The high lonely lanes of Saddleworth Moor are no place to be late on a winter’s afternoon with a blizzard coming in from the north; particularly when you are driving a forty year old and unfamiliar campervan. But that is exactly where Ann was on Christmas Eve last year.
Let her start the story at the beginning.
In the autumn of that year I retired from my post in a midlands university and was looking forward to spending a lot more time with my husband Peter, who had retired at the same time as me. We planned some real long distance touring in our brand new and very luxurious motorhome.
Peter and I have been motor caravanners for years. Our first van was a cheap cheerful and very unreliable VW campervan. Remember them?
We bought it in the late ‘sixties and it was already twelve or fifteen years old then with about a hundred thousand miles on the clock. It was bright yellow and white with a blue and white striped elevating fabric roof that went straight up like a giant piano accordion.
To give extra room inside the spare wheel had been bolted on the flat front of the van just below that famous split windscreen that gave this particular VW model its pet name – the Splittie.
It took us all round Britain but more often than not it came home on the back of a RAC lorry. Eventually the RAC suggested we join the AA and inevitably after a few recoveries the AA suggested they really didn’t want us as members either.
We traded the Volkswagen in for a newer motor caravan, the first of about a dozen we were to own over the years, and never looked back.
Well actually, we did look back and gradually the memories of our travels in that first VW Camper took on that honeyed look of old holiday pictures where the sun shone every day.
Peter’s fond memories of the split screen Volkswagen were different and even fonder than mine. He’d even talked vaguely about restoring an old VW camper as a retirement project. I though it might keep him from under my feet when we weren’t touring.
I don’t know why I was browsing through the small ads in magazine a week or so before Christmas, after all we certainly weren’t in the market for another van but a tiny advert caught my eye
1958 split screen VW Campervan. Needs TLC but has current MOT.
The private address was on the outskirts of Manchester and as if an omen the reasonable price was exactly the amount I had just received, somewhat unexpectedly, as my first year’s royalty on a book I had published a year or so ago.
A plot came together in my head for giving Peter the best surprise Christmas present he had ever had in forty odd years of marriage.
I could imagine his face when I arrived home driving his present on Christmas Eve night and him showing it off to the family and grandkids when they arrived for lunch on Christmas morning.
I phoned the advertisers. Perhaps because it was so near the holiday they had had little interest, they said it was still for sale and we made an appointment for lunchtime on December 24th.
I told Peter I was visiting an old friend and took the train to Manchester. Eventually I found a cab and rather later than I had hoped it delivered me to where the van was on sale.
I knew I’d made the right decision as soon as I saw the VW. It was yellow and had exactly the same lifting roof as our original one. The mechanicals sounded good and although the outside was dirty everything inside was where it should be and seemed to work.
In fact the only thing missing was the spare wheel. The mounting bracket was there under the split screen but the actual spare was nowhere to be found. However the four tyres looked good and we did the deal.
So there I was in our new old VW taking a short cut towards the M1 across the Saddleworth moor. The rain had turned to sleet and that was rapidly turning to snow.
By now it was late afternoon and the light was failing but I wasn’t worried. The VW drove well and I was confident that once I got on the motorway the rest of the journey would be easy.
Suddenly the steering wheel snatched out of my hands and the van swerved across the road and gently pitched into rapidly growing snow drift. Whoops, suddenly Christmas seemed a long way away and the whole enterprise seemed as crazy as it obviously was.
I climbed out and found the trouble was less serious than I thought. It was a puncture and a shredded tyre. Then I remembered the absence of that spare wheel.
I pulled out my mobile phone. At least my RAC membership was up to date and they wouldn’t have records that went back forty years, or would they?
The worry was academic, my phone registered no reception. It was getting very dark and the blizzard was setting in. Do you ever get to the stage where you wish you had never started something?
Just then I saw the house. Half a mile away up the hill and best of all there was a light shining in the window. A brisk, if slippery, walk took me to the gate of Hilltop Farm. I pushed open the gate and took the long path up to the front door.
The heavy brass knocker soon summoned a reply and the young woman took one look at her snowy and freezing visitor and invited me in out of the heavy snow.
She introduced herself as Alison and I noticed the house was lit by an odd selection of candles, and oil lamps.
The young woman explained that there was no electricity, but she ushered me through to where a large and bright log fire in the farmhouse kitchen provided flickering light and warmth. On a trivet by the fire a kettle gurgled and Alison offered me a hot drink.
It turned out to be herbal tea. But it was hot and as I sipped it I asked if I could use her phone. My heart sank when she told me she had no phone and rather judgmentally I put Alison down as someone who had failed to pay her bills and been cut off.
Certainly her clothes gave the impression of someone with little money. She wore the kind of kaftans I had passed to my local Oxfam shop years ago. I was amused by a touch of period style in a large ‘ban the bomb’ pendant on a leather thong round her neck.
Perhaps she was a student? Certainly the curling posters of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh reminded me of my own rooms more years ago than I care to remember.
As I told Alison my story her reaction was strange and I thought I saw a smile flit round her lips. She picked up a Camping Gaz lantern and indicated I follow her. We went out of the back door and crossed the snowy farm yard to a large shed or small wooden barn.
The doors hinged outward and it took the efforts of both of us to open the large doors against six inches of snow. Once the door was open she held the lantern high and frankly I gasped with amazement and we both laughed.
