August 10th 1955 is still etched in my memory… as vivid as ever. It was one of those hot, summer days, when cigarette smoke hangs in the air, bees drone on endlessly and dogs lie panting in the shade.
I had asked Leonard if we could celebrate our first wedding anniversary with a day trip to Westerham. Why Westerham? I’m not sure. Perhaps it was because I had read of its beauty and its historical connections with Pitt the Younger, Churchill and General Wolfe and, of course, its wonderful Kentish charm. But more than that, I had an inexplicable interest in seeing the village. It wasn’t an obsession, just a curious feeling that something was drawing me there.
Even with the windows open, the atmosphere in the coach was stifling. We spent the journey fanning ourselves with magazines and newspapers. Heading away from South London, we were soon talking to an American gentleman who was seated across the aisle. In his early sixties, he was friendly in an old-fashioned way, with an air of intellectual confidence. He had a thick black moustache and his bald head accentuated his oval face.
‘I understand Kent is a beautiful part of your wonderful country.’ His accent was distinctive. A mixture of American drawl and exaggerated English vowels.
‘Yes,’ said Leonard, ‘you’re right, it is beautiful. Kent is known as The Garden of England.’
‘I’ve never seen The Garden of England before.’ His voice was breaking. Alternating between a rich deep voice and a whisper.
‘Please forgive me for asking,’ said Leonard. ‘Are you American or English? I can’t place your accent.’
‘I am American, from Worcester Massachusetts.’
‘That’s a coincidence,’ I said. ‘I was born in Worcester England.’
‘Yes. Of course,’ he said casually. ‘I’m over here trying to trace my ancestors.’ His voice sounded strained and hoarse and he took a deep breath as he offered Leonard his hand.
‘Bob Goddard,’ he said smiling.
‘I’m Leonard Wilson and this is my wife Joan.’
‘Pleased to meet you Mr Goddard,’ I took his hand. It was a gentle grip, yet firm and positive.
‘So what takes you to Westerham Mr Goddard? Do you have ancestors there also?’
His eyes immediately filled with tears and his head turned away. ‘Oh no... No…’ His voice almost failed completely, emotion blocking his throat. ‘Just sight-seeing,’ he recovered slightly. ‘I have a bad summer cold; it catches my throat sometimes and makes my eyes water.’ He produced several white cotton handkerchiefs, selected one, and blew his nose.
Leonard and I exchanged a glance as he turned away he seemed so distressed. There was an embarrassed silence as we gazed at the passing scenery. The heat was oppressive, sitting heavily on our shoulders like a shroud. Soon, the American had recovered and he turned towards us again and began to chat. It was only small talk, about how much he liked our country, yet he seemed to be holding back. I wanted to ask him about his way of life in America and his job, but something was telling me that these subjects were taboo.
Arriving at Westerham, we skirted the village green passing the statue of General Wolfe and turned left, through Market Square, pulling up outside the Quebec Arms.
‘Everyone back here at 3.50 please!’ shouted the driver. His accent was broad Cockney. ‘Visits to Chartwell Manor leave the green on the hour. If you decide to go, please tell them that Dennis sent you and I’ll get a nice little drink.’ Some of the passengers laughed at this. ‘Dunsdale Woods,’ continued the driver ‘is about 500 yards up the road if you fancy a picnic.’ He was leaning down giving directions through the windscreen.
‘Everyone back here at 3.50 sharp! I leave on the dot of four and I ain’t waiting for no-one.’
With that, we strolled off into the sunshine leaving the driver quietly counting under his breath. The American was tagging along behind. I sensed he wanted to join us but felt unsure. We paused outside the Post Office.
‘What are you planning to do Mr Goddard?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know...’
‘We have plenty of food,’ said Leonard patting his canvas knapsack,
‘Would you care to join us?’
'We could go up to the woods for a picnic,’ I said.
‘Dunsdale Woods?’ said Goddard. ‘Yes… yes, I must go there.’ Leonard and I exchanged another glance.
The heat was relentless and the pitch was bubbling up through the seams in the road. The streets were full of day-trippers and there was a group of young girls playing on the green, dressed in brightly coloured, cotton-print dresses. General Wolfe gazed down upon them, sword drawn, a true guardian. A wave of sadness came over me. Emma would have been about that age when she vanished.
Dear, perceptive, Leonard (oh, how I miss him now) followed my gaze and knew instantly what I was thinking. He held my hand tightly and whispered ‘You all right Joan?’
‘Yes… yes thank you Leonard, I’m fine.’
It was another summer’s day, not quite as hot as this, eleven years before, in 1944, when my younger sister Emma was packed off to an evacuation camp. I remember waving goodbye to her at the station. She was wearing a cotton dress with a floral print. That was the last I saw of her. My parents had sent her to a safe place in the North of England because of the flying bombs.
The Doodlebugs, the ancestor of today’s space rockets, had started in June and carried on through the summer of 1944. It was a terrible time as they buzzed across our skies. If an engine cut out and its buzzing stopped, we knew 2000 lbs. of high explosive would drop to the streets below. Over 6,000 people died in London and the Southern Counties. It was a summer I longed to forget; but sometimes, even the drone of a bee, brought it all back to me. Shuddering at the thought of it all, I realised I was squeezing Leonard’s hand so tightly I was hurting him. He looked at me, concern on his brow.
