Those curious enough to investigate the unexplained are bound to come across the supernatural. Not that I have ever really seen a ghost, nor for that matter the Loch Ness monster, the Yeti, nor Big Foot. I do know some pretty sensible and honest folk who think they have, though, and until proved otherwise, I’m prepared to believe they have seen something and there will one day be a rational explanation for these mysteries. In the meantime, like many members of the Ghost Club I keep an open mind and even indulge in a spot of seeking from time to time – simply because I’m curious and everyone loves a mystery.
However, I was not looking for anything other than a good night’s sleep when I drove up to the Scientific Exploration Society Base in Wiltshire, at midnight. The white-walled Tudor farm was bathed in pale moonlight, the shrubs and trees of the garden casting strange shadows on the concrete patio. As the big Volvo’s engine died, I stepped out into the chill English night air. ‘Brr,’ I shivered as I hoisted my grip from the back of the car and strode over to the kitchen door. ‘Keys in the letter box,’ I remembered Jim Masters’s instructions. ‘We’ll be back in the morning.’ My old friends Jim and Joan were wardens of the base and returning from a visit to Belize where some of my sappers were stationed. I’d just flown in to RAF Brize Norton from Washington. Next day, I’d motor home to Yorkshire, but with snow over much of Northern England, I didn’t fancy a long night drive after my eight-hour flight across the Atlantic.
The door swung open and warm air spilled out to greet me. The neon light flickered on revealing a note, a newspaper and a bottle of J&B on the scrubbed kitchen table. ‘Welcome John,’ read the message, ‘help yourself. Please use the bedroom at the top of the stairs. See you tomorrow.’ Pouring a good measure of man’s best friend, I flicked open the Daily Telegraph and started to catch up on the news. My heavy diver’s watch read 7.30p.m. (New York time) and having just caught up five hours, I was not the least bit tired. The glass of Scotch was getting low when I heard the coughing – it was right above me. ‘How odd,’ I thought, looking at the oak-beamed ceiling – then remembered. ‘Heavens, it must be Michael – and I’ve woken him up.’ Michael, Jim’s teenage son, slept in the room above the kitchen, and although his parents were out, I guessed Michael had come home early, used his own key and gone to bed. So I put away the J&B and tiptoed up to my bedroom where the long hours of travel quickly had their effect.
Waking up with the sun, I stretched, yawned, climbed reluctantly out of bed and tottered off to the bathroom to shave and bathe.
The internal walls in the farm were barely partitions and with the creaky, irregular wooden floors, every noise was audible all over the house. I could hear Michael dressing in his room and later, wallowing in the steaming bath, I saw his shadow cross the frosted glass door, followed by the ‘clump, clump, clump’ as he descended the narrow wooden stairs. As I dried myself, he returned and as he passed the door, I called out, ‘Morning, Michael,’ but there was no reply. Once dressed, I went down to phone Judith and announce my safe return. Michael was still moving about in his room.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a key in the lock and in walked Jim and Joan. ‘Sleep well?’ they inquired. ‘Yes – super, and bless you for the Scotch, you know my taste.’ We chatted for a moment and then, as Joan put on the coffee, I said, ‘I’m sorry I disturbed Michael last night.’ Joan looked at me in a strange way. ‘Michael?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘upstairs.’ Joan’s brows narrowed. ‘John,’ she said very slowly, ‘Michael has not been here for six weeks – he’s away at college.’ ‘Then who on earth’s upstairs?’ I said, ‘because he’s still there.’ Joan turned down the coffee and led quickly to Michael’s room. The door was closed, the bed was not even made up – there was just a plain mattress on the springs. I felt rather cold and the hair on the back on my neck lifted. We checked the entire house from top to bottom. All doors and windows were locked from inside. Other than the one in my possession, Jim had the only other key. I must have been alone.’
‘We’ve a tale to tell you’ said Jim. This was all the more amazing because of the personalities involved. Jim and Joan are two of the most practical, down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. To hear them talking of the mysterious events that had been going on at the farm for the past year left me feeling uncomfortable. It was like finding a life-long teetotaller stoned out of his mind!
For some time the family had experienced strange noises, movements and finally seen a silver-haired lady in Michael’s bedroom. Jim, a stolid West Country man, and a quarter master in the Royal Engineers, is not the sort to make a fuss and it had taken my own experience to get them to tell all.
One of their most dramatic sightings had occurred quite recently. Jim had been alone in his workshop in the farm with the door open, when he became aware of a cold feeling. He turned around and there in the open door stood a man – medium height, ruddy complexion, fifty-ish, dressed rather like a farmer. As Jim gasped in astonishment, his visitor wore an inquisitive smile, as if to say ‘What are you doing here?’ Then he was gone – quite literally gone into thin air. Jim, as an ex-parachute engineer and used to rapid action, reacted at once. Dashing out of the room, he checked the doors and windows. All were locked from inside – there was nobody else in the house.
