I read this article (right) in the paper (The Observer) on Sunday ready for Halloween next week. It was an article about the resurgent popularity of ghost stories. I’ve always enjoyed ghost stories, reading and writing them. I bought a book of Irish ghost stories when we were in Kerry two or three weeks ago and I try and read one each night before falling into troubled sleep. I decided, in this blog, to publish one of my own ghost stories – one that I have not published before on this site, to help celebrate Halloween. This story was inspired by one of our favourite walks around Ribblehead viaduct and up to the entrance to Blea Moor tunnel a wild and spooky place where several men died during the construction of the tunnel. I wrote a blog about one such walk a while ago. The whole collection of twelve stories is available, on Kindle, under the title, That Which Lies Beneath, for a ridiculously cheap price (£2.26), not that I’m trying to publicise my own book of course. I also designed the cover below from my own photographic images, it’s quite good I reckon. Often think I missed my calling and one day I will publish, on this blog, all the book covers I have created in the past.
The Blea Moor Tunnel Mystery
This is a story scribbled down and found by a maintenance man working inside Blea Moor tunnel. He and his gang had been repairing the walls of the tunnel. The piece of paper had been inserted between the stones, to some depth but it came out easily enough almost as if it wanted to be found, that it wanted the story to be told.
The story as written was :
My name is Dennis Thompson, I work, or rather worked, as a maintenance man for Railtrack. This is the story as I wrote it down that night. Afterwards.
You can believe it or not, I’m past caring about such things.
I suppose working as a maintenance man for Railtrack often meant working in some out of the way places. Lonely, wild places where the only people you saw were your fellow workers and anybody else your imagination conjured up. That said, working on the bridge 95B just at the entrance of Blea Moor tunnel on the Leeds – Carlisle line was one of the loneliest spots on the whole rail network and even experienced maintenance men didn’t like the location. And with good reason, but I’ll come to that later in this story.
I had never worked this distant spot before but when I was told where we were going by our supervisor my heart raced a little. I supposed it was because of my great, great grandfather. Later I would know for sure.
In this place the wind whistles along the line and the mist can roll in in minutes and the temperature drop ten degrees before you even realise what is happening. The tunnel itself had taken hundreds of men four years to complete. The men and their families had lived in camps on Blea Moor above the actual tunnel they were carving through the rock with only picks and shovels. They had lived and died there. Hundreds of men had died constructing the whole of this line through this desolate landscape because the London Midland railway company had wanted its own route north to Scotland. Women and children had died also. Some of them drowned in flash floods on the moor and others, the men, in the tunnel itself. No wonder the place felt haunted. And it did feel haunted.
The fact that my great, great grandfather was one of the fatalities, crushed by a rock fall inside the tunnel, didn’t help my feelings towards the place. But a job’s a job, so here I was.
All this I told my new workmates as we drove through the night.
“You seem to know a lot about this bloody tunnel,” Mike said.
I explained more about my great, great grandfather and how he had been crushed in a rock fall in the tunnel just before the tunnel was finished in 1874 or 1875 I couldn’t remember, then what was left of him was buried in the churchyard at Chapel le Dale. My workmates went quiet and the van drove on into the beam of our headlights. Heading towards the bridge. I looked at my reflection in the van window and thought bitterly that the railways hadn’t been kind to my family since then. And yet here I was.
Most people thought of the line at this point as being only to do with the Ribblehead viaduct and rightly so. As a structure the viaduct had no equal and from a maintenance point of view, although it could definitely be breezy when working on scaffolding or a cradle, the men didn’t mind it, at least you were out in the open. You could see what might be coming, if that doesn’t sound a strange thing to say. But the Blea Moor tunnel was remarkable too. By far the longest tunnel on the line, twice as long as any other tunnel on the line, it was a feat of engineering equal to the viaduct but, whereas people loved the viaduct, most people, train drivers particularly, hated the tunnel. Many a driver reported feeling trapped in the tunnel and a marvellous feeling of liberation when they came out the other side. God only knows what it would have been like in the days of steam trains. Some men spoke of ghosts.
Bridge 95B was about a mile further up the line from the viaduct towards Carlisle. Just a short distance from Blea Moor tunnel entrance. It carried a track and, unusually, a stream in a kind of modest aqueduct at the side of the track. The water came off Smithy Hill, an extension of Great Whernside but, after a particularly dry autumn, it carried no water. It needed to be empty if we were going to carry out our work.
