Monday, 18 December 2017
The Mystery Lights of Suffolk
Matt Salusbury hears of a possible geological explanation for "Jenny Burnt Arses"
This article first appeared in Fortean Times, FT 360; December 2017
Lampland Marshes, south of Walberswick, by day
The East Anglian coast - coastal Suffolk in particular, but also North Essex and Norfolk – are especially rich in mystery light phenomena.
These mystery lights, traditionally assumed to be alive or at least directed by some malign intelligence, were known variously across the region as hob-o-lanterns, hobby lanterns, lantern-men, will-o-the-wisps, Jack-o-lanterns, Jenny Burnt Arses, Joan the Wad, Spunkie, Pinket or corpse candles.
They all delighted in leading travellers astray at night, particularly in marshes or churchyards. To be "well-led" in Suffolk dialect was to become beguiled by hobby lanterns into dangerous terrain and left in a confused state. A Ms Tish Spall from the Suffolk village of Westleton told her local Women's Institute she'd been the victim of one such incident in nearby Westleton Walks one night sometime before 1922, when hobby lanterns had led her over a mile away from the path. (Customs and Sayings recorded by the Women’s Institute in 1922, Leiston Press, Leiston 2008).
Uniquely East Anglian phosphorous-rich Red Crag strata - red sand with fossil sea shells
In some hobby lantern traditions, these glowing entities were the souls of unbaptized children, or of the drowned. Some could disguise themselves as beautiful girls. On the Slaughden peninsula near the Suffolk fishing port of Aldeburgh, there were said to be lights associated with nameless "things" that pelted you with shingle. Some advised that if you lay down and held your breath, it would make the hobby lanterns go away. Others advised that on no account should you whistle at the hobby lanterns, to do so would spell your doom.
The standard modern explanation for will-o-the-wisps is that they were just misidentified jets of ignited marsh gas – methane. James Wentworth Day reported that these mystery lights were once so common in Syleham, right on the Suffolk bank of the River Waveney on the border with Norfolk, that the phenomenon was known as Syleham Lights. Wentworth Day added these were most probably self-igniting plumes of marsh gas, and after the Syleham Marshes were drained, these were much diminished. (Here are Ghosts and Witches, James Wentworth Day, Batsford, London 1954.)
There's a similarly perfectly logical explanation offered for the "devils" with whom the seventh century East Anglian Saxon missionary St Botolph fought magical duels before driving them out of Iken, the spot on the Alde Estuary not far from Aldeburgh where he established a monastery. The explanation goes that the devils were just plumes of marsh gas, and by having the marshes drained, St Botolph cast them out. (That's if the whole episode happened in Iken, and not somewhere near Lincoln, as some scholars claim.)
A glowworm signalling to a potential mate in Dunwich Forest
A bizarre explanation for hobby lanterns appeared to talk hold in Norfolk in the 1890s, when contemporary naturalists such as RJW Purdey suggested that a series of mystery lights seen across the county were in fact luminous barn owls who'd picked up a dusting of phosphorescent fungus after roosting in trees scattered with fungal spores. Charles Fort in his book Lo! was especially dismissive of this "luminous owls of Norfolk" hypothesis, pointing out its numerous flaws.
Then there are the "corpse candles", glowing lights associated with churchyards, assumed to be the souls of the dead, while East Anglia's Black Shuck – its phantom black dog with glowing red eyes – is also known as "the Churchyard Beast", particularly within the county of Suffolk. (Meanwhile the Shuck in Hatfield Peverell, Essex, had a tendency to explode). The churchyard at Burgh St Peter, in the southern end of Norfolk near the River Waveney, has a history of anomalous churchyard mystery lights known as the Devil's Flashes.
Another candidate for East Anglia's lantern men and hobby lanterns is some sort of St Elmo's fire phenomena. The blue glow of the luminous plasma that is St Elmo's fire, sometimes accompanied by a buzzing noise, is usually associated with pointy, metal objects like weathervanes or ship's masts, but it's also been recorded during thunderstorms around cow's horns and even on leaves and grass.
The "Felixstowe Glowing Object Mystery" makes the front page of the Ipswich Evening Star, 21 September 1965
Many of these out-of-way places behind the coast where mystery lights were seen were on smugglers' routes. In the industry's peak in the late eighteenth century, local smuggling syndicates such as the Hadleigh Gang and the Syzewell Gang could mobilise 200 men and 100 horses at short notice, and fight pitched gun battles with the Excisemen and the regiments of dragoons garrisoned locally to support them. It's scarcely surprising, then, that so many odd lights were reported signalling at night!
