Following the white hare all the way down into Ampthill.
‘No spade, or pick or computer trick’, the 1984 computer game Hareraiser proclaims. This was kind of the problem: the game was interminably boring because there were no tricks – except in regards to its purported prize.
Following a hare through a series of ‘intrigues’, Hareraiser was created by John Guard and Dugald Thompson at the company Haresoft, and is described by the BBC Micro Games Archive as ‘an extremely suspect “game”, published as part of a scam “competition”.’
In theory, if you completed the game (no one did), you could claim real-life treasure or its financial equivalent of £30,000. The treasure was a bejewelled golden hare, the same golden hare discovered two years earlier by a strange, be-piped man called Ken Thomas. The hare Thomas found was the prize for an armchair treasure hunt of a 1979 book called Masquerade. How it got into the hands of Dugald Thompson is a matter of spades, picks and tricks.
When Tom Maschler, the legendary publisher at Jonathan Cape, initially approached the artist Kit Williams to make what would become Masquerade, he declined. But Maschler’s parting words, that he believed Williams could do something no one had done before, changed his mind. Williams decided on a treasure hunt.
Masquerade followed the adventures of a hare on its quest to reunite the lovers of the sun and moon, and on each page were clues as to where buried treasure lay. As well as writing and illustrating the book, Williams made the treasure himself, an 18-carat gold hare with bells, moonstones and rubies; a thing of dreams.
Jonathan Cape appointed the University Challenge host Bamber Gascoigne as a trustworthy witness for the burial of the golden hare, and a month before Masquerade’s publication, Williams and Gascoigne buried the treasure at a secret location. On publication, the book – and the allure of buried treasure – becamea cultural phenomenon that captured imaginations worldwide. But, after about a year, despite hundreds of thousands of sales, no one had solved Williams’ riddle.
On the 21st December 1980 the Sunday Times published a new illustrated clue by Williams as to where the treasure was buried. It was accompanied by a piece recounting the lengths people had gone to find the golden hare. One teenager failed his A-Levels after trying, and failing, to solve the riddle. A ‘perfectly sane, normally law-abiding’ woman from Somerset was so convinced she had found the treasure’s unlikely locale that she broke into Taunton fire station and was promptly arrested. A treasure-seeker from Switzerland climbed down a Cornish cliff and had to be rescued when the tide came in. An American woman flew her friend to the UK to find the treasure in the crow’s nest of the Cutty Sark – the Cutty Sark doesn’t have a crow’s nest. Priests began writing distressed pleas to Williams that the hunt for buried treasure was taking precedence over Sunday worship.
Masquerade having been such a sensation, I decide to follow the treasure hunt back to its beginning. Ampthill, in Bedfordshire, is an affluent dormitory town where Williams lived with his then girlfriend, an animal rights activist called Veronica Roberts. It was here that he devised Masquerade.
On arrival, I head to my hotel at The White Hart pub and collapse on the bed. I flick through my old copy of Masquerade – its original owner was someone who had been trying and failing to solve the puzzle. It contained a tattered cut-out of the 1980 Sunday Times clue. As I study it, I suddenly notice that Williams’ illustration features a white hart. I go downstairs and ask the manager, ‘Do you know anything about Masquerade?’
‘Masquerade? The book with the hare, and the treasure hunt – the treasure? It was buried here.’
‘No, sorry, never heard of it.’
He asks a waitress next to him, who looks concerned and shakes her head. I am at the cross that marks the spot but no one seems to know where we are.
Ampthill at 4am is full of rabbits and the sleeping rich. In the park here, there is a cross for Catherine of Aragon, who was imprisoned on site when Henry VIII started boning Boleyn. At midday on the spring and autumn equinox the shadow made by the cross reveals the treasure’s location – something you’d only know if you solved Masquerade’s riddle, or had clandestine assistance. In March 1982, two physics teachers – Mike Barker and John Rousseau – solved the riddle and identified the treasure’s location. But a few days before the teachers sent the solution to Williams, Ken Thomas found the buried hare ‘while walking his dog’ in Ampthill Park.
