The Lost Village

NOTE – this is the story of my father’s strange experience during WW II while stationed in Wales, as told in his own words, excerpted from one of his unpublished manuscripts.

I remember as a child him telling us this story, and I am confident he was being completely truthful in relaying the experience. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did, when I found it buried in my old archives. It happened during W.W. II, in the early 1940’s.

~~~

The Lost Village

G. H. Ward

I suppose we’ve all read or heard about strange occurrences that defy logical explanation. I was always sceptical of such stories – until I had one of those experiences myself. I remember the details clearly, and the thing still baffles me.

It happened during World War II, when I was based on a RAF training station close to the Black Mountains of Wales – a rather grim and forbidding place, very suitable for anomalous happenings.

This particular happening took place on a bone-freezing evening just before Christmas. I wanted to join some of the guys at a country pub about a mile and a half from the base. The others went first, on bicycles, but I wanted to bring my girl friend – a WAAF stationed at the same base – and for some reason she wanted to walk.

The route was straightforward enough: at the end of our local village you turned left to an unpaved country road and followed that road all the way to the highway; there you turned right and followed the highway about a hundred yards or so – and there was the Coach and Horses, nestling in a grassy hollow by the side of the road.

We got there about 7:30, had one drink apiece, then joined the bunch around the piano. It was one of those convivial get-togethers that were all too short, and for Beth and me it was even shorter; she had things to do in her billet and wanted to get back a little early. And so, about 9 o’clock, we left the warmth and merry company in the pub, turned up our coat collars, and headed out into the raw December night.

Raw it was, with that corpuscle-freezing damp-cold that characterizes British winters. A cold December moon and handfuls of stars gleamed occasionally between thick moving masses of cloud; a few snowflakes flurried in a gusting wind.

In minutes we had turned off the highway on to the country road that would lead us back to the village and our camp. It was a long trudge on a cold night, and the road was rough, with ruts of hard, frozen earth. On either side was rising ground bristling with patches of scrub wood and dotted here and there with craggy rocks. It seemed to get colder as we walked, and we tried to increase our pace, but the state of the road made this next to impossible.

We’d been walking for perhaps fifteen minutes, and Beth was lamenting the cold, when suddenly the cold stopped. In the blink of an eye the temperature shot up by some forty degrees. We were enveloped by heavenly warmth, and the wind had dropped – just like that. It was as though we’d walked into Shangri-la.

We halted abruptly and stared at each other in disbelief. I took a couple of steps forward and the warmth vanished. I stepped back and the warmth returned. Then I edged sideways toward the edge of the road, and Beth, watching me, did likewise in the opposite direction. We found that the strange summery air extended to both sides of the road. About three feet in depth, it was a little oasis of June in December.

I couldn’t believe it. We stepped back and forth in and out of the oasis, thinking it would disappear, but it didn’t. We looked all around, reasoning that there must be something to explain the phenomenon – maybe and emission-pipe discharging warm air or water – but we could see nothing to explain the mystery.

Then suddenly Beth gave a little scream. I turned quickly – she was staring up at something on the adjoining slope. A break in the clouds provided enough light for me to spot the object of her attention.

It was the figure of a man. He was standing just outside a patch of wood, about thirty or forty feet up the slope. He appeared to be wearing a cloak of some sort, and a high-crowned hat. He was standing motionless, and seemed to be staring down at us.

We stared back at him in silence. I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks. Then Beth grabbed my arm and said, “I don’t like this. Let’s go on.”

I looked at her, then back up at the figure on the hillside. Something about him made me uneasy, but I called out to him.

“Hello there,” I said loudly.

I thought he moved slightly, but I couldn’t be sure. At any rate, he made no reply. Next moment the clouds closed in and the hillside was shrouded in darkness. Beth moved closer to me and squeezed my arm.

“Come on,” she insisted, “Let’s get away from here. There’s something uncanny here.”

I was inclined to agree, but my curiosity was roused.

“Just wait a minute,” I said, trying to sound matter-of-fact.

The clouds broke again, and the moonrays shone thinly on the slope. The mysterious figure was still there, his arms folded. I gave him another shout, but again he made no answer. I wondered half-heartedly if I should go up the hill and confront him.

