Monday, 16 January 2017

Fortean Traveller: The Cutty Wren, Middleton Suffolk

This Fortean Traveller article first appeared in Fortean Times, FTFT 348, the Christmas 2016 issue

‘Twas the night after Christmas…


Old Glory molly side asssembles in The Bell Inn car park

Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, also known as St Stephen’s Day, is named from the “box” (a monetary tip for the past year’s service) traditionally given to the postman, the dustman, the paperboy. It was the day the poor box in the church was opened and distributed, hence the name. (Nothing to do with a pugilistic sport, in case you were wondering.)

But there was one group usually left off the Christmas card lists of respectable folk and who weren’t given a box on St Stephen’s Day. These were agricultural labourers, the lowest of the low. They had no choice but to go in disguise at night and extort some sort of tip by means of what officious railway station announcers call “aggressive begging”. Following a recent revival of a possibly ancient ceremony in a village not far from the Suffolk coast, St Stephen’s Night has become the night of the morris dancers gone bad. In Middleton cum Fordley on Boxing Day, it’s all gone a bit Wicker Man.

On a night illuminated by a Suffolk moon so bright it blinded you to look at it, I was among a crowd of around a hundred punters gathered in some excitement to witness the St Stephen’s Night ritual that is the Cutty Wren.

Originally, young agricultural workers would scour the local hedges and furze (an old English word for gorse bushes, still in use in East Anglian place names) in search of a wren. Sometimes the wren would be put in a cage among a thicket of foliage on the end of a pole. More often they’d kill the wren and nail it to its pole among its foliage. Wrens spend much of the time close to the ground in hedges, so this simulated its habitat.

The wren on the pole would be paraded around the village at the head of a troop of blacked-up molly dancers, molly dance being morris dancing’s evil twin from the East of England.

The East of England “molly” variant takes its name from the “molly”, one of the lead pair of the “side” – the team. The side performing the Cutty Wren at Middleton go by the suitably chilling name of Old Glory. The molly is a usually a terrifying-looking, blacked up older man in drag, wearing a poor Victorian woman’s long dress and bonnet, with some distinctly male boots to match. Forget embarrassing Black and White Minstrel Show blackface, molly dancers blacked up look more like SAS commandos ready for a murderous night mission. The molly’s usually the orchestrator of clandestine molly mischief.

The molly dancers’ sinister look is emphasised by the fact that during their whole grim performance, the molly dancers never, ever smile. Members of the side who aren’t in a particular dance stand right in front of the audience starting straight ahead but avoiding eye contact, like a line of cops on “public order” duty. One member of Old Glory told me that in days of “pre-modern dentistry”, you’d avoided smiling at all costs during “muggings” (begging expeditions) as a smile was “like a bar-code”, the gaps in your teeth allowed your landlord or the vicar to identify you. Another feature of Old Glory that sets them apart from the more genteel morris teams of a traditional English summer is that Old Glory only ever dance on winter nights.


The Cutty Wren in progress - molly dancers of the Old Glory side perform in the moonlight, under a "no flash photography, lanterns only" policy. Someone's broken the no flash rule here!

How old is the Cutty Wren? “Cutty” is believed to be an ancient word of Celtic origin. The famous tea clipper ship the Cutty Sark at Greenwich is named after the way too short – “cutty” is “short” or small”– child’s linen undergarment or “sark” worn by Nannie Dee, the witch in Robert Burn’s poem Tam ‘o Shanter who appears on the ship’s figurehead. Some trace the Cutty Wren ritual back to the Iron Age (possibly mythical) “Year King” who ruled for a year and who was sacrificed – probably not literally – at the end of each year to renew the crops.

There’s a whole catalogue of Cutty Wren songs and poems, the English one is thought to date back to at the 14th century or possibly much earlier. The oldest written version is a 17th century Scots song and there is an (English-language) Irish Cutty Wren ballad and versions in Welsh, Breton and Manx. Before the Middleton Cutty Wren’s opening dance, the man in blackface in a flat cap carrying the wren on the pole shouts out the best-known Cutty Wren song:

“We’ll hunt the wren!”/Says Jack-of-the-Land/”We’ll hunt the wren!”/Says everyone/The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
/On St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
/Although he was little, his power is great
/So up with the kettle and down with the plate!” The kettle is a pub tankard, and the plate is the molly dancers’ collecting plate, although it’s now a box on a strap carried discreetly under the arm of the “box man” who also carries the wren on a pole. He’s extra tall for the purposes of gentle intimidation.