There was no more to tell. However, the farm belonged to a friend, so I told him of the events. He knew of no previous history of haunting, no accounts of terrible deeds, no tales of unrequited love, but he promised to ask around. Several months later, I called on him. ‘Oh, by the way, John,’ he said, ‘You remember the silver-haired lady – well I’ve found out something.’ ‘Go on, tell me more.’ ‘Well, there was a lady who fits that description; her husband was employed on the farm some years ago – and she died in that bedroom. But from natural causes – no murder or anything. But,’ he went on, ‘you’ll remember the man who Jim saw – well that seems to be her husband; the funny thing is – he’s still alive and lives about ten miles away!’ I had a whisky and went off to tell Jim and Joan.
We used the farm for many years and some wardens experienced strange events. Others, even those owning dogs, came across nothing unusual, but it’s still unexplained and all the more intriguing because it was the Headquarters of an organisation dedicated to solving mysteries.
So I’ve never really seen a ghost – but I’ve certainly had some strange experiences which I can’t explain.
In 1962, two young boys died mysteriously in an old German Army storage tunnel on my home island of Jersey. Apparently, they had crawled in through a hole in the long-sealed entrance to see if they could find any interesting souvenirs amongst the piles of rotting and rusting equipment. The Jersey Evening Post of 28 May reported the incident: ‘One of the most shocking tragedies recorded in Jersey for some considerable time occurred in a German storage tunnel in St Peter’s Valley yesterday afternoon when two Victoria College boys, lost their lives after being overcome by a concentration of cyanide and methane gases, the cyanide escaping from canisters left behind by the Germans and the methane being set up by dampness and the decomposition of undergrowth in the tunnel.’ Eventually it transpired that the boys had been overcome by carbon monoxide produced by the smouldering remains of some old pit props set afire in the tunnel by a party of youngsters who’d visited the underground passages the previous day. The victims died as they struggled to reach the open air through a narrow crawl-way dug beneath the concrete plug that had sealed the tunnel. However, would-be rescuers were struck down by some mysterious vapours wafting from the entrance and rumours of wartime cyanide gas were soon circulating. As these rumours spread, holidaymakers cancelled bookings and hoteliers screamed for action.
The local government – The States of Jersey – quickly called upon the Ministry of Defence to investigate. There were few Jerseymen in the Royal Engineers and it appeared I was the only one below the rank of Colonel. Thus I found myself with an unusual and exciting job. Our task was to examine all the old German underground works on the island and, equipped with the original maps, our small team of soldiers sailed from Weymouth on a British Rail ferry loaded with apprehensive tourists.
As we had expected, the German map had been drawn with Teutonic thoroughness and, guided by an islander, Tony Titterington (whom, as a boy, I had spent hours following down some of these very tunnels), we set to work. Tony and I had long been intrigued by the mysterious shafts that were rumoured to contain everything from Nazi treasure to Luger pistols still in their original packing.
Several of the tunnels were as large as a London tube station and, lined with ferro-concrete, looked very similar. However, others had bare granite walls, dripping with water and often blocked by roof falls. There were stories of Russian prisoners of war being cemented into the walls when they died at work. Locals who had lived there in the war told grim tales of fleets of ambulances rushing to and from the entrances following collapses deep inside. There was no doubt that men had died within and some of the piles of jagged rock that we found blocking our exploration had almost certainly entombed workers and soldiers alike. However, many of the tunnels had been completed and were now filled with untidy heaps of military equipment – helmets, anti-tank guns, bazookas, machine guns. Everything lay scattered by the hands of generations of small boys who had crawled in seeking souvenirs. There were more lethal items – the occasional shell and drums of flame-thrower fluid. Working our way forward over the debris, we surveyed, checked roof falls, examined equipment and searched for any unknown passages that might conceal especially dangerous items.
‘Cor – I feel just like a bloody mole,’ said my cockney Sergeant, as he stripped off his emergency oxygen-breathing-apparatus, miner’s helmet and lamp and sat on a rock at the entrance of one long shaft after six hours underground. ‘Funny smell in the place ain’t there, sir?’ ‘Yes,’ I admitted, pulling a crumpled packet of filter tips from my pocket. I’m not sure what it is – it smells familiar, but I can’t place it.’ ‘Well, it didn’t show up on the test papers,’ said Tony, who’d joined us. One of the soldiers had found something. ‘Do you think it’s this stuff that’s smelling?’ he asked, handing me a grey rock-like lump. One sniff confirmed that it was. ‘There’s barrels and barrels of it in one of the side tunnels,’ he remarked. We passed the lumps around and eventually tossed one away. No one really noticed it land with a soft plop in a pool of rainwater. I was just lighting my cigarette. ‘Hey, look at that!’ said Tony. To our amazement, the puddle was bubbling and boiling, giving off a pungent vapour – I flicked the lighted match at it. ‘Pop,’ went the gas, igniting with a bright orange flash. ‘My God!’ said the Sergeant, still holding one of the lumps. It was calcium carbide and the tunnel was full of highly inflammable acetylene gas. We stubbed out our fags and moved away from the entrance rather speedily.
