Copyright Oggbashan October 2011
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; except as noted at the end, the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
We used to belong to a Youth Hostelling Group that met on Tuesday evenings from mid September to early July and went out on weekend trips to Youth Hostels on many weekends as well. One of the former members decided that we should have a reunion forty years later. We had booked a private dining room in the pub where our younger selves used to go after our Tuesday meetings.
The reunion was close to Halloween. After the meal and catching up with our news with those we hadn't seen for many years we wanted to know about an old scandal, before our time, that had always been a mystery. The organiser had persuaded Bill, a very old member, to tell all about the unmentionable weekend.
Once he had been primed with a good meal and a few pints of bitter, Bill started to recount the events of that long-ago weekend.
"After our last meeting of the season in July 1959 the committee came to this pub. We had been discussing our programme for Autumn 1959 to Summer 1960 but had a problem that a few pints might help solve.
The meetings sub-committee had booked a few speakers for our evening meetings. We had matched our calendar of weekends with events organised by the regional hostel committee and had pored over the Hostel handbook for winter opening times at hostels within easy reach for a weekend. A handbook update received that week had forced a change of plan for the Halloween weekend. The hostel we had intended to book would be closed for maintenance."
"That sounds very similar to our time, Bill," Sally remarked. "We had problems with late changes to hostel openings. The current group members have it much easier. Everything is on line, even booking. Any changes come by email or text."
"I know," Bill replied. "My grandchildren are adult hostellers now. Their experience is very different. They drive everywhere and park at the hostels. We had to hide cars out of sight and pretend to have walked."
"So did we," Alex said. "At some hostels that was almost impossible, but those hostels have long been closed."
"For the Halloween weekend we usually specified that it was for adults only because the younger members would have Halloween activities at or near their homes. By tradition for the few adult only weekends, despite the Hostel Association's rules, we would frequent pubs to sample the local beers.
We would catch a train on a Friday evening then take a bus or walk to the hostel, book in, then visit the nearest pub. On Saturday we would walk some distance to another pub, then yet another pub for the evening, returning to the hostel before the 10 o'clock closing time. On Sunday morning, we would leave the hostel carrying our lightly loaded backpacks and walk to a pub that was on the way to the railway station. After a pub lunch, we would walk to the station to catch an early evening train back home. We expected and usually had hangovers on Monday morning when on our way to work.
There were few hostels within easy reach of London that were easily accessible on Friday nights from October to March when Greenwich Mean Time applies. We would be arriving well after dark so well lit paths or roads with pavements (sidewalks) were preferable. We were not averse to country footpaths and would have torches but unless we knew the route well, we would avoid a remote footpath in the dark and probable rain.
We weren't getting anywhere with our discussion so until after the younger members had left we played map-reading games. Later we adjourned to the pub across the road.
Peter, our weekend organiser, had brought a current copy of Bradshaw's Railway guide and several rural bus timetables. Even after several pints we weren't getting closer until Anne spoke.
"What about Goudhurst?" She asked. "It isn't open normally in October but it does say 'can open for pre-booked groups'. Wouldn't Goudhurst do?"
"Getting there on a Friday evening is difficult," Peter replied. "We've looked at it as a possibility before. Unless we have our own transport we would have to leave too early on Friday afternoon. The last train on the Hawkhurst branch..."
Peter flicked through the Bradshaw.
"...leaves Paddock Wood at 18.14. Can any of us get to Paddock Wood by 18.14, even leaving straight from work?"
There was a short silence.
"We went to Goudhurst on a Friday evening last year," I remarked.
"We did, Bill," Graham answered, "but that was June and we cycled from Staplehurst in daylight. We were knackered when we got to the hostel and didn't get to The Globe and Rainbow that night. In late October it would be too dark to cycle from Staplehurst, not because of other traffic, but because we would have to rely on our bicycle lights to see where we are going. We'd be much slower. If it was raining, we'd be really slow."
"I don't like the idea of cycling that far after work in late October," added Mary.