‘You’re trembling Joan.’
‘Just someone walking over my grave.’ I smiled into his grey-blue eyes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. ‘Shall we go for that picnic?’
Bob Goddard was a little way ahead of us now, standing perfectly still, viewing the green intently, his eyes full of tears.
‘What about Mr. Goddard?’ whispered Leonard.
‘We can’t ignore him can we?’ I whispered back.
Leonard let go of my hand and walked up to him. ‘We were wondering whether to go to the woods to have our lunch now Mr. Goddard?’
‘Dunsdale Woods? Oh yes you must go there… you must.’
‘Would you care to join us?’
‘Perhaps later. I’m not hungry. I’ll join you later.’
‘Very well Mr Goddard, where will you meet us?’
‘If you walk up the road past the row of small cottages and turn right off the road on to a footpath, there is a clearing, about 100 yards into the woods. I’ll see you there.’ Then seeing Leonard’s puzzled expression, ‘I… er.. saw it earlier, on a village map displayed in the Post Office window.’ His voice was still rasping.
We left Goddard and began to stroll up the road walking for several yards in silence before Leonard spoke.
‘Does it live up to your expectations?’
‘The village of course.’
‘Oh… yes. It’s beautiful isn’t it? Sorry… I was thinking about Mr Goddard.’
‘Did you notice how he described the directions to the clearing in the woods?’
‘It was shown on that map wasn’t it?’
‘That’s just my point. It wasn’t. The map was of the village centre. The woods weren’t shown. And that voice of his...’
It was cooler strolling through the woods in the dappled sunlight. The gentle sound of birdsong and the faint rustling of swaying branches gave an atmosphere of calm and peacefulness.
As we came upon the clearing, the birdsong suddenly ceased. The light dimmed sharply, like a big cloud crossing the sun. A thousand ice-cold needles ran up and down my spine and the temperature plummeted. I looked at Leonard with alarm, there was so much tension in the air, but he was oblivious. We walked on, into the centre of the clearing to see a few wooden beams half-buried in the ground.
‘We can perch on these and have our food,’ said Leonard. Anxiety was now clawing at the pit of my stomach, destroying my appetite.
‘Leonard… this place… it’s upsetting me,’ I said.
‘Why? What’s wrong?’
Suddenly, there was a flash of intense heat, and in that brief instant I could smell smoke and feel scorching. I heard distant voices of children screaming in pain and terror, then the temperature swiftly reverted to bitter cold, making me shake violently.
‘Get me out of here Leonard, get me out!’ I screamed, ‘We’ve got to go!’
Leonard jumped up, ‘Yes, of course! You’re as white as a sheet.’
As we ran back to the road, the sunshine returned, the birds began singing again and the temperature rose to that burning summer heat that I felt before.
‘What was all that about?’ said Leonard as we walked briskly towards the village.
‘I don’t know, I was terrified. There was something frightening there, it was awful, didn’t you feel it?’
‘No… no I didn’t.’
Leonard placed a comforting arm around my shoulder and we walked to the village in silence. After a drink in the Quebec Arms, I recovered and we spent the remaining time strolling round the village. I thought I caught a glimpse of Mr Goddard once or twice, but I was wrong. With half an hour to go, Leonard spotted a poster outside the library.
‘Look, there’s an exhibition about Churchill…’ said Leonard, ‘…let’s get out of this sun.’
There was also a local history section inside and I wasn’t at all prepared for what I was about to see. It was a poster and newspaper cuttings exhibition, entitled ‘The Westerham Doodlebug.’ As I read some of the accounts, my stomach churned to a point where I was almost sick. Twenty-two children and five adults lost their lives when a Doodlebug landed on a small refuge camp in Dunsdale Woods. There was a list of names of the dead. I almost screamed out loud when I saw the words “Emma Hutchings aged 8, possibly from London.”
Hutchings was my maiden name.
My head was spinning as Leonard took me back to the coach. ‘She was supposed to go North. What happened? Why didn’t anyone notify us? They had her name, even where she came from,’ I said.
‘Who knows?’ said Leonard softly. ‘Wartime confusion? Records destroyed in the blitz?’
The coach driver was finishing counting. ‘Forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one, that’s it, we’re off.’
‘Excuse me…’ said Leonard looking at Goddard’s empty seat, ‘…there’s someone missing.’
‘Nope. All accounted for… it checks with the list,’ he said
‘But there was a man in this seat,’
‘No there wasn’t,’ said a woman behind us. ‘That seat was empty!’
‘Yes she’s right!’ said someone else.
Leonard and I looked at each other stunned. I was still in shock thinking about poor Emma and that Doodlebug, when my eyes fell on the folded newspaper in the seat pocket in front of me. It was the photograph of a bald man with a black moustache that caught my eye. The caption read:
“Robert Hutchings Goddard, the American inventor of liquid Rocket fuel, died of cancer of the throat, ten years ago today. Wernher von Braun, inventor of the Doodlebug, used Goddard’s creation to fuel the deadly missiles that rained death on London’s streets throughout the summer of 1944.”