Monday, 16 March 2015

The Alderton woodwose of the Bawdsey peninsula

The woodwose on the porch at St Andrew's Alderton, on the Bawdsey Peninsula. He's less than a foot high, and he's charging with a pointed stick at a dragon or wyvern (below).

Take the road south past the edge of Rendlesham Forest, keep going through Butley and you eventually come to the part of Suffolk that calls itself "the peninsula." It's quite remote, and you'd think there wasn't much going on, but there was a surprising amount of traffic a couple of weeks even before the ferry opened for the Spring. We noticed several up-market local businesses with the word "Peninsula" in their name.

It's out of the way enough that it's still got a couple of prisons on it, a young offender's institution and an open prison where News of the World phone hackers seem to stay a remarkably short time before their release. So relaxed is security at Hollesley open prison that last year they were burgled, someone broke in and nicked industrial quantities of tobacco from their prison shop. When we pulled into the Shepherd and Dog pub in Hollesley, there were some uniformed prison officers off duty having a drink on the sofas.

On the edge of Hollesley is the Suffolk Punch Trust. The Prison Service accidentally saved the Suffolk Punch breed by using them on their prison farms. It's not open this early in the year, but we caught a glimpse of some magnificent young Punches in a nearby field.

Nearby is Shingle Street, and on the winding road down to Shingle Street, on Easter Sunday 2008, a prison officer had the peninsula's only recorded big cat sighting. Heidi Hawley saw a "giant" dark and fawn-coloured cat, initially mistaken for an Alsatian, the size of a large dog, "beautiful" with "great big eyes".

It ran across the road in front of her, clambered up a steep bank, turned round and looked her in the eye before finally disappearing into undergrowth. Colleagues were aware of "similar sightings in the area in the past. The East Anglian Daily Times caused confusion by running the story with a photo of a lynx - with the caption "A lynx - similar to the big cat seen in Suffolk", although the word "lynx" didn't appear in the text. Shingle Street would be of interest to a big cat - there are sheep (unusual for this part of Suffolk) and lots of reed beds to hide in.

Further south along the peninsula is the village of Alderton. Its St Andrew's Church is hard to find, surrounded by houses, and unlike most Suffolk churches you can't find it by looking out for its tower. Inside it's very bare, like a giant barn. It turns out it may well have been a barn at some point. An 18th century print hanging up in the porch show it as a ruin with a hole in the roof, and most of the tower is missing. There's a modern bell on some sort of scaffold just outside the tower. St Andrew's seems to have been restored by the Victorians. There's a "WARNING The tower is dangerous" sign outside.

The porch, showing the woodwose and its dragon antagonist

The woodwose is just under a foot high, and like the ones in Peasenhall, Cratfield and Badingham, he's squaring off with a dragon or wyvern (hard to tell, it's so eroded away) on the opposite arch of the porch. Unlike the other porch woodwoses of Suffolk, who tend to have raised clubs and shields, this woodwose is charging with a spear or pointed stick.

Hard to tell in the ruined state it's in whether this is a two-legged wyvern or a four-legged dragon

Down the road at Bawdsey Quay is Bawdsey Manor, where radar was invented, and Alexander's International College (one of only two accredited language schools in Suffolk, the other's in Bury), and the ferry across the Deben to the back of Felixstowe. The giant container-unloading cranes of Felixstowe Docks are visible on the horizon.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The woodwoses of Wissett and the imps in Wenhaston Doom

Thoughtful woodwose, Wissett church font

Less intelligent-looking woodwose on the same font

Damaged cross-legged woodwose

Woodwose with club, face vandalised

I discovered another Suffolk church with woodwoses in it, at Wissett, north of Halesworth. Not only does it have woodwoses on the font, there is evidence from tiny flecks of turquoise paint and from parish records, that they used to be painted. (Last painted 1492, according to parish records.) They are slightly vandalised, with the faces more scratched out than the entire heads chiselled away, as at other churches like Theberton and Covehithe.

Particularly interesting was the beard-stroking intellectual woodwose, deep in thought. (See above.)

I then went to the local pub, The Plough at Wissett. I was very proud of myself at having cycled from Dunwich to Halesworth in 40 minutes, but and two of the punters at the pub had arrived on horseback, with their still saddled and bridled horses let out to graze on the grass in the garden with the tables round the back. I later found that Wissett has two phantom Black Dogs, said to haunt the two little humpback bridges near the village, and enough ghosts to fill a book, The Wraiths of Wissett.

