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.

(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)

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Teach in Poland in EL Gazette

Centralny, the Palace of Science and Culture, a gift from Stalin in the 1950s, still dominates the centre of Warsaw. I remember it from my visit to a very different Warsaw 29 years ago!

My article on working conditions, pay and job opportunities for English language teachers in Poland - both native speakers and locally recruited Polish English teachers - is now on the website of EL Gazette, the newspaper for the English Language Teaching industry. Yes, I'm still writing for them, as a freelance.

The feature is the result of my visit to Warsaw in July. I would like to thank Danka Soltyska, Peter Whiley, J Neil Russell, Marek Kiczkowiak, Mike Pilling, Mark Krzanowski and to Elzbieta Jarosz, Iatefl Poland secretary for their help in talking to me for this article, as well as some other English teachers who preferred not to be named. I did thank all the above people at the end of my article, but this was cut out of the final version - I'm not editor at EL Gazette anymore, so I no longer have control over these things!

I'll put the full text of the article here shortly, with some more links.

One of the many branches of the Empik Schools chain of language schools. Empik is the dominant school chain in Poland, it grew out of a bookshop and department store operation. (This one, at Centralny, is above one of its stores.) Empik didn't respond to my enquiries. I heard that one of their selling points is experienced and qualified Polish English teachers rather than native speakers.

Students enrol on Polish-medium sciences degree courses for the next academic year in the Polytechnica (Warsaw Technical University), in the Great Hall, rebuilt in its original style after its destruction in World War Two. These students will have English for Academic Purposes courses and English language support in addition to their main subjects taught in Polish.

The glass roof of the Politechnica's Great Hall

Lincoln Language School, one of the many smaller chains of language schools, has a branch in Central Warsaw. These chains are nearly all Polish-owned, multinational chains are rare in the country.

The Sirena, the mermaid - the emblem of Warsaw – shown here on a bridge over the Vistula River.
All photos: Copyright Matt Salusbury

Mystery lights of East Anglia in Fortean Times

My article on "The Mystery lights of Suffolk" (it in fact covers East Anglia, taking in coastal Essex and Norfolk as well) is in the current issue of Fortean Times magazine, FT 360, the December 2017 issue, on sale now. As soon as the "First British Serial" is over, ie when the next issue comes out, around 7 December, the copyright reverts to me and I will put it up here on the blog.

The current Fortean Times looks like this:

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Anglian Mist

My review of Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company's East Anglian set Cold War drama, Anglian Mist is on Traffic Light Threatre Goer. I caught the play at the opening night of its East of England tour at The Cut, Halesworth. Shown above is my photo of the mysterious Cobra Mist installation as it is today (the project was previously known as Anglian Mist, and then Sentinel Mist) on the Lantern Marshes at the edge of Orford Ness, Suffolk. Anglian Mist is set in Orford Ness.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Wallabies on walkabout in Suffolk

Video footage of a white wallaby hopping down the lanes of Glemsford, West Suffolk, recently emerged on the BBC news Suffolk website. The night-time footage, shot in late September from a camera on the bonnet of Julian Eley's Merc, illuminated by its headlights, clearly shows a white wallaby as it bounds down remote roads on its way to Liston on the Essex border. When it pauses, you can even see its pink-red eyes, showing it's an albino.

This is not the first time an albino wallaby has appeared in Suffolk. Wallabies have been turning heads locally since Mr Wombwell's travelling menagerie passed through Halesworth on its 1907 tour, with the Halesworth Times and Southwold General Advertiser of 3 December 1907 giving particular attention to one animal that "could not even be seen in the London Zoological Gardens. One of these was the albino Wallaby Kangaroo from Western Australia." But the albino wallaby remained firmly in captivity throughout the tour.

The Lowestoft Journal did record the escape of Benny the Benet's wallaby from what was then the Suffolk Wildlife Park in Kessingland in January 1988.

There seems to be a cluster of wallaby sightings around the Wickham Market area. Local man Nick Beagley, cycling from his home in nearby Pettistree towards Ipswich in 2004, had an "absolutely extraordinary" experience when a wallaby appeared, "hopping along the side of my bike before disappearing into the hedgerow."