Beth spoke up again. “I’m going,” she declared. “You can stay here if you want.” And with that she let go of my arm and walked off.

I hesitated for a few seconds, then followed her. Reluctant as I was to leave the unaccountable warmth of the oasis, I remembered that she wanted to get back to camp early.

When I caught up with her, she was panting. I said, “You didn’t need to get all steamed up about it. After all – ”

“There’s something uncanny there,” she interrupted. “That warm spot – and then we see that – whatever he was – staring down at us. It’s just too weird.”

“You mean like ghosts or something?”

“I don’t know, but I just had to get away from there.”

“Well, it sure was something different. I’d like to go back there another time and see if it happens again.”

“If you do, you can count me out.”

We walked on. The wind came in sharp gusts, and pellets of snow or sleet stung our faces. I pulled my greatcoat collar up around my ears and thought about that cozy patch of warmth we’d left behind.

But I soon had something else to think about. We’d been walking for what seemed like another half-mile when it occurred to me that we should have reached our village turn-off by now. Evidently the same thought had entered Beth’s mind, and she spoke her thought before I did.

“Shouldn’t we have reached the village by now? We seem to have been walking for a long time.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” I said. “Do you have a watch? Mine’s at the repairman’s.”

Beth stopped, pulled back her coat sleeve, and peered closely at her wrist.

“Oh, I can’t see properly in this dark!” She reached into her handbag, fumbled around, and fished out a small flashlight. When she shone the light on her wrist she gave an exclamation.

“I don’t believe it! It’s only nine fifteen!”

“Nine fifteen! Your watch must have stopped. It was nine when we left the Coach, and we’ve been on the way for a lot more than fifteen minutes. And don’t forget, we stopped at that warm spot for awhile.”

“I don’t understand it. I wound this watch before I came out tonight.” She shook her wrist and slapped it, then took another squint at the watch.

“It’s going now,” she said. “But a lot of good that is – we don’t really know what time it is.”

“Well, we’d better get moving. Maybe we’ve been walking too slow.”

“I don’t think so.”

And so we walked on. And on. And still no sign of the familiar corner with the road branching off into the village, and the ancient gray stone church standing there like a weathered Rock of Ages.

The sky had partially cleared; the wind had dropped somewhat, and the snowflurries had dwindled. The moon was filmy, but it cast enough light to reveal that the terrain had changed. The slopes on either side of the road were now heavily wooded and unbroken by clearings. And the woods seemed closer to the road. At first I thought it was an optical illusion, but then I realized that the road had narrowed. Were we walking into a forest?

I stopped. “Well,” I said, “there’s no doubt now. We missed our turn-off.”

“But how could we? It’s the only turn-off there is, and we couldn’t just walk past it. It’s something we couldn’t miss.”

She was right. I’d been the same route a few times before, though always on a bike, and I knew it would be almost impossible, even on a dark night, to pass that corner without seeing at least the old church.

“I guess we’re lost, Beth.”

“Oh no! And I wanted to get back early. How did we get here anyway?”

“Don’t know, it doesn’t make sense.”

“But what should we do now?” She was shivering. I felt sorry for her, and also a little guilty, as though I’d literally led her astray.

I put my arm around her. “Never mind. We’ll find our way somehow. The camp can’t be that far away.”

“But how are we going to get there?” She asked plaintively. “Do we have to just turn around and go all the way back?”

I don’t usually follow my hunches, because mostly they’re not reliable. But on this occasion I took a chance.

“I think we should just keep on the way we’re going,” I told her. “This road has to lead somewhere soon – some place where we can get our bearings.”

“Well, I hope you’re right,” she sighed.

The road wasn’t a road much longer. Another ten minutes or so and it had narrowed into a mere footpath leading through the encroaching woods.

Now where are we going?” Beth wondered.

“Through the woods,” I said. “As far as we can, anyway. If the path disappears we’ll have to turn back.”

The path didn’t disappear. It took us straight through the trees, Beth using her flashlight to lighten the way – and then, after only a few minutes, the trees abruptly vanished, and ahead of us lay open ground.

Now where?” Asked Beth.

“Just keep on going,” I answered. “What have we got to lose?”

