Searching for the leatherbound man who terrorised a Somerset village for years.
The north Somerset village of Yatton is nine miles south of Bristol. There’s a butcher (Arthur Edwards & Sons), a baker (Mr T.G Pullins) and, yes, a candlestick maker (The New Candle Co.) – and a pub at the centre called The Butcher’s Arms to really drive the idea home. Every village, of course, is used to its fair share of folk getting leathered, staggering home drunk in the dark; but Yatton has a literally leathered local, one who has been caught writhing in the mud, slithering through the forests and slinking through the woods: a man who is known as the ‘Somerset Gimp’.
It all began a few years ago, when a mysterious figure wearing a latex costume started to appear around Yatton, Claverham and Cleeve, racking up a slew of separate sightings: 16 officially, a lot more unreported. Every incident was a similar story; at night, the individual would ambush people in parks and woodland paths, grunting, grabbing himself and crawling on all fours while slathered in a lather of lubrication dressed in a leather outfit. The man was disguised by a mask detailed with red crosses for eyes and a menacing, grimacing grin.
The gimp first hit the headlines in 2019, making the front page of the Daily Star when local MMA enthusiast Cameron Graham claimed he had battered a creepy man in a gimp suit after heading home from the pub in Claverham, booting him in the face and stomach after he gave him a scare: ‘I GAVE THE SOMERSET GIMP A SPANKING’ ran the giddy headline. ‘This time, the rubber perv didn’t like it’, the sub chimed in.
Following suit, I headed to Yatton in late February. Sitting in the delightfully cosy Butchers Arms for a couple of pints after meandering around the village, I warmed up by the fire as spring uncoiled outside. A Top 10 countdown of The Eurythmics played on MTV 80s on the flatscreen, the pseudo-sadomasochistic lyrics of Sweet Dreams crunching out the built-in speakers: ‘Some of them want to use you / Some of them want to get used by you… Everybody’s looking for something.’
To the more macabre-minded of us there’s something darkly humorous, about a random villager dressing up in bondage gear and crawling around in the mud. ‘It was a bit scary but mostly funny… it’s one of those things where it’s so weird you have to laugh about it,’ Michaela Butler said at the time, one of the only villagers willing to speak to me.
Truth is, these sick jokes aren’t funny when you’re the punchline; lurid local legends are far less legendary and a lot more lucid when you’re a local. A week after Graham’s encounter, Yatton barber Abi Conroy was traumatised when the gimp came charging at her while grunting, leaving her anxious for months after.
‘I’d want him to know how it’s affected me and that just because I’m female it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be going for a walk on my own at night, which is what some have been saying. It’s terrifying,’ she said at the time. ‘Every time I close my eyes I just see that face.’ Butler agrees, saying that it made her stop walking down the poorly lit path when it was dark in case she came face to face with the masked man. ‘I don’t know what I would’ve done,’ she says.
At this point, there was a twist in the tale. The Avon and Somerset Police revealed that a spate of similar incidents had happened years prior, involving some really naughty stuff: indecent exposure and tormenting pets. Was this the same guy? Or was it a copycat? After bringing out the dogs and helicopters, two men were arrested in July 2019, but both were subsequently released without charge.
In retrospect, it seems I stirred something up heading to Yatton. For years, the gimp’s identity was a mystery, evading police efforts. ‘There’s been jokes about who it is, I’d love to do an unmasking but I have no idea if it’s one person or not,’ Butler told me at the time. My own efforts to find the culprit had failed.
In May, though, with the ink barely dry, he returned with his grimmest attack yet, crawling towards local Lucy Anne as she drove home from Weston-Super-Mare. ‘I thought it was a badger. As I got closer I could see it wasn’t, but was in fact a man with a mask on, crawling and writhing on the ground,’ Anne posted on Facebook. ‘It was such a strange experience that I honestly thought I had hallucinated,’ she continued. ‘There haven’t been any recent reports: until now.’