"We haven't answered my question," Peter insisted. "How many of us can get to Paddock Wood by 18.14 on a Friday evening?"
"I can," Mary said, "I might have to take a half-day's leave or exchange a couple of hours of overtime."
"I hadn't thought of leave," I added. "There's not much demand in late October. I could probably take a day off. My firm doesn't do half-days but I might get off a couple of hours early if I talk nicely to my supervisor and do some unpaid overtime over the summer."
There were only a few of us that could get off work early on Fridays but probably enough to make up a group booking. We left it to Peter to telephone Goudhurst hostel and discuss the possibilities.
At our first September meeting, after we had crossed the road to the pub, Peter reported the situation for the Halloween weekend.
"Halloween at Goudhurst?" he said. "There are six of us who can make Paddock Wood in time for the last train on the Hawkhurst branch. That's me, Bill, Graham, Anne, Mary and Elaine. Elaine was away at our last meeting. But there's a problem. It's Halloween that weekend."
"You said that at the beginning," I replied. "What's the problem with Halloween?"
"It isn't just Halloween. It's Halloween at the Goudhurst hostel. The hostel is haunted."
Most of us laughed.
"I'm serious," Peter protested. "I have had a long talk on the telephone with Dave the warden. He won't stay in the hostel on the 31st October. No warden has stayed at the hostel that night since 1936. Dave admits that he is too scared to stay even though 1936 was a long time ago."
"OK Peter," Anne said. "Tell us. What happened in 1936 that scared wardens away every Halloween since then?"
"According to Dave in 1936 Halloween was on a Saturday night, as it will be this year. It was a clear cold night. There was a full moon in 1936. There will be NO moon this year. The Goudhurst hostel had been acquired in the Spring of 1936. Unusually the hostel was full with about forty people, fifteen of them women. There were no junior or young hostellers, only adults. Most of them had come for a working party to help clear some of the overgrown grounds and do some internal painting to a room that would be another women's dormitory.
In 1936 hostel rules were even stricter than they are now. Not only was no alcohol allowed on the premises, but hostellers were expected to be teetotal. They could visit a pub, but only for soft drinks. Most didn't even darken the door of a pub. That night, everyone was stone cold sober but tired. Those who hadn't been working all day had walked from Staplehurst station.
By ten o'clock that Halloween everyone was in their dormitories and the lights were out. In 1936 there was no electricity and any lighting was by paraffin lamps or candles in shielded holders. The warden was in his part of the building. All was quiet.
By eleven o'clock everyone was asleep. The only sounds were snoring.
There was a very loud posthorn blast, followed by a rumble and a clatter. It sounded like iron-shod wheels on a metalled road, with horses' hooves rattling on the stones. Several people jumped out of bed and peered out of the windows towards the muddy track that led to the hostel.
They saw a coach drawn by four dark-coloured horses travelling uphill towards the road to Goudhurst. Several flickering candle lamps lighted the coach but the full moon showed far more. Opposite the hostel the coachman was hit by a low branch and knocked from his perch. His body hit the road, and it was a road, not the existing muddy track, with a sickening thud. The rear wheel cut his head off. The head rolled a couple of times and the hostellers could see his gleaming teeth in a grimace. The coach continued up the road and disappeared out of sight. As soon as it had gone out of view, the coachman's head and body lying on the metalled road began to become less distinct until the muddy track reappeared in the moonlight.
The braver souls rushed downstairs and outside but there was nothing to be seen. The muddy track was as it had been when they went to bed. The only marks on it were from their boots and a couple of cycles.
It took some time before people began to go back to bed. Almost as soon as the lights went out, there were sharp cracking sounds and agonised screams from the Members' kitchen area. More people rushed downstairs this time, waving torches. Before they got to the kitchen the screams had changed and become muffled squeals.
This time two of the women arrived first because the women's dormitory was much closer to the kitchen. They felt themselves grabbed by invisible hands and pulled towards the central pillar. Roped to and facing that pillar was a woman wearing a long black dress and a white apron. Her hands were tied around the pillar and her back was exposed down to the waist. Another black-dressed woman, apronless, was lashing her back with a riding crop leaving vivid weals, some of which were oozing blood. A third woman was cruelly knotting a black scarf over the restrained woman's mouth before attaching it to the pillar, pulling the face hard against the stone.
