LONDON (Reuters) - From screaming skulls and headless horsemen to murdered brides and phantom farmers, English folklore is full of spine-tingling ghost stories.
Terrified witnesses speak of seeing ghostly armies marching through the fog, spirits searching for hidden treasure and bells ringing from ruined churches.
Authors Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson have sifted through centuries of myths, legends and local tales to compile a county-by-county guide to England’s ghosts.
“Readers may be surprised to see that a tale they had thought belonged to one place is found elsewhere,” the authors say in the foreword to the “Penguin Book of Ghosts.”
“Folktales and legends are in constant slow movement, like an iceberg,” they note.
The village of Prestbury in Gloucestershire has a good claim to the title of England’s most haunted place, the book says.
Its entry includes:
* A headless Civil War soldier galloping down a lane on horseback. Legend has it that he was a Royalist executed after being caught by Roundheads camped in the village.
* Ghosts of shepherds roaming with flocks of sheep.
* A “Phantom Strangler” at Cleeve Corner, where a robber strangled a young bride for her jewellery.
* The ghost of the late owner of Walnut Cottage appears, saying: “Here’s Old Moses. You see, I likes to look in sometimes.”
Many of the tales have a strong moral tone, like the killer called “Skulking Dudley” who haunted the village of Clopton in Northamptonshire. It is said his soul could not rest because of a murder he committed in 1349.
A corrupt magistrate who executed a humble farmer and his wife to steal their land in Cumbria was haunted by two screaming skulls, according to an account from the 1880s.
Animals also feature regularly.
One ancient tale says King Arthur turned into a raven when he died. Shrieking birds are said to represent the cries of dead babies, while dogs are seen as an omen of death.
Some of the stories arrived in books from abroad before being spread by word of mouth, while others have their roots in local legend or Norse myth, the book says.
While many are chilling, a few owe more to humour than horror.
One tells how the villagers in Stanney, Cheshire, were regarded as simpletons because they were too scared to walk down a country lane where a duck lived.
Finally, some of the local men decided to ambush the bird and cut off its head. But that only made things worse.
Villagers then complained they were frightened to use the lane ... because of the ghost of the headless duck.
* The Penguin Book of Ghosts is published by Allen Lane
Editing by Steve Addison