Despite the shadow issue, I’m here for summer equinox because I want to honour Williams’ love of celestial bodies while adhering to my deadline. I’d expected there’d be a few die-hard Masqueraders coming at every equinox to stand wherever the cross’s shadow fell, or at least some people here to watch the solstice sunrise. Except for rabbits and the occasional rook, I’m alone. The sun hits the ground where Ken Thomas dug up the golden hare and I wonder how he expected this would end.
When he retrieved the treasure, Thomas shunned the subsequent limelight. For the sole BBC interview he eventually agreed to do with Williams, Thomas dressed in a disguise, with a flat cap obscuring half his face and a pipe in his mouth. Williams had started to suspect there was something dubious about Thomas’ story. There was. His name wasn’t Ken Thomas, it was Dugald Thompson.
Back in Ampthill everyone’s woken up and there must be someone who remembers Masquerade. I try a tailors on the high street and ask an old Italian man behind the counter. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
‘As long as you don’t ask me for money it’s fine.’
I assure him that I’m not asking him for money.
‘Anyway,’ he adds as I leave, ‘you got nice trousers.’
The man has taste. I head towards Ampthill’s clock tower and ask about Masquerade in a gallery without success, and then several people on the street with similar results. I wander hopelessly into the butchers.
‘Kit Williams used to live in one of the cottages by the church,’ says a butcher called Barry. Someone knows what I’m talking about! Barry was a teenager when Masquerade fever hit. ‘Yeah, I saw Bamber Gascoigne here, he stayed at The White Hart.’
‘I thought so. Funny that no one working at The White Hart now seems aware of this,’ I say.
‘I seem to remember they were dressed up as maintenance workers,’ Barry says, talking about when Williams and Gascoigne buried the treasure. Then he points towards the clocktower saying, ‘It’s changed a bit, but if you look you can see that’s the clocktower in the book.’ I’m used to seeing it behind a hare-shaped jelly in the book, but he’s right, there it is.
I follow Barry’s breadcrumbs to the church, assuming there will be a plaque where Williams lived. There’s not. And as I wander around the church looking for nothing in particular, two extremely elderly ladies invite me to a coffee morning. I accept the offer and walk into the backroom.
There, a group of women in varying states of decrepitude drinking tea and eating biscuits await me. I ask for a coffee and wonder what the fuck I am doing here, and how the fuck I get out. A very loud, very brusque woman reads my mind and asks what I’m doing here; most just stare at me. The brusque woman informs me that, while creating Masquerade, Williams lived in the almshouses by the church with Veronica Roberts, who would later become John Guard’s girlfriend. It was Guard who would go on to use the golden hare to secure a bank loan for Haresoft. Although Williams never told Roberts the treasure’s location, she’d watched him making notes while they were on a picnic in Ampthill Park. Rumour has it that she was persuaded by Guard to reveal where the buried treasure might be with the promise that proceeds from its sale would go to the animal charity PETA. As Harsesoft went bankrupt and the treasure was auctioned off, this seems unlikely.
I’m wondering why I like that Ampthill makes so little of Masquerade, almost keeps it a secret, when two short, middle-aged men arrive. They’re twins and both are wearing Hawaiian shirts. While they’re talking to me about the weather, the brusque woman leans into my ear and shout-whispers, ‘THEY HAVE MENTAL PROBLEMS.’
I finish my coffee, make my excuses and leave, citing the rail strike and my need to get from Ampthill back to Devon, which excites audible gasps and even some protestation. In the car to the train station my taxi driver asks what I’m doing here.
‘Have you ever heard of the book Masquerade, with the hare and the treasure hunt here?’
‘No, what’s that?’
I tell him about it, how Williams, heartbroken by the fate of the hare, tried to buy it back at Haresoft’s auction, but was outbid. The hare was out of the public eye until 2009, when the buyer’s granddaughter organised for Williams to be reunited with his magical creation, before it was spirited away again.
My driver’s quiet for a minute. ‘That’s such a shame,’ he says. ‘It should be in a museum so people can see it.’
‘I know. Maybe one day it will be.’
The hare in Masquerade chases the sun, always striving to be in the light.