Five Go Adventuring in Westcombe Park

“What rotten luck,” said Julian. ” The whole of the holidays ahead of us, and instead of going to the seaside with Mother, we’re stuck in some creepy old castle with secret passageways and corridors and rumours of a ghost while Uncle Quentin does some awfully important research for the government which involves Science and sinister-looking men arriving at strange times of night.”

“We’ll never have an adventure here,” sighed George.

“Woof,” agreed Timmy the dog.

“Come on chaps,” Dick ejaculated. “We’ve fallen on our feet here. I bet there are some great trees to climb in Greenwich Park. Let’s see if Cook can rustle up a picnic.”

The children trooped down to the castle kitchens. As they approached, they heard voices.

“Shh,” warned Julian. The children stood quietly listening outside the scullery. Even Timmy seemed to realise that now was not the time to go bounding in.

“Well. Oi ain’t stayin’ an’ that’s no mistake,” said a high-pitched working-class voice.

“Golly. That’s Mrs Mopp, the cleaner, isn’t it,” whispered Dick.

“Well, you ain’t the first,” Cook’s voice joined in. “Tibbs the gardener left last week, without so much as an if-you-please. Too many knockin’s and bangin’s of a night time, that’s what he said.”

“It’s the ghost, that’s what I say. The place is haunted. I’m handin’ in me notice – you see if I don’t.”

“Haunted!” breathed the children, looking at one another.

The back door closed and they heard Cook go back to her work.

“Crikey. What was all that about?” Julian whispered.

“I don’t like ghosts,” said Anne in a small voice.

“Oh don’t be such a baby,” said George.

“Leave it to me,” said Dick. “Come on, chaps. I’ll find out. I’m good at flattering the servants.” The children wandered nonchalently into the kitchen.

“I say, Cook,” said Dick. “I don’t suppose you have any of your scrummy seed cake, do you. We thought we’d go on a nice picnic in the Park. And you make such magnificent cake-”

“Well don’t forget your Uncle Quentin said for you to be back for supper.”

“And is that some of your marvellous ginger pop I can see brewing over there? Gosh that looks good…”

“Oooh, Master Dick,” chuckled Cook. “You are a one. You’ll be the death of me.”

“This must be a very old house, Cook,” Dick continued innocently. The others nudged each other. “Full of history. Must be quite a few interesting old cubby-holes. What about that cellar over there? Where does that lead to? I bet it goes over to the house next door.”

“Now don’t you go anywhere near that door.” Cook suddenly looked fierce. “Mrs Gowdie the housekeeper told me that you wasn’t to go poking around this place. It ain’t safe for children.”

“Maybe its… haunted?” asked Dick, putting on his sweetest face.

“Go on. Off you go. And mind you’re back home early.”

The children had a marvellous time that afternoon. They went for a ramble in the park, they climbed the chestnut trees and fed the deer, Timmy bouncing along beside them all the time. Cook had done them proud. There was even a juicy bone for Timmy. Afterwards, they drank so much ginger pop that George thought she would burst. They all lay on the grass in the setting sun.

“Cripes!” Julian leapt to his feet. “Supper!”

They tore back to Vanbrugh Castle, but it was too late. Uncle Quentin had gone off to his laboratory in one of his famous rages leaving word that they were to go straight to bed without supper.

“Don’t worry,” whispered Julian, as they trudged upstairs. We’ll wait until ten o’clock then go exploring. Mrs Gowdie always listens to Housekeepers’ Favourite Melodies on the Home Service at ten and she’s deaf as a post so it will be very loud indeed. And Uncle Quentin will be busy in his laboratory.”

“But the kitchen door’s locked,” said George.

“We can go in through that secret passage in the girls’ room we discovered last hols. Now Dick, make sure you bring that flashlight you got from Mother on your birthday last month. George. You bring your pen knife. Now, don’t look so scared Anne. We’ll be together.”

“I am a little scared,” Anne admitted. “I’m just a girl. But I won’t be scared if I’ve got two boys with me.”

“Huh. Three,” said George.

The children went to bed without a fuss, much to Mrs Gowdie’s surprise. She was even more astonished a little later to see them all fast asleep in their beds. Of course they were only pretending, and as bell of Christ Church struck 10.00 o’clock they were wide awake.

Julian pressed the nose of a particularly ugly gargoyle in the carved fireplace. With a grating noise, one of the wooden panels slid slowly away, revealing a dark hole. The children climbed through and started to creep along the corridor, Timmy’s excited panting the only sound. He was very pleased to be part of the adventure.

“We’re right outside Uncle Quentin’s laboratory here,” whispered Dick. “And listen. There’s Mrs Gowdie’s wireless.” The corridor went along for a little more then started to go downhill.

