Anyone visiting the small and relatively obscure settlement of Little Mungford is in for a treat. The village boasts many attractions and wonders, including a theme park, museum, waxworks, medieval castle, the Eifel Tower, a valley of pyramids with two sphinxes and the Taj Mahal. Or at least is does according to the village's official website. Intrigued, we found the contact details for Little Mungford's chief tourism officer, Ian Balls, and decided to pay him a visit.
Mr Balls lives in a bungalow at the edge of the village and, if the signs displayed at his property and on the various vehicles parked outside are accurate, his main business is skip hire. He is a man in his fifties, impressively well-balanced for a gentleman of his excessive size. The top of his head is an arid plain on which little has grown for the past twenty years, but he compensates for this with a grey ponytail and a long goatee, this latter feature dripping with gravy as he opens his front door to us. He is part way through devouring a sausage speared on a fork clutched tightly in his pudgy hand, but he is no less welcoming for having his dinner interrupted. In fact, he generously offers us a nibble, which we politely decline.
"There's big money in skips," he tells us as he urges us to take a seat and hands us a beer. He resumes his dinner, but is talented enough to continue speaking whilst simultaneously pushing chips into his face. "Although, a lot of people in the village didn't really approve," he dribbles. "They thought my line of business lowered the tone. They also didn't really like me very much - I wasn't their type, you see. A self-made man, me, not one of those snooty Oxbridge commuter-belt types. So, anyway, I had quite a bit of money to invest so I started buying up property and moving them all out. That's when I hit upon my idea."
Mr Balls' big scheme was to turn Little Mungford into a major tourist attraction. The village, we gather, already had a number of natural features and structures of historical interest to recommend it. Mr Balls invested in a programme of restoration and improvement. He also sought to expand the appeal of the village by purchasing new attractions from around the world, including, as we mentioned earlier, the Taj Mahal. This puzzles us since, as far as we are aware, the Taj Mahal is still in India.
"Well it wasn't easy," Mr Balls acknowledges as he ploughs through a steak and kidney pie like a ripsaw slicing through a tree trunk. "But I know a bloke. If you've got the right contacts and you're prepared to bung 'em a few quid, you can get pretty much anything you want. The one in India is just a copy made out of plasterboard and chicken wire. We've got the real thing here."
He wipes his grease-stained fingers on the tablecloth, reaches into his back pocket and hands us a small damp square of paper. We unfold it gingerly and find it is an illustrated brochure and map of the village, showing the many and varied attractions on offer.
"You can have that. For free," he says with a wink.
"Thanks," we reply with a reasonably convincing show of gratitude. "It says here," we say, after studying it for a moment, "that we can visit the Grand Canyon on the edge of the village."
"A Grand Canyon, not the Grand Canyon," Mr Balls corrects us. He rises and goes to the kitchen, returning moments later with a loaf of bread and a large tub of what appears to be lard. "I did express an interest in the original but moving a canyon presents certain logistical problems. Luckily, Little Mungford already had a canyon of its own."
We express surprise at this. Mr Balls acknowledges our reaction as he tears off a chunk of bread, dips it into the lard and explains.
"Well, I say 'canyon' but then one man's canyon is very much another man's trench. Anyhow, after a couple of day's work with a JCB, I reckon we've got a chasm that can rival anything you're likely to see in Arizona."
There is a sharp rap at the front door and Mr Balls springs to his feet. There is a gleam in his eye that looks very much like lust and the way that his tongue is hanging out is disturbing. "That must be the curry that I ordered," he drools. "Listen, it looks like I may be busy for some time. Why don't you take that map and go and look around the place for yourselves. I guarantee you won't be disappointed."
This seeming like an excellent idea, we leave Mr Balls to deal with his curry - and the four other takeaway deliveries that are standing in line at his front door - and proceed to the centre of the village, where the map tells us that we will find the Eifel Tower. Presumably the one in Paris is just a crude facsimile made out of pipe cleaners and Blu Tack. We can find no trace of it, which is a puzzle since our understanding is that it is really quite big and difficult to miss.
In search of answers, we step into a nearby pub. The place is empty and the bar is unattended. We rap politely on the counter and in response to our call the barman springs forth. To our surprise, he is immediately familiar.
"Who sir? Me sir? No sir, my name is Jenkins," says the barman. "Sidney Jenkins. Although one or two people have noted that I do seem to share a slight resemblance with Mr Balls."
More than slight, we'd say: the ponytail, the goatee, the sausage roll held securely in his fist, even the fact that his girth means that he is wedged so tightly behind the bar that he is unable to turn round - it all seems to point to Mr Balls. However, we take 'Mr Jenkins' at his word and ask him where the Eifel Tower has got to.
"The Tower sir? Why, it hasn't gone anywhere, sir. There it is sir." He points out of the window. We tell him we can see no sign of it, but he insists and suddenly it dawns on us that he is indicating an electricity pylon. Clearly he's very proud of the structure and we don't want to upset him, so we humour him, 'ooh-ing' and 'ahh-ing' appreciatively.
Aware that time is pressing, we study the map and decide our next visit will be to Great Mungford Falls, which - according to the description we have been given - 'cascade majestically into the sparkling azure pool of Mungford Water'. We check our directions with the barman and, this being nearly lunchtime, our thoughts turn to whether we can get some food to take with us. Sandwiches, perhaps?
"Oh yes, sir. Of course, sir," says the barman. "We do sandwiches, sir. What kind of sandwiches did you have in mind?"
