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.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Fun with Heidegger - Who is Who? The Philosophy of Doctor Who (book review)

This review first appeared in Fortean Times

Who is Who? The Philosophy of Doctor Who, Kevin S. Decker, I.B. Taurus, London/New York, 2013
ISBN 978 1 78076 5532, paperback, 243 pages, bibliography, index

Philosophy lecturer Kevin S. Decker, who recalls being hooked after a chance 1980s daytime TV re-run encounter with Terror of the Zygons, is clearly a Doctor Who fan with a sound working knowledge of the show. The philosophical bits do bring a fresh take on most Who stories. It's nice to hear again all those quotes from the show about the shining mountains of Gallifrey, a reminder that the exposition in Who is often better than its effects. But when the book started going on about Derrida, I thought, oh-oh.

I suspect the Doctor would have cocked a snook at all this philosophizing, reasoning simply that a Time Lord's gotta do what a Time Lord's gotta do. (As his Patrick Troughton incarnation said succinctly of the Cybermen, "They must be fought!")

Over an awful lot of pages I learnt that the first six or so Doctors were positivist, the seventh and eighth doctors Romanticist. From the Ninth "post-Gallifreyan apocalypse" Doctor onwards, the Doctor, we are told, ditched Romanticism and became existentialist in the manner of Heidegger, Sartre and De Beauvoir. (Tomb of the Cybermen was apparently Who's "strongest anti-positivist story," while the classic "base under siege" adventures are "Hegelian".)

Philosophy comes off much worse from its encounter with the Doctor. Conte and the foundations of sociology are regrettably bor-ring. I don't think I was meant to laugh at the treatise on the "existential otherness of the Cybermen", nor Decker's attempt to explain through Sartre why the Doctor left Gallifrey, nor the "dialectical relationship between the Doctor and monsters."

Moderately more interesting is the morality and ethics of the Doctor, which change a little bit with each regeneration. The Doctor's companions aren't just eye-candy after all, but are along to provide some kind of moral compass for a rootless, time-wandering alien exile particularly dangerous when travelling alone.

Who is Who picks up a bit on the "Not the man he was" chapter on identity, the individual and "the self", and what they mean when the body and the mind changes with each regeneration. Apparently, Leibnitz and John Locke both dealt extensively with the philosophy of mind swaps and body swaps. And Bishop Joseph Butler's "philosophical trap" accounts for why in The Three Doctors, Pertwee's Third Doctor doesn't at least have nagging déjà vu about the conversation he's had with Omega when he was the Troughton Second Doctor (standing right next to him at the time.)

The standout "timey-wimey" section raises the intriguingly baroque possibility that the Great Time War is somehow an inevitable consequence of the Time Lords' attempts to tinker with history. There are (were or will be) multiple –even infinite – versions of the Great Time War, with different enemies. I got dizzy (in good way) as we got onto "chronological time" – the order in which things happen to the Doctor, as opposed to "external time" and "personal time" (the Doctor experiencing the duration of a given adventure), itself distinct from to the "continuity of non-time-travel-related events."

The history of the philosophy of time is more engaging too, going all the way back to Parmenides, a student of the Socratic school, and his student Zeno, who postulated that future events were already "true" before they had even happened. Parmenides anticipated the concept of entropy, and regarded time as "unstoppable".

We then enter the intoxicatingly complex realms of the constancy principle – "there is only one history", the mind-boggling Space/Time concept (everything is so pre-destined as to make free will pretty much irrelevant,) to the increasingly mainstream "many worlds hypothesis". The 1970s Pertwee Period Who story Inferno was apparently decades ahead of the curve in that it had the Doctor concluding that an "infinity of universes" meant that "free will is not an illusion after all." In a temporal philosophy finale, Decker concludes that when the Matt Smith Doctor restores the broken universe with his "Big Bang Two", he doesn't actually restore it at all, he just creates a very similar universe from scratch. I even found myself reading the "timey-wimey" section's footnotes just for pleasure.

It's a pity the remainder of Who is Who's whizz through of the history of Western philosophy wasn't so thrilling, After a hundred relentless pages of not enough Doctor and too much Goethe, Locke, Kant, Hegel and Rousseau, I felt like one of those walk-on Who characters at that cliffhanger ending of Episode One who screams "Nooooo!"