The mother of all East Anglian mystery light incidents, the Rendlesham Forest Incident (RFI) of Boxing Day 1980 seemed to involve mystery lights bouncing around the forest floor and leading US Air Force security astray, complete with missing time experiences, in a manner more reminiscent of the mischievous hobby lanterns than currently fashionable explanations such as space aliens, multidimensional time travellers or some sort of nefarious Cold War disinformation cover story.
Alan Murdie and Robert Halliday have already revealed in the pages of Fortean Times how a Mr G Fell recalled an 1882 incident from his boyhood in Sudbourne. (It’s just north of Rendlesham and is home to the Captain’s Wood nature reserve.) Fell describes encountering hobby lanterns "on certain nights" in two local fields. "They look like a dull red light, like a lantern with the glass smoky. It moved to and fro across the field, about walking pace" according to Fell. Whatever it was disappeared whenever Fell and his boyhood chums approached within 100 yards (30 metres), lighting up again when they withdrew. ("Magic Lanterns," Alan Murdie and Robert Halliday, Fortean Times, December 2005, which quotes East Anglian Miscellany 1933-43.)
As also noted by Murdie and Halliday, Orford Ness, a few miles east of Sudbourne as the crow flies but over on the other side of the River Alde, at the end of the same narrow spit of land that starts at Slaughden, is Lantern Marshes. This features in a map of 1600 as "Lanterne Marsh", which seems to predate any beacon or lighthouse.
Since then, mystery lights have seldom left Orford alone. Two men saw in the 1970s “a pair of lights” over the coast near Orford Castle. The lights were hovering quite close to the water, and these darted away at “an incredible speed” as they approached. More recently, in the autumn of 1999, a “green meteor” was seen in the night sky heading towards Orford Ness. A strange hum has also been reported in recent times on the Ness.(See Paranormal Database's Orford Ness report.)
There’s also a Lampland Marshes marked on today's large-scale maps immediately south of the old Suffolk fishing village at Walberswick. There were said to be jack-o-lanterns in Eastbridge (now on the edge of the Minsmere RSPB reserve, to the south and a little inland) and at nearby Dunwich Walks, appearing in winter. There are stories of fairy lights, ghosts and weirdness around the church at Martlesham, near Martlesham Creek on the Deben estuary near Woodbridge.
One of the problems with the "ignited marsh gas" explanation is that by no means all of the local mystery lights, though, are anywhere near a marsh. Recently I talked to a retired geologist, Bob Markham, formerly of Ipswich Museum, who came up with another perfectly logical explanation for East Anglia's abundance of mystery lights, although a nicely left-field one. It's the geology. (Pers. Com, telephone interview with Bob Markham, 5 April 2017.)
Markham told me that the mystery lights seen so often in East Anglia are possibly something to do with the strata round there being "of recent age", so recent in fact that there is still decaying plant and animal material in it, including phosphorous, which breaks down into – among other substances – phosphine gas.
Phosphine (PH3, also known as more officially as phosphane) rises through the strata and ignites on contact with other gases including oxygen. Bob says there's also some tectonic activity underground, which produces energy that can ignite phosphine plumes. He noted that glowing lights were observed during the Great English Earthquake in Colchester, North Essex in 1884. (I've encountered inexplicably glowing patches of ground in Dunwich Forest at night, which may be something to do with this process.)
Compared to the rest of the British Isles, the East Anglian coast does have some very young strata indeed, some of the youngest strata on these islands, in fact. There's no stretch of the East Anglian shore that's over 3 or 4 million years old. (The Red Crag formation, a uniquely East Anglian phenomenon, is a phosphorous-rich mix of sand and broken seashells dates from around that era. Also from that epoch is the Corraline Crag limestone formation, a type of limestone, which is found only in coastal Suffolk and nowhere else in the whole world.)
Much of the heavily eroding clay cliffs of North Suffolk were laid down between 1.8 million years ago and 450,000 years ago (a period known locally by a wonderful local name, the "Ipswichian Interglacial".) These include the younger "glacial clay" left by a receding Ice Age. The cliffs at Lowestoft (North Suffolk) are a mere 150,000 years old. Much of East Anglia's North Sea coast was laid down in the Devensian glacial period, also known as the last glacial period, the most recent Ice Age, which ended only 16,000 years ago, the mere twinkling of an eye geologically speaking. (See Two million years on the Suffolk Coast, Tim Holt-Wilson, Touching the Tide Landscape Partnership Scheme, 2014.)
Some of the East Anglian coastal strata are younger still - the peat deposits at Slaughden (now underwater) are a piddling 8,500 years old, the soil in the shingle spit at Orford Ness started developing just 7,000 years ago, receding seas at nearby Aldeburgh left behind land that's only of a 3,000-year-old vintage. There are plenty of sites where the land is so young that there's still an abundance of animal and vegetable matter still decomposing down there, percolating up to the surface as inflammable phosphine gas. It's noteworthy that some of the geologically more recent sites in the above list - Slaughden, Orford Ness have a rich tradition of association with mystery lights.