Inside was a split screen VW Campervan, just like the one I had left in a snowdrift half a mile up the road. The similarity was amazing. What were the odds of such a coincidence?
Then I noticed one important difference between the two Volkswagens. Just below the windscreen of this van was a spare wheel bolted on the bracket on the bonnet, I was speechless.
Alison explained she had been preparing her VW for a long journey in the spring. Why didn’t I borrow the spare wheel and return it after Christmas?
I didn’t need asking twice. Between us we had the spare off the bracket and wheeled it back to my new purchase. We found the original tool kit, jack and wheel brace and the job was soon done.
I looked at my watch as I waved Alison goodbye with profuse thanks. It was 8.30pm I could still make it back for Christmas midnight and for Peter’s surprise.
The rest of the journey went well. I left the snowstorm behind as I headed south on the motorway and arrived home at just after eleven.
Peter had been really worried but all that melted away and turned to delight when he saw what I was driving. When he heard that it was his present I knew the whole mad project had been worthwhile.
We sat down with a drink and I told Peter of my night’s adventure. Suddenly he jumped up and opened the front door. “I’m not sure I believe it” he said as a few flakes of snow landed on the yellow VW now parked on our drive.
It was midnight and in the distance the church bells rang. We hugged each other and exchanged our “Happy Christmas’s”. I knew it would be one we would always remember.
What with the holiday, the New Year and the heavy snow in the north it was three weeks before we could find a second hand spare wheel and set off to repay Alison’s kindness.
We didn’t risk a journey in the old VW. Peter has started work on the restoration and confirmed my first opinion of its condition. The outside is clean now and the original paintwork is in excellent order.
He has decided it won’t need repainting, He keeps talking about “the patina of age” but I think it’s because someone has carefully painted a name on the bonnet. Just above the spare wheel beneath the grime he found the neatly lettered name ‘Moonchild’.
There was no argument; Moonchild is what we will always call our historic pride and joy.
We loaded the spare wheel and a large bunch of flowers into our new modern motor caravan and set off up the motorway. A couple of hours later were turning off and heading for Saddleworth.
Peter was driving and I had the map. In the bright winter sunshine I was sure Hilltop Farm would not be hard to find.
Suddenly I realised we were on the right road and there in the distance was the house we were looking for. As Peter pulled up I realised there was something wrong; the house looked vaguely the same but it had certainly changed in three weeks.
The garden was heavily overgrown. Indeed the path to the front door was impassable. The gate had gone. Most of the windows were broken or boarded up. It looked like nobody had lived there for decades.
I could just see across the farmyard at the back of the house. A rectangle of charred and jagged planks showed where a large shed or small barn had once stood.
“No” I said to Peter “this can’t be the place”. Yet it looked so similar, my head was spinning.
Most of our arguments are about map reading and my navigation and I could feel Peter getting a little edgy about me not being able to find my Christmas Eve benefactor and her home.
“Get in” he said “we’ll drive on and see if there is another house further on”
In fact we came to a pub, as it was lunchtime we pulled in for a drink, a sandwich and a rethink.
I asked the barman if he knew Hilltop Farm but he hadn’t been in the job long he told me. Then, almost as an afterthought, he said “have a word with Seth, he’ll be in in a bit. He knows everything that goes on around these parts.”
Seth arrived; he must have been eighty and dressed in heavy tweeds. The barman introduced us and we offered Seth a drink. Without hesitation he ordered a pint of Black Sheep and a whisky chaser he was clearly used to strangers buying drinks for a local character.
I asked him if he knew Hilltop Farm. He thought a bit and sank the whisky in one. Then he took a long swig of the bitter and said he thought he used to know Hilltop Farm.
“It’s a sad story” he said conjuring up his memories “the farm used to be the home of the Hecklewhytes. Ma Hecklewhyte died in childbirth” he said “but that must have been fifty or more years ago.
“Henry tried to bring up his daughter alone but he wasn’t very good at it. He turned to the bottle and the farm got into a bit of a state. His daughter went off the rails a bit, she became a bit of a handful…”
Suddenly Seth seemed more interested in his empty glasses than the story. We ordered another round.
He downed the whisky and started the second pint. “Henry killed himself when the girl was about seventeen, just old enough to look after herself, but not really.
“She got into bad company; some hippies from Manchester came to live at the farm. Sort of a commune they called it. Drugs, politics, you know the kind of thing, but they didn’t stay long.
“Last I heard the youngster was living on the farm on her own. I think she was going to set off for the East.
“It may have been Afghanistan? Or was she following the Beatles to see the Maharishi in India? If you believed the papers everyone was doing it.
“She bought some kind of van I think and set off. That was the last anyone here heard of her. There were no relatives and with her gone the house and farm fell into ruin.
“It’s just up the road” he added waving his arm in the direction we had come. “But no one has been near the place for years. It’s falling down.”
I flashed Peter a questioning look. He shook his head barely perceptively. I knew he didn’t want me to ask but I couldn’t resist a question.
“The Hecklewhyte girl” I asked “was her name Alison?” His answer surprised me.
“I can’t remember” he said. “All I know is that she made us all laugh in the village when she got into her hippy ways.
“She asked us all to call her a new trendy name. What was it now?” he struggled to remember as he finished his pint.
Suddenly it came to him. “I remember” he said with a deep chuckle. “She asked us all to call her Moonchild”.