Nobody batted an eyelid when the bartender at Britain’s smallest pub walked down its cramped stairs carrying a mummified human leg. Admittedly, the existence of the limb had already come up in conversation, so its appearance wasn’t a surprise, but even so, you’d expect a little more excitement.
But no, the leg is an old friend, albeit one banished to a drawer upstairs in this tiny place, and the customers and staff were keen for me to make its acquaintance. How it came to be in the possession of The Nutshell is a mystery, but once upon a time, it was proudly pinned to the wall in the company of other long-dead creatures. But British law states human remains must be 100 years old before they can be legally put on display, and the pub cannot afford to shell out the cost of authentication and the licences required.
“Someone complained that we couldn’t prove it was over 100 years old. Even though we had two museum curators point out that the type of pins used and the string holding it together is definitely Victorian, that wasn’t good enough,” says longtime bartender Kevin Reilly. Alan Armer, a retired archaeologist and a long-time customer, joins the conversation: “One time, we had a couple of RAF lads who were celebrating something, and they were sitting in that corner underneath the leg. Someone had left one of the taps running in the bathroom upstairs, and the water was slowly coming through the ceiling. The water was running down the human leg and into his pint.”
The pub’s bar is just 15 feet wide and seven feet long, crammed with unusual artefacts and the possessions of former customers, now deceased. It has been an alehouse since 1873. Previously a pawnbrokers-cum ‘museum of things’, a tradition the pub’s current owners have continued. Hanging from the ceiling is the dried-out form of a pufferfish. “Yeah, someone came in one day and said, ‘do you want a pufferfish?’ We said, ‘okay,’ and it’s been hanging here ever since,” says Reilly.
Next to the pufferfish is an eel catcher with jaws that resemble its prey and a similar long body. Hanging from one end of the catcher’s jaws is a collection of plastic charity and festival bracelets. The town is close to the Fens, where eels were once caught in their thousands. A furious stuffed fox head adorned with a jaunty bandanna snarls at customers as they walk in. It is possible that the furry tail stuffed into a vintage bottle to its right also belongs to the unfortunate creature.
Above the bar is the mummified corpse of a cat twirling slowly on a string. The spring sunshine slants through the bow windows and illuminates the cat’s weathered haunches.