Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Billy’s Bucket” by Ken Dunn

Somerset pubs are wonderful. One I have a particular affection for is in Wells, which lies just below the Mendip Hills and about twenty miles due south of Bristol. This pub is called, ‘King William’s Barrel’ and is a ‘proper’ pub, somewhere to drink. It was known as ‘Billy’s Bucket’. No one really knows why. That seems to go back a long, long time. It’s quite funny now as the current landlord is called Bill Bouquet!

It’s Bill’s first pub and since he took over it’s been a great success. The story of how that happened is worth telling.

I used to see Bill from time to time and he always brought the conversation round to the same subject, running his own pub. It was something he had wanted to do for years but hadn’t thought about it really seriously. Now he was very serious. He’d done his sums, taken advice and was looking for the ‘right’ place. The ‘wrong’ place came up a few weeks later. ‘King William’s Barrel.’ At the time it was closed. Rumours had it that it had been forced to close. That was true. It’s not surprising. The pub was somewhat less than savoury and the local constabulary were fed up. Tables, chairs, dogs as well as drunken, cider-head punters were being thrown into the street at all hours. More often than not they tended to come through the windows rather than the front door.

Fights were a regular pastime and the neighbours were even more fed up than the police. A court order was issued and the place was closed. The brewery was not happy but there was no reasoning with the court officials. That was October. It stayed that way for six, long, dry months.

The new year brought another application from the brewery to the licensing authority for the place to open. This was duly reviewed and, after sober and extensive discussion, agreement was reached. ‘King William’s Barrel’ Public House would be allowed to trade again, providing no further trouble of any kind occurred. A joint vetting process by the authority and the brewery for a prospective landlord was organised. They did not want another ‘Wessex warzone’ as they’d had before. In truth it was the Chairman of that joint body who was bloody furious about his local being shut and wanted it opened as soon as possible!

Interviews took place but none passed the test. Another month dragged by. The locals became very despondent and there was even talk of it being converted into a rest home! How could they even think of turning a perfectly good boozer into a bloody rest home? That was sacrilege!

Then Bill applied. He said all the right things and they were impressed. He has an easy way, has Bill. Credentials were checked and within the hour Bill Bouquet was appointed landlord of ‘Billy’s Bucket.’ It was now late April and the beginning of the tourist season. A good time to get the business going but the place was an absolute bloody wreck. The previous management had succeeded in allowing the customers to kick the doors in, experiment in smashing furniture, attempt minor fire rituals and the creative re-arrangement of the pipe-work in the gents and ladies loo’s.

Within a few days most of the devastation had been tidied up and the place was at least clean, probably for the first time in years. The only major change he made on the very first day was to move the dartboard from the main bar to the games room at the back of the pub. This wasn’t to create a bit more space for more ‘bums on seats’. No, it was more straightforward than that. The dartboard had been on the wall next to the main electrical feed for the whole building, a rather old installation. A thick, round cable ran vertically from the ceiling down one corner to the floor, covered in holes from the thousands of darts which had punctured it over the years. It’s a miracle no one had been electrocuted in the past!

The ‘Bucket’ has three floors and Bill had his time cut out getting them all back to habitable standards. The first floor, with four bedrooms and separate plumbing and power would have to wait until he had time to decorate. A possible bed and breakfast business lay waiting there. The second floor was his own, a private flat.

At the back of the pub there’s a skittle alley, a popular game in this part of the world, but that was in one hell of a state when he took the place over. Most of the wooden balls and all of the skittles had been used as missiles in the fights which had broken out between rival teams. The alley itself was pitted and scarred and there wasn’t a window in the place which wasn’t smashed. On his first inspection the door to the alley came off its hinges as he opened it. It was very depressing.