© Matt Salusbury 2014

See also my other Doctor Who related articles:

Copyright of the Daleks (for the Freelance)

The Man Who Invented the Daleks
(Terry Nation biography, book review for Fortean Times)

Curse of the Daleks - Nation and Whittaker's "lost" children's matinee Dalek play - not their best work!

Father of the Cybermen - profile of Dr Kit Pedler, spare-part surgeon and creator of the Cybermen (for Fortean Times)

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Appropriate Big Cat Investigator headgear, and finally face-to-face with Wool I Am

I stopped off in Ipswich today and purchased suitably appropriate Big Cat Investigator headgear (shown above). Although I may pin or stitch back the ears to make it more streamlined when I'm out and about. Stand by for an announcement shortly regarding me talking on Suffolk Big Cats on BBC Radio Suffolk. Watch the Mystery Animals of Suffolk Twitter thing for details.

The stall-holder in the seasonal street market near Ipswich's Town Hall who sold it me said, "I was told to drop my prices because it's Ipswich." There's a slogan waiting to be adopted by the Ipswich Chamber of Commerce there. He was all the way from Kent, and mentioned Big Cats down there, so I referred him to Neil Arnold, the go-to guy for Big Kats in Kent, and also for reports of giant phantom wolves near the Bluewater shopping centre.

I was also finally able to visit Wool I Am, the recently-named full-sized Ipswich mammoth in the Ipswich Museum. I'm afraid I was moving around the museum at a quick march, as I had exactly 1 hour 10 minutes to change trains. The Museum's rhino in its Victorian Natural History gallery now has a replica horn to deter thieves.

Wool I Am would probably not have been around during the brief period between two British Ice Ages which is known as the Ipswichian Interglacial, after strata found around Ipswich.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The woodwoses of Suffolk

On the track of medieval wildmen in the Curious County

(This first appeared in Fortean Times FT 318, September 2014)

Woodwose on a font at Barking-Cum-Darmsden, near Needham Market

SUFFOLK, mainland Britain’s easternmost county, last year briefly adopted the controversial slogan “the Curious County”. The churches of mostly rural Suffolk do harbour a curiosity - woodwoses (literally “wild-men-of-the-woods”), hirsute manimals brandishing clubs. Particularly in Suffolk Coastal District, few churches are without at least one woodwose. Believed to date from the 15th century (“the 1400s”), these are carved on the staves of stone baptismal fonts, or as a reliefs hewn into the porch of a church, where they are usually to be found with a club and shield raised as they close in for combat with a dragon of wyvern.

The woodwoses on the font of St Andrew’s Walberswick are ruined – some of their heads are gone and you can just make out the wavy hair on the torsos that remain. When I first saw the ruined Walberswick woodwoses, I mistook them for a particularly hairy Adam and Eve.

The Protestant religious reformers – enforcing an edict of 1540 from the Tudor boy king Edward VI ordering the smashing of statues in churches – showed intolerance to these and other Suffolk woodwoses. Some local woodwose-bearing fonts only survive because the idolatrous bits were plastered over until the commissioners had gone away.

Ruined woodwose on the font at St Andrew's Church, Walberswick. Possibly defaced by the commissioners of Henry VIII enacting an edict ordering the destruction of religious statues, or other instructions in the short reign of Edward VI, or by self-appointed local Cromwellian iconoclast William Dowsing and his deputies.

While the seaside village of Walberswick is a famously fashionable holiday resort, the haunt of Hampstead literati and the Freud family in particular, Suffolk’s woodwoses tend to be in out of the way places that are unlikely to feature in glossy Sunday supplements any time soon. The area of the county with the greatest density of “woodwose churches”, inland from the “Suffolk Heritage Coast” and west of the A12, is so far off the map there's actually a Lonely Wood there, and several “Lonely Farm” addresses. (I later learnt that this region is known officially as the Blyth Valley, although how you know you're in a valley in such a pancake-flat county isn't clear to me.)

Cross-legged woodwose, with shield, Halesworth St Mary

You could take in most of the woodwoses of Suffolk Coastal District and the western edge of Mid-Suffolk District in a day by car. A determined, fit cyclist in good weather could do them in a full day. I made a woodwose run from Halesworth station to the villages of Crediton, Cratfield, Badingham and onward to Darsham station in a day's cycle ride before sundown, including pub and tearoom stops for the rainy bits. Peasenhall and Sibton are do-able by bike in a long afternoon from Darsham or Saxmundham stations.

The diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich even lay on occasional “woodwose bike routes” that cover two or three “woodwose churches” in a day at a more leisurely pace than my Stakhanovite two-wheeled woodwose road trips of well over 20 miles each.

Holidaying “smart set” Radio 4 listeners (and – a few summers back – then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, up for his hols in the trendily retro holiday resort of a Southwold, where beach huts change hands for over £100k) mostly dash into the town of Halesworth just long enough to fill the 4X4 up with posh dinner party ingredients and then speed out again. Halesworth has its own miniscule museum, and is famed among trainspotters for its “moving platform”, a combined railway platform and level crossing. But souvenir postcards of the less chic destination of Halesworth, however, are hard to find in any of the town’s shops. The parish church of St Mary's Halesworth does, however, have woodwoses on the font.

The standard woodwose-on-a-font configuration is four woodwoses facing outward, rarely more than a foot high, generally flanked by sitting lions, along with the angels and winged animals representing the Four Evangelists - Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Most of Suffolk’s woodwose-bearing fonts conform surprisingly closely to this arrangement. The head of the bull signifying St John in Halesworth Church looks strangely satanic, while some of Halesworth’s font woodwoses stand with their legs crossed, their clubs resting on the ground.

Griffon representing one of the Four Evangelists, and a strangely Christ-like woodwose, both on the font at St Mary's Church, Chediston

From Halesworth the road to my next woodwose stop, the very small and mostly thatched village of Chediston, took me along a “roadside nature reserve” and then through miles of rape fields with the occasional field of alpacas.

Fields of yellow rapeseed - such as this one on the Halesworth road, on the borders of Chediston Civil Parish - are a common sight in the Spring in Suffolk's Blyth Valley

The churchyard of St Mary’s Chediston is a thoroughfare, with a battered “Please drive very slowly in the churchyard” sign. The woodwoses on the 15th century font in the otherwise bare church of St Mary's Chediston looked almost exactly like Halesworth’s, except that some of the woodwoses have surprisingly Christ-like beards and expressions, and the seated lions flanking them had broad grins.

Another woodwose on the font at St Mary's Chediston, flanked by the traditional smiley lions. There are well over a hundred of these octagonal fonts, usually with just the lions, across Suffolk

The next woodwose font halt was St Peter’s Sibton, (you can see the ruins of a Cistercian abbey in a distant field, although St Peter's was a parish church, never an abbey church). The four Sibton woodwoses have more muscular limbs and thicker hair, and stare suspiciously at you as they guard the font. Most beasts in medieval art were in some way allegorical, and woodwoses were said to represent strength. They’re also the right shape to fit neatly within the space of the upright staves of a font – tall and thin, holding up a club.

A wary looking woodwose at St Peter's Church Sibton, catches the evening light through the windows.

The Church of St John the Baptist lies on the edge of ancient market town of Saxmundham, right next to its Tescos and Waitrose superstores. St John’s has just two woodwoses on the font of its church, and I have to agree with the assessment of church’s own guide: “a splendid specimen in an excellent state of preservation.”

A Renaissance work of art - Saxmundham's woodwoses wear contemporary late 15th century woollen hats

Saxmundham's woodwoses are 18-inch Renaissance works of art – why they aren’t as well known as the works of Michelangelo is beyond me. Their extraordinarily detailed little faces have all the dignity of Biblical patriarchs, their features could past muster as a slightly retro Neanderthal reconstruction. Flanked by the standard smiling lions (these ones have their tongues out), the burly, thick-limbed “Sax” wildmen sport late 15th century woollen hats and are otherwise naked under their thick, superbly detailed fur. One has his club raised, another has his club resting on the ground, his legs crossed.

More imposing than little woodwoses on font staves – in the humble opinion of this woodwose aficionado, at least – are the woodwoses carved on Suffolk church porches. Sometimes they're well over two feet high.

The porch of St John the Baptist Badingham has a very worn outline of a woodwose with long hair on its head and a thick club raised at an equally worn wyvern. Either the elements have eroded both protagonists away, or the religious reformers have defaced him. In any event, you can barely see their outlines. Out in the middle of nowhere, nearer Badingham than anywhere else, I came across a stately hall whose name had long faded from its sign in the drive, leaving only the words “No Salesmen” legible.