Old Glory’s revived Cutty Wren at Middleton can be traced all the way back to 1993. We seem to be in the middle of a Cutty Wren revival, days before I attended the Middleton Cutty Wren, Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy’s new poem The Wren Boys was published in the Guardian, describing lads from the turn of the twentieth century - the glory days of the Cutty Wren tradition – catching a wren and going begging. There’s even an obscure short story from a BBC Worldwide official Doctor Who adventure book, in which the Second Doctor and his assistants Jamie and Victoria land in a suitably atmospheric Middleton on Boxing Day 1906 to find themselves in some sort of terrifying scenario. (FOOTNOTE: “The Cutty Wren”, Doctor Who Short Trips: The Ghosts of Christmas, BBC Worldwide, London 2008.)

But going back (or forward) to our 2015 Middleton Cutty Wren, the absence of small children was noticeable. They’d been locked up to stop them getting nightmares at the sight of the terrifying Old Glory side on their silent, torch lit funeral procession, interrupted only by the occasion single, solemn drumbeat. (When I enquired about the Cutty Wren at The Old Bell pub earlier, one of the regulars described the forthcoming “frightening the children” procession.) Some dogs shut indoors saw the silent blackface march of the torch-wielding molly side pass by their living room window and went nuts.

The male molly side were scary enough – the dancer from the lead pair who wasn’t in drag wore a suitably gothic horror top hat, as did the deliberately non-entertaining master of ceremonies. But the all-girl band that accompanied them (molly “orchestras” were traditionally all-female, and the women used to teach the dance steps) was just bizarre. They were blacked up and wore long black trench coats, with black veils around their broad-brimmed hats, which were decked with generous mounds of ivy and other foliage. This gave them the appearance of an evil chorus line from The Muppet Show, and the orchestra played from deep in the shadows, adding to their sinister mystery.

After the short procession through the village, the molly dancers and punters formed up in the car park in front of The Old Bell pub, which has a noisy gravel surface for some of the dances that involve deliberate stomping. “Stomping the Ground” is the title of one of the dances. Others include “Nelson’s Revenge”, and then there’s “The Buck” which realistically simulates rutting stags with horns locked in combat, complete with shouts of “Ooh!” that mimic the bellow of a red deer stag. The deer rut throughout October, just down the road on the Westleton Heath RSPB reserve, is an annual tourist attraction.

“The Buck” is, of course, another excuse to unnerve people by simulating a fight. The dances are purposely graceless, jerky and plodding. A lot of dance moves involve burly blokes grappling each other, because this whole performance is really a subtle show of physical force and intimidation designed to get the vicar, the squire, the landlord and the respectable shopkeeper to put some money in the box you thrust towards them so they can be on their way.

The master or ceremonies in his undertaker’ s top hat introduces the first dance by explaining that “We are but poor ploughboys… under my arm I have a small box.” These days, though, proceeds of the Cutty Wren go to charity.

The eight-strong female orchestra hidden in the shadows has a few “proper” instruments - tin whistles, accordions and a kettle drum, but the percussion section plays the sort of deliberately shambolic equipment you’d expect the families of “poor ploughboys” to come up with – a skiffle, washboards and an Australian-style “lager pole” – a broom handle with tin lager bottle tops loosely nailed to it, which jangles when struck on the ground.

When the Cutty Wren’s “wick lanterns only, no flash photography” convention is occasionally broken, the Old Glory dance team are fleetingly illuminated, revealed as men in late middle age in blackface, wearing the waistcoats and neckerchiefs of farm labourers circa 1900, with some horse brasses with the wren design from the old pre-decimal farthing coins. In their white shirtsleeves and trilby hats, they molly dancers look more like one of the “ultraviolence” gangs escaped from A Clockwork Orange than Wicker Man.