The two women hostellers felt their hands pulled in front of them and brutally tied together with coarse rope that they couldn't see. Their mouths were stuffed with a rough cloth and they were gagged tightly with a scarf that passed several times around their head before being yanked viciously tight. They were being pushed towards the pillar when the first men arrived.
The women hostellers tried to speak but could do little more than faint grunts. The first two men felt themselves being similarly restrained and gagged but the third man was different. He was a large Rugby forward. As soon as he felt invisible hands grab at him, he hit out. His right fist connected hard with an invisible body. He struck again, this time apparently hitting a face with an audible crunch as invisible bones were broken.
His actions seemed to break more than bones. The three women vanished. The invisible bonds and gags fell away. The next men to arrive, waving torches, saw nothing except shocked fellow-hostellers.
By mutual consent all those in the hostel that night assembled in the common room. The fire was built up and all the paraffin lamps were lit as they huddled together for the rest of the night.
They heard the coach pass three more times. Three more times they heard the woman screaming as she was whipped, then the screams were muffled as she was gagged but no one left the common room.
The next morning the hostellers left as soon as they could.
For Halloween 1937 the hostel was shut and emptied for that one night. The authorities also closed it for 1938 and 1939. By 1940 it had been requisitioned by the Army. There were rumours that ghostly things happened on the war-time Halloweens but the Army kept its secrets.
The hostel was handed back to the Youth Hostel Association in 1948 but the memories of 1936, and the unconfirmed rumours of 'trouble' during the Army's occupation meant that the hostel was closed and vacated every Halloween.
So there you have it," Peter concluded. "Goudhurst hostel is haunted and particularly dangerous at Halloween. Are you sure we six want to be at Goudhurst for Halloween?"
Bill stopped telling us his story while we bought more drinks. With his hands wrapped around a pint, he started again.
"We didn't know what to believe. In 1959 the events of 1936 seemed to be from a different age, the time 'before-the-war' when life was very different.
We discussed, or rather argued, about the 'risk'. We discounted the headless coachman and his coach and horses. He was outside and didn't do anything to anyone -- just died.
We would have electric lighting. All of us would have far more powerful torches than the hostellers of 1936 had. If we stayed away from the Members' kitchen then none of us would be likely to be bound, gagged and whipped. Surely we could put up with a few screams?
We were slightly worried about one aspect. There would be only six of us, not forty. We would be very few spread around in a large complicated building. If we were going to go, we would stick together, despite the rules that men and women must be separated at night. We too could bed down in the common room with a roaring fire. We could leave the lights on all night..."
"We were curious. We didn't really believe that there was any risk. We didn't believe in ghosts. We thought that the 1936 events had been embellished or were just a fairy story. Peter insisted that Dave the warden believed it. It might have been the number of pints we had drunk by then, more than usual because it was the last meeting before the Summer, but we six agreed that Peter should book us in to Goudhurst hostel for the Friday night and the Saturday of Halloween."
Bill sipped his pint.
"We put it out of our minds. It was months away. Only as September turned into October did we begin to have doubts. Had we made the right decision? Should we chicken out and cancel? It was easier to just let things slide and soon we were meeting on the Tuesday evening before the Halloween weekend. After the meeting we went to this pub and the drinking was to give ourselves courage to face next weekend. We were worried.
We agreed some parameters to keep us safe. We would all sleep in the common room. No matter what we heard in the night, none of us we go to the Members' kitchen. If we wanted to, we could watch the ghostly coach, but we wanted no part of whatever happened in the kitchen.
On the Friday evening all six of us met on the bay platform of Paddock Wood station. The Hawkhurst branch train wheezed into the station. The ancient engine was leaking steam almost everywhere. The sparks from the chimney flickered against the darkness. The coaches looked like Victorian relics. We were the only passengers when the train left. At the intermediate stations no one got on.
