The Tickenham Monkey Bridge rhyne disaster(s)


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There are actually two disasters here. The original one in 1906 which I decided to make a video about, and my terrible attempt to make a video about it.

On a previous walk a few years ago I'd passed through the small village of Tickenham and stumbled on this intriguing plaque, telling the story of how a wagonload of circus animals once fell in the rhyne here.

To be honest, there really isn't any more material behind this story with which to build a substantial video, but having seen an opportunity to make a video entitled 'the Tickenham Monkey Bridge rhyne disaster' I wasn't going to let a little thing like a lack of actual content stand in my way.

If you're not from this neck of the woods you might be wondering what a rhyne is. This is a rhyne. It's basically a drainage ditch, through which a landscape that would naturally be marshy wetlands can be engineered into some sort of slightly productive farmland, usually for grazing.

When I saw them on maps, I always thought it was pronounced ‘rine', but researching the video I discovered it should apparently be ‘reen', which disappointed me, because now I can't show you this photo I took a few years ago of 'fog on the rine'.

Anyway, the thing I discovered when filming this video is that if you're stupid enough to go walking across rhyne-drained former wetland after a spell of fairly rainy weather, you'll find it's not so much former wetland, as... wetland, as you can see here. I planned to walk to the Monkey Bridge, not wade.

Also, the National Grid had helpfully blocked off the footpath I was trying to follow to install the new Hinkley Connection, a project which I would normally find very interesting but in these exact circumstances just found very annoying. And the strong wind yowling across the levels wobbled my tripod, rendering all my footage so shaky I would ordinarily throw it in the bin and just come back another day. But I was in no mood to come back another day so let's just get on and film this stupid plaque and get home and– oh. There's no plaque. There's no plaque!? Are you serious?

For whatever reason, the plaque and the whole chunk of wall it used to be mounted on have both vanished since I was last here. It's not like that plaque was even going to be cinematic dynamite if we're honest, but as footage goes it was all I had.

Somebody has helpfully pinned up a photocopy of a print-out of a photo of the plaque, but that doesn't really come across on camera at all.

Oh, also, this whole story is about a Monkey Bridge, but there isn't really any bridge to film, because the rhyne it used to cross doesn't exist anymore.

So, what can I tell you about this story that the plaque doesn't convey, without any decent footage to illustrate? Almost nothing.

On the 13th of March 1906, Bostock and Wombwell's travelling menagerie were trying to cross this bridge on their way to Clevedon. In the 19th century and early 20th, travelling menageries of exotic animals were a big deal, with huge public interest, and Bostock and Wombwell's was arguably the biggest deal amongst them. But within a few decades they were largely superseded by static zoos, in their role as supposedly ‘scientific' or ‘educational' institutions, and by circuses in terms of their itinerant show business role.

On this night in 1906, conditions were icy, and the wagon full of monkeys ended up in the rhyne. The elephants were enlisted to drag the wagon out but even they were unable; eventually a local traction engine managed to haul the wagon free, and the menagerie went on its way. The plaque assures us that all the animals were unscathed, which initially felt like permission to chuckle at this absolutely surreal visual of elephants and monkeys floundering around in a ditch near Nailsea.

Of course, it wouldn't have been very funny for the monkeys, and unfortunately, it didn't take a great deal of research, or even reflection, to realise that nothing about the travelling menagerie life was very funny for the animals. Even assuming the absence of deliberate abuse or cruelty, life in a cramped cage in a constantly-travelling wagon in completely the wrong climate, would have been miserable. And it's frankly a bit difficult to assume the absence of deliberate abuse or cruelty, considering George Wombwell staged fights to the death between dogs and his lions, for example.

Things weren't always so great for the humans involved either. In 1850, Wombwell's niece, Ellen Blight, was killed by a tiger aged just 17 whilst working for the menagerie as a big cat trainer. It was also not unusual for these exhibitions of quote-unquote 'animals' that had been captured in 'exotic' locales to include... people, which is another whole world of wrong, although I should note I didn't see any reference to Bostock and Wombwell, in particular, doing this.

So, what was supposed to be a nice light-hearted little video ended up being thoroughly depressing, which is a terrible note on which to end the video, but I ran out of decent footage about four minutes ago. So, thanks for watching, please like and subscribe and all of that stuff, or check out some of my other, less disastrous videos about weird or wonderful West Country stuff. Cheers.