She’s right: the pandemic had ushered in a period of peace, with the Somerset Gimp seemingly going AWOL for months. ‘It’s nice that he was thoughtful in COVID, he practised social distancing,’ Butler says acerbically. After a year’s hiatus, though, he struck again, being caught by a couple in September 2021 lying in their garden, watching them through the windows before he slinked into the dead of night, evading officers.
Then, in the summer of 2022, he approached teaching assistant Kiera Elston and her boyfriend Lewis Webb as they walked home at night. Elston’s dad, who posted at the time on Facebook that he’d hunt down the gimp himself, told me that she’s still too spooked out by it to talk about it. ‘He clearly knew we were there, so I just told Kiera to run and we sprinted down the alleyway and back to her house and made sure the guy wasn’t chasing us,’ Webb said at the time.
In October 2022, the Somerset Gimp was finally caught on video, when chefs Charlie Bond and Alex Warren were walking home after a few birthday pints in Cleeve. The footage is nothing short of phantasmagoric. Wriggling around in thick mud, the gimp speaks in tongues, trying to scare the shit out of them. ‘He had latex gloves and was covered in an earthy liquid like he’d been rolling in fields or dunking in septic tanks, he was impressing nobody,’ Warren said.
At first fearful but then bemused, they calmly spoke to him, offering him a cigarette and telling him to get home safe. ‘My mate is six foot nine and is a force to be reckoned with. Once he’d realised that the initial shock had turned into humour he got up and took the cigarette,’ Warren told the papers. For the first time, the gimp uttered discernable words when Warren told him to get home safe: ‘Oh, I will try!’
An arrest followed; this time a 30-year-old man on suspicion of causing a public nuisance, currently still on bail and subject to a 9pm curfew. Butler remembers the fateful night: ‘Me and my partner woke up at 2am and we heard a helicopter. It was there for ages over our house and we were joking that it was the gimp man and the next day it was on the BBC news that the Somerset Gimp had been arrested,’ she says.
A lot of Yatton’s residents seemed to be keen to forget about the Somerset Gimp; bogeymen, after all, become more frightening when spoken about, more real when realised in conversation. The Somerset Gimp, it seems, gets off on the attention, something we weird people love to give to these weirdos: Purple Aki, the Nottingham Clowns, Spitman, Sunday Sport car bonkers.
Now, he’s getting the most he’s ever got. The skin-crawling nightcrawler will be scrawled onto those swinging signs outside offies once again, and not just in the South West.
For the first time, someone was actually charged in connection with the incidents; the gimp, for all alleged purposes, has been unmasked. While nothing has been proven, Joshua Hunt, 31, of Claverham has appeared in North Somerset Magistrates’ Court on suspicion of two counts of affray and, disturbingly, a count each for possession of a bladed article and public indecency. We don’t know much about him yet, except that he lives on Brook Farm with his parents.
Perhaps, finally, it’s all over. Either way, there will be more stories from the fringes in the future: more clickbait that silly clickfish like me can’t help but nibble on and read, recite and write about from afar, safe from any actual consequences, sacrificing good taste and tact for a quick hit of the unsavoury.
Mulling over this character flaw, my mind flashes back to my trip to Yatton. I remember staggering back down the tentacular cul-de-sacs that surround the village towards the station. My eyes were drawn to a helicopter gliding overhead, and a rustling in the trees sent a genuine shiver down my spine, my vertebrae reverberating beneath my coat.
Likely, it was my mind playing tricks on me. Either way, putting a name to a face, a man to a mask, actually makes it even more terrifying. The image of an outwardly unassuming country boy, smiling outside his farm, that’s been plastered over the press, is disconcerting, somehow a lot more horrific and less humorous than the man in bondage gear. Of course, it’ll be made even worse if Hunt is found to be innocent.
On my own hunt, I didn’t find the Somerset Gimp, but I did find something else throughout all of this: strange creepy characters are a lot less funny when they might be a matter of metres away, late at night, waiting in latex.