A WALK ON THE WEIRD SIDE

by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Photography by EWL. Arial images by Busty Taylor.

Outpost Magazine #42 & National Post Travel Section

Nominated for "Best One of a Kind" Article-Canadian National Magazine Awards 2005

For the last two hours I’ve been in the company of three wanted men. We’re driving in a hurry, southwest from London. We pass a sign: “Welcome to Wiltshire.” There are some that would consider my travel companions heretics, others who might call them outlaws. Matt, Luke and Ross (not their real names), each have a price on their head and various local police, bounty hunters and farmers have ventured to ensnare them. They are not members of organized crime or occultists out to rustle a sheep for an evening’s bloodletting. They are Plankers, better known as Crop Circler Hoaxers.

Under the cover of darkness, these arable artists have been making crop circle patterns in fields, or Crop Glyphs, for over 10 years, exciting the world media with complex and impressive designs that have lead many to speculate that extra-terrestrial craft do in fact visit on summer holiday to the green fields of southern England.

Wiltshire has been a leading hub of crop circle activity and UFO sightings for the past 30 years, its rich lineage of unexplained phenomena and Neolithic sites makes it especially ripe for the hoaxers. Weirdness abounds with stories of witches, large roaming wild cats, ghosts, lights in the sky and mystical energy fields. Numerous remnants of the recent and very distant past dot the county, dating as far back as the Copper Age, including tumuli (stone burial mounds) and menhirs (large, single upright standing stones). Many of them are sacred sites related to the ceremonial stone circles at Avebury Henge, once the heart of Megalithic Britain. Stonehenge stands only 20 miles away and is directly connected to Avebury along a powerful ley line – a path of unknown energy current that runs through the earth in straight lines, inexplicably linking many sacred sites around the world. To magnify this subterranean energy, the ancient architects of Stonehenge, utilized Pembrokeshire Bluestones from the southern tip of Wales, a quartz crystal-studded granite. Just like our wristwatches and computers that function on quartz crystal, these ancient Neolithic people used a similar technology but on a different scale and for different purposes and still not understood by researchers. Some believe that Neolithic man may well have built some henges to commemorate a particular spot visited by strange phenomenon.

Then, as if to render the region even more shady and mysterious, there’s Boscombe Down, a nearby secret military facility for the development and testing of aircraft, weapons and avionics. Not surprisingly, it’s been suggested that experimental technology is the source of the strange lights and flying objects in the skies. Of course, the believers, conspiracy theorists, investigators and the merely curious are not the only ones to sup from this alchemy of the outlandish – the hoaxers do, too. Recently, a star-shaped formation appeared next to the West Kennet Long Barrow, a large Neolithic mound, which dates back to 3500 BC; when it was excavated in the 1950s it had given up the remains of between 40 and 50 skeletons. The intricate crop circle that appeared nearby was estimated to be as long as a football pitch and around 350 metres in diameter. The complex gold disc design in the centre, while geometrically outstanding and complex, held an ominous message. Once deciphered by researchers it was revealed to be as a symbol in the Mayan calendar predicting a new global era set to begin in 2012.

As the four of us drive at a leisurely pace along a vacant country road, the dim projection of a car’s headlights appears a few hundred metres behind us. Suddenly, it begins gaining on us fast, lights on full beam. “Maybe it’s someone on the way back from the pub, eager to see the soccer highlights on television,” I joke. The other three are not amused. With all of their equipment and the plans for tonight’s glyph in the car with us, the fellow’s driving is making them uneasy.

Locals, especially farmers protective of their fields, often conduct their own militant after-dark surveillance of the area, some equipped with infra-red night goggles and CB radios, all vying to be the ones who nab and expose the “hoaxers.”

“This could get messy. We’ve been followed a few times before,” says Luke. The three exchange intense, nervous glances, as though communicating without words. As we’re driving a new car, the license plate number should be unfamiliar to locals. “If this is someone out to get us,” Luke adds, “then we may have been under surveillance since leaving London.”

