Monday, 29 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blythburgh's scorch marks in close up

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

Saturday, 27 December 2014

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Location of Eastbridge big cat sighting is perfect ambush site

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

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

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

Otter tracks on the footpath from Minsmere to Eastbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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). See front cover image.

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 Alderton (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, and the woodwoses on top of the porch at Mendlesham, North Suffolk.

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.

There's also the top half of a ruined woodwose on display at the church at Letheringham, restored there after being found in a local garden. See here. (link added 10/06/16).

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”? 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)

Update: Wingfield, the tombs of the De La Poles.

Saracen's head crest on the helm of John de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, in Wingfield. Inspiration for the Suffolk woodwoses?

In a remote corner of North Suffolk lies Wingfield, seat of the De La Poles, the Earls of Suffolk until Tudor times. It used to have a castle (now ruined) and a college (still there, but not a college anymore.) It really is out of the way, an hour's cycle from the nearest town (Eye) and a long way from the nearest village (Hoxne). About the only landmark between Hoxne and Wingfield when I cycled on a bleak November day was a huge pile of mangle wurzels (turnips for cattle feed.)

In the church are the tombs of the De La Poles, and what's striking is the helms (helmets) that the seated figures of the De La Pole men rest on. They're full-face helms with crests, and the crest shows the severed head of a "Saracen", the Muslim foes of the crusaders, mostly from Egypt or Turkey. The best example is from John de la Pole, who served under Henry VII. The Saracen on his helm is dignified but a bit of a racist caricature, with a broad nose, thick lips and flowing locks and a beard, with earrings. And he looks awfully like a Suffolk woodwose.

Could the woodwoses on fonts and church porches - roughly contemporary with John De La Pole - have been inspired by the coat of arms of the Earls of Suffolk, somehow a sign of local pride? (There's still a Saracen's Head pub in Sudbury and a Turk's Head pub in Woodbridge.)

Update: All Saints, Sudbury

I was in Sudbury in early February, and took a photo of something dark and indistinguishable on the roof of the now disused All Saint's Church. Its silhouette was vaguely suggestive of a woodwose. Lo and behold! Back home, Photoshop revealed it to be a hairy man with a beard and club! It could be a woodwose, or it could be a "Saracen", although you'd hardly expect a Saracen to adorn the roof of a Church. What I thought to be a possible spike on top of the Saracen's helmet could just be a metal bar keeping the woodwose(?) in place. There's a confirmed woodwose, kneeling with a long club, on the roof of St Mary's Haverhill, not too far to the West of Sudbury.

The Woodbridge wildman spoon handle

Late last year there was a treasure trove hearing at Ipswich courts over a gold spoon handle that showed a hairy, bearded wildman with a club, found by detectorists near Woodbridge. It had been snapped off just below the feet. Prof Ron Hutton (he taught me on my History degree back at the University of Bristol in 1986!) told BBC News that it was among the oldest examples of wildmen in England, from around 1400. Suffolk Archaeology Service told me the British Museum were valuing the wildman spoon handle, and that Ipswich Museum were possibly interested in buying it. Suffolk Archaeology kindly allowed me to use their photos of the spoonhandle in Mystery Animals... but the license doesn't extend to using it on my website. You'll have to buy the book!

And below are the pub sign for the Calthorpe Arms, Clerkenwell, London and the arms of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (the family originates in northern Germany. They're both fine examples of wildmen on an English coat of arms.

Words and images (except "Phillip's" drawing of his road-to-Peasenhall entity encounter, © "Phillip") © Matt Salusbury 2014-2016. Last updated 21 July, adding a new photo of the wildman on the HRH the Duke of Edinburgh coat of arms and a link to the woodwose at Letheringham.)

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. Update: the woodwose story is here. Fortean Times recently took all the back issue stories of its website, so this is the only place you can (legally) read it.

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.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Solar flare apocalypse ahoy!