It was the closeness of the tunnel itself that gave the bridge its unsettling atmosphere. When you were working on the bridge you either had the tunnel in front of you with its black entrance always in your vision. I don’t know, somehow it seemed at times as if it was calling to you. Come inside, it said. Or more disturbing still – run away. Worse was when you worked with your back to the tunnel. Then your imagination, in that bleak landscape, really ran riot. Even though you knew there was nothing there, you would find yourself constantly turning around to check.
Funny, I talk as if I’d been there before. Of course I hadn’t but others in my family had. Maybe in some way I had. This knowledge came later.
And that weather again. The bridge, like the viaduct, got constant exposure to the hostile weather that could blow in within the space of minutes. One minute you were appreciating a warm, sunny day and the next minute, a fog or mist had rolled in and a person could barely see his hand in front of his face. They say it’s bleak in winter but summer could be pretty dire as well at times.
On this job the bridge was being repaired before the worst of the weather set in. But in November this change of weather could be particularly unsettling. At this time of the year the men looked forward to their breaks. Those periods when they could retreat to the warmth of their van. The thing was up here their reluctance to return to work was far greater. The van was our protection. Against the elements and anything else that came along. It wasn’t of course but we liked to think it was so.
Such was the way we felt about bridge 95B and, working at night, as we had to on this line, made the job even more unwelcome. More eerie I guess you would say. The job had to be done at night, this night, because that was the time that traffic on the line stopped for 6 hours. Freight trains ran all through the day and night. That was our window tonight and we understood why it had to be that way. But we still didn’t like it.
Geoff, our foreman, drove the van. I had met them in Settle where they were based. I didn’t understand why they had called me from Leeds, but I do what ‘they’ tell me so I had driven from Leeds to meet my new workmates. They seemed friendly enough. Unusual in some ways but I didn’t have time to think about the situation.
We drove along the B6479 until we got to the turn off at the viaduct. I think all 5 of us, who made up the team, sat in the van that night felt much the same –apprehensive? Might that be the word? Even as we bumped along the stony track that led from the road up to and under the viaduct then through a farm gate and back under the line, then up to the bridge and the entrance to the tunnel, the fog or was it mist, did it matter? grew thicker as we got closer. We didn’t look out of the windows. I suppose they, at least, knew what was there and the dark night with the moon blocked by the fog gave me no view anyway. But once again I had the feeling that I’d been there before, even though I knew I hadn’t. The whole drive in the van seemed like being in a metal coffin.
The van pulled up just short of the bridge and we climbed out. It was cold and I was going to say eerily quiet but that wasn’t true, there was a noise, it was the whistling of the wind coming over the moor. We stood for a while, gripped by the desolation. For what seemed like several minutes, but was probably only seconds, nobody spoke. We seemed quite overcome by the solitude. You couldn’t see more than ten yards but you knew the moors were there and just beyond the glowering mass of Great Whernside.
“Here we are again then, my favourite spot,” Dave, who was the first to speak and who had worked here before, said, “I think it’s clearing,” Mike, apparently always the optimist, said. “The wind’s blowing the mist away.”
“Come on then lads, let’s get to it,” Geoff, said. ”It’s not going to get any better.”
Geoff slid back the door of the van, the noise was strangely muted. Lost in the night. We put on our high viz jackets and helmets, emptied our tools from the van. It was cold. We struggled to carry all our equipment over the stone walls, the wire fence and on to the line, then walked slowly towards the bridge along the line.
“There must be easier jobs than this,” said Dave.
Our electrician, Wesley, had unloaded our small generator on wheels that would power the arc lights that we needed to complete our task. Any other tools would be battery-operated. He pulled the generator behind him over the rough stones on the path. Two of us lifted it over the wall and Wesley pulled it along the line.
Although small and compact it made a lot of noise when it was going. And I think we were glad of it. It gave a kind of comfort in that desolate place but it was as well all trains had finished for the night because a person would not hear them above the hypnotic throbbing of the generator. The tunnel masked the sound of the train until the last moment.