Ross elbows Luke to drive faster. I check my seat belt and can feel my face grimacing as our car accelerates down a winding narrow road through a wild forest of large beech and oak trees. I look back and catch the arc of the headlights behind us, cresting the curve and illuminating the dense cathedral of woodland. Luke hits the gas again into a straight and the car bounces along the uneven surface. After some truly astounding country cornering, we’ve made considerable distance on the car behind us. At 80 miles an hour our headlights briefly catch a sign reading “Please Drive Carefully Through Our Village.”

We park on a village side street amongst other cars and rows of red brick houses. Luke turns the ignition off and we wait, the car’s engine ticking with exhaustion. Once a safe 30 minutes has passed we drive slowly to tonight’s site, watching out for any parked cars at the side of the road. Agitated and behind schedule, we find the entrance to the field we’re looking for and quickly unload the gear from the back of the car, hiding bags and tools just behind the hedgerow. Luke then drives off to park up in a safe spot and walk back. We hope without any company.

We squat behind a hedge and wait, watching the horizon for lights. I have no idea where we are. Meanwhile, I study the tools of a crop circle artist. The simplicity of the kit is somewhat astounding: surveyor’s tape, tent poles, string and a luminous watch with hands to plot degrees. And, of course, a four-foot plank with rope looped through two holes at each end – a simple thing at the heart of so much intrigue.

One of the earliest documented reports of crop circles was in Lyon, France, in 815AD. A late 16th Century woodcut depicting the incident shows the devil mowing oval shaped patterns into a field; today it’s thought that the culprits were farmers performing pagan ceremonies in reverence of mother earth. Aside from sporadic reports through the early to mid-20th century, the first modern rash of crop circles appeared in Australia in the mid-60s, when strange circular imprints, nicknamed “saucer nests,” appeared in fields. Investigators were dumbfounded and blamed abnormal rotating winds or strange kangaroo behaviour.

In the late 1970s, crop circles began appearing in the Wiltshire countryside in abundance, usually close to ancient sites. Over the next decade the phenomena became a national then international sensation, attracting media and a micro-industry of the curious. Researchers and a collection of scientists claimed that the glyphs could possibly have been created by humans, citing practical and technical reasons. Specialists were even recruited to decipher the meaning of the glyphs, drawing on a variety of ancient and indigenous cultures for explanation.

So when Doug Bower and Dave Chorley came clean as the circle makers in 1991, complete with details of their nocturnal wheat-flattening shenanigans, it became clear that the pair of sixty-something Hampshire watercolour artists had perpetrated one of the great hoaxes of the 20th century. Inspired by the 1966 circle in a Queensland, Australia reed-bed, close to where Doug had lived at the time, it all began – like many special endeavours in the region – after an evening at the local pub.

Crawling on their hands and knees with a four-foot metal bar normally used to secure the back door of Doug's art studio, they made their first circle. By current standards, Doug and Dave’s early efforts were modest, elegant glyphs of pressed wheat some 30 ft in diameter.

Bower and Chorley’s story would inspire a small core of second-generation devotees. “We all got the bug,” whispers Matt as we wait before our night time expedition to begin. A former graffiti artist, he’s the youngest and cheekiest of the three and sits with me examining the computer generated plans for the large and geometrically intricate circle we’re are about to create.

“Before, no one knew if crop circles were man-made or not. When Doug and Dave came out, circles changed from a fascination for me to an artistic skill that I wanted to learn and experiment with myself. My first effort was pretty scrappy and I nearly decided to quit. But a local newspaper reported it as being a supernatural occurrence, so I carried on.”

The trio are more comfortable identifying themselves as “modern myth makers” rather than “hoaxers” – an idea they wish to distance themselves from. They see their legendary designs as huge Rorschach tests flattened into the fields of Wiltshire to be deciphered according to the belief systems of those who view them. Over the years their designs have become like vast cathedral floor plans, creating temporary sacred sites. The incredible scale, speed and complexity of their work leave many discerning enthusiasts with little choice but to believe they are beyond human endeavour.

