When I was eleven we got a dog. His breed was brown, white and waggly. He looked like a Jack Russell but he was the size of a labrador. And he needed a lot of walking.
We lived on a bizarrely-designed council estate which had its front doors at the back and the back doors where you’d stop and park. Literally no one used their front doors, we all used the backs because that was where the garden, the car parking and the road was. The only people who came to the front doors were the postman (because the letterboxes were on the fronts) or salesmen. And they were always men.
It was open green grass and footpaths between our houses and the ones on the next road (except for in the early 90s some of it had been big swathes of these weird massive knobbly stones held in place with concrete which you couldn’t walk on without turning an ankle, but eventually they drilled it all out and laid grass so kids could play on it).
What was also odd was there were fields between us and the rest of Cheadle. These fields had survived the hedge removal of the 1970s that ruined the English landscape elsewhere. In my little corner of the world, the fields were small and the hedges were fat and full of other adventures I’ll talk about another time.
A lot of my early-teen misadventures happened across the fields. I walked the dog nearly every day, rain, shine, winter or summer.
And obviously, there’s only so much interest four small fields can give you, so after a while I walked further afield. Three fields away, there was a bizarre setup of gigantic telegraph poles, bigger than any I’ve ever seen, on hinges, so they were lying down. And cows, or sometimes sheep, milled around them.
They belonged to the Air Ministry, some relic of the cold war. I was never really sure whether they were something to do with the air force or the government. My mum, queen of conspiracy theories, swore blind they were there to listen to everything that we talked about and that she couldn’t say anything else because our house was so close to them.
So basically, that’s the only reason they weren’t there.
Honestly, I don’t really know.
If my mum was alive today, either she would have been a modern anti-vaxxer, or she would have been one of the pro-maskers who didn’t understand why other people couldn’t wear them and screamed at people about it in shops.
Anyway, that’s why I don’t think her opinion was accurate about what was going on with the Air Ministry. We all called it that on my estate. I don’t think any of us really knew what it was. But we were all vaguely aware that it belonged to a time before now and that it was no longer in use.
So one day, my mates Andy and Matt and me all decided to explore it. We took Dillon, my dog, because he was always our excuse for going anywhere and adults thought he was dead hard so no one messed with Dillon. Not even the skinheads.
Dillon was a beautiful mongrel. In my life, I’ve seen only two other dogs who looked like him. One was in York and the other is here in Donegal. Imagine a dog who’s the size and body shape of a chocolate Labrador, but his colouring is that of a brown-and-white Jack Russell.
Dillon had a big deep bark and a long tail that never stayed still. Oh, and massive paws. His paws were those of a much bigger dog. He had a scar on his front left leg from where he’d broken it before we adopted him, and his fur had never grown back. We got him when I was eleven and he was immediately my best friend.
Andy, Matt, Dillon and I crossed two fields, but at the third, we passed a barn and walked down what looked like an unassuming (but mysteriously well-paved) farm lane, away from the main road (when I say “main road” it was the Cheadle to Oakamoor road, if you know it, and mostly not quite wide enough to have a white line down the middle but just wide enough that cars usually didn’t need to slow for oncoming traffic).
We carried on and found a fish pond. It had lots of signs on it such as “no fishing” and there was always an old man sat behind bulrushes with his fishing rod in the water ready to scare off any would-be anglers.
Past the fish pond there was a big old house. It looked Victorian. I don’t know if it was the original Hales Hall or part of the Hales Hall lands because the Hales had sort of died out a long time ago after enough Victorian family tragedy to rival the Brontës, and sold their land to a caravan site which had subsequently, as all caravan sites are wont, become a run-down dump. More on Hales Hall Caravan Site later.
Anyway. Big weird Victorian-looking house in the middle of nowhere next to a fish pond, two fields away from the odd folding telegraph poles. If it was a spy HQ of some description, that bloke who sat pretending to fish all day had the cushiest job in the world.
Unless he was a golfer. In which case sitting at a fish pond all day must have been his idea of hell.
We didn’t think anyone could work here because adults would drive cars to get here, and there were no cars around.