The barely visible outline of a badly eroded (or defaced?) woodwose on the porch at John the Baptist, Badingham

The (from a woodwose enthusiast's viewpoint) boring old font is St Mary’s Church, Cratfield has realistic Biblical human figures, possibly damaged by Tudor Church reformers. Cratfield’s woodwose on the porch may be less than two feet tall, but he’s impressive. With his legs tucked into the space available above the arch over the door, he has an angry expression, short curly hair on his head and a pointy beard While most woodwoses on Suffolk church porches are fighting two-legged wyverns, this one's closing in for a fight with a fat dragon with two sets of legs. (I appreciate that the font depicting the seven sacraments - plastered over when the King's commissioners came round and restored in Victorian times - is regarded as one of the better examples of devotional art in England, but from an atheist woodwose-spotter's point of view it's less interesting.)

Woodwose on the porch at Cratfield church closes to do battle with a wyvern (not shown)

The wyvern with whom the Cratfield woodwose is about to do battle

Badingham and Chediston are far enough away from anywhere else that those doing the woodwose run might consider a stop at the King’s Head (aka The Low House) in Laxfield. The King's Head's listed as a “heritage pub”, which could be code for “eccentric layout", as it's a pub with no bar. I walked into a dead end with taps and barrels, and a price list hanging up, and a sort of partition where the crisps and peanuts were on display, and someone asked if they could help me. (I won’t call her the barmaid, there being no actual bar.) “I'm looking for the bar,” I said. “We haven't got one.” They bring the drinks to your table, someone in a warren of multiple snugs with what look like high-backed pews. (I later found out there's another pub-with-no-bar locally at Sweffling, and that the dead end with the beer pumps is called the "pump room".)

Arriving at Peasenhall, you get a sense you are back in civilization. Not only are there signs for the A12 again (East Suffolk’s link to London, and the nearest it gets to a motorway), there are two tea rooms.

Woodwose spotters hold up as the finest example of the genre either Cratfield or Peasanhall porch, and I have to say the latter particularly magnificent example is my favourite. The woodwose above the porch at St Michael’s Peasenhall is in slightly better condition than Cratfield’s, he has the happier face of a serene although slightly comic yet slightly disturbing noble savage. Peasenhall Man’s body hair falls in luxurious curls, and he has a lot of fine detail on his shield, while the wyvern apporaching him across the porch is more wriggly and serpentine than Cratfield's obese wyvern.

In my humble opinion the finest example of a Suffolk woodwose, at Peasenhall ("the valley where peas grow").

I was impressed on my three woodwose tours how all the local churches are left open to the public all day. The proprietor of the Halesworth wine shop said St Mary’s Halesworth had been robbed just the week before, with money taken from the office and a Mother’s Day flower display ruined. The dragnet was closing in on in the ecclesiastical thieves, though, with both Norfolk and Suffolk Constabularies on the case. Just over the Norfolk border in Gillingham, someone had robbed an undertakers, and left an identical shoeprint to whoever had plundered St Mary’s Halesworth. A sign up at Badingham featured a pick-up truck silhouette with a red line through it, and warned of “CHURCH THEFT!” The sign noted; “Trucks and workmen will be accompanied by a church warden. If not – there are probably stealing the roof.”

One of numerous "CHURCH THEFT" posters - this one is at Badingham

Missing person poster for the then recently stolen John the Baptist font cover at Saxmundham

Nobody really knows what the woodwoses are doing there, and why there are so many of them in Suffolk. Are they just for show, or do they commemorate some kind of local English wildman-of-the woods, a British Bigfoot, or what cryptozoologists call “relict hominids”? There are indeed accounts of two historical Suffolk wildmen, including a capture of a wildman in the Suffolk port of Orford whose description was remarkably similar to the manimal depicted on so many of the county’s churches.

Cistercian abbot and historian Ralph of Coggeshall, writing in approximately 1200, recorded in his Chronicon Anglicanum how around 1161, “In the time of King Henry II, when Bartholomew de Glanville was in charge of the castle at Orford, it happened that some fishermen fishing in the sea there caught in their nets a wild man. He was naked and was like a man in all his members, covered with hair and with a long shaggy beard.”