Sixty miles south in a modest semi-detached house in West Leeds a candle flickered in an unnoticed air current and then went out. Only the gas fire puttered away and made any noise. Outside the rain fell quietly. In the room Amy Thompson looked puzzled at the candle, this was not usually a room that had draughts. Amy liked scented candles she thought it gave the room a cozy feel and she needed all the comfort she could get while Dennis was away. She hated him working nights but understood why he needed to and why the company required it. Dennis had always wanted to work on the railways and now he had got his wish. He’d only been there 6 months but it was a good job and they certainly needed the money now.
Her unborn infant kicked her stomach, she smiled but, as she did, she realised how strong his – she knew it was a boy – kicking was and the thought that she might have the baby so soon, maybe even in the next few days, he kicked again, he was trying to tell her something, but what, of course she didn’t know. He would be named Harry after his great, great grandfather on Dennis’s side. Amy struggled to her feet and waddled across to where the extinguished candle stood on the small side table. Try as she might she could not get the candle to light. She glanced at her watch, 10 o’ clock, Dennis would just be starting work. She shivered for some reason despite the gas fire. Time she was in bed, time both of them were.
“Somebody wants us in the dark,” she said aloud to her unborn infant.
The baby kicked again, he did not answer although he would have liked to.
Amy felt a little stab of panic, please God don’t let the baby come while Dennis is away. But God wasn’t listening.
In our world, through the slowly clearing fog or was it mist, we could just make out the mouth of the tunnel. You wanted to look away but somehow you could not.
It was ten o’ clock, the last train of the day had passed out of the tunnel, over the viaduct, towards Leeds, just over half an hour ago. It was November the 12th. The day my son was born. I remember the date well. Our job that day or rather that night was to repair the stone work under the bridge, clean out the old cement and pump in the new mastic-based filler.
Perhaps it was the first sign that all was not well that night. It was strange but in places the stonework dripped water from the roof of the bridge but I couldn’t understand why. There was no water above us. We had checked the aqueduct when we arrived. Not like in the tunnel. I didn’t have time to wonder how this could happen, we had our six hours to complete our task. The last thing we wanted was to come back tomorrow. I did have time to take off my gloves and take out a Fisherman’s Friend. I found it comforting and in a strange way it kept me company. A friend indeed.
We set to work, our breath mixing with the mist, our shadows playing on the wall of the bridge when we passed in front of the arc lights. We toiled but after three hours of more or less silent working, what we were finding was that the cement between the stone wasn’t sticking because of the water dripping out of the stonework. It seemed to be getting heavier. It meant that the new mortar wouldn’t stay where it had been inserted.
“This is frigging hopeless,” said Dave to me. “It’s not supposed to be wet, there’s no water up there. We haven’t got the right stuff for wet stone work.”
“Keep going,” I said, “we need to get it done, we don’t want to be here when the first train comes through.”
Such was our frustration I didn’t notice the mist had cleared until, wiping the sweat from my eyes, I glanced towards the tunnel. Above it a half moon, passing behind clouds, now was revealed. Now I could see the gaping, black mouth, watching me. I couldn’t look away. I was so transfixed that I didn’t notice Mike at my shoulder. He’d been chipping away at the stonework and in a world of his own. Now he stood next to me almost whispering in my ear.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Can you smell smoke?”
The strangeness of his response dawned on me slowly.
“What the hell are you talking about, you think somebody lit a fire out here in this Godforsaken place? Are you crazy?
“No, not that kind of smoke.”
“What then? You think somebody’s got a barbecue going?” I laughed as I said it. But what he said next wiped the smile from my face.
“Like a steam train.”
What he said next actually chilled me. I didn’t think I could get any colder, but I was wrong.
“It’s smoke from a steam train, Dennis.”
Back in Leeds Harry junior kicked again but the warning went unheeded.
But maybe I felt it over the miles. I felt the presence of my dead relatives.
Then it got worse because Dave spoke again.
“And it’s coming from the tunnel.”
My back had been to the tunnel but at this I whirled round. At first I could see nothing other than the gaping black hole. I stared, I willed it not to be true. There was nothing there. Mike had let the place spook him. As I stared, in front of my disbelieving eyes, a wisp, no more, of smoke hung in the air and then drifted out of the tunnel about the height of a steam engine’s funnel. I tried hard to rationalise what I was seeing, I’ve got to make some sense of this, my mind said. I knew that steam train excursions ran along this line quite often. They were popular with the tourists. But not now, not at this time of the night. It wasn’t possible, just not possible. It’s just the mist I told myself.