Soviet-style Social Realist art is alive and well on the Wissett village sign, which glorified a tractor. (The other side of the sign has a more traditional horse-drawn plough.)

Soviet social realist-style tractor image on the Wissett village sign (there's a more traditional horse-drawn plough on the other side of it)

I also stopped off at Wenhaston, and discovered something rare in pancake-flat Suffolk - a serious stretch of downhill on the way to the village. The church has the Wenhaston Doom, the Last Judgement. There's some fairly boring stuff on the left of "virtuous" princes standing naked before God, being judged by angels, and then it gets a bit more Heavy Metal album cover as you go further to the right of the painting. There's something going on with weighing souls and comparing them to the weight of imps. If your soul weighs as much as two imps, you seem to be in the clear.

See here for the "witch-weigher" in Oudewater, Holland, where they used to weigh people to make sure they weren't witches. They generally weren't. Many of East Anglia's convicted "witches" in the witch trials of the seventeenth century were convicted for "feeding imps," which generally took the form of exploding mice or ducks, giant flies, legless horned greyhounds of headless bloodsucking babies. And Black Dogs of course. These descriptions were mostly extracted under torture, with some copied and pasted from 15th century demonologies. Black Dogs were probably implanted into the testimonies to give them a bit of local colour and fake authenticity.

Imps on the Wenhaston Doom. If your soul weighs more than two imps, you appear to be in the clear.

It's all in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of Suffolk.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Big cats on BBC Radio Suffolk

Update (01/02/15) The show is no longer available on the BBC i-player. Jon Wright promised to let me have some audio clips from the programme, which I'll link from this site as and when I've got them. Much of the material from the programme will be in Mystery Animals of Suffolk, due out late Spring.

You have less than three weeks to listen to me on the I-player talking about big cats in Suffolk on Jon Walsh's New Year's Day show on BBC Radio Suffolk.

The programme is here (UK only, I'm afraid).

Fast forward through the first 41.00 minutes of banter, cryptic clues and travel news.

There then follows music with a "cat theme" (The Cure's Love Cats, The Eye of the Tiger, etc. etc.) You may, if you wish, pause briefly at 34.51 while Jon Walsh makes gentle fun of my big cat investigator's headgear, which is all over by 36.16.

The actual serious chat about big cats, recorded on Dunwich Heath National Trust reserve in December, doesn't start till 41.00 and is over by around 52.00 (timings not exact, sorry!) We chose Dunwich Heath because it's near my home, and also because the area was the location of several sightings - one by a member of staff at the reserve - of a black big cat around 2008, all of which I describe in the interview. As I point out on air, Dunwich Heath's mix of wetlands, reedbeds and dunes is, apparently, the favoured habitat of Britain's big cats - "big cat country."

At 01.09.36 hours the serious stuff about big cats in Suffolk resumes, including some more recent West Suffolk sightings, until around 01.16.20

At 01.38.40 hours into the show, the big cats in Suffolk theme starts again with witness testimony.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust warden Matt Gooch (I'd talked to him on the phone before) phones in with his account of a January 2011 encounter in the snow with a "big black cat-like creature that loped off in the marshes" near Oulton Dyke, which connects Oulton Broad (near Lowestoft) with the River Waveney, in the Beccles Marshes nature reserve. Matt added that a neighbouring landowner said he saw a big cat (Matt told me earlier the landowner didn't want to be named) and that a letter from the Broads Authority had come round earlier stating that a visitor said they'd seen a big cat.

Matt's testimony is finished by 01.56.00.

Next up is Stanley, a former RSPCA inspector based at South Godson near Ipswich in the 1960s, who described a "glut" of lion cubs kept as pets, whose owners sought advice about vaccinating them. Most of these ended up in local wildlife parks. Stanley also said a friend of his had seen "a very large" black cat near Dedham (a very short distance over the Essex border), and that as an RSPCA inspector he'd had to trap many feral and "semi-feral cats", which were generally "slightly bigger" than domestic cats.

Stanley's finished by 02.07.00, and a couple of minutes after that is my appeal for more information on big cats in Suffolk, especially form Mid-Suffolk, Babeargh, West Suffolk, and also for fairy and Black Shuck anecdotes. No ghosts please, except animal ghosts.