Ralph added that the Orford wildman “would not talk, even when tortured and hung up by his feet… He was allowed to go into the sea, strongly guarded with three lines of nets, but he dived under the nets and came up again and again. Eventually he came back of his own free will. But later on he escaped and was never seen again.” When I last visited Orford Castle a few years ago, there was an atmospherically dimly-lit display with a realistic model of a bald, man-sized captive Orford wildman with a long beard. There are still woodwoses on the font at the church St Bartholomew in what Visit Suffolk call the “diminutive gem” that is Orford today.

Woodwose on the font at St Bartholomew's Church, Orford

And there’s a Wild Man Inn the village of Sproughton, on the western edge of Ipswich. This pub’s said to owe its name to a creature who during its construction, roughly contemporary with most of the woodwoses in the county’s churches, “terrified the builders in a nearby waste.” (Phenomena – a book of wonders, p. 111, John Michell and Robert J. M. Rickard, Thames and Hudson, 1977.) Its current pub sign features a cartoon figure wearing a spotted animal skin and carrying a spear and a club, reminiscent of The Flintstones.

It turns out my woodwose tours were just scratching the surface, taking in a mere eight examples of woodwoses in churches in the part of the county where they are most abundant. In the course of my investigations I discovered that Suffolk also has woodwoses in its churches at Woolpit (as in “green children of Woolpit”), Waldringfield (with goat’s feet), St Andrew’s Alterton (north of Felixstowe), Wissett, the Church of the Assumption in Haughley, Framlingham, St Mary’s Yaxley, the church of St Mary in Harkstead and the church of St Mary, Newbourne, (in whose churchyard George Page, “the Suffolk giant” is buried). And I've since had a chance to view the woodwoses on the font in the disused, fire-damaged St Clement's Church, Ipswich, which will hopefully become an arts centre soon.

Ruined woodwose in the church at Theberton, which also has on display fragments from the Theberton Zepplin Crash of 1915.

Framlingham woodwose

Ruined woodwose in the church at Woolpit, West Suffolk, "a symbol of strength and evil... said to come from India" according to a label in the church. It could possibly have come from the well shrine of Our Lady at Woolpit, demolished by Henry VIII's reformers

Since this article first appeared I've also tracked down woodwoses on the fonts of the churches in Barking-cum-Darmsden, St Michael the Archangel, Holy Trinity Middleton(-cum-Fordley), and some ruined woodwoses at church of St Andrew's Covehithe, and in Theberton.

Slightly damaged woodwose in Holy Trinity, Middleton-cum-Fordley. The damage to the head, as in many woodwose fonts I've seen, may have been to accommodate hinges to a font cover, added later.

Ruined woodwose on the font at St Andrew's Covehithe. A leaflet for visitors of the church says they were defaced by William Dowsing's men in Cromwellian period. But Dowsing's journal makes no reference to woodwoses or any images on the font, only to religious "pictures" including stained glass images and images of "cardinals". It's possible they were defaced earlier, either by Henry VIII's commissioners, or (more likely) by Edward VI's officials.

Outside Suffolk, woodwoses in churches are rare in the rest of England, although there’s one over the Norfolk border in All Saints, Hilborough. Zuilen, now part of the Dutch city of Utrecht, proudly displays woodwoses on its coat of arms, as do the Earl of Atholl and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, and there was even St Onuphrius, a woodwose saint in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. He was a fourth-century “Desert Father” of Egyptian Christianity who lived as hermit for many years and had thick body hair and a loincloth made of leaves.

It’s tempting to think Suffolk’s woodwoses remember an actual briefly captive wildman, or even a species of relict hominid living among us in the flat plains of East Anglia, But folklorist Gregory “The Wildman Inside and Outside Europe”, (Gregory Forth, Folklore volume 118, no 3 Dec 2007) points out that unlike the Asian and American traditions of Bigfoot, almasti and so on, there are very few surviving accounts of actual sightings of hairy wildmen in Europe. At the time most of Suffolk’s woodwoses were carved on the county’s church fonts and porches somewhere in the 15th century, they were “thought to be mythical” or at least to “live outside Europe,” according to Forth.

