August 2019

Issue: August 2019

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Bear killers

1 August 2019

In his excitement at exploring the world, Dom Joly has been neglecting the (creepy) delights of a UK staycation

I’ve travelled to over ninety countries in my role as a travel writer and realised recently that I’ve rather neglected home. Not home as in my family and pets – but home as in the United Kingdom. So, I’ve started to write a new book in which I embark on four road trips around Great Britain.

I kicked off last week with a visit to the Forest of Dean. If you’re unfamiliar with the place then I’m not surprised, as it’s not on most people’s destination lists when visiting the UK. It’s actually not too far from where I live and has something of a reputation. People of the forest are seen as somewhat “different” and are often the butt of jokes from meaner section of Gloucestershire society. When you arrive, it’s not difficult to see why. The forest has a slightly ominous mood to it, and you can’t help feeling a little creeped out when you drive through.

The attractions are a bit odd too – most famous being the Little Dean Crime Museum, which is in the old jail and holds a seriously dark collection of crime memorabilia, ranging from Ronnie Kray’s suit, to letters from the Yorkshire Ripper, Ku Klux Klan robes and far, far weirder stuff that I can’t really discuss here…

I actually rather enjoyed my visit but, it’s definitely not to everybody’s taste. I am a dark tourist and have written a book on the subject so it was not surprising that I found it interesting.

Driving on, I entered the village of Ruardean, the inhabitants of which are still known as the “bear killers.” This is because – about a century ago – some French musicians arrived in the village, accompanied by two bears. There is much dispute as to what happened next, but the bears were both killed by a mob and the Frenchmen were savagely beaten.

The most likely story is that somebody spread a rumour that the bears had attacked a local girl. The Forest is a place that has always been suspicious of outsiders and the arrival of a combination of Frenchmen and bears was always going to be problematic.

I couldn’t help thinking about the story of the people of Hartlepool, on the North Eastern coast of England, who are known as “monkey hangers.”

A French ship was wrecked in a storm off the coast of the town during the Napoleonic Wars. The only survivor was a monkey that the crew had dressed in a uniform for their amusement. The poor monkey was found by locals and – as they had never seen a monkey or a Frenchman before – was swiftly put on trial for espionage. As the monkey understandably didn’t answer any questions during the trial, it was found guilty and hanged on the beach.

The moral of this story is that, should you decide to visit the UK, are French and accompanied by an exotic animal… do take care.

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