On top of all this the building was reputed to have a ‘presence’. Delving into the local records in the Town Hall, Bill discovered that there had actually been a pub on the site since the 16th century but the stories of the haunting didn’t begin until the mid seventeen hundreds. At midnight in early November the phantom of a dripping, waterlogged figure walks through the bar, moaning, appearing to be looking for something. The actual date tends to coincide with the Carnival which erupts In Wells every year.

Several other towns around Wells have the Carnival pass through, usually taking up to three hours, of the most spectacular floats and individuals. Notting Hill could take a few notes, it’s that kind of scale. Huge! But I digress. This ghostly character is thought to be William Southover, funny name that, who had been murdered over an argument about who owned the pub. They do say that in 1735 one of the local gentry drowned Southover in a stream but his body was never found. The ownership passed over to his murderer but ever since then old ‘Willy’ always appears at midnight on the anniversary of his death. Bill was fascinated by all this but he still had a pub to open. If he had a ghost, then fine, he had a ghost. ‘Here’s a toast,’ he would say, grinning and raising a glass of beer. ‘To make the most of a host of a ghost!’

Eventually the place was habitable, clean and ready for business. Bill sat back and heaved a sigh of relief. Tomorrow would be the day. He was ready to open the ‘Bucket’. So, on a Monday morning in early May, Bill opened the front door. By 1.30pm the only customer he’d had was a scruffy mongrel who padded in, sniffed the air, cocked it’s leg against one of the bar stools and performed. It barely escaped with its bark. Bill had charged round the bar, shouting abuse and chased it out but ran slap into the Chairman of the Licensing Authority.

‘Just like the old days,’ the Chairman wheezed as Bill helped him up from the pavement. Two free pints later and the Chairman left, a little happier than when he had arrived. By late afternoon there had only been two other people in the place. Neither were locals. One was a German tourist who had managed to get lost and the other was a small boy being pulled along by his mother and crying his eyes out for a packet of crisps. So apart from the two free pints to the Chairman, Bill had sold one packet of crisps, a half of lager to the tourist and that was it.

‘That must be a bloody record,’ Bill had mumbled to himself. ‘Tonight has to be better, surely,’ he thought. It was. To his great relief all the locals turned up in force, realising the place was open again. They ‘christened’ the place properly and, better still, were very well behaved. He took over four hundred pounds that first night. The months rolled on and the business flourished. The pub was back to where it had been in better, long gone days. The cider heads had found other places and the nutters had been banned and sent off, surly and grumbling to wreck some other pub, no doubt. Teams for pool and skittles returned and the pub was back on the circuit for league matches. Bill managed to get the bed and breakfast going and he was running a full time staff of five, all of them efficient and cheerful. The place was doing very well, very well indeed.

As October came to an end the tourist season slackened. The bed and breakfast side slowed right down but the pub was thriving. There were very few nights when the place wasn’t full of folk. Then Carnival night was approaching and Bill began to prepare for it. The ‘Bucket’ lies smack in the middle of the route the Carnival takes through Wells and he knew it would be a very, very busy night. Every pub in Wells was usually stuffed full of people, before, during and after the whole thing and those pubs on the route which the Carnival floats took were always packed with staff trying to push through the throng to cope with the ‘flow’.

Punters had already booked their seats for the spectacle in the first and second floor windows on the route and as evening approached it seemed so had the whole population of the South West. Thousands lined the route, hoping it wouldn’t rain. It usually did. It did.

Bill had closed the pub in the late afternoon to set up unhindered for the evening and now he and his squad braced themselves. As he opened the door at six he was almost trampled flat by a stampede of locals, all vying for their booked places

‘It doesn’t start until 7.30, you silly buggers!’ he yelled at them. ‘What about some business first. This is a bleedin’ pub, y’know!’

By 8.00pm you couldn’t have moved, there were so many folk in there. At 9.30pm Bill was knackered. He’d been up since 6.00am to make sure everything was ready. All he wanted now was a good stiff scotch. The rest of the staff were coping well so they told him to disappear and take it easy. So he did.