We soon discovered the Germans had used this for emergency lighting and in case any other little nasty surprises turned up, I decided to get some expert local advice.
A number of Jersey quarrymen had been forced to work for the Germans. Virtually enslaved, they were given a little potato soup and black bread at dawn each day, then marched in gangs under armed guard into the labyrinths. There, with prisoners of war, imported French workers and anyone else the Hun could press into service, they laboured in the darkness with pick and shovel until well after dusk. Many of those who had survived the ordeal were now dead, but those who still lived would never forget the years in this underground hell, the terror of the roof falls, the screams of the injured and the endless passages down which they shuffled, half starved and cold, knowing that if they as much as paused a jackboot would come crashing out of the darkness to drive them on.
‘You know, you could smell a German in there and you learned to step out when you passed him,’ said my visitor. Charlie, small, round, red- faced man, was from the quarries at Grosnez. ‘How long did you work in there, Charlie?’ I asked. ‘Best part of two years – then they moved me to St Catherine’s,’ he said in his lilting Jersey-French accent. Charlie and several friends had come to advise us on a particularly difficult tunnel – where a massive rock fall had blocked our progress. Scrambling together over the fallen granite and rotting pit props, we reached a dead end. ‘Reckon they gave up here,’ grunted my knowledgeable guide. ‘I can’t say exactly what happened ’cos I was working in the main passage when this lot came in – but I’ll never forget the rumble when she went – then the dust and the yelling.’ The pale yellow beam of my miner’s lamp lit the serious faces of the grim-looking men.
The next day, I was already in the tunnel when the two quarry-men – Charlie and his mate – groped their way towards me. ‘I’ve found a small air-shaft that we may be able to squeeze through and get behind the rock fall,’ I told them. So it was, with much grunting, we heaved ourselves forward on our stomachs inch by inch through the narrow passage. ‘Not the place to suffer from claustrophobia,’ I thought as I moved aside a fallen pit prop and wormed my way into the shattered passage behind the rock fall. The wood, sodden and rotten, broke away in my hand and I cast a furtive glance at the unsupported roof. The tunnel was littered with debris; an empty bottle, a broken spade, a rusty drilling rod, then our lamps shone down the passage and there was another rock fall. Tree roots hung down from the roof like giant fingers. ‘Must be pretty near the surface,’ said Charlie and I nodded, looking round. The other quarryman stood watching with us and said nothing, but nodded in agreement. He was slightly shorter than Charlie and I guessed a little older, but I was hardly in the mood for conversation and we only exchanged a few words. Having inspected the chamber into which we’d crawled, I said, ‘Well, that’s it – let’s get out of here.’ So we wriggled back through the air shaft into the main tunnel and I led the way to the entrance. Just as the refreshing blast of fresh air hit us, I remembered my maps that I’d put down before entering the narrow crawl-way. ‘Blast!’ I swore. ‘Go on, Charlie – I’ll just nip back for my millboard.’ A few minutes later, when I emerged, the soldier at the door, whose job it was to check everyone in and out of the tunnel, ticked me off on his list. ‘Everyone out then?’ I asked. ‘Yes, sir,’ he replied, swinging back the metal grid over the entrance. ‘Oh! Which way did Charlie and his mate go?’ I asked, thinking I should buy them a beer. ‘Charlie’s gone off on his bike,’ said the sentry, ‘but I didn’t see no mate.’ ‘You must have,’ I remarked tetchily. ‘You know, the chap who came in with him.’ ‘Charlie went in alone, sir, and no other civilians have been in this afternoon.’ The hair stood on the back of my neck. Yet I knew there’d been a second man. Hell, I’d spoken to him! ‘Are you sure?’ I questioned. ‘Quite sure, sir,’ replied the soldier pushing his notebook towards me to emphasise the point.
Five minutes later I found Charlie downing a pint of Mary Ann in the pub. ‘Where are your chums today, Charlie?’ I said, trying not to seem concerned. ‘Couldn’t get away from work,’ he muttered, wiping the froth from his cracked lips. ‘Like a drink?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I would very much.’ In fact, I had several!