"Ham?" we venture.
"All out of ham sir," the barman says. "But I'm sure we can find something for you?"
"Cheese, maybe?" we ask. "Tuna fish? Beef?"
"Sorry sir, all out?" says the barman. "If only you'd been here earlier."
"How about pork, or even... "
"Actually, I've just remembered, we're all out of sandwiches," the barman says. "All gone. Yum yum."
"A sausage roll, then? Or a pasty?"
"No pasties, sir," says the barman. "And I've just eaten the last of the sausage rolls. I've got a packet of salt and vinegar crisps."
"Well that will have to do," we tell him.
The barman opens the packet, tips the contents down his throat, scrunches up the bag and throws it over his shoulder. "Sorry sir, all gone."
We tell him not to worry. He isn't worried. He thanks us for our custom, such as it was, and we depart on our way to the Great Falls. The path takes us round the back of a row of semi-detached houses, across some scrubland littered with builders' rubble and though a scraggy copse of rotting trees. Where Mungford Water ought to be, there is a muddy pond surrounded by rusted barbed wire, on which there floats a solitary duck that fixes us with one evil eye and issues a single, contemptuous quack.
There is a fellow lying on the bank with his hat over his eyes, and from the noises he's making he's either snoring or having an asthma attack. We attract his attention and he lazily removes the hat and props himself up on his elbows, revealing himself to be either Mr Balls or somebody else who looks remarkably like him. The noise we had heard had been the sound of him gnawing on a chicken leg.
"How do, my dearies," he says, spitting out a lump of gristle.
"Sorry to disturb you, Mr... Balls?"
"Ah, now then, many folk makes that there mistake, my dearies," he responds. "People do tell as I look remarkably like that there Mr Balls. I couldn't rightly tell you whether they is right or wrong about that, but what I can say is that my name is Isaac Wurzel, so it is."
"Please beg our pardon," we entreat him. "Well, Mr Wurzel, we were - "
"Yes, I is a Wurzel, just like my pa was a Wurzel, and his pa before him, right back to Gascoigne de Wurzel, who came over with William the Conqueror - although people do say as how that was a mistake, and that he only got on the boat because he thought it was a day trip to Boulogne."
"Ah, right. Well, we came to see - "
"Of course, I be a Wurzel on my pa's side. T'other side of my family are Murgatroyds. You ever heard of the Lincolnshire, Murgatroyds? No, neither have I, I don't know why I brought them up. Now, the Murgatroyds was once very big in beetroots. There was a time, not so very long ago, my dearies, when t'other side of the hill was all beetroots right down to the river. Course, it's a shopping centre now. You can get all sorts of stuff there: televisions, carpets, picture frames, packets of fruit gums... You can probably get beetroot, as well. You wanted to ask me something, dearies?"
He suddenly falls silent and it takes us by surprise. We quickly gather our wits and ask him where we can find Mungford Water. We'd found it, he tells us. And the Great Mungford Falls? He points to a trickle of rusty brown water dribbling from a pipe, and we realise with a sigh that we should have expected something like that.
"Course, what you should really be interested in is the monster!" he informs us in a hushed voice. Monster, we ask? "Oh yes, my dearies," he continues. "It lives in the deep dark depths, rising to the surface only occasionally. They've had all sorts of scientific people here, hunting for it, but it's eluded them, so it has. They reckon as how it's some ancient prehistoric beastie."
He suddenly jumps up and points excitedly. "Look! Look! There it is! You're in luck - few people have ever seen it. See how it rises majestically from the waters, the spray cascading from it scaly back, before it crashes back into the foam, and dives down, down, down into the obsidian blackness of its underwater lair."
He is pointing at the duck. We leave him to it. Consulting the map once more we set off to find the Taj Mahal. Mr Balls had assured us that it was the real thing. We didn't believe this for a moment, but we hoped at least that he'd made an effort. We discover that the building is surrounded by a high fence and that we have to pay a small charge for entry. Fumbling in our pockets for change, we approach the ticket booth and find it occupied by a large middle-aged woman with platinum blond hair, long gaudily-coloured earrings and plastered in so much makeup that it appears to form some sort of protective shell. 'She' also has a long goatee beard, is struggling gamely to chomp her way through a giant Toblerone and is clearly Mr Balls in drag.
"I'm not Mr Balls," is the first thing she says to us.
"We never said you were," we reply wearily.
"My name is Patty Grinder, and I'll have you know I'm a respectable woman, so none of your coarse language and nonsense."
We have no idea what nonsense she is referring to and we haven't used any coarse language - although by now our patience is wearing thin and there is every chance that we might let rip at any second. We hold our tongues long enough to purchase our tickets, and are told that they also allow us entry to see the Giant Monkey. We start to ask about the Giant Monkey, realise that there is probably no percentage in it, and silently pass through the turnstile.
The Taj Mahal turns out to be a shed. An actual shed. They haven't even bothered painting it. We turn around, walk straight out and keep going until we reach our car. It's time to call it a day, but Little Mungford does have a final treat for us. On the way out of the village we pass a sign for the Giant Monkey, and since we have the tickets we decide to stop off and have a look. And we're glad that we have, since the Giant Monkey is a twenty-foot high animatronic gorilla that dances whilst performing a surprisingly emotional version of Elvis Presley's 'All Shook Up'. It is easily the most impressive thing we've seen all day and for this reason and this reason only we heartily recommend that you consider paying Little Mungford a visit.
Taken from The University of the Bleeding Obvious Annual 2021
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