By now, most of the clouds were gone, and with them the snowflurries. The moon and stars shone clearly, showing us a grassy area, dotted with patches of snow. The ground before us was rising.

As we went on, Beth said, “I think we’re walking up a hill. I hope it doesn’t get very steep – I’ve had enough exercise tonight.”

Minutes later she stopped suddenly and grabbed my arm.

“Look!” She pointed. “Isn’t that a building up there?”

I looked. Up ahead, there was something. The outline was indistinct in the distance, but the shape suggested a man-made structure.

“I think you’re right,” I said. “Could be a barn, or something.”

As we came closer to the object, its vague outline sharpened into the unmistakable shape of a rectangular building. Then we saw more shadowy structures taking shape just beyond it.

“Looks like a village,” I said.

“Thank the Lord!” Beth cried. “At least we’ll be able to find out where we are.”

A village it was – but a village unlike any I’d seen before, even in the UK. The main street was cobbled, with a raised sidewalk running alongside and flanked by a six-foot stone wall that ran the length of the village. Over the top of the wall we could see the contours of buildings that appeared to be made of stone; I guessed they were barns or other farm outbuildings.

On our left, we came to a row of houses. They were small, neat-looking, and close together but not attached. Each had a garden space in front, with small trees – I thought they were fruit trees – sitting trimly here and there. The houses looked to be well-tended, but there was no sign of life in or around them; not a light was visible anywhere, and not a sound to be heard.

In fact, there was no sound anywhere in that village except that of our own footsteps on the cobblestones. Not even a dog barked – and this alone was strange; I’d never before walked through an English village at night without hearing the bark of at least one dog.

I said as much to Beth. “Funny, isn’t it?”

“It’s more than funny.” She declared. “It’s positively uncanny. In fact this whole evening has been uncanny, what with that warm spot on the road and that man on the hill – and then we end up getting lost.”

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll go to one of those houses and knock on the door. Maybe someone can give us directions.”

Beth clutched my arm. “No!” She sound almost panicky. “Don’t go near there. Let’s just go on and get out of here.”

“But why? We’ve got to find out where we are.”

She shook her head. “I just have the feeling we must get away from this place.”

I tried to reason with her, but she clung to my arm and pulled me along. She was plainly scared, as she had been by the previous incidents of the evening. I began to feel a little annoyed, not necessarily at her but at all the baffling things that had beset us. What should have been a perfectly normal outing had turned into a frustrating fiasco with no sense to it.

“All right,” I said. “Just take it easy. It’s not the end of the world.”

We followed the street past the houses and a couple more low buildings. Just beyond the buildings the street ended, and so did the high stone wall on our right. Soon we were out of the village and back on bare ground. There was no definable path, but we kept on walking; under the circumstances there seemed nothing else to do.

The wind was rising again, and the clouds had come back, obscuring the moon and increasing our sense of isolation. I swore once or twice when I stumbled on knotty turf or stray rocks. Beth made no comment.

The grass became thicker as we went on. The clouds broke briefly and the sky was momentarily brilliant with stars. From what I could see we seemed to be in a field.

“Oh, where are we?” Beth fretted.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Presently the ground began to dip, gently at first, then more steeply. I took Beth’s arm.

“Careful,” I said to her. “Watch your step.”

The slope increased, and we made slow progress in the dark. But another rift in the clouds brought enough light to reveal what lay ahead of us – or rather, below us.

At the bottom of the hill stretched a dim but visible ribbon that could only be one thing. Beth gasped with relief.

“Look!” She exclaimed. “A road!”

“You’re right. Could be a main highway – should take us somewhere.”

Slipping and stumbling, we went the rest of the way down the hill. At the bottom we blundered into a ditch, clambered out of it, and found ourselves beside a broad paved highway.

We had reached the bottom of that hill at just the right time. As I stood there trying to get some sense of direction, I heard the sound of a motor, and looking to my left I saw the dimmed light of an approaching vehicle.

“Hallelujah!” I rejoiced. “Car coming! Quick, let me have your flashlight.”

Beth dug into her bag. “Here you are – and it’s a torch, not a flashlight.”

“Whatever you want to call it.” I took the flashlight, switched it on, and began waving it to and fro.