A final circle dance with the crowd as The Cutty Wren comes to an end. Molly dance side members in blackface, the wren is on a pole surrounded by foliage

The man carrying the Cutty Wren on its pole tells the story of how Britain’s migratory birds chose a King via a competition to see who could fly the highest. When the golden eagle showed up, all the birds dropped out, leaving only the wren, who’d just made it through the scrum of onlookers by accident. The wren won by riding on the back of the eagle, and became the Friend of the Poor, symbol of resourcefulness triumphing over power. The retelling including some very modern references to bird focus groups and the Home Office granting Leave to Remain to bird migrants.

The Cutty Wren is part of an East Anglian revival of morbid morris dancing. Old Glory sometimes team up with the local Rendham Mummers, whose performances include the play Death Comes A Knocking. And also from Suffolk Coastal District comes the blackface mixed morris side Pretty Grim, inspired by the dances of the Welsh border but with a goth-punk vibe. Its name comes from the fact that “the boys are pretty and the girls are grim.”

The Cutty Wren usually assembles at around 8pm on St Stephen’s Night (26 December) at the Village Hall, Middleton, Suffolk IP17 3NG (also known as Middleton cum Fordley, not to be confused with the other Middleton just over the Essex border). There are no trains or buses on Boxing Day. Old Glory’s website features a calendar of events and some unsettling video from their previous Cutty Wren performances.


Matt Salusbury is regular FT contributor and author of Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk (CFZ Publications, 2017)

(More photos and links to be added shortly)

© Matt Salusbury 2016

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Cutty Wren, Middleton, Suffolk - in Fortean Times FT 348



"The wren, the wren! The King of the Birds!" The Cutty Wren - a wooden model of hidden in foliage on the end of a pole - is paraded as the Old Glory Molly dance side prepare for their final circle dance with the crowd in the car park outside the Bell Inn, Middleton, Suffolk.


My "Fortean Traveller" article on the Cutty Wren, Middleton, Suffolk is in the current issue of Fortean Times, FT 348, the Christmas 2016 issue, on sale in newsagents now - but not for much longer! When the "First British Serial" rights have expired (when the January issue's out), it will be on this blog in full.

I regret I won't make it to this year's Cutty Wren in Middleton (Suffolk, IP17 3NG, as ever it's on St Stephen's Eve, the evening at the end of Boxing Day (26 December). There are regrettably no trains or buses on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, and add at least an extra hour to get you back on the Abellio Greater Anglia holiday season replacement bus services. If you can get wheels to get you there, it's just off the just off the A12 at the Sizewell turn, just north of Yoxford, assembling at around 8pm at the Village Hall for a sombre torchlit procession through the village to the Bell Inn car park. Leave your dogs and kids at home, they'll be terrified!

Old Glory continue their No Respect tour with performances exclusively in the dark on winter nights in the region until 3 February. A programme is here.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk - an update





The Hay Wain with Melanistic Leopard - with apologies to John Constable. Many of Suffolk's big cat reports come from the area of South Suffolk known as Constable Country along the Suffolk bank of the River Stour, on the border with Essex. Constable's original Hay Wain depicts Flatford Mill on the Suffolk bank of the Stour, seen from the Essex bank, not far from his birthplace at East Bergholt. Illustration from the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk



There's already a front cover. It shows a 15th-century panther gargoyle from St Peter's Church, Theberton





Oops! Better make that 2017! Sorry! "Author biography" from the current Fortean Times issue FT348, which includes my article on the Cutty Wren from Middleton, Suffolk

I've been asked for a progress report on my forthcoming and long-awaited book Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk.

Why has it taken so bloody long? Recent - now resolved - health issues aside, the flow of regular, paid-at-the-end of the-month work I can't turn down has rather got in the way. Also, when I started on the book at the end of 2014, I foolishly imagined big cats weren't really a big thing, and that a short section of big cats in the book might turn out to be a bit disappointing. Well over 170 reported or recorded Suffolk big cat sightings later, going back to 1974, this has turned out not to be the case!



My map of Suffolk showing nearly all the locations in the book, I'm about to add the big cat sightings!

