Who was that masked man?

note: This article was written for the Daily Telegraph by Adam Lusher on the 11th May 2003 but has since disappeared from the Telegraph website, but luckily a copy has been sitting on my hard disk.

Loud music in the pubs, the drunks stealing one's hanging baskets, the dreadful parking problems and, oh, the graffiti! Yes, on the mean streets of Royal Tunbridge Wells, the residents were crying out for a superhero.

On Easter Monday, their prayers were answered. The superhero appeared, in full costume: cape, mask, boots, mysterious symbol on rippling chest, tight belt.

They say that Ellen Neville was the first to spot him. There was trouble in the Pantiles area of town. The Pantiles? Think Batman, think the dark streets of Gotham City; then think, er, elegant 17th-century colonnades patronised by royalty, the healing waters of the famous Chalybeate Spring, and spa-town shops selling organic coffee and herbal teas.

A Tunbridge Wells matron was "having bother" with a group of youths. Who could save her? Onto the well-lit shopping area, the rescuer "came from nowhere". "To my great surprise," recalls Miss Neville, "a masked man wearing a brown cape rushed to assist. He swept in, broke up the commotion and ran off leaving myself and the woman in a state of shock."

The 21-year-old psychotherapy student did what any right-thinking resident of Tunbridge Wells, disgusted or otherwise, would do. She wrote a letter to a newspaper, to the Kent and Sussex Courier, and told her despairing fellow citizens, in bold type: "There is hope for us after all.

"I wonder what the big 'O' on his chest means," she added. "Is it possible we have a local hero?"

It seems they had. The reports came in from all over town last week.

"A very kind gentleman wearing a brown cape and mask tapped me on the shoulder and told me I had dropped my purse," wrote Ruth Barker.

Gladis Webb had a similar experience. "Your masked man helped me up the stairs with some very heavy shopping bags late last Wednesday," she wrote. "What a gentleman he was, and I do like his cape."

Mr B. Williams reported that he, too, was helped by the masked man. At nearly 80, with an arthritic left hand, he was struggling to change a flat tyre. "The masked man appeared, saw I was in trouble and changed the tyre for me. I just couldn't believe what had happened."

Peter Norfolk claimed that he was saved from "a good beating" at the hands of a pack of youths who were chasing him. "He shocked them so much they fled, and then he ran off into the park," he wrote. "Thank you, whoever you are."

From Kent, England, to Katoomba, Australia, the Tunbridge Wells avenger was being feted as the "Pantiles Pimpernel", the "Masked Marvel" and, only slightly less glamorously, "Spa Man".

All last week, though, the question remained: Who Is This Mystery Superhero? The Telegraph set forth to find out. Was it a bird, was it a plane? Was it a publicity stunt, a prank? Or was it, as one "witness" suggested, "just a really helpful bloke who happens to dress like a loony"?

The initial soundings were not altogether discouraging. "Caped crusader?" said Dan Marsh, 30, a university researcher, when we arrived. "Well, it is that sort of town. There are quite a few eccentrics. There's one bloke who wanders round in a bra singing, and another who goes about in full German uniform shouting 'I'm a naughty boy'. But I can't say I've seen this caped crusader."

It was time to visit the Kent and Sussex Courier, the focal point for all the sightings, or reported sightings. Hot on the trail was Mary Harris, 33, the Courier's glamorous chief reporter, a very good candidate, perhaps, for Tunbridge Wells's own Lois Lane.

"Yes, it's still Miss Mary Harris," she admits. "I haven't cracked that one yet."

Perhaps that's why the superhero, or someone who claims to be the superhero, was taking such an interest in Miss Harris last week. She showed us some very intriguing emails, from "O": "Mary, Let there be no mistake. I came only to do good. I speak only to you.

"I seek only to assist the good folk of Tunbridge Wells. I pray for a time when they may walk safely through the streets with no fear in their hearts. Until that day arrives, I will not rest."

So far, however, the kind of exclusive interview that Lois Lane enjoyed with Superman has yet to materialise. Miss Harris, however, lives in hope. "I would love to have a superhero in my life," she whispers.

Was that a flicker of longing in the eyes of reporter Ian Read, 21, diligently typing away in a pair of glasses that would not have looked out of place on Clark Kent?

"We work together all the time," says Miss Harris. "I would know if it was him." Mr Read said nothing.

