The Jolly Eccentric, Bidulpham
The renaming of pubs by breweries has become a source of seething in many communities during recent years. The weather-bullied signs that scrape and sigh above the roadsides of England are storytellers. They are recorders of folklore, local historians – a communal bank of remembrance. As the cunning folk of Hookland are often recorded as saying, there is power in naming. Denominations such as The Three Horseshoes may tell of the time an inn had a blacksmith’s forge attached to it, The Smudge’s Prize hint at a now lost industry of charcoal burning once conducted in nearby forest.
The erasure of the wonderful pointers to the past for the sake of hollow marketing phrases such as ‘brand continuity’ speaks to an increasing lack of respect for locality by big businesses. Yet, in 1977 while out-of-county brewers were earning curses for insensitive renamings of the pubs including The Howling Tooth, Old Mother Broadman’s Pot and The Faery Bun to the shared blandness of The Silver Jubilee, local ale company Hicks was praised for retitling The Quarrymen’s Arms on the north-east edge of Bidulpham to The Jolly Eccentric. Regular drinkers and members of the English Eccentrics Club who held an annual event at the tavern saw it as fitting memorial to former landlord Derek Byrant. A former professional racing and rally car driver and former holder of the title of Wear of England’s Longest Moustache, Byrant had retired to his native Hookland and taken over the tenancy of The Quarrymen’s Arms in 1964. Always a colourful character with an eye for a gimmick – he had once competed in the London-Istanbul Rally with a monkey in a butler’s uniform as his ‘mechanic and back-up navigator’ – Byrant regularly used the tavern to host unusual gathering. These included a world record attempt for the largest gathering of one-legged men and women, the World Cream Cracker Eating Contest and the English Eccentrics Club’s Summer Convention. He also used the extensive garden area of The Quarrymen’s Arms to run a sideline business offering trips in a hot-air balloon he had won in a bet in Baden-Baden. In 1976 at the height of interest in the ‘Hookland Bigfoot’ whipped up by author Brian Danebury, the fateful decision was taken by Byrant to become involved in hunting for evidence of it.
Danebury’s work collecting modern sighting of an unidentified hairy biped as well as re-interpretation of earlier accounts of the ‘wildman of Hookland’, or as the Victorians termed it ‘the modern woodwose’, had become a minor media circus after BBC’s Nationwide aired a segment on it. Re-christening his balloon from the Baden Bet to the Woodwose One, Byrant ensured local television news was at The Quarrymen’s Arms on the August bank holiday to film the dawn inflation for his inaugural, and as it would turn out, only wildman-hunting flight. In an interview with Hookland Independent Television conducted minutes before lift-off Byrant explained the rationale behind his somewhat bizarre jaunt:
“If there is a true, archaic wildman in Brockwood, to survive undetected in the 20th century they’d need to have incredible hearing and smell. There’s little hope of any researcher approaching him or her on foot. Humans are noisy and tainted by soap and deodorants. We stink of modernity. By balloon, a relatively noiseless craft, we can not only survey great distances with the advantage of height, we can avoid spooking the beast below. You won’t spot a woodwose if you go looking with gyrocopter cacophony or helicopter riot. You will get no glimpse of the past by modern methods. Older technology to catch feral ancient is the way to go. The only recently invented kit we are taking on the flight are the film cameras and the tranquiliser darts. People like you call me an eccentric because I favour a pre-diluvian style of facial hair, because I believe in the possibility of cryptids. If having a sense of style and wanting to take on a challenge, to solve a mystery is considered as slightly strange behaviour these days, I am proud to be one.”
Filmed floating off towards Brockwood without any apparent problem, the ground team following Woodwose One lost visual and radio contact with Bryant and his crew when their van was involved in a collision with another vehicle pulling a horsebox. In the confused tumble of time after the accident, no-one worried too much about the balloon. By the time people became concerned, the great heatwave which had seen 45 consecutive days in the country without rainfall and the appointment of Denis Howell MP as Minister of Drought, broke in spectacular fashion. A violence of thunderstorms resulted in flash flooding as 80mm of rain fell in Hookland. Inundated emergency services did not have the capacity to immediately prioritise the search for the now missing Byrant and his balloon. When they eventually began seeking in earnest to find out what had happened to him and his two man crew of Lawrence Wilson and Sherry Perkins, they could find no trace of Woodwose One at all. Ironically given Bryant’s comments about their uselessness in hunting the ‘Hookland Bigfoot’, both gyrocopters and helicopters alongside light aircraft, were used in a fruitless attempt to find a possible crash site. Even three years on, no hint of wreckage has ever been recovered. While some have tried to weave the disappearance of Woodwose One into narratives of UFO or faery abduction, time-slips or portals to parallel dimensions, the official view remains harshly prosaic. In a statement made to the press in October 1976, Detective Inspector Armitage of the Hookland Constabulary said:
“We believe in only two possibilities. We either have an as yet unfound crash site with three dead bodies at it or Mr. Bryant and his crew have been wasting the time of hundreds of people by staging this disappearance as a woefully misjudged publicity stunt. I’d like to give Byrant the benefit of the doubt, but he once held a World’s Smelliest Hippy contest and employed a monkey called Mr. Jinks as a pot man, so he has form for stupid ideas.”
At the renaming ritual for the tavern on the following August bank holiday, a new sign was unveiled depicting a likeness of the Wodehouse One floating above a wood in which a cheeky wildman can be just be glimpsed, Speaking at the ceremony, Bryrant’s wife and possible widow Josephine said:
“Derek would have liked the new name, enjoyed being turned into part of the story of this place. If a man who once danced with two queens (Elizabeth II and Grace Kelly), raced cars on five continents and never once worried about people calling him odd doesn’t deserve to be immortalised this way, then no-one does. England was built by eccentrics and it would be a jolly bad show if we ever stopped celebrating them.”
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David Southwell is an author of several published books on true crime and conspiracies, which have been translated into a dozen languages. However, these days, he mostly writes about place.