Lantern Marshes near Orford, surrounding the obsolete Cobra Mist top secret over the horizon radar project
As for the churchyard corpse candle phenomenon, Markham's somewhat grisly explanation is even more straightforward. There's a lot of "decomposition" still in progress in churchyards. As the bodies of the not-so-recent dead break down, phosphine gas rises to the surface. So what we're seeing with churchyard anomalous lights is not the souls of the dead moving around at night it's actually the gas released from their bodies, long after "dust to dust, ashes to ashes." Yuck!
Case closed on the mystery lights of the East of England, then? Er, no. There's a whole bunch of local mystery lights that can't be explained by phosphine gas plumes. There are several accounts of mystery lights that bounce along the beaches and appear to react to people or even fire "laser beams" (as did the mystery light of the Rendlesham Forest Incident.) Fortean Times's own Jenny Randles has documented how in 1975 a glowing light came out of the sea at Sizewell and partially paralysed postman Thomas Meyer, who was walking with his dog. Randles speculated that some kind of not-yet understood "meteorological tsunami” was at work. (See "UFO Casebook - my dog saw a UFO", Jenny Randles, Fortean Times, FT 280;31, October 2011.)
Nor do marsh gas and St Elmo's fire account for the tendency of Suffolk’s will-o-the-wisps and hobby lanterns to move in zigzagging figures of eight, or for the characteristic of the invisible lantern men to not only lead you astray with their phantom lights, but also to dash a traveller’s own lantern out of their hand and “burst it all to pieces.” The Slaughden shingle-throwing “things,” whatever they were, had snatched the lantern from the hands of a shepherd on at least one occasion. Lamp-snatching hobby lanterns – who led you off the path after extinguishing your own lamp – were said to be at large around Dunwich too up until around 1924.
A contributor to the Paranormal Database website described an encounter from January 2010, on the path from Hollesley - it's stuck out on a Suffolk peninsula, so out of the way it's the location of an open prison – leading to the equally remote Shingle Street beach nearby. She watched with her partner as a greenish glowing ball of light danced around the path and the marsh behind the beach.
The following month, also at Hollesley, a local woman reported seeing two mystery lights while sitting on top of an old World War Two pillbox on a still, cold misty night, "the light began moving in spurts of quick arches" and "slow figures of eight", it "bobbed back and forth" and resembled "those lightning/plasma balls you get in novelty shops." ("Bablylonian Angel," comment of March 2010 in response to the article "Magic lanterns", Robert Halliday and Alan Murdie, December 2005 on Fortean Times website, now been taken down.)
Other local mystery lights clearly outside the capabilities of ignited plumes of phosphine gas sound more like something from the realms of ball lightning.
Damage to the door of Blythburgh Church, allegedly caused by the claws of the "Devil in dog form."
These include the luminous balls of light seen passing through walls of the Queen's Head pub at Blyford. Blyford is near Blythburgh, Suffolk, whose church was the site of a visitation by the "Devil in dog form" back in 1577. Blythburgh's black dog, which also appeared further north in the town of Bungay earlier same day, appeared during a "tempest", careered around the church and left three parishioners dead from being "blasted" or from strange burns, also suggestive of some type of ball lighting phenomena.
Rant Score, Lowestoft. The Bird's Eye fish finger factory at the bottom was the scene of a mystery light incident. Also shown is Gulliver, the UK's tallest wind turbine
The Blyford glowing light that was seen floating around the Queen's Head in 1969 was pursued by a group of people, with some accounts describing these lights disappearing into a wardrobe, observed by the landlady but not the landlord. (No one had heard of any such incident when I visited the Queen's Head earlier this year.) A fitter in the kitchen of the Bird's Eye fish finger factory at the bottom of Rant Score, Lowestoft, a steep alley descending from the High Street to the Suffolk port's harbour, felt a touch on his shoulder when working there in 1970 and saw that it was caused by a floating, glowing blue ball that then passed through a wall. A friend, who lives in Oakley, on the Norfolk border near Diss, and a long way inland, told me he'd seen something like ball lightning travelling along the Waveney River there.
I've even experienced strange, anomalous lightning flashes on the Suffolk coast myself, walking at night in Dunwich Forest. Something lit up a clear, cloudless night sky with white light. I assumed it was lighting far out over the North Sea, somehow refracted through invisibly distant clouds or reflected by the water or something. Except that my friend in Oakley told me he'd experienced exactly the same thing, only many miles inland. My girlfriend and a taxi driver who was driving her towards the coast from Darsham Station (it's on the main road, about four miles inland from Dunwich) one night a few years back also saw red lightning, a rare but recognised phenomenon also known as a sprite.
