Sunday, 1 June 2008

Weird Weekend 2006

This Fortean Bureau of Investigation report from the December 2006 issue of Fortean Times (FT 217) appears as part of a general update of the site.

All pictures copyright Matt Salusbury

Woolfardishworthy, North Devon, so good they named it twice. Also known as Woolsery

Just getting to the village of Woolfardishworthy, Devon, home of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) and its Weird Weekend 2006 convention, was already beginning to look like one of the CFZ’s own expeditions to the ends of the Earth in search of unknown animals. Here’s a travel tip: be wary of any railway branch line that’s named after an otter. My journey along the “Tarka Line,” which (eventually) takes passengers from Exeter to Barnstable, became a two-hour nightmare wait, followed by standing room only in a packed carriage. The stress and tedium was relieved only by the tall man in the orange ponytail, with his loud and clear recitations from a battered copy of A Textbook of Marxist Philosophy.

The “Tarka Line” experience was followed by a cross-country bike ride featuring a series of terrifying 1 in 5 gradients that dropped down sharp to disappear into dark, misty woods. Washed out at the campsite, I had my own cryptozoological encounter the next morning, picking strange yellow snails off my sodden bike.

Down at the barn-like Woolfardishworthy Sports and Community Hall, posters for the young farmers tractor pull event shared noticeboard space with an exhibition of Bigfoot images. FiancĂ©es, girlfriends and neighbours’ kids had been roped into helping out, including “Little Ross” the microphone runner, and 14-year-old David Philips who ran the Weird Weekend sound and lights.

Highlights of the 12-hour endurance marathon that was ‘Weird Saturday’ included Chris Moiser from the Big Cats in Britain Group. The group made a Freedom of Information Act request for data on Big Cat sightings from all the UK’s 600-odd councils and 36 police forces. Devon and Cornwall Constabulary’s three-inch thick file of police logs revealed that the police force keeps a tranquiliser gun in its stores, and that many more sightings are reported to the police than to the press. Paul Crowther uncovered a local cottage industry in faked Big Cat photos.

Richard Ingram’s talk on the fall of civilizations listed the usual catastrophes, and some unexpected threats – the financial markets leaving ‘The City’ would pretty much finish off Britain’s economy overnight, while a sudden epidemic could take out the very small pool of people who keep nuclear power stations ticking over.

Ufologist Lionel Beer looked at several dozen potential locations for that “elusive historical butterfly,” King Arthur’s court at Camelot, and concluded that it may all be (literally) a load of rubbish, or a camelotte in French.

UFO researcher Nick Redfern – one of very few people who makes a full-time living out of what he calls “the subject”, had flown in from the States to talk about “saucer spies” – Special Branch, M15 and RAF Provost and Security Service’s surveillance of ufologists in general, and his colleague Matthew Williams in particular. Redfern’s thesis is that the security services wrongly believe that ufologists are being used as cover by other “subversive” groups.

In the CFZ quiz, “one of the greatest events of the Fortean year,” the punters team beat the experts’ team to walk away with Alien Big Cat models as prizes. By then, events were running a little late, on “Devon time.”

Paul Cropper arrived after a 37-hour journey from Australia at his own expense to give two talks in an afternoon, pretty much straight off the plane. He showed rare footage of a purported Australian black panther, and footage of a mainland thylacine, (Tasmania tiger) which we all agreed looked very much like a fox – an animal introduced to Australia to keep down rabbit numbers, and which quickly went feral.

Mr Cropper also treated us to a history of the Yowie, the Australian Bigfoot. Reports go back to Aboriginal traditions of the Dulgar (“hairy man”) from rock paintings and from stories collected and written down by Alexander Harris in the 1840s. (He thought he was being hoaxed at the time.) Many newspaper reports in the 1870s and 1880s refer to “many hairy men”, but then the Yowie disappears between 1910, reappearing only in 1975. Before 1975 they were known as Yahoos or “hairy men.”

