The Ghost of the 3.42


Round the campfires of old, chilling stories were told
That would turn your intestines to ice:
Tales of werewolves and ghosts and malevolent hosts
Who would kill on the fall of a dice.
But this tale that I tell's not of futurist Hell,
Nor of dark Transylvanian pit;
It's a genuine case of events that took place
Not a mile from the room where we sit.

It was Christmas Eve day when they got underway,
In the year nineteen forty and eight,
But in Otley it dawned like a midsummer morn
That had somehow mistaken the date.
In the face of austerity, timid prosperity
Welcomed the turn of the year
And in market and street they got ready to greet
An occasion of genuine cheer.

A renowned raconteur and an entrepreneur,
Sammy Ledgard was honest and fair;
He had gambled and made on the stage carriage trade
And come out with a bob or two spare.
Now he'd realised his dream, and the blue, black and cream
Rode the highways all shining and grand
But of all Sammy's routes, there was one whose repute
Made it one that no driver could stand.

First its custom was plied up from Horsforth Woodside,
On to Rawdon and over the hills;
Then it ploughed a sad trail up the edge of the dale
Between Aireborough's fact'ries and mills.
When it reached Buckle Lane, it swung eastwards again,
Round the corner and over the crown;
And with caution and hope, it descended the slope
To its target in Otley's fair town.

Now it's strange to relate how the finger of fate
Is directed by ev'ryday things;
But the scheduled crew of the 3.42
Had elected to stay in the 'Ings'.
And so it transpired, relief was required
From Otley to cover the board
And the only ones free were a clippie named Lee
And a driver named Frederick Ward.

Dora Lee was a wife who'd been battered by life,
With a mountain of debt on the slate;
She had two grubby kids and a man on the skids,
And a house on the Kineholme Estate.
In the days of the war, she'd had suitors galore
(Though each one had been left in the lurch),
But now three years on her attractions were gone,
Save for those with the patience to search.

Freddie Ward had a history shrouded in mystery,
Lived forty years on his wits;
It was said in the garage he'd wrecked his own marriage
And left sev'ral others in bits.
In the noisy canteen he sat silent and mean,
By the door swigging tea on his own,
And the drivers and guards, with their gossip and cards,
Found it wiser to leave him alone.

Fred was never a slave to the timings they gave,
As a rule he ran five minutes up;
And at Christmas the boards were routinely ignored,
'Cos they meant you had less time to sup.
Now the people inside braved a white-knuckle ride,
As he drove with his foot to the floor;
He took Brownberrie Lane like a rhino in pain,
Up the hill pushing thirty and more.

Brooding clouds filled the sky as the Emmott's flashed by;
It blew cold as they skirted the park;
They took Yeadon Old Town with the sun going down,
And by Netherfield Road it was dark.
As the daylight was gone, and the streetlights clicked on,
The barometer spun like a top;
And midsummer no more, it fell bitter and raw,
As the temp'rature started to drop.

A north-easterly gale cut a path through the dale,
On a line from the bleak Russian shore;
And at seven below came a deluge of snow,
And it drifted twelve inches or more.
Such a tableau of old was a dream to behold
For observers protected and warm;
But it brought little joy for the folk whose employ
Kept them out in the teeth of the storm.

The machines in the mills were deserted and still
As the Leyland swayed recklessly past;
At the Chevin Inn stop the last punter was dropped,
And he scampered in out of the blast.
Dora whipped off her bag, and she lit up a fag,
And she rang Fred a five on the bell;
With a screech off the blocks and a crash through the box
They were off on their journey to Hell.

If you drive with a load down the West Chevin Road,
It's impossible even today;
'Cos it's narrow and long, and the camber's all wrong,
And it drops sixty yards on the way.
Ev'ry corner and dip makes it easy to slip
With the valley impassive below;
So imagine the fun hauling over five tons,
With the wiperblades fighting the snow.

“Now be sure ev'ry crew pays in cash when it's due”,
Is what each new Inspector is taught;
But at seven o'clock, when the garage was locked,
It was three pounds and twelve shillings short.
It was Otley's belief that a Guiseley relief
Must have taken the bus on ahead,
Whereas Guiseley assumed that they'd wound up marooned,
And had booked off at Otley instead.

Now I hear you object, “someone ought to have checked”,
And presumably somebody did;
But on Christmas Eve night, ev'ry man has the right
To some time with his missus and kids.
It seemed patently clear it would soon reappear,
And by Boxing Day morning at least;
So to kick up a fuss over one missing bus
Would have made him the ghost at the feast.

Dora's man was the sort not much given to thought,
And besides he was too drunk to fret;
She'd gone AWOL before, and turned up at the door
A week later, hungover and wet.
So his Christmas was spent upon supping the rent,
As the kids looked for Santa in vain;
While in Fred's squalid lair, there was no-one to care
If he made an appearance again

When they finally sussed, it had vanished like dust
In the gale that continued to blow;
The police were informed and set out in the storm,
But the trail was as cold as the snow.
Though they found in the end, on the Chevin Grange bend,
A mysterious gap in the wall,
Of the 3.42 and her ill-fated crew
There was nothing uncovered at all.

Now I know what you'll think, had he taken a drink,
Was he pushing the Leyland too far?
Was he over-impatient to get to the station,
And down the Bay Horse for a jar?
Did a skid or a roll see him losing control,
And careering towards the abyss?
Or else might it have been an ingenious screen,
A less neat explanation than this?

Had Fred Ward and his mate planned a devious fate,
Had they worked out a way to be free?
Did they mean to elope and drive on in the hope,
Then abandon the vehicle and flee?
Did the coppers who looked do it all by the book,
Did they search every inch of the ground?
Or more sinister yet, did they aid and abet,
And destroy any evidence found?

Half a mile from the brow (and it's there even now)
There's a building surrounded by wire.
It built bombers and guns that had seen off the Hun
And it echoes to noises of fire.
But now men had appeared who were government-cleared
And were quartered away from the rest;
And the rumours were loud 'mid the factory crowd
They were putting new weapons on test.

They were dangerous years, full of terrible fears,
For a people not long out of war;
With blockade in Berlin, a new fight could begin
That would dwarf any conflict before.
But if mishaps occurred, and the press got the word,
Then the project would surely be dead;
One could hardly belive they'd risk all they'd achieved
For two losers like Dora and Fred.

Well whatever folk thought, it was never reported;
You'll scour the 'Wharfedale' in vain.
And if questions were asked, no one took on the task
Of replying or trying to explain
In a strangely-short while, the police closed the file,
And it went to the archive unsolved
And soon Otley went back to its regular crack,
With the mystery never resolved.

There are those still about unencumbered by doubt,
And who'll spout their fourpenn'orth unfazed;
But there's others, they say, who will scurry away
Ev'ry time that that the subject is raised.
Sammy drew his last breath, and though waiting for death
He would never let on even then;
But whatever the truth, he abandoned the route
And it never saw buses again.

Half a century's gone, and the world has moved on,
And it's up to you what you believe;
But if ever you go down the West Chevin Road
In a snowstorm on late Christmas Eve,
Well then take my advice, keep away from the ice,
And take cover whatever you do;
Because roaring there still, down the side of the hill,
Rides the ghost of the 3.42.

© Kevin Collier 1999.

  Thanks to Chris Youhill for the technical background (even if we did ignore half of it).