I've been laying out the book myself, and I have the following still to do: one more illustration, some maps (a completed one is below, it needs some tweaks as it was bit faint on a test-print), bibliography, adding page numbers to the index and contents pages, finding some space to squeeze in some last-minute big cat reports if possible, moving around some pages in the layout, back cover illustration and then all done. At that point, hopefully soon, I will have some proofs to go to the proofreaders, and to Fortean Times co-editor Paul Sieveking, who is writing a short foreword. (He was born and bred in Snape, it turns out.)

There will be a book launch when the book's out, in Ipswich. To get on the "guesty" (guest list), email mysteryanimalsof suffolk@gn.apc.org. There are other Suffolk events around Mystery Animals planned, Moyse's Hall Museum, Bury (Bury St Edmunds) and Dunwich Reading Room are already interested.

Meanwhile, announcements are on the Twitter account at @MysteryAnimals


A tongue-in-cheek take on the fate of the Beccles Lynx, shot in Great Witchingham in 1991, found in a freezer in Beccles by Defra and Norfolk Police, and rumoured to be on display in a stately home somewhere in the Beccles area (there are lots of them!). Illustration form the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk

Monday, 25 July 2016

Why the alleged release of three pumas in the 1970s doesn't solve the mystery of the Beast of Bodmin



Melanistic leopard (left) and puma (right). Pumas are not black


A recent article in the Telegraph claims the "mystery of the Beast of Bodmin" is "solved." The story, which came to the Telegraph via Danny Bampling of the British Big Cats Society, goes that Mary Chipperfield, owner of Chipperfield's Circus released three pumas of a consignment of five on on their way to "their new home" in Dartmoor Zoo back in the 1970s. (The story goes that she'd been forced to close down her zoo in Plymouth, and that only two of the three pumas destined for Dartmoor Zoo arrived.)

Shown in the article is a library photo of what's clearly a brown puma on Dartmoor, said to be a photo of the Beast of Bodmin. Mystery solved?

Not exactly. I'm not disputing that it's a photo of puma, and I've no reason to think it's not genuine. Some of the sightings of the Beast of Bodmin - Britiain's best known "Alien Big Cat", frequently seen on Bodmin Moor - are clearly of pumas. The Beast killed a number of sheep, and has the distinction of being the only British big cat on whose account the Royal Marines were mobilised on the Moor on an operation to go and find it, with "shoot to kill" rules of engagement. (Some Marines claim to have caught a brief glimpse of the Beast while on patrol.) There was also a bizarre unsuccessful employment tribunal case brought by a newspaper photographer who claimed he was made to fake Beast of Bodmin photos, about which more later. (Let's just say it involved someone who's about to in the news again, so I'm being coy about the details while I gather evidence for a story.)

The problem with the Beast of Bodmin, though, is that most sightings were of a large, BLACK cat, closely answering the description of a melanistic (black) leopard. For some reason, nearly all the reports of leopards seen in the wild in the UK are of melanistic leopards. I've been documenting big cat sightings in Suffolk for over two years now, and, yes, plenty of sightings of black leopards, and quite a lot of sightings of pumas too. Pumas are from the Americas originally, and they vary in colour from sandy light brown to grey, red brown or a dark chocolate brown.

The point is that pumas are almost never black. There were two cases of pumas shot in Costa Rica in the early 20th century that were black, but they weren't black all over like the black big cats (melanistic leopards?) seen in the wild in the UK. The Costa Rican black pumas had light undersides. Early European explorers in North America in the 17th century reported something they called a "jaguarette", something puma-like with a light underside. It's possible this was either a misidentified black jaguar or some variety of puma that may since have become extinct or very rare. Generally speaking, no black pumas.

Some of the sightings (a minority) of the Beast of Bodmin are pumas, then, but most are black leopards. They look similar, particularly in silhouette, and my experience of talking to about 30 big cat witnesses in Suffolk has shown that we British are very bad at identifying big cats. There is a dark chocolate variant of puma coloration (we think they may even change colour during their lifetime) so one or two black Beast of Bodmin sightings may be one of these. But the great majority of Beast of Bodmin sightings are almost certainly black leopards. Where they came from remains unexplained, not "solved" then.

