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Top five Bristol mysteries

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The city of Bristol is, for reasons I have not yet properly deduced, a very special place for stories. The land itself seems to ooze with them. They crawl out of the muddy banks of the Avon, or they crouch in the caves along the gorge, muttering filth to the climbers and the gulls. Below are five Bristol tales that you might call ‘mysteries’—reason being that the phenomena there described remain shrouded in discussion. 

Bristolians do not always find themselves agreeing as to exactly where the known ends and the unknown begins. Indeed, the debates around a few of these particular particulars have grown rather nasty from time to time. Now, I certainly don’t want to make any of the controversies worse, or get myself into trouble with this or that faction. All I say is, these are my top 5 Bristol head-scratchers. 

Is the door of The Hatchet covered in human skin?

Back in the 1970s the aptly named Hatchet Pub on Frogmore St was always full of bikers (or greasers as they were known then). It was before my time of course, but I am told the place was a real ‘no go’ area. There were punch-ups galore, and if it was bar room brawls you were after you would have had to look no further to find some rollicking examples of the form.

In previous centuries the Hatchet was frequented by the gnarliest pirates in all of Bristol, which of course means the gnarliest pirates in the entire world. The persistent rumour is that the door of the Hatchet is covered in human skin. The skin is meant to have been flayed off pirates by some other pirates and then used to upholster the door. Whether this was done as a warning or simply to make use of a very durable material that happened to be going spare is not recorded. I did, of course, inspect the door, but one only encounters thick black exterior paint. One of the wizened old regulars, a chap called Dewayne Knoggin, offered a theory as to the reason why no one has had a mind to chip away at the paint to look if there is indeed a layer or two of leathery old story under there: ‘On the way in they needs a drink and the way out they’s too pissed!’ Mr Knoggin came up with this theory in jest, but I suspect that it is quite true.

Is there a man-eating reptile living in the waterways of Bristol?

Folks have laughed at Jolyon Rey for long enough. We all know the story of how the bus driver first sighted the croc in his wing mirror as he was driving over the Bedminster roundabout. People like to imagine he screeched to a halt and jumped about out waving his arms, but in fact he calmly continued his route until he found a safe place to stop and hail the police. In fact, the man that has acted with commendable sanity at every turn, even volunteering himself for drug tests to prove that he wasn’t on the wacky stuff at the time of the siting.

Perhaps Mr Rey would have been taken seriously if the next siting hadn’t turned out to be a hoax. The problem was compounded by the fact that the police rocked up at Snuff Mills clad in full riot clobber. The images of them poking around in shrubberies with their truncheons looking for an errant crocodile produced such a deluge of mirth that the force suspended the search to protect its reputation.

Experts said that due to the large volume of underground tunnels and waterways that run beneath Bristol, it would be possible for a large reptile to stay hidden. It could survive, argued biologists, on a diet of fish and waterfowl. Still, the most of the city still considered the story nothing but a laughing matter.

When it comes to the photographs, I have to admit that I dismissed them at first because of their extreme similarity to logs. However, we should consider this impression from an evolutionary perspective. The crocodilian family has survived for 80 million years because of their camouflage. They have evolved to look like logs, so it’s hardly surprising that when we look at one, we often think that it looks a lot like a log.

In the summer of 2017 a pair of water engineers were doing some routine work at Chew Valley Reservoir when suddenly they spotted, sunbathing on the concrete bank, what looked like a baby alligator or crocodile. The RSPCA were called, and the beast was given over to an expert handler. The boffins soon identified the little beast as a Caiman, which is neither crocodile nor alligator but rather another species belong to the ancient order of the crocodilians. It is bizarre to me that some people still consider this beast a joke, or even a mystery. To me the thing is now a plain fact: where there is a baby, it stands to reason there must be a mother and a father. Bristol now has a man-eating reptile problem, and all we can do is snigger.

What was the ‘Coronation Chicken’? 

Folk did not always believe in the Coronation Chicken (CC) either, but it eventually made itself impossible to disbelieve. It viciously attacked hundreds of people over a period of perhaps 20 years, from the late 1980s until sometime in the early noughties. For those who don’t know it, this beast was a huge, wild cock that roamed Bedminster at night. No one knew where CC roosted, but it would often attack solitary walkers walking along Coronation Road. Because these people were alone and usually drunk, no one believed them. It is not known why the chicken attacked, although having heard a few first hand accounts it seems likely to me that these assaults were actually a string of muggings. Think about it: drunk people are often eating chips or a kebab. If you run toward them, squawking and flapping your wings, or if you jump out of tree and claw at their hats with your sharp talons, they tend to drop their food and run. Then you can eat the food. Simple. Eventually the evidence piled up, and there were just so many people from Bedminster arriving home with scratches and peck marks that they could no longer be explained away as evidence of trysts with overenthusiastic lovers. Some say that a bedmo resident’s group hired a vigilante hunter to kill the bird, and eventually had thing served up at a street party on Raleigh Road. They made CC into Coronation Chicken (how could they not) and the thing was so large that it filled over 200 tasty sandwiches. Others, of course, claim that the beast is still very much on the loose.