“Look,” said Julian. “There are steps leading down. We must be almost underneath that big house next door to the castle. What is it called? Oh, yes. The Cedars.”

Then they heard a noise. A faint shuffling and then a bang. The children stood stock still. George had her hand on Timmy’s collar. Anne let out a little shriek.

“It’s the ghost,” she whispered.

Dick squeezed his little sister’s hand. “The noise seems to have come from up ahead. Come on. Let’s see if we can find our phantom.”

The children crept on in silence, the bumping noises getting louder. Timmy started to growl. “If it is a ghost, it’s a very clumsy one,” observed Julian. “And it smokes. Smell that.”

All of a sudden Timmy broke loose from George’s grip and went bounding off into the darkness, barking loudly.

“Woof, woof,” he barked joyfully.

“Come back Timmy,” George shouted into the blackness. But Timmy was long gone.

The children ran until they came to a dead-end, with a hole just small enough for Timmy to have climbed through.

“Timmy!”

“Woof!” Timmy’s voice was faint. He was having a whale of a time.

Then they heard voices.

“Hey there. Call orf your blinkin’ dog, or I’ll hit him with this big stick,” shouted a rough cockney voice, that sounded pretty scared.

“Don’t you touch him,” shrieked George though the hole.

“I say. Let’s smoke the blighters out,” suggested Dick. “Look – here’s a convenient exit we hadn’t noticed before. We can gather some brushwood and set a rudimentary fire.”

Just as they were blowing on the flames to make some more smoke, there was a big commotion. Several flashlights were coming towards them. The children looked up, terrified, then relaxed as they saw who it was. At the head of a big group of policemen was Uncle Quentin, in his dressing-gown, with Constable Peeler from the village.

“Alright, youngsters, you’ve had enough excitement for one night, said Constable Peeler. We can handle it from now on.”

The children watched as several burly policemen started to dig away at the the secret cave. “We’ll have ‘em any minute now,” said Constable Peeler. As the cave collapsed, three rough-looking men in flat caps and striped T-shirts, wearing little black masks, blinked into the flashlights, surrounded by sacks labelled “swag.”

“Why, it’s Burglar Bill, a notorious local villain,” exclaimed Constable Peeler in surprise. “We’ve been trying to catch him for ages. And look, here he is with his gang. And his stash of ill-gotten gains.”

“You’ve got me bang to rights, Gov,” said Bill. “But Society is to blame. And I’d have got away with it too, if-”

That’s enough Blyton. Ed

*
Ok, so The Phantom’s been off on a flight of fancy again. I just can’t resist a cheap parody. But actually this isn’t a million miles off an incident that really happened in 1847.

The house was on the spot where The Cedars is now, but it wasn’t the same building. It was owned by a Mr Henry Aldwin Soames at the time, and he was having difficulties keeping servants due to a series of bangings and knockings, coupled with mysterious smoke coming from somewhere and filtering into the kitchen. The servants all gave notice, convinced the place was haunted.

One night the cook heard such loud knocking that she called the constabulary, who discovered the entrance to a small tunnel in dell behind the house. A dog was sent in, and, according to The Maidstone Journal, a man’s voice was heard “bidding the dog quit the place.” The constables shouted through the hole to the occupants, but they wouldn’t come out. The police tried to smoke them out by lighting a fire outside the entrance, before commandeering spades and pick axes to dig them out. Once the hole was larger, they lit a bigger fire. Eventually three men emerged and were immediately arrested.

Apparently the cave had been used as a hidey-hole for a local gang, who stored their stash of loot in there. The knocking had been their attempts to break into the house for their closest-ever burglary.

When John Stone was writing in 1914, the tunnel still existed, though it had (perhaps understandably) been severed from the house during the building of some heated greenhouses. It would seem that it originally linked with the cellars in Vanbrugh Castle next door – maybe it used to link up with one of the ‘follies’ in Vanbrugh’s back garden. I have no idea whether any of it is still there now.

What Stone is in no doubt about is that there was a long passage in Westcombe Park – he knew people who had been inside it. It would have connected Vanbrugh Castle with Vanbrugh House (which if, memory serves, was further down the hill.) Stone leaves us with the tantalising thought

“I venture to think that if excavations were made along this line, perhaps in the gardens of the new houses on the south side of Westcombe Park, the tunnel would be found.”

More subterranean revelations another day, not least from a fabulous snippet Mat has sent me this morning. Ooh-err…

One Comment to “Five Go Adventuring in Westcombe Park”

  1. kevin desborough says:

    Came across this by accident

    I was at school at Vanbrugh during the 1970s.
    The tunnels and caverns existed then and could be accessed via a small tunnel in the woods bellow the castle. (The dell)