I've spoken to a couple of witnesses in Suffolk who've seen - on different occasions - a puma and and a leopard in the same area. Where there are sightings of pumas or lynxes, there are often local sightings of leopards too. These animals are just passing through, and the habitats that attract pumas will attract leopards as well. The proportion of puma sightings to leopard sightings in Suffolk that I've documented is roughly the same as the pattern in different regions nationally - from a sample of just under 100, just over half are definitely pumas, a little under a quarter are definitely pumas, another quarter are some sort of indeterminate "puma or lynx" (we're not very good at big cat identification in the UK) and let's not forget another 6 per cent or so that are lynxes. If anything, the Suffolk figures have proportionally slightly more lynxes than pumas. So the sightings of the Beast of Bodmin being mostly black leopards and a few pumas would seem to follow, as it were the national average.




Sample of big cat sightings in Suffolk 1976-2014, copyright Matt Salusbury. Reports after 2014 generally confirm the same pattern.

What about a possible hybrid between a black leopard and a puma? There's a problem with that - these are known, and you can go and see a stuffed "pumapard" at the Natural History Museum in Tring. But the pumapard (leopard-puma hybrids) were dwarves - not much bigger that the terriers that acted as their foster mothers. See here.

I'll be adding links and illustrations to the above over the next few days with references. It'll all in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk.

Friday, 10 June 2016

The ruined woodwose of Letheringham




Letheringham is only a couple of miles by bike from Wickham Market and the nearby train station at Campsey Ash, but it feels like it's in the middle of nowhere. The church is down a track made from flints and gravel, it's in the middle of a field, surrounded by paddocks with thoroughbred horses. There was a foal skipping around the field adjoining the churchyard when I visited.

Letheringham Priory Church used to be part of a priory (a monastery) and still has a rather impressive wall around it for such a small church, and there's a shed in the corner of the churchyard that's made from stone, strongly suggesting it was one of the monastery outbuildings in bygone days. The church itself is a shortened version of the main monastery building.

Over the years, the church has seen hard times. The powerful Wingfield family lived locally - there are a few brasses under rugs still in the church showing some of the Wingfields, hands clasped in prayer, wearing the armour of a 15th century knight. There used to be stone tombs of the Wingfields too, but they survive only in an 18th century drawing, which shows a temporary, barn-like roof of most of the church, but the church still being open to the elements in places. A local land dispute led to the church going to rack and ruin.

A visiting antiquarian in 1780 described the "roof entirely down" and ruined "antient and curious monuments". A restoration ordered by church authorities went seriously awry, with churchwardens instead selling of the entire contents of the chancel to a contractor, presumably for building materials, stone being rare in these parts.

There are some shelves by the door (the church is usually unlocked) which has some alcoves for some of the rescued remains of those "antient and curious monuments. This includes two kneeling Elizabethan figures and the top half of a woodwose - about a foot high, very eroded but with his curly body hair still visible, with a forked beard and big, staring eyes. A snapped-off, curved club is held up over his shoulder in one hand.

We owe the Letheringham woodwose's survival to his chance discovery in a local garden, where he was being used as a garden ornament. He may once have been on display on top of the porch, like the woodwoses and Yaxley, Mendlesham, Kelsale and possibly the ruined woodwose at St Mary's Woolpit. There's more on them, and many other woodwoses from around the county, on the extended online version of my article "The Woodwoses of Suffolk", originally for Fortean Times.





This creature on the tower at Letheringham is described only as an "animal" in the church's guidebook. It could be an ape, symbol of sin and evil in Medieval imagery.





Letheringham's village sign commemorates the mill that once stood there. It's a repurposed mill stones.



The sign that time forgot, outside Letheringham




A fire-breathing salamander on a coat of arms in nearby Easton church




Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Mummified cats in He Say Land





The magnificent mummified cat at the Mill Hotel Sudbury

"He Say Land" is named after the sing-song language of the corner of southwest Suffolk and all the way down to Halstead over the Essex border. That's according to the older inhabitant of Sudbury on the number 11 bus while we were waiting at the queue on Ballingdon Hill going into Sudbury. There's one bridge to get you over the Stour into Sudbury, and on Saturdays the queue is backed up at the Ballingdon Hill traffic lights all the way up to the top of the hill and the "Welcome to Suffolk" sign.

It's called "He Say Land" because a lot of local dialect conversations begin "He say" this and "He say" that.