At 02.14.12 David in Bury St Edmunds says he's seen four big cats over the years, including one in Barham (near Thetford) while delivering as a UPS driver, and another jumping over Culford School gates in West Stow, which he saw while working as a taxi driver. As a security guard at Fornham All Saints Golf Club, with a German shepherd dog he saw yet another big cat.

Then (at 02.57.00) Charlie Haylock recounts how "eighteen years ago" (around 1996, the beginning of the first big wave of Suffolk sightings), he saw a black cat, a "big'un" a very short distance away from his car ("We were a couple of feet from each other") when he was driving from Stonham Aspall to Debenham. He reported it to the police station at Debenham. Two police officers went out in a car to investigate.

Then an email is read out from Mark Frost, who saw a shiny big black cat while "combining" (working in a combine harvester) in a field at Hemley near Waldringfield. Mark radioed his colleague, who told him he'd seen it 45 minutes earlier field signs were found - a pawprint, scratch marks and a poo that smelt "like nothing else." Msrk's testimony is over by 03.00.00 on the dot. He adds that a neighbouring landowner reported a calf killed by something big.

Finally, at 03.13.21, Kevin Wood from Woodbridge emailed to say he'd seen "a large black cat that looked at him" at about 5am on Hatcheston Road, one day around 1990 5am, before it "bounded away." Another time, Mark saw "a dead one" (a dead big cat) by the road, the body had been removed when he returned (Kevin's testimony finished at 03.13.54).

It'll all be in Mystery Animals of Suffolk, out in late Spring, from CFZ Press. Meanwhile, updates are here or more info via

Monday, 29 December 2014

Phantom black dogs alive and well and providing long-term parking on Ipswich Waterfront

Suffolk's phantom black dogs are alive and well and providing long-term parking on Ipswich waterfront. (There's also an Ipswich-based Black Shuck MCC motorcycle club, and Shuck Creative packaging design, just north of Ipswich, and the Hellhound Brewery in Bramford does a Black Shuck Porter "breakfast stout".)Photo: Matt Salusbury

Bungay's Black Dog, which - according to Rev. Abraham Fleming's A Straunge and Terrible Wunder of 1577 - ran through St Mary's Church, Bungay, one Sunday in August of that year, can be found on the "Welcome to Bungay" sign (below) right on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The current coat of arms (much more recent, from the 1950s) shows the terrifying Black Dog and lightning bolt. The motto translates into English as "Hold to the ancient traditions."

The Black Dog on the Bungay coat of arms, on the "Welcome to Bungay" sign

In A Straunge and Terrible Wunder included the black dog is the Devil in the form of a dog, during a terrible thunderstorm that featured thunder, lightning, hail and "darkness". It killed two men - "wrung the necks of them bothe" - as it ran through the church at Bungay, inflicting strange and terrible burns on other worshippers who survived. The church clock exploded. The same black dog then appeared in Blythburgh, also in Suffolk but to the South, on the same day, jumping onto beams inside the church, before slew "two men and a lad" and others in the congregation were "blasted", before it flew out.

The Bungay black dog seems to be a very different animal to the Black Shuck of East Anglian tradition. Black Shuck, terrifying though it could be, rarely if ever attacked people, and it could sometimes (as in the case of the one around Dunwich) be a protective spirit. The Dunwich variant would fall into step with walkers at night, and as long as they avoided direct eye contact with it, it would see them home safely. Others talked, like the one seen on the road into Woolpit (near Needham Market), which accurately foretold the imminent death of one person it encountered.

In the depression of the 1930s, the black dog from the Straunge and Terrible Wunder was deliberately revived in the hope that tourism would revive the town of Bungay's fortunes, with the black dog and lightning bolt emblem being placed on the town weathervane over the Market Place. It can also be seen on this sign on the door of the town's Waveney District Council offices and on the sign at the Bungay Town FC ("The Bungay Black Dogs") training ground (below), actually just over the Norfolk border in Ditchingham.

Bungay Town FC ("The Bungay Black Dogs") football team's training ground just over the county line in Ditchingham. The town's cricket club and its running club are also The Black Dogs.