The gates were wide open. There was metal chain link fencing at least two metres high and at the top, something we’d never seen before. It sort of looked like barbed wire, but a sign said it was razor wire. Barely a day went by when we weren’t climbing through barbed wire fences and we decided, at a glance, that it would be rather a bad idea to go near that razor stuff.
Dillon ran straight into the grounds. I had such an eerie feeling about the place, I just wanted to leave. It was that feeling you get when you’re out of bed at night and you know you’re not allowed to be. No one can see you being naughty—probably—but you don’t want to tempt trouble by lingering too long amongst the forbidden.
Andy, Matt and I all stood at the gates, the threshold between what we knew and were comfortable with, and what we wanted to find out about, even though we were all a bit scared really.
“Go in then,” Andy said.
“Me?” Matt asked. “Why me?”
“It wa’ your idea.”
I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want them to notice that I wasn’t going in either.
This was a conversation that repeated itself almost word-for-word when we found an abandoned house a bit later.
“You go in, Torie. Yer dog’s already in there.” I don’t know why we didn’t notice that Andy—in all his eagerness to volunteer Matt and I—was probably the most scared of the three of us. I think it was always quite hard to think that someone who acted dead hard could actually be anything else.
Unfortunately, he had a point. Dillon was running around in there. So I had to go in. There were big signs on the gates warning us that there were guard dogs but since the gates were wide open this seemed like a stretch of the imagination. I went in and I felt like I wanted to flee. But I had to get my dog.
I went to where he was sniffing a weird air vent sticking up from the ground. I didn’t know what it was but there were a couple of others nearby. They were about three- or four-feet-high brick square constructions with flat tar/felt roofs and a big load of diagonally-slatted-wood on one side.
I had his dog lead in my hand and if I could just get it on him, I could leave. He was only a few feet away.
Dillon was an expert at being only a few feet away. Just when you thought you could catch him, he’d run off again. I reached out for him and he trotted away on his big paws.
My gut was yelling at me to leave. There were things that looked like white megaphones mounted on big metal poles and I still don’t know what they were for. As I got further inside, a dog started barking. It sounded like a Rottweiler.
I remembered the guard dog signs on the gate. Could they really have a guard dog in here with the gates wide open? I was a bit worried about this, in a way you can only be worried about seeing another dog when you’ve got a dog yourself. I looked back at the gates. What if they were those automatic closing ones?
I had to get Dillon.
I tried calling him but it was pointless. He didn’t come when he was called. I usually didn’t worry about this but if there was a dog in here then we had problems.
Every time I tried to get close, he moved away. I was a bit scared of the weird brick thing with wooden slats, and I was trying to get to Dillon while at the same time not get anywhere near him or the vent. Was it a very tiny brick shed in which an angry Rottweiler was being kept?
Usually I’d walk away but sometimes Dillon would be an entire field away without me worrying. Ambient Dillon, while we played. He never bothered cows and it wasn’t often that there were any sheep in the open fields. I didn’t take Dillon in the closed ones that didn’t have a footpath. Occasionally he’d do something silly like try and eat a hedgehog but usually he just enjoyed running around off the lead.
The dog barking got louder and Dillon ran towards it. I followed him to one of the weird air vents. He sniffed around where the sound was coming from. And at this distance, it was clearly a bit tinny.
Who, what, when, why and how all got chucked to one side because Dillon was close enough that I could grab him. Not taking any chances, I snapped his lead on and hoiked him out of there. Andy and Matt were waiting for us.
With the benefit of being an adult, I now know that the weird vent sheds were probably air vents for an underground bunker, and that the house I stood next to was perhaps only the entrance to whatever lay underneath.
“Be quiet, you’ll scare the fish,” grumbled the lone angler as we ran past. I wondered if he was talking to us or complaining about the barking dog recording, which was still audible here.
We walked away quickly and played somewhere else for a while. But we actually came back at least two more times because we were kids and this was mysterious and therefore magnetically interesting.
If you liked this misadventure, check out this one or this one. They’re not really in any kind of order, I’m just posting them when I feel like writing one up (it also has to be a Saturday because I wrote the first one on a Saturday and now I have to commemorate it every week).
*Names have been changed.