Guardian columnist and fellow NUJ London Freelance Branch member Jon Ronson on owl-worshipping frat boy summer camp Bohemian Grove

“By the way, Ronson, you’re not going to say the Queen Mother was a reptile, are you?” asked CFZ Director Jonathan Downes as he introduced Guardian columnist and Channel 4 investigator Jon Ronson. After hanging out with subsequently banned fundamentalist Omar Bakri Mohamed, and a politically correct Ku Klux Klan faction that banned robes, cross burnings and racism, Ronson sneaked into gatherings of the Bilderberg group and then disguised himself in “preppy clothes” to gatecrash and film Bohemian Grove. This is a frat-boy “white flight” resort set up in the redwoods outside San Francisco in the 1920s, and is the venue of a bizarre two-week world leaders’ summer camp where the immensely powerful dress up in robes and do a mock human sacrifice of a wicker figure which they burn in the belly of a giant stone owl. Part pantomime, part Rocky Horror Show, part burlesque drag show and all tacky sub-Shakespearian pageant, the greatest mystery of Bohemian Grove is why the likes of (allegedly) George Bush Snr, Conrad Black, John Major and Clint Eastwood would want to spend their scarce holidays in a juvenile all-male environment where “80-year old men piss against trees.”

Although this Weird Weekend saw 140 people coming through the door from nine countries, it is also becoming a family-orientated event “for ordinary people, not just Fortean insiders.” A terribly nice Norway-based Satanist couple complete with upturned pentangle necklaces rubbed shoulders with the “very God-fearing” people of Woolfardisworthy. There was a kid’s treasure hunt and mad hatter’s tea party (Richard Freeman in his usual top hat,) while punky local schoolboy band C.A.S entertained us with their “Hunting the Yeti” song as one of their mates cavorted in a borrowed yeti costume. Mr Downes laments that “kids don’t keep caterpillars anymore” and has been working to reinvigorate the enthusiasm of the village children for natural history. “I believe in community,” says Downes. When Weird Weekend started seven years ago, he found the “Fortean scene was a bloody shambles – ‘official’ investigation teams, 40 or 50 groups with five members, everybody at each others’ throats.”

Goth zoologist and former head zookeeper for reptiles Richard Freeman reported back on the CFZ’s Gambia expedition in search of two elusive beasts – “Gambo”, a finned, crocodile-like carcass found washed up on Bungalow Beach and buried in the dry sand by holidaying missionary Owen Burnham in 1983, and “Ninka Nanka” a huge, swimming crested serpentine dragon that makes you drop dead within five years of seeing it.

Bungalow Beach is now heavily developed, and the team quickly found that after more than 20 years the sand had become too wet to preserve any Gambo bones. Witnesses they interviewed describe something very like a large dolphin.

The expedition found only one living witness to the Ninka Nanka, who claimed a witch doctor saved his life after his sighting, but even then he still lost his hair. Others told how relatives had seen it and then died. Some reports described a “fantastic, Godzilla-sized” animal. A story about a lorry crashing after running into a huge furrow left by a slithering Ninka Nanka in 2000 didn’t match the wreckage of a much older-looking, rusty wreck with trees growing through it. Alleged Ninka Nanka scales were passed around the audience. We agreed they were probably mica chips.

Mr Freeman concluded that if there is a Ninka Nanka – maybe a large, crested or combed swimming snake – it has died out in Gambia, and we will have to look for it over the river in more remote Guinea.

Footprint casts and photos of tracks on Paul Vella's Bigfoot stall

Paul Vella, of the Alliance of Independent Bigfoot Researchers, set out a stall laden with Bigfoot footprint casts and photos of more Bigfoot prints. Mr Vella is a UK-based crime scene investigator specializing in computers and mobiles, but his interest in Bigfoot was kicked off by the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film – 40 years old next year – “it really bugged me.” Mr Vella asserts that, Patterson aside, “nobody makes any money out of Bigfoot… a lot of people spend a lot of money on Bigfoot research” and he knows of “five Bigfoot-related divorces. It consumes you.” He has promised his wife he will give up his research in 2010 and put all his Bigfoot books on E-bay. He presented convincing evidence for Bigfoot being real – prints, casts, and spine-tingling recordings of Bigfoot screams, which he played to us. He has heard rumours that logging interests were behind some obvious Bigfoot hoaxes in a conspiracy to stop their patch becoming a logging-free Bigfoot reserve.