There ara also scorch marks on the inside of the door to Blythburgh Church, said to be made by the claws of the Black Dog. A more likely explanation is that these have something to do with Cromwell's New Model Army, who requisitioned the church as a stable for their horses, and probably had some kind of farrier's shop in operation for shoeing horses, in which red hot pokers would have been standard equipment.

Scorch marks on the door of Blythburgh church, attributed to the Black Dog

The only fatalities recorded in any of the parish records that come close to the Straunge and Terrible Wunder story are two burials of men killed by a falling section of the belfry at St Mary's Church, Bungay in 1577, during a thunderstorm. It seems there may well have been a storm in which a lightning strike caused damage that killed people. Some have speculated that the terrible burns inflicted on other worshippers who were "blasted" could have been some kind of exotic ball lighting phenomena that careered through the church.

A similar phenomenon could have been at work in "The Great Thunderstorm" at Widecombe, Devon in 1638, in which a ball of lighting burst through the church window, tore of part of the roof, killed four and injured 60, leaving the vicar's wife in particular "pitifully burnt". (Sound familiar?) A contemporary woodcut shows a dark sky, thunder, hail, bits of the tower falling off and a ball of flame escaping from a cloud and careering towards Widecombe's church, but no Black Dogs in evidence.

The Black Dog Deli in Walberswick. While its sign makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to local Black Shuck traditions, there is a local story about Shuck terrifying a US airman and his wife immediately postwar by repeatedly ramming the wall of the hut where they lived one night.

This animal being slain by St George on a 14th century walnut wood chest in St Andrew's Church, Southwold, is clearly meant to be a dragon. But he does look awfully like a really massive dog!

It's more than possible that the Rev. Fleming made the whole thing up, or considerably embellished a garbled account of the 1577 storm that had reached London, where it was published. Fleming may have chosen Bungay as a place so out of the way (at the time) that he was confident nobody could go and check out the details. (The full title of the pamphlet is A Straunge and Terrible Wunder wrought very late in the parish Church of Bungay, a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, so the Rev. Fleming felt he had to explain where Bungay was to a London audience, so obscure was it.) Fleming - or his sources, if he had any - may have been influenced by local Black Shuck legends. It's noticeable that in the Suffolk witch trails of the seventeenth century, inquisitors took care to insert references to encounters with Black Dogs among all the clearly made up nonsense about imps in the form of headless, bloodsucking babies, exploding mice and ducks, oversized flies and legless horned greyhounds. Slipping in a bit of Black Shuck, an actual local tradition, gave their fantastic testimony extracted under torture a bit of authenticity.

Products by the Black Dog Chilli Company of Martlesham, near Woodbridge. Shown here on the shelves of the Black Dog Deli, Walberswick.

The Rev. Fleming in his introduction rails against "sin", sodomy in particular, and comments that the events in Bungay were "A spectacle no doubt of Gods judgement, which as the fire of our iniquities hath kindled". It has also been suggested that the Rev. Fleming was actually making an allegorical point about God's wrath at a particular juncture of the then unfolding Reformation. But Fleming would have been so terrified of the Queen's commissioners that he hinted at God's wrath at religious reform in such veiled terms that whatever his point was, it's been lost to us.

Blythburgh's scorch marks in close up

All this - and more - in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of Suffolk

Saturday, 27 December 2014

On BBC Radio Suffolk talking about the county's Big Cats - New Year's Day

I'm on BBC Radio Suffolk talking about big cat sightings in the county briefly known as the Curious County on New Year's Day, in (pre-recorded) conversation with Jon Wright. We had a chat about big cats in Suffolk a couple of weeks ago as we wandered around Dunwich Heath (scene of several big cat sightings around 2008). It turned out to be a glorious sunny December day with no wind at all, so Jon had to improvise some "wind in the bracken" sound effects himself by rubbing his microphone up against a patch of the stuff.

You can find details of the broadcast here. It'll be linked from this blog once it's online. Basically, melanistic leopards in the East of the county and along the coast, and between Beccles and Bungay in particular, with a wave of sightings there in the 1990s and another peaking around 2008. More recent sightings have tended to be of sandy, "golden" "tawny", tan or grey coloured pumas in the West of the country, around Mildenhall, Barton Woods and Red Lodge in particular. Police FOIA data suggests a lot of reports of either melanistic leopards or pumas in South Suffolk (Babeargh, Clare area) and crossing a bridge in "Mid-Suffolk South".