Unlike the Asian and North American big hairy men, who were viewed as a different animal to humans, the Christian doctrines of Man made in the image of God and of The Fall meant that woodwoses had to become “‘feral men’, originally human but who had grown apart due to ‘outrageous hardship’” or turned wild through an “upbringing among wild beasts.” The woodwose’s coat of hair was regarded as a consequence of their “wildness… not their natural state”, according to Forth. One distinguishing feature that set Europe’s woodwoses apart from the wildmen and big hairy men outside Europe was that they had long hair on their heads, and beards, making them more human-like.

Some of the attributes of European woodwoses were that they didn’t speak, they seemed to enjoy thunderstorms, they had some kind of Tarzan-style “sympathy” with animals, as well as knowledge of medicinal plants. Sometimes woodwoses snatched and ate human children. Male woodwoses were said to occasionally abduct human women, while “wildwomen" (female woodwoses) had the power to disguise themselves as more mainstream women to seduce male humans.

The Renaissance saw a rebranding of the woodwose as an extinct creature, or a savage human, like the “savage” peoples that were then being discovered outside Europe. By the 17th century, “wildman” had pretty much vanished from English literature and written sources, as a fascination for the newly discovered non-European “wild” races had instead taken hold.

But to bring the Suffolk woodwose mystery up to date, the Paranormal Database received a report from a lorry driver who in May 2011, en route to Suffolk's busy international container port of Felixstowe, was passing through fields near the village of Elveden along a busy stretch of the A134 road in the north-east corner of the country. He saw from his cab a light brown-grey ape-like creature, at first walking on all fours, with an “almost hyena-like movement”, before it got up its hind legs. The “semi-human like” creature looked up at the witness, showing its “forward facing eyes, long snout but a shorter face than a deer” and “small upright dog-like ears,” before bounding off on all fours again.

And shortly after my woodwose rides I interviewed “Phillip” (not his real name) who told of a strange late afternoon encounter in the summer of 2011 while walking with his partner back from a festival in Peasenhall towards their tiny campsite in Sweffling. From his description, Phillip’s sighting was along a stretch of Rendham Road, with woods immediately to the east.

In an experience he estimated lasted two or three minutes, Phillip “became aware something was watching us, following us… almost parallel with us.” He “didn’t know what it was,” it was at first “just a feeling I got,” Phillip's “periphery vision on the left side saw this figure… if I turned my head I didn't see it.” The entity was “(a) vague impression, it didn’t look directly at us.” He felt whatever it was “looking sideways at us, not turning its head.” Phillip caught the occasional “fleeting glimpse, like a snapshot." It was “there one minute and not there.” (The description of an entity walking “parallel” but not visible if you look at it directly is noteworthy. Some of the “Black Shuck” phantom dogs in the traditions of Suffolk appear alongside witnesses on lonely country roads at night and walk in step with them, and are benign and protective – but only if you avoid looking them in the eye.)

Sketch by "Phillip" of the entity he encountered on the road to Peasenhall in 2011, copyright "Phillip"

Phillip’s partner didn’t see anything. Phillip described what he saw: on two legs, “seven or eight feet tall… silver grey, dark.” He had the sense that it was “friendly". He’d had a similar encounter earlier in woodland in Wales, with an “impression of a tall and hairy” entity, “not as distinct” as his Suffolk manimal encounter.

An artist by profession, Phillip sent me a pencil drawing of the apparition on the road from Peasenhall. It showed a tall, very hairy, bulky biped in profile with stooped shoulders and an indistinct head, with trees in the background, more Bigfoot that woodwose. He confirmed that neither he nor his partner knew at the time of the wildman on the porch of the nearby St Mary’s church, Peasenhall. Could it be that the little woodwose carvings actually commemorate some local protective spirits, like the “tall, hairy entity” that Phillip experienced – glimpsed fleetingly, yet giving the people of that corner of Suffolk in the fifteenth century the impression of something “friendly”?

www.suffolkonboard.com has details of local bus services, and the book-in-advance Suffolk Links “Demand Responsive Transport” services (Blyth, Loes and Pathfinder) on which you can take bikes. Abelio Greater Anglia’s East Suffolk Line has hourly trains to Saxmundham, Darsham and Halesworth from Ipswich and Lowestoft, also with space for bikes. For diocesian woodwose bike routes see the diocese of St Edmundsbury website.
Orford Castle's website is here

Regular FT contributor Matt Salusbury is freelance journalist based in Dunwich. His Mystery Animals of Suffolk (CFZ Press) is due out in 2015, and meanwhile has its own Mystery Animals of Suffolk Twitter feed already.