The Felixstowe Fire Demon
Another East of England mystery light incident that definitely doesn't make the "marsh gas or phosphine gas explanation" category is what the front-page headline of Ipswich's Evening Star newspaper of 21 September 1965 described as the FELIXSTOWE GLOWING OBJECT MYSTERY. Given the industry that's since grown up around the Rendlesham Forest Incident, it's surprising that the Felixstowe Glowing Object Mystery of over half a century ago has been almost completely forgotten, becoming as obscure as the East Anglian airship wave of 1909. Although just like Rendlesham, the Felixstowe Glowing Object Mystery seems to have acquired some extra embellishment in the telling.
The "Glowing Object Mystery" involved three Felixstowe residents in their early twenties – lorry driver Geoffrey Maskey, his girlfriend Mavis Forsyth and Maskey's neighbour Michael Johnson. It was Maskey who was driving them all one night down Walton Avenue, then a fairly quiet road on the edge of town, just two years before the first container cranes were installed that started Felixstowe's transformation into northern Europe's biggest container port that it is today. The "last street-lamp" on Walton Avenue, where they stopped for Johnson to get out, presumably for a quick wee in the nearby woods, is now right by the huge roundabout where container lorries leave the port for their onward journeys. (“Felixstowe Glowing Object Mystery”, Evening Star, Ipswich, 21 September 1965.)
The Ipswich Star report opens by describing a "high-pitched humming noise... a great orange tinted object moved across the sky... a man staggered from a hedge and collapsed." The humming noise was heard as Maskey and Forsyth waited in the car for Johnson.
The sound was quickly followed by a "long oval object in the sky… a dull orange colour". The glow from it lit up most of Walton Avenue for about half a minute. It was then that Forsyth and Maskey realised their friend was still in the woods, and in a panic, they reversed the car back to look for him. At this point, Johnson emerged staggering from the bushes and collapsed. His friends noticed "a lump and marks on his neck," and he was “mumbling about a man in the flames getting him,” before he lost consciousness, so his friends dragged him into the car and drove him to Felixstowe Hospital.
There, Johnson was diagnosed as suffering from "a severe shock" and transferred to the better-resourced Ipswich and East Suffolk Hospital. As the paper went to press, the hospital still wasn't letting visitors in to see Johnson.
By the time the American Monsters website wrote it up in 2011, the "Glowing Object" had morphed into "The Felixstowe Fire Demon." Details had attached themselves to the story that weren’t in the original Evening Star report. A normally dark night became "Stygian blackness", Johnson was given amnesia and couldn't recognise his friends when he finally regained consciousness in hospital in the morning. Additionally, Johnson had acquired “unusual burns” on the back of his neck and a bruise above his ear.
The account in American Monsters goes way beyond a "man in the flames trying to get him," this has become an "unseen force" that compelled Johnson to walk out of the car at Walton Avenue and head into the woods, where he encountered "a humanoid being" with "large sloping eyes that were glowing in the darkness." The creature was "engulfed by orange flames" and caused Johnson to black out.
Was there really a "man in the flames" that early autumn night on Felixstowe's Walton Avenue? While the "Glowing Object Mystery" seems to have strayed into UFO territory, it does have elements that are sounds more in the local tradition of hobby lanterns than actual scary occupants of craft from outer space.
The last lamppost on Walton Avenue, Felixstowe, as it is today
The humming sound that accompanied the event suggests some sort of electromagnetic phenomenon. (As we saw above, buzzing sometime accompanies manifestations of St Elmo's Fire.) And Johnson's confused, "mumbling" state could well have been the result of some hitherto unexplained electromagnetic effect on his brain, triggering "severe shock" and possibly even delirium and hallucinations.
The Defence Intelligence Staff's later declassified report Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK Air Defence Region: Executive Summary (2000, also known as Project Condign) concluded that the small proportion of UFOs that were not misidentifications were Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAP). The report stated that these were most likely some kind of unusual meteorological phenomena not fully understood by modern science. It called these “Buoyant Plasma Formation,” similar to ball lightning, capable of producing some kind of unexplained energy field or plasma. Possible causes for UAPs could include super-heated meteorites hitting the atmosphere and creating exotic plasmas from the gases there. These UAPs do sound awfully like a description of what happened over Walton Road, Felixstowe on the September night in 1965.
In any event, the strange orange glow was back in the skies over Felixstowe on the hot summer night of 1 July 2006, when witnesses reported two “orange orbs” over Old Felixstowe and the skies to the north. A witness described these orbs as "moving extremely fast, they appeared to chase each other. The objects were watched for around ten seconds before dropping behind the horizon, disappearing from view."
© Matt Salusbury 2017
This article was adapted from the chapter on hobby lanterns from the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk (CFZ Press, 2018)