Crop circles blend very well into both the landscape and cultural psyche of Wiltshire. Some of the circles are even designed to mimic the pre-Christian ruins said to be brimming with mystical energies. Particularly baffling though is that more than 90 percent of the circles in the UK appear along an aquifer line – a layer of rock able to hold water – which runs across the country from Dorset to Norfolk. Equally peculiar are the collection of folks who study crop circles, still curious, even after the hoaxers have come forward. It’s a veritable zoo of “new scientists,” including cerealogists, ufologists, dowsers, organ revivalists, channellors, and myriad mystics all seeking genuineness in one form or another. Collectively known as “croppies,” they can often be seen patrolling a fresh circle with electronic equipment, or the tried and tested old backup up – a pair of customised wire coat-hangers used for dousing for energy currents.

After half an hour hiding behind the hedgerow we hear footsteps along the road. It’s Luke. “Everything all right?” whispers Matt.

“No problem. All’s quiet down there,” says Luke. “Let’s get a move on.”

Rather than crushing the crop to gain entry to the field, and thus leave a footprint, we follow Luke to the end of the field where the tramlines turn and loop back and we can jump in without a trace. Usually 60 feet apart, these tram lines allow the circle makers to reliably plot the design in advance according to the number of these lines in a field.

Once we reach the middle of the field we unpack the kit. The mother circle will border these central lines. Matt grabs one end of a long surveyor’s tape and strides into the fresh wheat until Ross gives a sharp tug on the tape telling him to stop. Thirty feet. From his rucksack Ross produces an aluminum rod and presses it into the soil. Attaching the tape and holding the peg taught, Matt then makes the first arc of the circle, side-stepping to form an outline around us. Where Ross stands will be the centre of the first circle and the place where gear is stored. It is also where we’ll meet at the first sign of trouble.

Matt and Luke each take a “stalk stomper,” or plank, grabbing the ropes like reins. With one foot in the middle of the board, the crop is flattened with every step as they follow the outline. Meanwhile Ross is studying the paper printout of the design they plotted on a self-made computer program. Using the ratio of one millimetre to one foot, the tapes are adjusted and rods are inserted into the earth at the radial points of the circle. I look at the design on the sheet, still keeping one eye and one ear on the surrounding darkness, as Ross whispers something about six-fold geometry and harmonic universal proportions. I don’t understand a thing.

I intently watch Matt and Luke as they sweep the crop aside and twist the boards across it to create half-swirls rather than merely flattened wheat. One of the things that gave some croppies cause to believe the circles were of non-human origin was the fact that they actually did minimal damage to a farmer’s field; the wheat stalks were folded down such that they were still able to grow. Watching the boys at it, there looks to be considerable skill involved. When they ask me if I want to take part, I tell them I’m afraid I will colour outside the lines.

I take hold of one of the tapes as Ross makes a number of outlines and arcs around me at various lengths and points from the first circle, using string as a marker. Matt and Luke soon undertake similar tasks on other plotted degrees points. As we work I notice that the moonlight illuminates a good portion of the field, useful because within an hour the full framework of the design is marked out, its borders disappearing beyond my scope of vision.

The stomping is more arduous than I had thought. I try to emulate what the others are doing, repeating the same body movement, pressing down and moving the plank aside slightly to spiral the wheat stalks. Taking smaller steps and adjusting my stance I fall into a ridiculous hypnotic dance, repeatedly stepping the right foot in front of the left, occasionally looking up at the night sky wondering if anything, anyone is watching this.

Over the next two hours of creative geometry and precision stomping, the circle begins to fully appear. Smaller circles take minutes, while a secondary larger circle is flattened in fifteen, as we collectively form a two-tiered stomping method. As Matt, Luke and Ross perform the finishing touches to the design, I put down my plank and walk within the formation, admiring its proportions and flow from arcs to crescents, every circle flattened with the same organized spiral pattern. I feel a little guilty about the farmer’s crop but know that some can earn considerable pocket change from charging an entrance fee to curious croppies. By four o’clock the sky has diluted from deep black to an indigo blue. We walk through the design once more, making some final satellite circles at the edges, before hiking our way out via the tramlines. At the top of the field we look down into the rolling natural amphitheatre to admire our night’s work, as Luke fetches the car. Still tense from the earlier car chase, we snake our way cautiously back to the highway, all of us looking out for tailing traffic.

