13. Hangingbrow Hall


Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Peter O’Toole and Tim Healy were perched like four naughty schoolboys on a scrumping expedition, legs dangling from their lofty position at the ridge of a 15-foot-high limestone-block wall. It was a solid structure, undoubtedly centuries old and a good five-feet thick. Healy peered forward into the grounds of what, for him, would ideally be a stately home or National Trust property. A dry level surface and some much-needed kip were surely just moments away, even if rest must come in stables or a barn.

O’Toole’s mind was a tightly packed box of significant questions. There was a puzzling mix of thrill and fear that he hadn’t felt since the infamous production of Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1980, which had the disastrous result of having the audience rolling around in the aisles. Hellraising was one thing – but what if the evening was drawing them to a sinkhole of souls, an exhibition centre of horrors that had been shrouded in rumour and hearsay since the war? If this was, indeed, the perimeter of Hangingbrow Hall, what lay ahead? Could he possibly have found the place? Did he give any weight to the supernatural stories he’d read about it? Of course not – it was poppycock! Well, it was too late to turn back now, O’Toole reasoned. Fate had decreed that this curious collection of thrown-together celebrities should face adversity as one.

Rather than leap from altitude and risk a sprained ankle, it was decided that a careful descent of the wall should be implemented. Healy, who by now had become the foursome’s de facto miner’s canary, began his return to earth with hands gripping the top of the brickwork. But unable to find a divot for his biking boots, he suddenly declared, “I’m gonna jump, lads!” He pushed away from the limestone and thudded to the ground. Healy’s training in the Parachute Regiment Territorials in the Seventies remained firm in his mind and he performed a professional Paras roll once he’d hit the grass to cushion the fall.

“It’s a bit farther than you think!” Healy shouted, getting to his feet. “But it’s all soft grass doon here! Just buckle when ya land! Absorb the impact, Orkee?”

A sudden hand on Healy’s shoulder made him leap with alarm. He spun round, ready to launch a firm elbow into a stranger’s cheek.

“Eh, it’s me!” Clough calmed. “I jumped at the same time as you. No use hanging about, is there?”

“Christ!” said Healy. “You wanna be careful doing stuff like that, man, Brian! We’re all on a heightened state of tension, y’knaa.”

Boycott and O’Toole disregarded Healy’s solid advice, not trusting their legs to take a rough landing.

“We’re takin’ scenic route!” Boycott called down.

“Just a pity we can’t see anything,” O’Toole ruefully added.

“Come on, Pete, no time for dilly-dallyin’,” Boycott replied.

Inch by inch, they clambered down until their toes were met by eager-to-assist hands.

Coarse tufts of hardy grass and spindly rushes proved far easier to traverse than thorny strands and hidden rattling streams. With the tangled forest behind them, fog once again closed in around these hunched figures, giving a now-familiar eeriness to their adventure. Healy was apprehensive but was determined to press on. Clough and Boycott, who lived their lives largely in the present, didn’t give the matter much thought. O’Tooles was simply trying to keep up with the pace.

“They could do wi’ getting’ a Qualcast through here,” Boycott noted as they strode a shallow incline. “I reckon we’re in some sort of overgrown garden that once would have been decorous and picturesque, like Peasholm Park in Scarborough. What a place that is! Naval battles wi’ model ships are mesemerisin’.”

“If there’s a house nearby and the squire’s in, we’re in luck,” spoke Healy, “but if the squire’s not home, we’ll break in and pay for the damage. Either way, as far as I can see, we win.”

O’Toole butted in: “Don’t be so quick to think we’ve found salvation here, gentleman, for I strongly fear this is the dotty lodge I’ve been hunting for.”

“What, ’Itler’s ’ouse?” said Boycott. “That ’aunted one you were rattlin’ on abart earlier?”

“’Itler’s ’aunted ’ouse, precisely, Mr Boycott,” answered O’Toole. “We should proceed with caution.”

“Brian, what do you reckon?” Boycott squirmed.

“Give over,” Clough threw back. “You don’t believe any of that claptrap, do you? There’s no such thing as ghosts! Bloody white sheets with black eyes and a big gob – come off it! You watch too much Scooby-bloody-Doo you do. It’s me you want to be frightened of! Now let’s find this rich bugger’s drinks cabinet and get slumped in front of the fire. Lads, I have a thirst on.”

Just then, a gap in the drifting fog and a brief flash of dazzling moonlight brought the surrounding area into alarming clarity. O’Toole gazed in dread at the nearby awkward shape of a lone twisted tree. “Good God,” he shrieked. “How can something organic have grown to be so deformed? Was it shattered by lightning strike?”

Whatever species the tree had once been, it now looked to have a sharp, crocodile-like head, jaws wide open, as if it was screaming upwards towards the sky having just crawled out of the earth and taken its first breath. A wide trunk made it appear like a strong, squat creature, while the few stumpy branches that had once grown from the cruelly curving torso resembled arms with long finger branches set in a position that seemed to suggest it had been frozen mid-movement.