At Goudhurst station we alighted. Once the train had pulled out it was very quiet. There was no ticket collector, no staff and only one dim oil lamp lit the station. The red signal light at the end of the platform was the brightest object.
It would have been a moonless night but the low cloud blocked the stars and dripped on us with the fine rain that doesn't seem much until you are soaked through. As we walked along the roads to the hostel no traffic passed us. We seemed to be totally alone. When we were closer to the hostel the overhanging trees forced us to use our torches to see where we were going.
Dave the warden had told us that the hostel's key would be hanging up above a beam in the cycle shed. We panicked slightly when we couldn't find which beam he meant, but a gleam in the torchlight revealed the key-ring.
Once inside with the lights on we began to feel better. We had stripped off our waterproof outerwear, lit the fire laid in the common room's fireplace and brewed a large pot of tea. We sat around the fire enjoying its warmth and glow.
"I don't know about the rest of you," Elaine said "but I'm not keen on going out again to the pub. We're warm in here. Our cagoules won't be dry for hours and the rain seems to be getting more persistent."
None of us disagreed. We cooked our evening meal in the members' kitchen and ate it, against the rules, sitting around the fire in the common room. Although Halloween wouldn't be until Saturday night, we agreed to sleep in the common room instead of the dormitories. The large rambling empty building seemed threatening beyond the lit areas.
We sat around the fire telling ghost stories. We snuggled together in pairs. I was with Elaine, later my wife. Peter wrapped his arms around Anne. Mary sat on Graham's lap. By ten o'clock we had turned the lights off, leaving one on in the corridor leading from the common room to the kitchen, and we continued to tell stories by firelight.
About eleven o' clock we washed, undressed and climbed into our sleeping bags. The paired bodies were spread around the room snuggling together.
Nothing happened on that Friday night. We slept peacefully despite the increasing wind and rain.
On Saturday morning the hostel seemed as it had always done, an old interesting building that held happy memories for us. After breakfast we wandered around inside, tidying up a few things missed by the last hostellers such as a discarded crisp packet, improperly folded blankets, moved beds, etc.
Until we went to the Globe and Rainbow for lunch we spent a few hours spring cleaning the kitchen. We emptied cupboards and scrubbed them. We cleaned all the saucepans and kettles, washed the extra plates that had sat unused for months, cleaned the sinks and degreased the gas rings and oven. When we had finished the kitchen gleamed.
When we set out to walk to the Globe and Rainbow in Kilndown the rain had stopped but the clouds were still threatening. We washed the excellent meal down with more pints of draught bitter than was perhaps wise. On the way back to the hostel we men had to duck behind trees. The women rushed to the toilets as soon as we were inside the hostel.
During the rest of the afternoon we cleaned and polished the communal areas. I cleaned out and re-laid the common room fire, ready for the evening. It was dark and raining hard again when we cooked our evening meal in the pristine kitchen. We ate it perched around the kitchen before washing up and leaving the kitchen as it had been after our marathon morning scrub down. We wouldn't be returning to the kitchen until daylight on Sunday.
Back in the common room Graham tuned the hostel's guitar and we sang songs in the firelight. At first they were traditional Youth Hostel songs but they gradually changed to Rugby songs, getting ruder and ruder as the evening went on. We seemed reluctant to settle down. There was a real sense of tension the later it got.
Eventually we climbed into our sleeping bags and let the fire die down. At first there was more kissing and cuddling than on Friday night but I suppose by midnight we were all sound asleep. If the headless coachman's coach and horses passed, we didn't hear it. No screams broke our sleep.
I woke in the dark. I could hear scuffling and muffled grunts. I found that I couldn't move much. Rope had been tied around my sleeping bag and the rope tethered me to a heavy settee. I tried to speak. My mouth was stuffed full with a tight gag holding the obstruction in place. My protest sounded just like the muffled grunts I had heard as I woke. I was conscious of swishing sounds as if someone was dragging material across the floor. Then someone spoke.