If you're wandering Hartley Vale cemetery at midnight, as the full moon is tossed between tree branches and a pale, eerie light illuminates the tombstones, keep an eye out for Thomas the Coalminer. He's a dark entity and a strangler, known to attack people. Well, people such as Peter Clifford – aka Paranormal Pete – anyway. Thomas grabbed him around the throat one night, though before I have time to quiz him on the details, another four tales come tumbling out about headless horse riders, shrieking ghosts and a priest who drowned in the nearby river in the 1850s.
Paranormal Pete has scared the bejesus out of susceptible people during his night tour around Hartley on the far side of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Even sceptics like me find his tours unsettling and curiously thrilling. Pete is a natural-born storyteller, and Hartley provides many a yarn about convicts, murderers and colonial-era mayhem. His most riveting story concerns the "lady in black", Caroline James, found decapitated on the main road across the Blue Mountains in the 1840s (fact). Her headless corpse now leaps out at passing truck drivers, sending them careering off the road (fiction). It's quite the tall tale, immortalised in Henry Lawson poem's Ghost at the Second Bridge, and quite unnerving when you're standing on a cliff at midnight, and a bird shrieks like a banshee in your ear.
None of my previous visits to the Blue Mountains have been like this. Most people visit for escarpment scenery and to have high-tea scones in cottage cafés. Yet the Blue Mountains' gentility hides stories – both historical and invented – to make your hair stand on end. The ghost of a female servant, according to Pete, even roams beneath the kitchen of my Hartley cottage. The 1860s St Bernard's Presbytery, opened last July as suitably atmospheric accommodation, has burgundy walls, creaking floorboards and dim-lit appeal. I sit in a leather armchair in front of a fire, amid tasselled lamps and knick-knacks, and am sure I can hear the ghost clumping behind the wainscot.
The presbytery's elevated veranda has views over the adjacent sandstone church and courthouse across the road. Paranormal Pete has a photo of a disembodied face peering out of the courthouse window, and says he has encountered the ghost of Thomas Brown the magistrate. The courthouse is the culmination of my paranormal tour, in whose courtroom we set up twitching, beeping machines said to detect ghosts and tune into the mumblings of the walking dead.
I'm far from convinced, but it hardly matters. I enjoy creeping around this colonial courthouse by torchlight, hunting ghosts and rifling through the records. Convict John Downe received 75 lashes for insolence and neglect of work in 1836; Andrew McMahon 35 lashes for drunkenness in 1838. Free settlers were fined for selling spirits without a licence and "furiously riding through the streets".
It was the building of the courthouse in 1837 that kicked off the existence of Hartley as a service centre for travellers heading west. Much of it was influenced by the enterprising Irish immigrant Finn family, which perhaps explains why Hartley is built on the linear village pattern found in Ireland, rather than clustered around a marketplace in the English style. John Finn was appointed postmaster in 1848 and lived in what's now called the Old Post Office.
By 1887 the railway had bypassed the town. Today its abandoned cottages, courtyard and two churches provide a vignette of early inland settlement. At night, Hartley is almost deserted and highly atmospheric. Bent crab-apple trees claw at a dark sky and chimneys are silhouetted against the moon. As I walk back from my paranormal tour to the presbytery, a horse suddenly thrusts its muzzle over the fence and snorts, making me leap in fright. For the rest of the weekend I call the horse Thomas after the strangling coalminer, unnerving me with its whinnies in the night.
Hartley is just off the Great Western Highway near Mount Victoria, a two-hour drive from Sydney.
Self-catering St Bernard's Presbytery in Hartley sleeps four, with bed linen and towels provided. $390 per night, two-night minimum at weekends. Phone 02 6355 2117, see nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.
The Old Post Office Café is open Wednesday to Sunday for sandwiches, burgers, Devonshire teas and tasty ploughman's plates. Phone 0413 380 712, see oldhartleypocafe.com.au.
Blue Mountains Mystery Tours runs various ghost and paranormal tours. The five-hour Hartley tour costs $85. Phone (02) 4751 2622, see bluemountainsmysterytours.com.au.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Australia Public Relations, NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service and Blue Mountains Mystery Tours.