“It’s Devil’s totem pole,” Boycott coldly announced.

Clough glanced across at Boycott with disbelief. “Looks more like Don Revie to me.”

 “It’s grotesque!” O’Toole commented. “You could almost imagine that it could move abart of its own accord.”

“It must have took some pruning, I’ll give you that,” Healy said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Dracula lives nearby,” Boycott gulped, “or a demented loony. Maybe I will take a drink wi’ you fellas after all. You know, a nightcap. A shandy, perhaps.”

“Listen to yourselves,” Clough berated, “telling each other your fairy stories. It’s an elm tree, a dead elm tree, like half the bloody elm trees in this country. It should have been brought down and burnt years ago. If the owner of this place has got a chainsaw, we’ll have a go at it in the morning and chop it into logs as a mark of our gratitude for their hospitality.”

Beyond the freakish reptilian silhouette, the outline of a large building was spotted by Healy. He pointed towards it: “There we are lads, home, sweet home. With a bit of luck we’ll catch the end of the snooker on Tyne Tees. That Steve Davis, eh, what a canny lad. The Ginger Magician!”

“I think it’ll more likely to be Granada or Border in this neck of woods,” Boycott corrected. “Did you check local TV listings before you set off?”

“Well, to be honest with you, Geoff, pal, I wasn’t expecting to end up spread-eagle over the boot of your car on a Cumbrian back road,” replied Healy. “Otherwise I’d have had a gander at the TV Times before setting off.”

“Look, it has crenellations, like a knight’s castle,” O’Toole commented. “The ivy on the brickwork is heavy in places. It’s not been maintained, that’s for sure.”

Bright strands of guiding silver moonlight shut off as if a switch had been tapped by a higher being and by the time Clough, Boycott, O’Toole and Healy had reached the exterior brickwork of the mysterious property, total darkness had once again joined forces with 13.5-tog fog.

The grand house, once reached, was seen to be a formidable structure of thick sandstone blocks and castellated edges with defence in mind. Being so close to Scotland, the building would no doubt have seen a lively history. In a recess, there could be seen a small three-panelled window, with glass still perfectly intact but no detectable lighting from within. Hung behind the glazing was a once-grand, ragged set of velvet curtains, with the pale lining facing outwards. Up close, the ancient blocks had a mottled effect, a random pattern of pink and yellow rectangles that merely appeared dark and pale grey in the monochrome gloom.

It became apparent that the hall was made up of a set of different-sized cuboids loosely joined together without much thought for symmetry. A central tower, two floors higher than the rest of the building, was festooned with small, irregularly positioned windows and battlements. It corresponded with a rough line drawing that O’Toole had seen during his years of research about Hitler’s British invasion plans. In his heart, he knew he’d reached the grounds of that macabre box of tricks that was so revered by the Führer and his schweinhund cronies.

Navigating the perimeter of the property, the foursome found themselves on a small stretch of crunchy gravel that was interwoven with established weeds and overgrown grass. Unusually, there didn’t seem to be a roadway leading away from the house, but with no clear view into the near distance, it was difficult to judge if there was, or had been, any connection with the outside world. They approached an ornate arch-shaped low-slung entrance and noticed that the solid wooden door was badly flaking its black paint.

“I think we can speculate that our reivers lord, landowner and historical sheep thief is away on business,” O’Toole concluded. “He’s told the milkman he’ll be away until further notice and when he returns, he’d be grateful of a bag or two of new potatoes. So we go down the criminal route and force entry because we’re not getting through that bloody great door in a hurry. A tinkle of glass will suit our needs admirably this evening. Tim Healy, your leather-gloved fingers and a fair-sized pebble should be ample for our task. It’s time we bid auf wiedersehen to a pane or two. Carefully does it now. We need no injuries.”

Healy’s eyes danced sideways in the direction of Clough and Boycott, then he squinted and screwed his mouth. “If this ruins the leather, I want compensation,” he affirmed. “Come on, oot tha way, let me smash this bit of glass – but if there’s a drink’s cabinet, I’m first in line, right?”

 Healy located a hand-sized rock and peered through the dirt-encrusted, leaded window.

Tissssh! And the glass disappeared into the darkened room.

Healy found the hand-locking fastener on the frame and quickly had the window hanging wide open. He was turning to update his comrades when his blood turned cold at the sound of footsteps slowly crackling the gravel from behind…

“Halt! Who goes there?” an angry voice called. “Ve haff vays of making you talk, Tommy!”

Near heart attacks were suffered in unison as two tall figures approached out of the shrouds of fog, now strangely backlit by moonlight.

 “I thought as much,” O’Toole called out, “You Nazi swines! The place is probably riddled with ’em and has been since 1945! We’ve been snared like rabbits!”