On our way back to London, I ask the boys if they feel like they are working for the tourist board’s benefit, since tourism in Wiltshire booms with the arrival of new crop circles between the months of May to September, enthusiasts from all over the globe descending on small country villages to the amusement and annoyance of locals. The visitors who come for guided tours and helicopter rides over the formations inject a significant amount of money into the local economy.

“I know our work lines a good few pockets,” says Matt. “The Crop Circle industry is huge in the UK. Researchers, lecturers and believers have been cashing in with talks and books, T-shirts and expensive seminars. They try to stop us, but the truth is they need our work to boost their careers.” The artists need the researchers to publicise their work and the researchers need good believable content to fill their books and lectures.

“Then are some researchers and conspiracy junkies who say we are secret agents,” adds Ross with a grin, pointing out there are croppies who complain the hoaxers are muddying legitimate research. The oldest and more seasoned of the three, Ross tells me that they have been accused of being government paid disinformation agents, their crop circle designs initiated to draw the scent away from what is really occurring over the skies of Wiltshire.

“We’ve been out at night making circles and seen odd craft, lights and bright flashes in the sky,” says Ross. “One particular night, the sky was lit up for a full second as if it were daylight, while the sky remained black.”

“Yeah we were out with this other journalist once and he saw this large black orb in the night sky,” Luke says, testing my reaction. “He hasn’t been the same since.”

I feel a bit disappointed for not seeing anything that might make be think other than it’s all a big ruse, but these three mythmakers are a close team and I’m not sure how much of what they are telling me is truth. Perhaps they are agents, since I hesitate to believe that after making so many circles together they have yet to be caught.

The following day I drive back to Wiltshire and stop in the city of Salisbury. Wiltshire’s gateway to the West Country is huddled between the converging valleys of the Avon and Nadder, at the confluence of four rivers and still looks from a distance, very much as it did when John Constable painted his famous Cathedral, from the Meadows in 1831.

Prosperous and well-kept, Salisbury’s architecture ranges from 13th century inns and lovely old houses with exposed beams, to the grand Georgian houses around the medieval-era Cathedral Close, which at 123 metres boasts the tallest spire in Britain. Blending a respect for its heritage with an openness to modernity, Salisbury’s vibrant culture attracts an eclectic array of international visitors. When I arrive the Saturday market is in full throng, stalls selling amongst other things, fruit and veg, meat, imported and local chesses, cheap underwear and country attire; still serving a mixed agricultural and urban community, as it did in earlier times when the city grew wealthy on wool.

The Barge Inn located in the Vale of Pewsey, some twenty minute north from the city, is one of the nerve centres of local crop circle enthusiasts and the perfect place for a pint and ploughman’s lunch. Not surprisingly, it attracts many a weary walker, hippie, croppie, barge person and international holidaymaker, along with a healthy measure of cynical locals. Crop circles and ancient sites aren’t the region’s only attractions, as many come to explore the magnificent surroundings on foot, such as the views from "Adam's Grave" at Alton Barnes or the mystical glades of Savernake Forest.

The Inn smells of pub grub, spilt ale and hand rolled cigarettes. One of the rooms off the main bar features a wall covered with aerial photos of crop circles, maps and the latest paranormal news. Over a lunchtime pint, scanning the many yellowed newspaper cuttings tacked to the walls, I meet Jorge and Carla from Santiago, Chile. An intense, hedonistic couple of crystal fondlers in their mid-thirties, they’ve been on the road circumnavigating the globe for over 10 years. Together we study a map of the area, dotted with stickers denoting previous circle sites and chatter about various theories for their creation.

Jorge and Carla are circle fanatics who have come to England on a work visa, but they were determined to visit Wiltshire before heading to London. “I’ve dreamt of visiting Wiltshire for years,” says Carla. “Its energy and history is amazing.”

There’s a new circle out there, they tell me. It’s across the canal in an adjacent field, not a hundred yards away, concealed from the pub and campsite by the high hedgerow.

“We are going to make love in that circle tonight,” declares Carla. Surprisingly, they invite me along.