I rubbed my eyes but it didn’t help, in fact it made matters worse. The smoke or the mist, whatever it was, was coming out of the tunnel not drifting in as the mist would have naturally done. It also grew in volume, expanded as we stared in disbelief until it filled the whole of the entrance. But all around the rest of the mist had cleared. There was a breeze now that had cleared the mist but it had no effect on whatever was coming out of the tunnel. It made no sense.
“What the hell is going on?” Mike shouted now above the noise of the generator.
Then it got worse. Walking out now in the middle of the smoke which slid to the ground but still hung around his head, came a man. For a few moments he seemed to be treading water, he made no progress but then slowly but surely he moved towards us. Mike and I ran along the line towards him. We met about half way between the bridge and the tunnel. In the middle of nowhere. Perhaps our shock made us talk.
“What are you doing here? What’s your name? Where have you come from? Are you crazy walking along the line? Where’s your high viz and your helmet?” I babbled, my words falling over each other.
The man was wearing what appeared to be a sports jacket and cravat with a shirt and no collar, baggy corduroy trousers and a pair of what used to be called, hobnail boots. I looked closer and his clothes were old and dirty, from another time.
“Are you crazy?” I repeated, “You look like you’re out for a Sunday afternoon stroll.”
He made no reply for a long while, then spoke.
He looked at me more than Mike. He said, “I know you, don’t I?” I felt my stomach lurch, this man frightened me but I didn’t know why.
“I don’t know you, who the hell are you out here on your own at this time of night?”
“Oh, I’m not on my own, there’s plenty more of us in there,” he nodded over his shoulder towards the tunnel. He smiled a little. It chilled me. Then he said, “Just waiting to get out.” He continued.
“My name is Harry Thompson, I work in the tunnel, in there,” he nodded towards the tunnel behind him. “I came to tell you something. You’re the one that’s on his own.”
No, Mike was with me. Mike or somebody turned towards me, even with the light behind him, his face was pale. Too pale.
“Thompson? That’s your name isn’t it?” he said.
I didn’t answer him I turned to the man and in a voice that squeaked I said, “How the hell can you work in there, work doing what? Nobody works in the tunnel now.”
He ignored my question.
He said, “we’re always in there working. Looking for people.” How I wished he had stopped there. But he didn’t.
“What I have been told to tell you is that you need to leave this place. It’s not safe for you.”
“Told? Told by who?”
“Your great grandmother, Lil told me to warn you, she says this place is not safe for you.”
“This is crazy, I am crazy, who the hell are you?”
He turned, as he did he looked at me and said, “I’ve done all I can.”
I grabbed his sleeve, my hand passed through thin air. There was no sleeve and then there was no man, no Harry Thompson.
The noise of the generator seemed to increase in my ears. I turned to speak to Mike. There was no Mike. But he had been right by my side. I looked down the line towards the bridge where the team had been working. Only there was no team, no Dave or Geoff or Wesley, no lights, not even a generator, nobody, nothing, I was completely alone out there on the line. Only the mist rolled in again. For some reason I looked at my watch. It was not possible. It was 4.30. We had been there for our six hours. How can this be, we had used our six hours. We should be clear of the line, but I wasn’t. But how could it be that, although there was no generator, no lights,the line glowed. There was a light, a glow. A broad shaft of light that illuminated the line and the face of the mist. But where did that light come from?
I turned back to look at the tunnel in time to see Harry, I think it was, in the cab of the diesel with its light emerging from the tunnel, that bore down on me. I think he was shaking his head but I’m not sure. Was it the train’s whistle blowing or did I hear a baby cry? If I did it was the last sound I ever heard.
How did I come to write this down? Well, I suppose you could say I had all the time in the world. After the ‘accident’. Of course maybe nobody will ever read it because there’s no way of sending my story from where I am, in that tunnel. I’ll bury it in the walls and then if anybody finds it, then they will know. The next time they send anybody up here I will make sure I warn them when their time is up. If they don’t take any notice, well then, they can’t blame me when their time is up.
Back in Leeds at the LGI, at 4.32, a baby was born. The baby didn’t know that he didn’t have a father. But then, maybe he did know.