueling grounds , and execution sites. But it was the pubs that seemed to attract more spirits, or at least folks who saw them, than any other locale. Something to do with Britain's famous beer perhaps?
The Cock and Bottle on Skeldergate claims a phantom of nursery rhyme fame, George Villiers , 2d Duke of Buckingham , who lived a scandalous life even by the standards of King Charles II 's decadent court.
Georgie Porgie, puddin' and pie Kissed the girls and made them cry. When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away. Villiers is said to be still selective in his pursuits, appearing only to women and sometimes touching them in most inappropriate places. Graham warned us, "Strange things go on today, particularly in the ladies' toilet."
For those who wanted to improve their ghostly odds, Graham pointed out the most haunted inn in town, The Golden Fleece on Pavement Street . Five centuries old, it once belonged to the Merchant Adventurers ' guild , who made fortunes from the wool trade commemorated by the inn's name.
The rooms and corridors of The Golden Fleece boast no fewer than five ghosts, including the wife of one of its early innkeepers, Lady Alice Peckett . Guests said they have seen her wandering the hallways late at night, still checking that all is well with her establishment.
The last tour I took was with the Ghost Detective , Gary Goldthorpe . He gathered his group outside the Jorvik Viking Centre , where shops built on the old Viking settlement report strange after-hours activities: merchandise moved on shelves, perfume sprayed near empty counters, and light fittings coming loose.
Once Goldthorpe left Jorvik, he set a very brisk pace, with walkers strung behind him like ducklings paddling furiously after their mother -- if mama duckling wore a jaunty derby hat. No story was too macabre, no detail too gruesome for the Ghost Detective, his listeners huddled in a misting rain while he dwelt on midnight burials and decomposition.
One local ghost, the Headless Earl, sounded like a character out of Harry Potter. Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland , was executed for treason in 1572 and has been reported wandering the Shambles in search of his head ever since. An enterprising photo studio, Past Images, has capitalized on the story by offering digitized images of subjects standing translucent against a York backdrop, smiling head under one arm.
Perhaps the saddest tale was one told by all the guides, that of the York Industrial & Ragged Schools in the Victorian era. When the ghost walks gathered under the street lamps of a quiet residential courtyard, it was hard to believe the area was once one of the city's worst slums. Children never had enough to eat or warm clothes to wear in the crowded orphanage. The headmaster received a stipend for each child he housed, so he never turned one away, even if death came knocking at the door.
Children in York died from a multitude of diseases then, especially if they were cold and malnourished. The headmaster began to hide the deaths of his charges by burying them secretly until one winter it froze too hard to dig the graves. That's when he began hiding the bodies in a closet. Eventually, the gruesome secret drove him mad, and he stabbed all the children still in his care.
To this day residents report hearing the sound of crying in the street and sometimes feel the touch of a small, cold hand in theirs when they walk past.
None of York's ghost walks require advance bookings. Participants simply show up at the meeting site and pay the fee. All begin at 7:30 or 8 p.m. (dusk in summer) and last a little over an hour. Discount coupons are available on several ghost walk websites and in brochures distributed at York's tourist center.
Visitors inhibited by sore feet can take a YorkBoat Ghost Cruise , offered nightly through October.
Just remember, if you do take one of York's ghost walks, you might raise the city's spirit count to 141.
Susan Lendroth is a freelance writer in Sierra Madre, Calif.