I take one of the roads outside the pub and drive for a while following Kevin’s directions to one of the newer formations. I park up and take a hiking trail that travels up into the hills known as the Marlborough Downs. The lid of morning cloud has started to break apart, revealing patches of blue as the wind makes undulating waves in the surrounding wheat fields. On my way up the escarpment I notice a large horse white horse figure cut into the chalky hillside. There are 13 of these glyphs to be found in the Wiltshire countryside, but contrary to popular belief most are not of great antiquity. Only the Uffington white horse across the border in Oxfordshire is of certain prehistoric origin, being some 3,000 years old. Most of the others date only from the last 300 years.

It’s an invigorating hike, cresting at high ground that makeit possible to admire mile upon mile of patchwork greenery and the blanket swath of distant forest. As I continue clambering up the I can see a crop circle in the dictance, nestled in a bowl at the bottom of the slope. With a diameter of 30 feet at its widest point, an outer ring, inner crescent, arcing circles of varying sizes and a tail, I spy through my binoculars that a small, inquisitive group of visitors has already been attracted to the circle’s centre. It takes some intrepid shuffling on my bottom to make it down the slope.

There are no researchers or croppies looking for strange clues in the field, only a handful of amused and none-the-wiser tourists milling about, occasionally lying down and looking up at the clouds, or giddily running about the formation. A Canadian couple soaking it up and interestingly elated form the circles effects, tells me that a local at the Barge Inn reported seeing strange lights in the skies around here last night.

Back at the pub whilst debating my confused thoughts from the past couple of days, I discover some of Wiltshire’s other odd idiosyncrasies such as name calling, which identify some one by an odd characteristic of their village or town. Someone from Aldbourne might be known as a Dabchick, after the sighting on the village pond of a mysterious bird, while residents of Bradford upon Avon are known as Gudgeons because of golden fish fill the areas waterways. Collectively though, people born in weird Wiltshire are known as Moonrakers. The old tale has it that Wiltshire smugglers were carrying illicit brandy when authorities surprised them. Quickly the smugglers dumped the brandy into a pond and commenced to rake at the water with their long handled implements. When asked what they were doing, they replied that they were "raking up the cheese", pointing at the moon's reflection in the water. Considering them fools, the lawmen moved on, leaving the Moonrakers to retrieve their loot.

Later that night, I journey towards Silbury, walking across fields and on quiet tracks, as nature wound down for another summer’s day. It isn’t difficult to spot Silbury Hill, even at dusk. The biggest man-made Neolithic mud mound in Europe, it covers over two hectares and rises almost 40 metres high. Part of the Avebury World Heritage site, it is thought that construction took place around 2500BC and according to local legend is the burial site of a King Sil (or Zel), legendary monarch of the Beaker Folk. A Neolithic–Early Bronze Age people, they lived about 6,000 years ago in the temperate zones of Europe and received their name from the distinctive bell-shaped beakers they crafted. The king's body, clad in golden armour and accompanied by a gold horse and rider is rumoured to lie at the base of the man-made mound, constructed from over one million tons of earth, apparently moved by hand. An alternate legend tells of a quick-minded cobbler who outwits the Devil to dump a load of earth at the site instead of upon the nearby town of Marlborough. The Canadian couple are there on the hill, lying comfortably on the grassy incline in their sleeping bags scanning the skies with binoculars. Another spotter has brought along a night vision lens to the wow of the others braving the cold night. Stocked with flasks of tea, sandwiches and some cans of beer, we are ready for the night ahead, all hoping to see something out of the ordinary.

Call me a novice, but I get excited when I look through my binoculars and see an aircraft flying overhead, its red and white flashing wing lights blinking against the star-filled sky. I would love to report to you that I glimpsed something that night, or that I have a sunburn on one side of my face from a sudden, bright intense flash of light, and that I now sculpt mash-potato mountains at the dinner table.

No. After two bottles of Summer Lightening Wiltshire Ale I nod off in my deckchair. I’m told that I didn’t miss anything, but given the strength of the local brew, one more bottle and I reckon I might well have seen something dancing in the sky over weird and wonderful ol’ Wiltshire.

Edward Wilkinson-Latham is a British-born, Toronto-based writer/photographer and an Associate Editor at Outpost. His article on New Zealand’s Stewart Island, “Point Me South,” appeared in Outpost #39; “Moon Walk,” about his travels in Chile’s Atacama Desert appeared in Outpost #38.

EWL©