A dead wallaby was reportedly found in a ditch at Bucklesham, just east of Ipswich, in the same year. An uncredited Ipswich Star reporter also admitted having spotted a wallaby "sitting by the roadside at Warren Heath on the edge of Ipswich" sometime prior to 2004. Kessingland's captive Parma wallabies – a smaller species – were at the time all accounted for, although their spokesman said red-necked wallabies were known to live wild elsewhere in the UK, and "so they could live quite happily in Suffolk." A Suffolk Wildlife Trust spokeswoman told the Star they'd received no wallaby reports. Paranormal Database received a report from a driver and passenger of a "young kangaroo" travelling along Ipswich's busy London Road at around 4pm on the evening of 12 September 2011. Given the unfamiliarity of most Suffolk folk around the various species of kangaroo and wallabies, it could well have been a misidentified wallaby.

I have a family anecdote that may explain how some East of England wild wallabies came to be at large. My mother lived with her mother (my grandmother) briefly at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire during World War Two. It seemed a good idea at the time, as it was out of London, safe from the Blitz, but within easy reach of London. They knew Erno Goldfinger, the architect, who lived locally near their London house. (Ian Fleming, who also lived locally, didn't like Goldfinger's self-built modernist house and named one of his James Bond villains after him.) Moving to Whipsnade, it turns out, wasn't a good idea. My family didn't know it, but Bomber Command (top secret) was just over the next hill, and it was easy for the Luftwaffe to misidentify a compound of odd-looking modern buildings for Bomber Command. The yak enclosure got bombed at least once, with yak casualties.

My grandmother, who had an active imagination, described one night in the darkness outside the house they lived in on the Whipsnade compound, lifting the bonnet of her car and unscrewing the alternator cap, which you were supposed to do to immobilize your car in line with wartime regulations to stop German paratroopers using it. Suddenly she saw a pair of eyes looking at her, at about the level of a German paratrooper would be were they crouched on one knee taking aim. Then the pair of eyes moved out into the light, revealing - a wallaby! Presumably, the wallaby enclosure had taken a direct hit from Luftwaffe ordnance and the wallabies had got out. They would have since had many years to give rise to a wild East of England wallaby population.

Most of the above historic examples are from my forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Talking about big cats on BBC Radio Suffolk

I was recently on Jon Wright's BBC Radio Suffolk breakfast show, talking about the Sunday papers but also about big cats in Suffolk, including an update on Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk. It's been proofread by a volunteer once, I'm working in the corrections, it will go through a couple more proofreads. There's a little bit of work needed on the back cover - "too busy" as my publishers rightly noted. Then there's the pagination for the index and we're all systems go and ready to launch.

You can listen to our chat on the Iplayer until 9 July 2017, they usually send me a short audio clip that I will put on this website. I come in at around 01.23.00 talking about the Curious County's big cats, until 01.29.52. Then I'm on discussing the Sunday papers at 01.37.30.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Watching more and more Labour posters go up in Suffolk

FOR THE past few weeks I've been watching with some amazement as yet another Labour poster appears in a new window of yet another house in a particular street in the town of Halesworth, North Suffolk. That's right – Suffolk. Predominently rural Suffolk, in the ultra-safe Tory seat of Suffolk Coastal. Halesworth (population 4,700), just "the wrong side of the A12" – just far away enough from the coast to keep it from being part of the playground of the second-home owners, comes under the slightly more Labour-leaning Waveney District Council jurisdiction, but it's on the northern edge the ultra-safe Tory Suffolk Coastal Parliamentary constituency.

Apparently home-made Labour poster in Halesworth, North Suffolk, a recent addition. House number cropped out.

Normally at election time there are Conservative boards to be seen everywhere round here, usually big ones put up on the edges of big fields by the main road by local landowners. There were a lot of "Leave" signs in the fields on the edges of the big estates last June. This time round they are conspicuous by their absence. I suspect it's not vandalism, they may not have gone up in the first place this time round.

In the seaside village of Dunwich (over 30 per cent of households were second homes at the last count), all the boards in evidence are Lib Debs. But in Halesworth, the gradual accumulation of Labour posters in windows has been really noticeable. In a part of the world where a temporary traffic light put in on a village lane for some roadworks becomes a conversation starter, the appearance of even one Labour poster is a bit of a big deal. At first they appeared in the first floor windows of houses set back a bit from the road, not all that visible. Then, the next day, another. Then another. Then a sort of "Labour window" of a poster, some newspaper articles dissing Theresa May's record on the NHS, and some unfurled local leaflets presenting Labour's candidate for Suffolk Coastal, a young firefighter from Felixstowe named Cameron Matthews.