How did the rock slide get slidy?

For those who don’t know it, the rock slide is giant face of flat stone up by the suspension bridge that lies at a convenient angle to slide down. Of course, all day every day the thing is choca with sliding children, and the odd adult who goes down is shocked at the speed and danger of it. The mysterious thing is that while there is a kind of channel that has been worn smooth, everywhere else (where the rock is in its original condition) is too coarse for sliding.

Now, it is obvious the slide is made for kids by kids, but then children don’t have access to industrial floor sanders or whatever else it would take to carve out a slidy channel from coarse rock. In fact, my old mum says that it was already slidy in the 50s when she was a babber. The conclusion is obvious: at some point in history there were some children who heroically scraped and bumped their way down a bad slide. These children (Edwardian? Medieval? Roman???) ripped their pants and scraped their backsides to start the process of slidification. The mystery is how these pioneers could have been so selflessly forward thinking—not something kids are particularly famed for.

Interested in this puzzle, I went up to the slide and tried to talk to some of the sliders about it. They were prepared to discuss which clothing types had the fastest top speeds, the various ways of connecting to fellow sliders fore and aft to make a train, how many goes it is possible to get out of ‘one more go’, and a multitude of other points relating to form and technique. None, however, seemed at all interested in the mysterious origins of the slide itself. Eventually a little ginger boy with a sympathetic look on his face came up to me, shaking his head and saying ‘It’s just for fun mister, it’s just for fun…’

What makes the ‘Hummadruz’?

It is a noise that drives people to madness. It is a noise that alienates people from their communities. No one knows where it comes from, or if it really exists. It is the Bristol mystery that eventually brought curious investigators flocking from all over the world. They call it The Hummadruz.

The mysterious hum was noticed as far back as the 18th century, when naturalist Gilbert White reported hearing it on the downs: ‘Any person would suppose that a large swarm of bees was in motion and playing about his head.’ In the 19th century the phenomenon even enjoyed a period of citywide acceptance, and was believed to be the sound of the world spinning. In more modern times, a group formed to represent the hearers and defend them against charges of insanity. This has group managed to get the hum talked about, and a few national papers have reported on it. It was the Bristolian dialect itself, which has a particular sense of humour, that named the hum the ‘hummadruz’. The group accepted the name, in the hope that their city might accept them in return, and even took to referring to themselves as hummers. Their goal has always been to prove the existence of the hummadruz and locate its source. So far many have tried but no one theory has won out. Here is a potted history of some of the best attempts.

Those investigations with a bent toward conspiracy theory often trace the sound to Filton Aerodrome. However, British Aerospace has never ever let anyone investigate the site and so the thesis has been impossible to confirm or deny. This, of course, makes it all the more alluring.

Windy New Age types commonly ascribe the hummadruz to ley energy, pointing out that to the north west of Bristol lies a point of convergence of two great ley lines: the Malvern Ley running south from Worcestershire meets the ‘Perpetual Choirs’ line, which of course runs SE to NW, starting at Stonehenge, passing through the Lansdown camp in Charlcombe, and presumably moving on to somewhere pretty mystical in Wales.

A slightly more wacky theory, favoured by most of the scientific establishment, is that the hummadruz is the cumulative sound of thousands upon thousands of mating calls. The male midshipman fish lets out a low drone when searching for a mate. The fish are incredibly adaptable, but are particularly fond of underground caverns and caves. Their courtship call is famously loud, and the sounds that both sexes emit during intercourse are louder still. What is more, the fish mate pretty much continuously during their mating season, which comprises around nine tenths of the year.

The most recent theory, and I have to say my personal favourite, is authored by two scientists from Bordeaux. The theory they cooked up relates to high-pressure waves continually beating at the floor of the Severn estuary. These high-pressure waves turn into seismic waves that travel through the land itself, and when they get to Bristol they meet a city that is pretty much hollow underneath, due to the incredible volume of underground tunnels, caverns and caves that exist beneath our feet. The seismic waves then reverberate in these voluminous spaces, vibrating the city above.

Now, I am aware that some of you are not at all fond of the tune, but you have to admit that this theory in itself is pretty sweet: that Bristol, the actual town, all the buildings and everything they are built on, is one gert speaker with the bass turned up too loud.

By Wilf Merttens 

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