The same man also told me the river delineating Suffolk from Essex, the Stour, is pronounced "store" by the locals, while only newcomers pronounce it with two syllables to rhyme with "hour." So unmoving was the traffic that I asked the driver of the no. 11 bus, stopped at the top of Ballingdon Hill, if he could let me out to unfold my folding bike and cycle into Sudbury to save time. I'll be lynched, mate!" he told me.

The "Welcome to Suffolk" sign at Ballingdon Hill, through the window of the no. 11 bus, which could do with a clean!

Driving around the hairpin bends and narrow medieval streets of Sudbury, you meet some of the world's most patient and chilled drivers. I never once heard a car honk. As soon as any of the local drivers rounds one of the hairpin bends, they automatically pull in and let oncoming traffic pass. They pull over as soon as they see an approaching car (or bike, even), although it can be quite a long way off.(Suffolk drivers generally have the reputation of England's most polite and laid-back, although try telling that the the volunteers with their speed guns monitoring the maniacs charging along the Westleton to Blythburgh road at 40mph. See also the Coastal Scene hyperlocal newspaper, a large part of which is taken up by news of high-speed collisions on the A12, usually involving deer.)


My trip was another "two fingers up at Abellio Greater Anglia" expedition, as they wanted to charge me the usual fare for making my own way out to Manor Park tube (somewhere on the Central Line but not central at all), bus to Ingatestone, then train the rest of the way, that'll be an extra hour. I took the train to Stansted airport, then three buses to Sudbury - they all lined up rather well, with only short waits in between, despite the bus to Halstead no longer existing and all the bays for buses changing.

On the way from Stantead to Sudbury on three bus journeys, I passed through Braintree. It's where you get offered a house straight away if you put your name down for a house in Suffolk, has a confusing bus station. Just when you think you have a half hour wait ahead, you work ouand t that another bus will get you there sooner, and then another bus altogether, not on the timetable, puts in that's going to Halstead. Braintree also has a large statue of Neptune or somebody, which features a large bronze otter.


The lady at reception at the Mill Hotel in Sudbury - on the Stour - didn't bat an eyelid when I asked if I could photograph their mummified cat. It's in a hole in the floor, covered by glass. Apparently it was taken out after it was found, but the hotel suffered a fire so they felt it best to put it back.

The top of the road immediately outside the Mill Hotel was one of the very few places in Suffolk I've been to where the hill was so steep I had to get off my bike and walk.

When swans attack? Spotted in Ballingdon

I also briefly got to see Siam Gardens, the tiny Sudbury town centre park where the Sudbury Wardens had a call-out regarding a tiger, which turned out to be of "the soft-toy" variety.



Siam Gardens



I also spotted what looked like a woodwose on the top of All Saint's Church, Sudbury. Barry Wall of the Sudbury Society later confirmed to me that it indeed was a woodwose. It blew down in a storm in the 1980s, and you can just see the top of a steel rod protruding from the top of his head, which presumably was put there to stop him falling off the tower again. It's one of only three woodwoses on Suffolk church towers I know - the others being Kelsale and Haverhill.


Woodwose on the tower of All Saints, Sudbury



View from the Beestons bus from Sudbury to Ipswich


From Sudbury it was the Beestons double-decker bus all the way to Ipswich, just over an hour at high speed. Between Hadleigh and Ipswich we shot past what appeared to be an emu in a field, watching us through the fence. I found it later on Google Street view, watching the Google car go by.



Is that an emu on the A1071 near Hintlesham? (Photo copyright: Google 2016)

Needless to say, much of the above material will make its way into the imminent Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk, now between two and three months away from publication by my cautious estimate. I'm now struggling through the second proofs.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Wickham Market expedition - following up on big cat sighting




As Centre for Fortean Zoology regional rep for Suffolk, I now am supposed to send in reports of mystery or out-of-place, according to the latest issue of Animals and Men. So here is my first report.