Matthews is up against till recently seemingly unassailable Dr Therese Coffey MP, widely derided by her constituents whatever their allegiance of lack of one. Dr Coffey has a majority of 25,000 and now serves as Undersecretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs. Like Margaret Thatcher, she was a chemist in the confectionary industry (for Mars). Dr Coffey is from Liverpool, she's still a passionate Liverpool FC fan (so no Suffolk origins then). Her candidacy for ultra-safe Suffolk Coastal was a reward for serial defeat in Parliamentary and European Parliament elections. This is in a seat where most candidates even for District Council elections put something along the lines of "born and raised in Suffolk" on the front of their leaflets if they can.

Private Eye noted Dr Coffey's role in ensuring the future of England's only Oil Transhipment Area, just off the pristine coast of Southwold, where mostly Russian tankers transfer oil to smaller vessels heading for the shallower waters of the Baltic. Also noted by Private Eye are Dr Coffey's famously short MP's surgeries in villages, where she announces through posters that she'll be available on a particular day for all of ten minutes or quarter of an hour, running surgeries practically with the engine still running.

The Conservatives have held Suffolk Coastal since its creation in the 1980s, and the seats that came before it (Sudbury and Woodbridge seat and Lowestoft seat) pretty much since the beginning of time, although Labour took Lowestoft in the landslide of 1945 and held it until the late 1950s. Elections for Suffolk County Council are usually a "blue tide" as well. Labour lost four Council seats in county elections in May, with the annihilation of UKIP accounting for most of the District-wide "blue tide." Suffolk's only upset was in the West of the County, where the West Suffolk Independents took Brandon from the Tories. So confident were the Tories of victory in Suffolk Coastal in the 2015 election that they didn't bother to send a representative to an important hustings in Woodbridge, to the "audible disapproval" from the audience.

It's now the day before the election, and last time I cycled down that street in Halesworth, we were up to two Labour posters appearing in windows per day. One of them appeared to be homemade, just printed in yellow lettering on a red background on somebody's computer printer. The same day, somebody had come round to the picture postcard village with its thatched houses where I live a couple of miles outside Halesworth, and as I was out they'd left some Labour leaflets wrapped around the handle of the front door. My jaw dropped, Labour have actually gone door to door in a deepest rural Suffolk village of 200 people. Labour even showing their face round there is to say the least a surprise. Even more of a surprise was the discovery of a "Never Mind the Bollocks" poster featuring a photo of May with duct-tape on her mouth and Sex Pistols-style ransom note cut-up lettering, taped to a tree on a dangerous bend on the B1123 road out of Halesworth heading deeper into rural Suffolk, a couple of miles from anywhere.

Yes, an actual Labour poster in the village of Westleton, Suffolk!

More surprising still was the sight of a couple of Labour posters in the "best kept village" of Westleton, on the edge of Minsmere and Dunwich Heath nature reserves. You don't get much more picture postcard than Westleton. Prince William and Kate Middleton even celebrated their first wedding anniversary with a weekend staying at the uber-posh Crown pub there. Labour posters in Westleton? Yes, I kid you not!

A quick look at the Rural Labour Twitter feed, though, suggests that all across the country, the sight of picture postcard thatched cottages with Labour boards up in front of them suddenly isn't all that rare anymore. Plus the odd photo of a farmer working in the fields in tractor, which proudly displays a Labour board fixed to its mudguard. (See also @LabourBoards.)

Slightly North of Halesworth, where Suffolk Coastal constituency ends and Waveney constituency starts, I was in the market town of Beccles for market day and I stumbled across the Labour Party stall. Its activists (there was a considerable swarm of them) told me the seat had only been Tory since 2010, the Tories were holding on to a majority of only 2,000, with everything to play for.

Given Labour's huge growth in membership since 2015, with the huge increase in resources that this brings, I found it surprisingly hard to actually track down Labour in Suffolk Coastal. Woodbridge Labour have an active website, one of their folk music benefits in the early spring of this year allegedly had to turn people away it was so busy. My nearest branch is Leiston Labour (the town, home of Sizewell B nuclear power station, had Communist and Labour councillors in an alliance in the 1930s, many Communist town councillors taught at Leiston's progressive Summerhill School. Leiston was at the time known as "Little Moscow.") Leiston Labour has no apparent contact details beyond a Twitter and Facebook page, it took weeks for them to reply to a DM message on Twitter. I was eventually able via the Labour Party's website get the contact details for Labour Eastern Region, who in turn eventually put me on to the Blyth Valley Group nearest me.