Then there are the "lynx-like cats" spotted in the last six years, sometimes black, sometimes dark brown, and sometimes with a "short tail" or just "a tail." As lynxes and bobcats don't have tails beyond the tiniest of stubs, and lynxes don't as far as we know have a melanistic version, this could be a melanistic serval or melanistic caracal, both of which have melanistic versions, and both of which are know to breed with other big cat species. You'll have to wait until Mystery Animals of Suffolk is out in Spring 2015 for the full story.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Location of Eastbridge big cat sighting is perfect ambush site

Shown above is my photo of the location of a Big Cat sighting in Eastbridge, sometime around 2008. The member of staff at Dunwich Heath National Trust reserve who told me about it (they weren't exactly sure of the year) said a visitor came back at the beginning of the season in the following Spring and sought them out to tell them about it. The Dunwich Heath staff member (can't disclose any more about them, I regret) had their own sighting of a black big cat (probably a melanistic leopard or melanistic puma, if there is such a thing) in Dowcra's Ditch on the reserve.

The visitor to the reserve reported walking from the footpath from Minsmere to Eastbridge. (It's just south of the RSPB Minsmere reserve, the other side of the sluice ditch from the southern edge of Minsmere.) They came to a gate on the path, and when he went through the gate and was closing it he saw the black big cat behind him. He described how they sat their watching each other for a short while before the big cat bounded off.

I recently went to take a look at the location. What struck me was that it was the prefect ambush site for a hunting big cat. The path from Minsmere goes through the British Energy estate, with its marshes, where there are otters. Otters are on the big cat's menu, as are pheasant in particular, and any waterbirds they can catch (I saw plenty of duck). I saw tracks of otter and deer when I was there - deer being the favourite food of British big cats. When I came through the gate in the opposite direction - from Eastbridge - I emerged from an open field into a shaded area with trees and a bramble thicket on either side, creating a sort of tunnel either side of the footpath. When I came out of this cover, pheasants on the path ahead took flight. It's the perfect spot for a big cat to sit around all day out of sight and jump out at any passing wildlife.

Otter tracks on the footpath from Minsmere to Eastbridge

Also noteworthy nearby was the spooky-looking field of dead sunflowers. What happened? Did it get flooded, or did the field of sunflowers get turned into a nature reserve?

Big cat sightings local to this area will almost certainly feature in a forthcoming interview I'm doing with Jon Wright of BBC Radio Suffolk on big cats in Suffolk, provisionally to be broadcast on New Year's Day 2015.

Medieval spotted panther at Theberton and a 2008 "black panther" sighting on the nearby road from Westleton

Above is a Medieval spotted panther (15th century?) acting as a drainpipe on the church of St Peter's Theberton, Suffolk. "Panthers" were mythical spotted cats in heraldry and legend. African leopards are also known as "panthers", and North American pumas are also known as "panthers" (and cougars, mountain lions, catamounts - "cat of the mountain"). "Black panthers" are in fact black leopards - only a couple of black pumas have been recorded, and they had light or white undersides. There are no actual big cats called panthers, real big cats (leopards and pumas) seem to have had the name of a mythical beast of Medieval legend and heraldry attached to them, somewhat confusingly. There is a zoological genus of big cat called Panthera, which includes lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars.

There was a sighting of a "black panther" - probably a melanistic leopard, or possibly some kind of dark choclolate-coloured puma, or a variation on a puma not yet described to science - in February 2008 on the road from Westleton to Theberton. From its description it was on the B1124, just before Theberton Hall Farm - the only point on the Theberton to Westleton road where there's a "six-foot verge" - which the "panther" was said to scramble up - and with a wooden fence. Both these features were described in this report of the early morning sighting in East Anglian Daily Times a few months later.

The EADT article also quoted the witnesses as saying their father had seen a "black panther" earlier on the same road, and says that there had been other sightings in villages round there previous to the February 2008 sighting.

All this and more will be revealed in Mystery Animals of Suffolk, to be published by CFZ Press in 2015. I have an interview on big cats in Suffolk - with an appeal for more sightings - on Saturday week for BBC Radio Suffolk. Presenter Jon Wright has just confirmed he plans to broadcast it on New Year's Day 2015.