Carrying out investigations at Wickham Market sports ground


There was a report in the East Anglian Daily Times and the Daily Mirror of a sighting of a melanistic leopard by A-level student Eliot Evans, who was out jogging on the village sports ground in his native Wickham Market last Thursday evening just before dusk. The Mirror's version was in its "Weird News" section. But given that 25 per cent of British mammals (including us) are introduced to these islands, yet another introduced species like a leopard isn't that "weird" after all. (Wickham Market's in the Suffolk Coastal District of the county Suffolk, it's a train stop between Woodbridge to the south and Saxmundham to the North, and it's near the west bank of the River Deben. People in Suffolk Coastal sometimes refer to it as just "Wickham", as there's little risk of confusing it with the village of Wickham Skeith at the northern end of Mid-Suffolk.)

When I went to take a look I hadn't yet been able to track down Eliot Evans or David Galvin, who said there was a black leopard locally that had been seen before. A quick look at the internet reveals that Galvin, former British Big Cats Society rep for Suffolk, who saw a black leopard in a local forest some time before 2003, was also a witness to a UFO over Wickham Market High Road in 2009.



Wickham Market sports ground




The short cut past the pavilion - a route for big cats too?



Wickham Market FC

There had been a football match on Wickham Market FC sports ground between the sighting and my arrival on Saturday, judging by the marks from football boot studs that had considerably churned it up, so there was little hope of finding any big cat prints. Parts of the edge of the ground was a bog anyway after a lot of heavy rain. The ground has a path going off to a short-cut through a little bit of woodland that was in use when I dropped in, going past the Wickham Market FC pavilion. I have to admit I only had an hour between trains to stop at Wickham Market station - actually nearer the village of Campsey Ashe two miles away by folding bike, so I really only had time to stop at the location and take pictures then rush back to catch the next train.


Bridge over the River Deben near Wickham Market, where it's a trickle

I did notice that Wickham Market's near a riverbed - the River Deben is a trickle here, near its source, but it looks like typical "big cat country" - wetlands, reeds, out of the way and the sort of place you'd expect deer or waterfowl to drop in for a drink, providing a readily accessible food source.

My earlier research showed that there was a cluster of multiple big cat sightings around a decade ago around Bredfield, a couple of miles to the south. These were of a non-specific "big cat" whose witnesses couldn't confidently identify it as either a leopard or puma. There was a black big cat with "tufted" ears seen on Ufford Park golf course a few miles to the north in 2009. Suffolk's earliest known (by me at least) big cat sighting was a black leopard seen in Rendlesham Forest in the 1970s, not far from Wickham Market.


Loudham Hall's Suffolk big cat, tucked away in a secluded spot by the Deben just outside Wickham Market


Wickham Market used to be a rail terminal for live cattle brought from Ireland to be grazed locally in the water meadows, with a major cattle auction. The auction house now does mostly antiques and vintage cars, I was told that during busy periods there will be three auctions going on simultaneously. It's known as a "large village," it's certainly the only village I've seen with its own bike shop.

The area around Wickham Market has been the stomping ground of other out-of-place animals. A rhea was seen near the railway line at Wickham Market in 2010, it died probably of a stress-induced heart attack after being shot with a hypodermic by the RSPCA. Another rhea on the line briefly delayed the Ipswich to Lowestoft East Suffolk Lines train service in 2012, and was never accounted for. Might it have ended up being eaten by a local big cat, assuming a big cat could keep up with a rhea running at up to 40mph.

Ending up as big cat food may have been the ultimate fate of the wallaby seen by a cyclist at Pettistree, immediately to the south of Wickham Market, in 2004.



Passing under pylons at Campsey Ash. You know you're approaching Wickham Market station by train or along the A12 road when you see the pylons. You can navigate by these pylons in Suffolk Coastal, as they march inland and southwest from the nuclear power station at Sizewell.


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

Quick update (28/1/16) Elliot Evans contacted me via Twitter to tell me I'd photographed the wrong sports field in Wickham Market! He sent me a Google satellite image with the field where he'd seen the big cat ringed. It was further out of the village, just beyond the little crossroads on its northern edge, in what seems to be a set of three little five-a-side football pitches they're so new they don't even feature in my Collins Street Atlas of Suffolk, which is just under 18 months old. The random Wickham Market resident I asked for directions on my most recent trip directed me to "the village sports ground", presumably thinking I meant the Wickham Market FC ground, which isn't far from the new sports ground where Elliot saw the melanistic leopard. I hope to photograph the correct location soon.