By 11.15pm he was as pissed as any of his customers but he was enjoying it much more. He reflected about the last few months and grinned. It had been a hell of a lot of work but now he had a proper pub. The revellers eventually drifted slowly home but the place was an absolute tip. Bill didn’t care. ‘In the morning,’ he said to the staff. ‘We’ll do it all in the morning. Now bugger off and many thanks.’

All by himself he sat under a single lamp at the bar savouring the last few drops of a mature single malt he’d been keeping for such an occasion as this. The church bell chimed midnight and Bill began to doze. He can’t remember what it was that woke him but he can remember feeling very cold, very, very cold. That’s when Willy Southover appeared, materialising right in front of Bill through the optics and the cash register! Bill looked at the semi transparent figure standing there and in his cheery, drunken state, lifted up his empty glass and just said, ‘Alavanutha wunotheese, pleese, Mista Barman!’

The ghost didn’t move for a moment. Then it blinked, almost surprised at what Bill had said, but then let out a long, painful wail, before it slid sideways down the bar and into the corridor. Bill watched it go, put his glass down, shrugged and mumbled, ‘There really are some bloody miserable folk in the world these days.’

He slid off the stool and teetered over to the corridor on his way to upstairs. The ghost was hovering at the bottom of the stairs, looking down at the floor, all sort of hunched and wet as if he’d just climbed out of a stream. Ghostly drips of water splattered onto the flagstoned floor.

‘Hey! Hey!’ Bill shouted. ‘Would you mind doin’ that somewhere else? I’ve enough t’do in th’mornin’ without clearin’ up after you, you drunken old sod!’

The ghost replied with a terrible low moaning.

‘Oh, shut that bloody row!’ Bill complained, waving his hand in front of the spectre’s face. ‘Haven’t you got a home to go to?’

Another low moan was the only answer.

‘Oh, sod this!’ Bill said in disgust. ‘I’m off!’ and he turned, a little on the wobbly side, and made for the stairs.

At the top someone had left an empty metal beer barrel. Why it was there was a minor mystery. Bill stepped round it but he stumbled and knocked it over. The damned thing bounced down the stairs, landing with a hell of a smack on the flagstones where it spun round, took a chunk out of the wall and came to a halt by the entrance to the bar. An even louder wail of grief came up from below.

Bill leaned over the banister rail and shouted down, ‘That’s enough, you miserable old bugger! Now out you bloody go!’

The figure just evaporated but where the barrel had hit the floor there was now a ragged hole. ‘Bloody hell!’ Bill muttered as he came back down. He slumped down onto his hands and knees and peered into the hole. All he could see was a vague, round shape. It looked like an old wooden barrel.

At 9.00am the following morning he stood looking at the hole with Ben, a builder by trade.

‘That flagstone will have to come out,’ Ben said, ‘but I think I know where I can get one to match the rest.’

A few minutes later he had cleared the broken pieces away and there was the barrel a few inches below. By the look of it it was quite an age. Minutes later they’d managed to haul it up and out into the yard at the back.

‘What do you think?’ Bill asked.

‘Dunno,’ said Ben. ‘Open it?’

They did, with some difficulty, and almost threw up when they looked inside.

After asking routine questions the police took the whole thing away. The locals were intrigued. What was it? What was inside it? When they had managed to lever the lid off the barrel they found, to their horror, the decaying remnants of clothing over a  doubled up skeleton. It was all over the papers and on the news for days afterwards.

The skeleton was presumed to be that of William Southover, who Bill had read about,  shot in the head probably around 1735. There was also a rotting canvass bundle with a  flintlock pistol and the deeds to the pub wrapped around it!

Solicitors are dealing with that now and the rumour is that Bill might be lucky enough to claim the ‘Bucket’ as his own. Either way he’s already done something about it. He’s renamed the place. It’s now officially known as ‘The Bucket and Barrel.’ As for the ghost… well… he’s gone. It’s a shame really. Bill was looking forward to having another chat with him next year.

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