This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT 312, March 2014

Richard Carrington's illustration to his write-up of his 1859 solar flare observations is now out of copyright

Shortly before the 21 December 2012 end-of-the-world due date, a confident NASA released early its "Why The World Didn't End Yesterday" video. This rubbished the "Mayan prophecy" baktun long count Doomsday scenario, and anticipated the next end of the world panic – solar storms!

We've now just passed the peak of 11-year long Solar Cycle 24, which ends in 2020. The nightmare solar storm scenario would be a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event (named after the Scottish astronomer Richard Carrington, who observed it) was what we now call a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) – it sent a burst of charged particles out of the sun and slamming into the Earth's magnetic field. So powerful was the Carrington Event that the telegraph machines of the day caught fire, and continued to type even after they'd been disconnected. The aurora borealis was visible as far south as Cuba, and woke up campers in the Rockies in the middle of the night – they thought they were in daylight.

Back in 1859 there was no heavy reliance on GPS satellites, and little by way of a national grid. There have been warnings of the havoc that 21st century solar storm could wreak

In the "Quebec blackout" of 1989 something – probably a solar storm – crippled a power station and cut power to millions of Canadians, while triggering what NASA now call "electrical anomalies" across the US. There is a danger, it seems, that solar storms can turn the electrical power grid into something like a giant convection heater. And the "Halloween storms" of 2003 disabled instruments on dozens of orbital satellites, some permanently.

With the expectation that the solar cycle would peak around mid-2013, it was predicted that GPS would go down – and that wouldn't just mean motorists losing their way. All sorts of crucially essential stuff from nuclear power stations to some very expensive hospital life support kit, and most technology driving the financial markets, would fail. We could be a single solar storm away from the end of civilization.

Not a sunspot, but another solar phenomenon, a "sun dog", observed in the sky over Saxmundham, Suffolk, September 2013. Photo copyright Matt Salusbury

And such geomagnetic storms could knock planes out of the sky. (Delta Airlines admitted at the end of 2013 it had – at some expense – diverted 12 transpolar flights away from the Poles that year, fearing solar storms.)

Given the readiness of so many people to get excited about some misunderstood Mesoamerican calendars, it was puzzling how extraordinarily blasé the world was about the impending civilization-ending Solar Cycle 24 peak.

Lika Gukathakurta, head of NASA's Living With a Star Program, reassured the world in the "Why the World Didn't End Yesterday" video that "this is the wimpiest solar cycle of the last 50 years, reports to the contrary are exaggerated." But strangely, the world didn't need any reassuring. Here was the very real possibility of the End of Civilization no one seemed even to have heard of it, let alone care about it.

Where were the tin-foil hat brigades, ranting their misanthropic solar storm rants in the bus stations and shopping centres? Nothing. Perhaps Armageddon fatigue had set in after the Great Mayan Prophecy Disappointment. Or the solar storm scenario's technological aspects had made doom prophets wary, causing recollections of the Millennium Bug that never was.

Rather than heading for the hills, the vast majority of people weren't even aware of the absolutely gigantic X9 solar storm that erupted from the sun on 9 August 2013. ("X" denoting the strongest class of solar storm.) Fortunately for us, the burst of plasma it spewed out was on a trajectory that was "not Earth-directed", as Joe Kunches of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the website. "We did luck out," added Kunches. (Another, earlier, weaker CME in April of that year also failed to be "earth directed, but dealt the Curiosity rover a harmless glancing blow as it travelled on its way to Mars, after Mission Control had temporarily switched off Curiosity as a precaution.)

We also appeared to luck out on October 25 2013, when two "monster" X-class solar flares left the sun, but in the event weren't up to much and were widely unnoticed.

