Clara's Secret - Bristol Mysteries
writer Robert Wallace talks about his latest mystery stories - but are they fact or fiction?
At the start of World War II, in 1939, London was a dangerous place, within striking distance of Nazi Germany and the Luftwaffe.
But until the fall of France the bombers could not reach as far west as Bristol, which is why the BBC was moved here.
It was for this reason that many national treasures, such as old masters, came west too, to be hidden deep underground in the old stone quarries near the Box tunnel in Wiltshire.
Could some of them have been brought to Bristol and the Avon Gorge?
It was during the summer of 1973 that 18-year-old Bristolian Robert Wallace first heard about the crown jewels and their West Country connection.
“I decided to go for a walk with my girlfriend across to the camera obscura (the observatory) by the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and it was there that I heard a student guide telling people that the crown jewels had been kept there for safety throughout the war.
“I had no reason to disbelieve the story – although I did ask my history teacher about it – and I’m sure that many other people must have heard it, too.
“It was never verified, of course, and many years later I decided to weave the story into a fiction.
“During the course of my research I rang the curator at the Tower of London to ask him what did happen to the jewels during the war.
“After taking my details he at last phoned me back to say that he was not at liberty to discuss anything about them – at all.
“It was, he said, an official secret, and I never heard any more from him.”
Robert decided to start his fictional story about the jewels, From Reel to Real, with the discovery of a reel of magnetic tape in an old desk by Frazer Nash, an antiques restorer.
This reveals a confession to a violent crime – a jewellery theft – committed during the Queen’s visit to the Bristol 600 Exhibition.
Eventually the story – which twists and turns – takes us back to the Forties and Giants Cave, a large cavern located below the observatory where the priceless jewels have been covertly hidden during wartime.
Robert’s mystery, however, has a happy ending for a happy couple – a “lost” jewel, the Indian Star, is returned to the Queen with the inevitable financial reward.
The tale – with its believable flashbacks to the past and recognisable locations – is so plausible, though, that it’s impossible to distinguish where fact meets fiction.
Robert says that it is his favourite story – and it’s easy to see why.
Another of the writer’s tales, Clara’s Secret, is a chilling ghost story again based on fact.
“In 1976,” says Robert, “I was living in a large flat with some other people in Clifton.
“Just as in my fictional story,
A girl called Jilly was having a bath there when she felt a strange presence.
“Friends had said the place felt haunted – and in fact I had one girlfriend who refused point blank to stay there.
“I asked one of our landladies if anything dramatic had ever happened in the flat and she said no, it hadn’t.
“But the other said that although the place wasn’t haunted, the bath itself was.
“It appeared that a woman from a well- known Bristol family – who shall remain nameless – had committed suicide in it.
“I thought there and then that it would make a great ghost story and decided to send it off to the Bristol Evening Post.
“The features editor liked it and the tale duly appeared in a Christmas edition in 2003.”
Robert’s fictionalised story begins in a large house in Windsor Terrace with a group of students relaxing around a log fire, drinking tea and eating toasted crumpets.
The tranquility soon disappears after a hair- raising scream issues from the bathroom.
A female friend has been spooked.
The tale then revolves around a mysterious woman called Clara and her efforts to communicate a message – and her secret – to the storyteller.
As in the Reel to Real story we are transported back in time to find Clara working at the Scholastic Trading Company in the High Street in the Thirties.
The story finishes as her “secret” is revealed. But if you want to know what that was, then you will have to read Robert’s book.
A third story, In the Blink of an Eye, centres on the Stoke Bishop area and St Mary Magdalene church, a place that the author knows well from his youth.
The Mythe, Braidlea, Woodside, Hazlewood and Heatherdale, however, are all places long gone, to be replaced by new roads and houses.
As in his fictionalised tale, Robert took a picture at a wedding which, when developed, turnedout to have a character from the past in it.
In reality this was someone dressed for the part, but in a mystery story, the author mused, it could be some kind of time warp.
The believable story tells of Bristol schoolboy Daniel Wood, who is surprised when he captures on film two seemingly unconnected events which have occurred exactly 100 years apart.
The first is at his cousin Emma’s wedding and the second at the meeting of two Edwardian gentlemen.
They took place in the same place, St Mary Magdalene church, and at the same time, noon, but how did it happen?
Robert’s final yarn, The Bristol Blue Vase, set in the Fifties, is based on a true story told by his father.
It opens in a Baldwin Street office where character Jerry has gone for a job interview.
His future boss, Jack H Salanson, then asks a favour of him.
“There’s an antiques shop in Regent Street in Clifton Village called Houghtons,” he says.
“In the window you will see a blue vase. I want you to go there and buy it for me.”
Jerry is puzzled.
“My wife has her heart set on it,” Jack explains, “and what Camilla wants, she may have.”
Salanson hands him £500 and Jerry sets out on what should be a simple mission.
But when he gets to Houghtons, the blue vase isn’t there. It has already been sold. So what does he do?
This is a story all about trust, but like all of Robert’s mysteries, there are many twists and turns along the way.
Robert’s stories are good yarns in themselves – but how much is reality and how much fiction, you will have to decide for yourself.
Adrian Ford’s spooky photos complement the stories perfectly.
Clara’s Secret and Other Bristol Mysteries by Robert Wallace and Adrian Ford is published by Tangent Books. It costs £12.
MYSTERY writer Robert Wallace lives at Frinton-on-Sea, on the East Anglian coast, so why locate all his stories in Bristol.?
“I was born in Clifton in 1955 and grew up in the city, but had to move away in 1986 for work reasons.
“But I’ve still got a lot of old friends there and seem to be coming back every few months or so.
“I try and keep in touch with events – with what is going on in the city.
“I took up writing fiction about five years ago but these are the only stories I’ve had published so far.”
Sometimes, however, fact can be stranger than fiction.
In 1979, Robert, decided to buy a flat in Clifton – 122 Pembroke Road.
On the day that contracts were exchanged, he drove his mother, Peggy, past the house to show her where he was going to live.
“That’s the one,” he said, “the ground-floor flat.”
“Your father used to live there,” his mother said, “when he first came to Bristol back in 1951.”
Surely, he thought, that can’t be right, she must be mistaken.
After his mother’s death, Robert was sorting through some documents when he stumbled across his parents’ marriage certificate.
The date was March 1953, and his father’s address – 122 Pembroke Road.
His mother had not been mistaken after all. It was the same house.
Was it just a coincidence? The odds against his father living in the same place nearly 30 years previously were nigh impossible.