Weird Weekend speakers, from left: Rendlesham witness Larry Warren, Ufologist Nick Redfern, Creaturama's Mussosaurus, cryptozoology's First Lady Corinna James, CFZ Directory Jonathan Downes, Danish lake monster investigator Lars Thomas
“It wasn’t a lighthouse,” insists Larry Warren, former USAF Security Police patrolman and witness to the UFO encounter at Rendelsham Forest around Christmas 1980, events so famous they have become known as the “British Roswell.” Warren, who now lives in Liverpool, recalls seeing a “craft under intelligent control” which fired “pencil-thin beams” into the sheds containing “the ordinance.” By “the ordinance” he meant a vast store of tactical nuclear weapons. As someone who grew up holidaying with my grandparents in the area, I found this the scariest Rendelsham revelation. It was Europe’s most important nuclear arms dump and nuclear target, and “Greenham Common was a diversion, we were guarding the nukes.” Warren went public in 1982 after the suicide of a colleague and fellow witness, “who should not have been allowed to carry arms” and alleges “brutal interrogation… violation of human rights in the 48 hours after the incident” by the Base authorities. The Rendlesham investigation is unusual in that “the witnesses push forward the investigation rather than the UFO community at large.”

The fallout from the alleged terrorist plot in the week before Weird Weekend grounded many flights to and from the UK, but in the event there was only one speaker who cancelled. The ever-hilarious Ronan Coghlan began his talk on the legendary “goatman” by apologizing in advance in case his dentures flew out during his talk – his denture fixative had been confiscated as he boarded his plane at Belfast as a suspected possible “liquid explosive.”

Coghlan’s goatman turns out throughout Europe – Pan and the Satyrs of Greece and Rome, the Danish geetman, the Scottish urish, and the nastier German bokschit. Pan is far older than the gods of Olympus, and was originally part of a whole race of Pans. Modern American legends – like the axe-wielding, murderous goatman of Prince’s County, Virginia – superimpose gone-wrong genetic experimentation nonsense onto older spooky campfire stories.

If you missed the Weird Weekend talks, you can still see highlights on CFZ TV, accessible via the CFZ website.

Jackalope, a fake monster made from deer antlers and a stuffed hare, on show in the CFZ museum
Weird Weekend was also a chance to visit the CFZ’s new headquarters at Myrtle Cottage, Back Street, Woolfardishworthy. The new office was as busy and crowded as my carriage on the “Tarka Line” when I visited, and the conservatory featured a jackalope, a pilot whale skull connected to the Mogwar sea serpent legend, and live snapper turtles and soft-shelled turtles, some of which came the CFZ’s way following Customs seizures. Cuthbert, one of their soft-shelled turtles, is the only known example of a newly discovered species.

Mr Downes rounded off by promising more CFZ expeditions soon – to Orange Country, Texas, in search of a mystery “double-bed sized” snapping turtle, a trip to look for mystery lizards on uninhabited islands in the Canaries, a second Mongolian Death Worm trip, and an expedition to find “the world’s largest earwig” in the South Atlantic on St Helena – the island of the giant insects.

Veteran Fortean John Michell is among the speakers already booked for Weird Weekend 2007, back in the Sports and Community Hall on 17th-19th August. Over dinner in the Farmer’s Arms pub afterwards, eating from a cryptozoology-themed menu that included Beast of Bodmin Steaks, Mr Downes promised the next Weird Weekend would also include Morris dancing and a parade by the local village kids dressed as monsters. “A bit like in The Wicker Man, or like one of those strange villages coming out of the mists in Hammer House of Horror?” I asked.
“Yeah! That’s right!”

© Copyright Matt Salusbury 2006

UPDATE: The local Morris team were unavailable for Weird Weekend 2007, and the proposed children's fancy dress monster parade turned into a Chinese-inspired dragon dance at the opening ceremony and a youth cavorting in a gorilla suit during a rendition of "Hunting The Bigfoot" by a local teenage band.

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