While did report some VLF and HF radio blackouts, the dearth of CME-based apocalypse-mongering turns out to have been right on the money. By the end of 2013, Stanford University's Leif Svalgaard told the American Geophysical Union, "none of us alive have ever seen such a weak cycle." In the course of Solar Cycle 24's peak, we had learned that the lower than usual pressure of the heliosphere – the mass of charged particles and magnetic fields surrounding the sun, meant that CMEs were able to expand more as they shot through space, dissipating their strength by the time smacked into our own atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the aurora was visible in the Essex summer skies of 2012, and a travel agent promised "with astronomers predicting the peak of the solar cycle and incredible sightings already reported, winter 2013/14 looks likely to be the best time to see the magical Aurora Borealis." The end of the world was cancelled instead we got the world's greatest light show.

Fear not, disappointed apocalypse watchers! The Met Office has announced that, as of Spring 2014, it would run space weather forecasts to "allow government and businesses to take swift action to ensure services are maintained." The Met Office warned it wasn't over yet – the "largest impacts can occur at any time during its 11 year cycle" up to 2020.

Some Doomsday enthusiasts may be losing faith in the capacity of solar storms to frazzle us back into the Stone Age. They may take comfort in 2013 TV135, a "massive asteroid" identified by the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory in October as heading our way – to arrive with a force of some 2,500 megatons on 26 August 2032. Hurrah! Until you read the small print – the chance of it actually striking the Earth is around one in 63,000. The End of the World ain't what it used to be. (Time magazine 17 October 2013; The Guardian 13 October 2013)

© Matt Salusbury

Monday, 23 June 2014

Weird Weekend, "Tooth of enigmatic origin" crowdsourced identification

Archives de Zoologie Experimentale et Generale, 4th series, volume VII, October 1907 (for non-commericial purposes)

Copyright Horniman Museum & Gardens, used with permission. THe specimen at the bottom is accession no. NH.A3008

The "Tooth of enigmatic origin" in the drawing at the top was found in the ivory market at Addis Ababa in 1904 by Maurice de Rothschild's East Africa expedition will be the subject of my talk at Weird Weekend 2014 this August. See the programme for Weird Weekend 2014.

I'm on at 12 noon on Sunday 17 August, so if you're going, don't go getting too much of a hangover on Weird Saturday. For background, see my short article on the "enigmatic" tooth here.

My talk is down on the programme as "Baron Maurice de Rothschild's dionthere caper". At the time CFZ director Jon Downes and I put together the "pitch" for the talk, an article in the journal La Nature from 1910 suggested the "tusk of enigmatic origin" resembled that of a long-extinct group of elephant relatives, the dinotheres. Closer examination shows a misidentification may have been at work. Jon and I agreed to keep the title, it may not be a dinothere anymore but it's still a caper.

The original title for the talk had the wrong Rothschild - Walter, he of the zoo at Tring, and not Maurice (better known for racehorses, his art collection and being a Senator of the Republic of France.) As I plough slowly through the 50+ pages of the original French that is "Tooth of enigmatic origin", it has become apparent that Walter Rothschild does feature after all. He expressed enthusiasm for Maurice's find, and reportedly gave a presentation on this to the Zoological Society of London in September 1905. The ZSL library are on the case, but it's all still on card indexes so it'll take a while.

As a result of a Twitter appeal some crowdsourced identification of the "enigmatic" tooth has come in from three zoologists and a professor of paleonotology. I don't want to give away too much away ahead of the Weird Weekend talk, except to reproduce here, by kind permission of Paolo Viscardi, natural history curator at the Horniman Museum & Gardens, a photo (above) of their specimen of a walrus tusk (bottom of photo) compared to a hippo tooth (top of photo).

Meanwhile, there was a report on Maurice de Rothschild's East Africa expedition in book form, Voyage du Baron Maurice de Rothschild en Afrique orientale 1904–1905, and a very rare English language edition, Maurice de Rothschild’s Journey to East Africa 1904–1905. This is so rare that the British Library don't have a copy, the only place that has it is the Rothschild Archive in the City of London.

(Fortean Times are interested in a short "Forum" piece on this.)