In response to the article that originally appeared in Fortean Times, there were a couple of letters. There was a suggestion by Stephen Mickelewright of Hampshire that East Anglian woodwoses commemorate the "Silvatici", who fought on after the Norman conquest and became experts in subterfuge and camouflage and guerrilla warfare against Normans. May also have inspired Robin Hood and his merry men. Very few accounts survive, Herward the Wake in the East Anglia Fens and also Eadric Wild in Shropshire, who became immortalised in local Wild Hunt legends. A group of masons in East of England may have incorporated them as an in-joke, own little act of defiance against Norman churhcgoers. Mickelwright quotes The English Resistance by Peter Rex.

Mark Utting of Thornham Magna, Suffolk in a letter to FT suggests the Biblical wild men such as Nebercubnezzer, "humbled by God" and ejected from society, living like a beast, represented those cast out and later redeemed by baptism. Fonts were not "objects of veneration", so were left alone by the religious reformers. Those depicting religious scenes, crucifixion, etc, were plastered over until Victorian times (Cratfield) scraped away (Blythburgh) or smashed, including woodwoses ( at St. Andrews church, Wickham Skeith)

Words and images (except "Phillip's" drawing of his road-to-Peasenhall entity encounter, © "Phillip") © Matt Salusbury 2014. Images will follow shortly, plus slight amendments in the light of more info via letters to FT in response to the article.)

None of this would have been possible without Simon Knott's excellent Suffolk churches website.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Front page story in this month's Fortean Times

My feature on the woodwoses of Suffolk seems to have pushed the Daleks off the front cover of this month's Fortean Times, having been updgraded from a humble Fortean Traveller piece at the back to the cover story! (That's FT 318, September 2014).

It'll be up on this site as soon as the First British Serial rights have reverted to me, ie when the October issue is out.

I note that I'm all over the editorial of this month's FT as well, in which FT claims they "sent" me to my "native" Suffolk. Not strictly correct - I pitched a story to them, and arranged (minimal) expenses for some of the trip and some photocopying at the Suffolk Records Office, and I have been "native" to Suffolk only since I started getting my bank statements sent there, joined the Suffolk Coastal electoral roll and registered as a "temporary resident" with the doctor's surgery there back in May. (Suffolk Coastal's MP has still not replied to my letter on changes to copyright law, which I sent her in June, please note!)

Here, are a couple of my photos of woodwoses similar to the ones in the Fortean Times feature. (They are of woodwoses whose photos do not feature in the article, from St Bartholemew's Orford (top) and a damaged woodwose at St. Peter's, Theberton (bottom).

I also get a mention in this month's FT in Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo section, for which I am grateful to Karl. He bigs up my researches into Baron Maurice de Rothschild's tusk "of enigmatic origin", which was the subject of my recent Weird Weekend talk, and which will be the subject of a future Fortean Times forum piece just as soon as I can find a way to describe it all in 800 words. See Dr Karl's recent blog post on his own researches in this area - he's got further than me, and has much better French!

Oh, and I'm in the "clipping credits" too, for sending in a suitably bizarre news headline. If I recall correctly, it was the Guardian's "Ghost ship packed with cannibal rats not likely to crash into UK, say officials."

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Pygmy stegodons in "Twilight Beasts"

My blog post on "Of dwarves and dragons" - pygmy stegondons in the Twilight Beasts blog for "neglected Pleistocene taxons" is here.

Stegodons were, of course, close relatives of today's elephants.

And here is the possibly inaccurate drawing of Stegodon sondaari, a dwarf species of stegodon, legging it from a monitor lizard on the island of Flores, half a million years ago, which didn't make it into the post, but which Twilight Beasts were kind enough to tweet out. As ever, Dr Victoria Herridge corrected me, contributing an update which notes relatively recent research suggesting that the precursors of the Komodo dragons that arrived in Flores, Indonesia, probably from Australasia, didn't change their size much over the years.

The illustrations feature in my book Pygmy Elephants.