I was also a little disappointed when I went on the Labour Party website to look for "local events" and all they had was some door-knocking in Lowestoft, over 40 miles away, only for me to find the next day via Twitter that Jeremy Corbyn was already in Lowestoft and nearby Gorleston (the hospital, just over the border in Norfolk, was facing cuts.) It was clear that Jezza would be ending his lightning tour of the East Coast before I could even get on a train. To be fair, the lady at the Labour stall in Beccles told me they'd only got half an hour's notice of Jezza's visit themselves.

This lack of even the basics, such as actual contact details, was a point highlighted in a report that came out not long after Corbyn won his first leadership election, entitled Labour's Rural Problem _ Winning Again in Coast and County.

The report, prepared by then shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle, followed the Milliband-era Labour Party's poor showing in rural seats in the 2015 election – they lost one rural seat. Labour's Rural Problem claimed one issue is "not just rural voters' perception of Labour, but more crucially Labour's perception of rural voters. This problem goes from the top of the party to the bottom - for too many rurality is synonymous with Conservatism, and engaging with these communities is at best an afterthought, and at worst a complete waste of time." (is "rurality" even a word?)

Labour's rural problems date back way beyond Corbyn. When Labour lost the mostly rural Copeland seat to the Tories in a recent byelection, my reaction was, What? Labour still had a rural seat to lose? Given Blair and then Gordon Brown and their talent for taking the vote of entire regions or even nations for granted (Scotland, Wales, the North, etc.) it was just Corbyn's rotten luck to be around when there was somehow still a rural seat to contest that New Labour hadn't managed to lose already.

Hand-made "register to vote" poster aimed at the yoof of Halesworth, spotted in mid-May

At the local level at least, though, this time around someone in Labour now thinks it's worth going door to door to leaflet a remote thatched village of 200 people that doesn't even have a proper village hall, never mind a pub, so things may have changed.

Another failing Labour's Rural Problem identified was the tendency of mobilising any of its rural supporters that they did find to go door-knocking in the towns, as if the rural seats were a write-off. The report gave an example of a case where this happened – enthusiastic rural Labour activists were sent to a nearby "marginal" urban constituency to campaign, Labour did appallingly in that town and actually better in the rural constituency they'd emptied of activists (although still not enough to win it.)

As we speak, I've just called Suffolk Coastal Labour (I got their number from Eastern Region, now that I found out Eastern Region existed and they're actually answering the phone.) They confirmed that they're directing supporters in Suffolk Coastal to go to door-knocking on the day of the General Election in the constituency of Ipswich. This isn't because they've written off Suffolk Coastal though, it's because Ipswich been a swing seat or a "bell weather" seat as long as anyone can remember, for so long, in fact that a young journalist called Charles Dickens was dispatched there from London to cover an election, his experiences there inspired him to write The Pickwick Papers. The seat's changed hands eight times in the last century.

Only the dismalness of the then Labour candidate for Ipswich lost them the seat in the 2015 General Election (some had then tipped Labour to take it, they're fighting Ipswich with a different candidate now.) Ben Gummer, the current Tory incumbent, is an impressive foe, though. Like a lot of East Anglian Tory MPs, he's positioned in the green wing of the Tories (yes, they have one!) and his comments in defence of immigrants and against xenophobia immediately post-EU referendum show he's a far from typical Tory.

There's also a more practical reason for rural activists to go door-knocking 30-odd miles away in the County Town. Most of rural Suffolk is "left behind" _ literally. There's so little public transport left in the county. If you haven't got a car, it's actually easier to get to Ipswich than to other parts of rural Suffolk!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Encounter with a Bengal cat

Henry the Bengal cat

I've heard a lot about Bengal cats, and how Britain's big cats are supposed to be misidentified Bengal cats, how the genes of Bengal cats and other exotic breeds are supposed to have got into the feral cat population and turned them into something altogether different... and bigger. I heard that Bengal cats were real characters, they liked to go for walks on leads, and that they were such a handful behaviourally that they were often abandoned. I recall reading Big Cat Rescue saying that they used to get call-outs from people saying there was a "Florida panther" on the loose, attacking Alsatians and in some cases frightening old ladies, but when they got there it was often just an ever so slightly bigger than usual Bengal cat that had gone AWOL or been turned loose.