“On no, it’s the Erics!” Healy hooted. “Run for it!”

“Stop or ve’ll fire!” the German man called back.

Healy stopped dead in his tracks: “Is this the bit where ya ask us to put our hands up or something like that?”

“You’ll have to forgive my friend,” a well-spoken northern voice followed. “He’s from Prestwich, you know – not Peenemünde. He has a very developed sense of humour – caustic even. Are you the owners of this place?”

“Us? We reckoned you might be!” replied Boycott. “What’s going off?”

Neither O’Toole, Boycott, Clough or Healy recognised Tony Wilson, the co-founder of Factory Records, co-owner of Manchester’s recently opened Haçienda nightclub and occasional TV host. Nor could they have known that Mark E Smith was the frontman and lyrical mischief-maker of the highly alternative band The Fall. Angular indie music was not on their radar.

“Tell us, is this Hangingbrow Hall?” O’Toole enquired.

“It most certainly is,” Wilson replied. “It’s written above the door, look.”

“Then we could be in for an interesting night,” O’Toole grimly stated.

“Ahh, Stalag-on-the-Wold,” Healy added.

“There’s one thing that puzzles me,” Wilson queried, approaching the recent arrivals. “Why would a house in the middle of fucking nowhere not have a fucking driveway and not even a path? You wouldn’t want to be a paperboy round here.”

Frowning, with eyes bulging, Healy uttered, “Bit of an oversight, would you not say?”

O’Toole smiled without pleasure. He placed his hand on his chin and wondered. If the top-secret Gestapo paperwork concerning this creaking nest of iniquity were true then surely it was better to hotfoot it back the way they’d come than introduce themselves to Satan’s Aunt Sally. Of course, it could all be film-flam of the highest order – and most probably was.

“Well, we’re not gonna stay out here all night are we, lads?” Clough asked. “We’ll have to get in there otherwise we’ll bloody well freeze to death.”

“I ’ope they’ve hoovered up recently,” Boycott said. “I don’t like dusty ’ouses.”

With the darkness and drifting fog, Wilson could barely see the faces of the new arrivals but there was something in the voices that were familiar to him. His Cambridge-educated brain quickly placed voices to faces… It couldn’t be, could it?

“I thought for a moment that I was standing in the midst of some of the greatest artistes of stage, screen and sport that this country has ever produced,” Wilson ventured, “but it’s a strange night and the light up here, or rather lack of it, has a tendency to play tricks with the senses. Because the chances of Lawrence of fucking Arabia, the European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest manager, the cricket captain of that county at the wrong end of the Pennines, and the lead actor from last year’s most piquant TV offering featuring a gang of likeable Geordie labourers in Germany… well, the odds are against it. Would you agree, Mark?”

“But look Tone, it is them,” said Smith. “I knew straight away, of course.”

Wilson began shaking hands: “I’m Tony Wilson. This is Mark E Smith. We’re both from Salford – not Manchester, you understand. There is a difference. We’re what you might call lost.”

“Completely fucked might be a better way of puttin’ it,” Smith said.

“Things could be worse,” Clough noted. “Look there’s a big empty house right in front of us. And by the way, when you said ‘European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest manager’, that’s double European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest manager. Don’t forget. I won it twice – with Peter Taylor by my side.”

“And in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet,” Healy corrected, “there are also workmen from Bristol, London and Wolverhampton. I just thought I’d make the point, like.”

It was at this point that Wilson noticed an old sign attached by bolts to the wall close to the front door. Using a handkerchief, Wilson was able to remove some of the decades-old grime and read the words aloud: “M.O.D. PROPERTY. KEEP OUT. THIS IS A PROHIBITED PLACE WITHIN THE MEANING OF THE OFFICIAL SECRETS ACT. UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS ENTERING THE AREA MAY BE… and the bottom bit is broken off.”

“Ohhh Christ, what now?” Boycott wailed. “This is turning into a right shonky do.”

After clearing away the remaining jagged shards of glass using a rock, Healy grabbed hold of the window ledge and eased himself into Hangingbrow Hall, with Clough and O’Toole helping push his legs through the aperture.

“That’s the tickeeet,” Boycott enthused.

Once inside, Healy ran his fingers along the lock of the main door and was surprised to discover a protruding key, which he turned. He then twisted the doorknob and pulled the heavy timber door inwards. A procession of smiling guests stepped across the threshold.

Healy led the group along an entrance hallway and opened the first interior door that he found and walked into what felt like a black void. “Has anyone got a lighter? It might help me to find a switch, like.”

“I’ve got some matches,” Smith responded. “England’s Glory.”

 “Well come on in, bonny lad – you’re the man of the moment!” Healy said.

“Ahh, a smoker, we’re in luck,” O’Toole smiled. “I’ll be through right behind you.”

Go to Chapter 14: Foreign booze.