We returned to the "mean" streets of Tunbridge Wells, where, it has to be said, witnesses were proving elusive. More than one address given to the Courier proved to be a business. At other times we asked for the letter writer and got the response: "Never heard of him."

We did, however, talk to Chris Shaw, 33, a graphic designer. "I must tell someone," he said. "I think I have had an incident with the so-called superhero. I was trying to change the wheel on my Metro for half an hour, and I must admit I was shouting a bit. The next thing I knew, he was standing there.

"He looked a complete nutter, but he had this black sports bag with him, and he pulled out a jack and changed the wheel in 10 minutes. Then he left. He didn't say anything, not a word. It was the weirdest thing I've seen in my life."

Mr Shaw said he would like his work contacts to know that he is, as far as he is aware, of sound mind, and he doesn't drink at lunchtime. "You're looking for a tall guy," he said, "with a brown cape, brown mask, brown boots and a big orange suit with a brown 'O' symbol on the front."

He was harder to spot than you would think. Perhaps the mayor would know. In comic books, doesn't the mayor usually have a direct line, a la the Bat Phone or the Bat Symbol, to the superhero?

Plans for a large "O" to be beamed from the roof of Tunbridge Wells Town Hall in times of crisis were, sadly, less than advanced. "Some character parading around as Batman?" says Stanley Ward, 71, the mayor. "I have no idea what you are talking about. If this chap is community minded, then I would support him wholeheartedly, but not if he is setting out to be a nuisance," Mr Ward, a Conservative, adds.

"No, I can assure you it is not a councillor who lost his seat in this month's elections carrying on with public work. The only outgoing councillor was from our party - a middle-aged man. It would be entirely out of character. In any case, we still attach some dignity and equilibrium to a councillor's post in Tunbridge Wells."

It seemed tactful to return to the Pantiles. Here, at last the trail seemed still to be warm. Jill Driver, in the Hacienda shop, admits that "there has been mention of someone. . .", and then goes very quiet. We are sent to see Nigel Reddick, the manager of the Corn Exchange shopping arcade. "I have a shrewd idea," he says. "Let me make a phone call."

About an hour later we are sitting in a converted stable block, in a secluded, cobbled alleyway on a hill overlooking Tunbridge Wells. Opposite, is a well-groomed 35-year-old, in an expensive shirt and tie. Darren Hasell, formerly of Lloyds of London, is athletic, and 6ft 2in.

He says that he has studied karate, was briefly in the Parachute Regiment and is a qualified trampoline coach. He also says that he was a special constable and shows us a newspaper cutting from 2000: "A have-a-go hero clung to a thief's car and was dragged 25ft when he stopped the crook stealing a neighbour's 6ft bay tree," says the report.

"Well," Mr Hasell admits with a shrug, "I've done that kind of thing before, and since."

Hidden in the stable block's garage is an Italjet Dragster - "the Ferrari of mopeds," he says - very chic, slightly Tunbridge Wells, and very useful for making speedy superhero appearances (and disappearances) around town.

So where was Mr Hasell on Easter Monday, when all this started? His answers are vague about his movements in general.

Well, yes, he admits, so there may be a few parallels between himself and Bruce Wayne, the wealthy inhabitant of Wayne Manor on the outskirts of Gotham City by day - and Batman by night.

Yes, he says, he does know all the short cuts in Tunbridge Wells. He is, you see, about to start offering free walking tours of the town, and yes, strangely enough, they do start from the Pantiles. Yes, like "O", he does believe that it is time to clean up the streets of Tunbridge Wells.

"I believe in community," he says. "I am not one to stand by and let all these things happen. I would like to see an ideal Tunbridge Wells, where, on Friday and Saturday nights, families and children can walk along the streets and not feel worried."

Spoken like a true superhero. Mr Hasell smiles. "The funny thing is, you are not the first to think it's me."

He tries to deny that he has any superhero credentials but, then, any real superhero would, wouldn't he?

Mr Hasell seemed a perfect fit, of course, but when the door closed and darkness falls on Tunbridge Wells, the doubts start to crowd in again. We wait but, that night at least, no masked figure emerges on an Italjet Dragster to combat the forces of darkness.

Perhaps, Mr Hasell has made himself seem too perfect a fit. Perhaps the search isn't over. Perhaps there will be other appearances. Hadn't "O" said in one of his emails, "There is so much still to do"?

In Tunbridge Wells, the truth, and a man in a brown cape and mask, is out there. Somewhere.