Legends tell of how the original Bengal cats, hybrids of the Asian leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis) were named after one that was found in the Bay of Bengal on the approaches to Bombay (Mumbai) by early East India Company sailors, swimming out towards them. Like most exotic stories on the origins of exotic cat breeds, it's probably nonsense. (Burmese cats weren't originally from Burma, but from Thailand, "Bombay" cats were bred in Virginia, and so on.) We know they were deliberately crossbred. The UK Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 came in largely because Bengal cats (and wolf dogs, crosses between dogs and wolves) were turning up in the country, with the authorities unsure how they would turn out, the law banned wolfdogs (they're now legal) and required a license for Bengal cats that had more leopard cat genes than "F4" (fourth generation). Bengal cats are known for their "confident" temperament (a bit of an understatement!) Breeders sell them for anything up to £800 each.

I finally got to meet a Bengal cat face to face. He lives somewhere in the Blyth Valley in Suffolk, looked after by a fosterer. He came from a smaller house at the other end of the same village, but he obviously decided he didn't like his accommodation and fancied living in a bigger house and garden nearby, so he abandoned his humans and moved on in his new chosen home - fairly typical Bengal cat behaviour, I am told!

He is very vocal, quite friendly, and the two things that really struck me about him are that he is very muscular - at first glance he looks a little on the overweight side until you see that he is all muscle. Secondly, his fur is very short and shiny, it has a different feel to most cat fur. His back is also different to a mainstream domestic cats - a bit more arched. His toes seem a little longer too. The vestigal pad that most cats have towards the back of their paws is much more pronounced.

And check out his markings - quite unlike anything you'd see on a domestic cat - those leopard-like rosettes!

Bengal cat rosette markings

And impressive-looking cat indeed, but if I hadn't been told he was a Bengal I'd have difficulty distinguishing him from an ordinary domestic cat. As for his size - a large, muscular cat but not even as huge as some of the long-haired, captured black feral cats I've seen in the county. Suggesting that British big cats are misidentified Bengals is a bit of a stretch but for one characteristic I've noticed - we British are absolutely hopeless at identifying big cats.

There are also regular reports of an "Ocelot-like" big cat in Cambridgeshire. From a long way off, could this be a Bengal? And any possibly already huge feral cats out there would definitely start to seem more big cat-like a few generations after an injection of genes from those shiny, muscular, arch-backed Bengal cats.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Back cover image for Mystery Animals

Here's a draft back cover image for Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk. It's waiting for some text, the CFZ logo and the ISBN bar code. All provisional, of course. There will be an explanation of the photos inside the back of the book. Copyright: Matt Salusbury 2017

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk update - new accounts of sightings, maps

Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk should be out soon - I'm currently grappling with pdf pre-sets for print and the pagination. Here's on the last illustrations I've done for it, a map of sightings of "lynx-like cats" in Suffolk.

I've heard testimony from several people recently who've seen big cats in Suffolk, regrettably in most cases these won't make it into the book, it's just not possible this late in the day to squeeze in additions. A taxi driver recalled seeing a black leopard in Wrentham about ten years ago (there have been other such cats in the neighbourhood), a local woman thinks she might have glimpsed a big black cat on the Blyford Road towards Dunwich Forest (again, other sightings locally).

There have also been some curious goings-on involving a video said to have been received by a famous red-top national newspaper of a video of a black leopard from Hintlesham (just east of Hadleigh). For whatever reason, it's not been published and the journalist concerned hasn't got back to me.

I'm still surprised to be receiving testimony from people whose family members (usually their dads or grandads) claim to have had encounters with Black Shuck. The latest was from a man from Rattlesden (near Bury) who says his dad "many years ago" collided with Black Shuck one night on the A140 somewhere between Ipswich and Stowmarket. He got out to take a look, and found... nothing. He also described, in daylight the next day, finding some strange deposit "like eggshells" on the bonnet of his car.

I'll keep you posted on the progress of the book, with hopefully an announcement before too long. Meanwhile, you can follow developments at @MysteryAnimals on Twitter.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Fortean Traveller: The Cutty Wren, Middleton Suffolk

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

‘Twas the night after Christmas…

Old Glory molly side asssembles in The Bell Inn car park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(More photos and links to be added shortly)

© Matt Salusbury 2016