As the vehicle neared, it slowed, then gathered speed, then slowed again. Apparently the driver was undecided about stopping, but finally he came to a full stop just beyond us. Quickly we went to the vehicle. It was a small car, probably an Austin.

The driver rolled his window down halfway.

“What do you want?” Demanded an unmistakably British military voice.

After apologizing for interrupting his journey, I explained our predicament, being as polite as I could and making sure I addressed him as “sir” (as it turned out, he was an Army captain). He unbent enough to roll his window all the way down and stick his head halfway out to get a better look at us.

“I find it hard to understand your story,” he declared. “Where did you say your camp is?”

“It’s right by the village of Kingstone, sir.”

“Well, sergeant, the village of Kingstone is easily ten miles from here.”

“Ten miles?” Beth gasped. “How could we have walked that far?”

“You wandered pretty far out of your way,” the officer went on. “But I can’t see how you ended up on this road.”

“We came down that hill,” I said, pointing. “We came through the village up there.”

The captain snorted. “Village? What village?”

“The one near the top of that hill,” Beth put in.

The captain snorted again. “There’s no village up there,” he asserted. “It’s all open country.”

“Well, sir,” I said, “we did walk through a village, up there near those heights.”

“Yes,” Beth added. “It’s a small village with cobblestones, and it has a wall along one side of it, and – ”

“Look,” the officer interrupted. “It so happens that I was raised in this area. I know practically every square foot of it. And I can tell you there is no village up there. Never was. The nearest village is four or five miles off.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

“I see, sir.” I thought it unwise to pursue the subject. “I guess we’re kind of mixed up tonight.”

“Mixed up indeed,” the captain grunted. “Have you been drinking?”

“Hardly at all, sir. We just plain got lost. But we’d be much obliged if you could show us the way back to our camp.”

“Hmmm. Canadian, aren’t you? I thought so.” He chewed his mustache. “You want to get to Kingstone, right? Well, I’m going past Kingston, so I can drop you off near there. Hop in the back.”

Once in the car and on the way, we thanked the captain for picking us up. Beth was particularly grateful.

He grunted. “Lucky for you I happened along. You know, Sergeant, I hope your Air Force navigators can find their way around better than you can. Otherwise they might be bombing us instead of the Jerries.”

That was about the last of our conversation. Some twenty minutes later the captain let us out of his car at a country lane that led into our village. It took another twenty minutes for me to walk Beth to her billet on the WAAF site. By the time I reached my own hut it was well after midnight.

Next day I learned that Beth’s billet-corporal had taken note of her late arrival and reported it to a higher authority. Poor Beth was confined to camp for a week. I think she blamed me for the whole business; at any rate she never went out with me again.

During the rest of my time at that camp I paid a few more visits to the Coaches and Horses Inn, and not once did I experience anything out of the ordinary on the way there or back – no temperature changes or be-cloaked watchers on the hill – nor could I detect any possible way we could have lost our way on that misenchanted evening. One day I even mounted my bike and went looking for the unnamed village we walked through; I explored the area where I thought the village had been, but found only farmland. I asked some of the residents of our own village if they knew of such a place, and I drew a blank there too. In the end, I shrugged off the whole thing as a freak of nature. Or something like that.

But there’s a curious little footnote. Many years later, long back home and long married, I was watching a TV documentary one evening when I saw something on the screen that jolted my memory – a street with a cobbled roadway, a raised sidewalk, and a high flanking wall. It was a kind of street I’d seen only once before, in an English village where nothing stirred, no lights were lit, and not even a dog barked. A village that nobody seemed to know of.

But the street on the TV screen wasn’t in an English village. It was in Pompeii, in Italy – a town that had been buried in volcanic ash for almost two thousand years.

I know we lost our way, that weird evening, but I’m sure we didn’t stray as far as Italy. The connection has to be coincidence; for all I know, there could be other villages, in the UK and elsewhere, that look similar to ancient Roman towns. For me, though, the likeness was startling.

And what about the sudden change of temperature on the road? And the unknown figure on the hillside – who was he and what was he doing there? And how did we get so hopelessly lost on a familiar road?

Were we bewitched that night, or just unlucky?

I’ll never know. Call it just another of life’s unsolved mysteries.

~~~