On the mythical map of the world are many legendary places shrouded in folklore and fable – Camelot, Atlantis, El Dorado ... And then, of course, there is Grunty Fen.
Not the real one, which does exist just south of Ely, but the fantasy version once home to an equally-legendary character. Dennis of Grunty Fen was the alter ego of celebrated country music star Pete Sayers.
For almost two decades this unlikely hero dispensed his gruesomely-fascinating homespun wisdom on a weekly radio show. Many fans, even those who saw him live, never guessed the true identity of the man behind the tombstone teeth and grubby mac.
Some went as far as searching the actual Grunty Fen for the converted railway carrriage which was home to Dennis and his aged grandmother. When Pete died it looked like the end for the bonkers yet almost-believable world where Dennis sold “orgasmic” (i.e unwashed) eggs from his roadside stall. But Grunty Fen has lived on thanks to journalist and broadcaster Christopher South.
Chris, interviewer Mr South of the radio shows and recordings, took up Pete’s legacy and ran with it.
He has written a series of books delving deep into the landscape, traditions, and people of Dennis’s home turf – or swamp, if you unwittingly stumble into a gulping puddle. He has explored phenomena like the infamous “fen-suck”, and mysteries such as the place of the bucket in Grunty Fen culture.
Characters like Shadwell Human, inventor of the universal folding shovel with attachments for everything from icing a cake to neutering a cat, have been given their rightful place in history. Chris’s insights into village organisations have revealed the WI’s favourite activites are ferreting, self-tattooing, stain removal, and lace making.
He has enabled students of architecture to understand the key role of corrugated iron and railway sleepers in the unique design of Grunty Fen’s buildings. Botanists have an unrivalled guide to the local flora including Bastard Lashweed, Evil Graspwort, and Pauper’s Death Rattle. There are also hushed whispers about gangs of feral nuns said to roam the Fen picking off unwary menfolk ... but probably best not to go there.
His first book, The Authorised Guide to Grunty Fen, was published in 2014. Another, Who’s Who in Grunty Fen, followed a year later. Now he is offering another rare insight, this time into the customs and folklore of the area. Chris promises the third book is “just as daft as the others”.
His first encounter with Dennis happened almost 30 years ago while he was doing an outside broadcast for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire in Newmarket. He found himself being pestered by a talkative character who was not quite what he seemed.
Beneath the rustic exterior lurked Pete – a musician and singer who had grown up in the town, become one of few UK artists to succeed on the US country music scene, and founded Newmarket’s popular Grand Ole Opry.
The original inspiration for Dennis was an elderly countryman who lived near Pete and his wife Liz in a village near Newmarket.
“One day, for a joke, Pete dressed up to look him,” said Chris.
“When the disguise fooled even the neighbour concerned, Liz said you have something really strong, and he started using it as part of his cabaret act.
“Later on, Pete came to me at the BBC and said: ‘I’ve invented this character called Dennis who is an ignorant, filthy fenman. Why don’t we make a radio show?’"
So was born a weekly programme about Dennis of Grunty Fen which became essential listening to an army of fans. The shows, in which a mildly-perplexed Mr South tried to make sense of Dennis’s weird world, ran for 17 years. “It was a sort of cult with cross-market appeal. Consultants at Addenbrooke’s Hospital liked it. Eight year-old boys liked it,” Chris says.
“We once gave a special performance for Professor Stephen Hawking in his lunch hour.
“His nurses thought he was spending too much time thinking about the cosmos and needed a distraction.
“Pete as Dennis lectured him on science and what he called the speed of stink.”
Dennis even provided some light relief for US troops during the Gulf War.
“A member of the US Air Force based at Lakenheath had listened to him on the radio,” said Chris.
“When he was sent to Iraq at very short notice for Operation Desert Storm he was only allowed one kitbag, and packed his collection of Dennis tapes.
“He sat in a tent in the desert during the war playing them in concert for the others.”
Then, in 2005, Pete Sayers died from cancer aged only 62.
“I thought, that’s the end of it,” says Chris. “People wanted Grunty Fen to go on, but I didn’t see how I could do it without Pete.
“But every programme we ever made was on tape, so we made them available on CDs.”
Ten years after Pete’s death Chris, whose career in print and radio journalism spans 63 years, published his first Grunty Fen book. He says the crucial thing is to treat the subject with total seriousness.
“If you play it for laughs it wouldn’t work. It has to be deadpan.” he says.
He adds the trouble with writing fantasy is that the truth snaps at your heels. “I said ditches and streams change directions. A waterways expert told me that does happen. Then there was the bucket cult. I said Grunty Fen women carried buckets instead of handbags, including very fancy ladies’ evening buckets.
“An archeological dig found an Anglo Saxon lady buried with jewellery and ... an elaborate metal bucket.”
Chris now presents a Sunday morning show on Radio Cambridgeshire including a segment on gardening which is one of his greatest interests.
He has been married to his wife Janet – former deputy chief executive of Help the Aged – for 53 years. The couple also run a charity that helps poor people in Sri Lanka.
Grunty Fen books and recordings are available at dennisofgruntyfen.co.uk