Monday, April 7, 2008

Jon Downes and the CFZ: Trailing the Beast of Bolam

In January 2003, an expedition to the wooded Bolam Lake in the north of England was undertaken by the Centre for Fortean Zoology, following bizarre sightings of a hairy, Bigfoot-like animal that were then being reported with unsettling regularity. CFZ Director Jon Downes (left) recorded the following, highly intriguing report after the quest was completed:

"In the latter part of 2002 and early 2003, there occurred a huge ‘flap’ of Big Hairy Men (BHM) sightings throughout the British Isles that we could not afford to ignore and that required our immediate attention. Indeed, such was the scale of this extraordinary wave of encounters that, even as we made firm plans for an expedition in March, a handful of new sightings of large, man-beasts from the Bolam Lake area of Northumberland, England, arrived in our e-mail In-Box in January that prompted us to undertake an immediate study of the evidence.

"We liaised very closely with Geoff Lincoln, an absolutely invaluable researcher based in the area. We gave him our planned arrival time, and asked if any of the eye-witnesses would be prepared to speak to us. Much to our ever-lasting delight, five out of the six were. We think it should be noted here that the sixth is a soldier; and with the burgeoning situation in the Middle East spiraling rapidly out of control, it would be completely unreasonable to expect a serving military man to be at the beck-and-call of the CFZ.

"Serendipitously, we were able to stay at a house owned by our County Durham representative, David Curtis. He and his wife, Joanne, were absolutely fantastic all the way through our sojourn in the North. The only sad thing about our stay with them was that Davy had to work most of the time; and so, therefore, was not able to join us during most of our activities.
"After a series of fairly dull misadventures, we met Geoff Lincoln and Dr. Gail Nina-Anderson (a member of the CFZ Board of Consultants), and we made our way in convoy to Bolam Lake itself. It would be nice to be able to say that we were overwhelmed with a spooky feeling, or that the genus-loci of the location were in some way redolent of Fortean freakiness. But it wasn’t at all. It was just what one would expect from a heavily wooded country-park in the North of England in the middle of January – cold, wet and grey.

"Geoff showed us three of the locations where these things had been reported. We carried out a thorough series of photographic mapping exercises, and did our best to fend off the incessant inquiries from the press. Just after lunchtime, a TV crew from a local television company arrived and filmed interviews with our investigation team. It was only after they had gone that we realised something very strange was happening.

"Although we had tested all of our electronic equipment the night before, had charged up batteries where necessary, and had even put new batteries in all of our equipment that needed them, practically without exception all of our new equipment failed. The laptop, for example, has a battery, which usually lasts between 20 and 35 minutes. It lasted just three minutes before failing.

"Admittedly, we received an enormous number of telephone calls during our stay at the lake, but not anywhere near enough to justify the fact that we had to change handsets four times in as many hours. The batteries in both Geoff’s and our tape-recorders also failed. It seems certain that there was some strange electromagnetic phenomenon at work here.

"Later that afternoon, we drove to a local pub where we met our first witnesses. Like all of the other people we were to meet over the next few days, they requested anonymity, and therefore in accordance with our strict confidentiality policy, we have respected this. Naomi and her son had been visiting Bolam Lake only a few days before. Not believing any of the reports that had appeared in the local media, they were both appalled and frightened when – while walking across the car-park itself – they had seen a huge creature standing motionless in the woods. They described an intense feeling of fear and trepidation, and rapidly left the area. They were incredibly co-operative, and agreed to come back to the lake with us the next day to stage a reconstruction.

"We had a wake-up call at 5.30 a.m. the next morning, followed by a taxi-ride to a rest area five-hundred yards along the road from the Bolam Lake car-park, where we did a two-and-a-half minute interview for the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. One thing of great importance happened during the half-hour or so spent shivering by the side of the road waiting to speak to the BBC. Just before dawn, the crows, which live in a huge colony in the woods, started an appalling noise.

"Suddenly, the noise stopped; but was then followed by a brief succession of booming noises – like a heavily-amplified heartbeat from a Pink Floyd record – before the crows started up again. It is unclear whether these noises came from the vicinity of the lake itself or were made by the set-up of satellite dishes, and recording equipment that was loaded in the back of, and on top of, the BBC man’s car. During the taxi journey back to Seaham, the driver remarked on the peculiar behaviour of the crows, and said that although he was a country-man himself and had spent his whole life living in this area, he had never heard anything quite like it.

"On arriving back at base, it was time for the entire CFZ expeditionary force to drive to the outskirts of the city of Newcastle where we met Geoff and a second witness in a café attached to a garden center. The witness, Neil, had been fishing at Bolam Lake one night four or five years previously. Together with two companions he had been making his way back to the car-park when they encountered a huge, dark, man-shaped object about 7-8 ft in height with what he described as sparkling eyes. The three fishermen did not stop to investigate but ran back to the car.

"However, this was by no means the only encounter that Neil had reported to us. Together with one of his companions from the first adventure, he had again been night fishing at Bolam Lake during the summer of 2002. They had been camped out on this occasion, and had heard noises, which they assumed were from an enormous animal moving around in the bushes outside of their camp. Deciding that discretion was most definitely the better part of valour, they decided not to investigate any further; but when they broke camp the next morning they found that the fish they had stored in a bait-tin had been taken, and there were distinct signs that something very large had been lumbering around in the immediate vicinity.

"Possibly the most astounding story that he had to recount had taken place a couple of summers before our visit. He had been in the woods at the opposite side of the lake with his girlfriend. They had been making love, when his girlfriend told him she that she could see what she thought was a man in a monkey suit watching their sexual adventures from behind a bush. Neil, unsurprisingly, looked around the area but could find nothing.

"We then continued to the lake. Neil had been amazingly co-operative, and had, like Naomi, agreed to stage a reconstruction with us. At the lake we liaised with the team from a local investigative group called Twilight Worlds and began a series of exercises, which would take up the rest of the day. Geoff had noted, the previous week, a series of apparently artificial tree formations similar to those 'Bigfoot Teepee's' noted by researchers in the United States.

"Together with Twilight Worlds, Geoff and CFZ stalwart Graham Inglis, went off to map these formations and to make a photographic record. They also took with them a Twilight Worlds member trained in using their EMF meter, together with a dowser. After our electrical mishaps of the previous day, we wanted to find out whether there were, indeed, any abnormal EMF fields in the area. Neither investigator found any unusual readings.

"Our next task was to stage a reconstruction of Naomi’s sighting. Again a full photographic and video record was made, and EMF readings were also taken. Again no unusual readings were recorded either by the EMF meter or the dowser. We then repeated the exercise with Neil and reconstructed his first sighting.

"At about half-past-four, one of the members of Twilight Worlds reported seeing something large, human-shaped and amorphous in the woods directly in front of the car-park. As the dusk gathered at about 5 o’clock, we again heard the raucous noise of the crows that he had reported just before dawn. Suddenly, once again, they fell silent and one of the Twilight Worlds members shouted that she could hear something large moving around among the undergrowth. All of the car-drivers present were ordered to switch on their headlights and to put them on full-beam. We did not hear any noise in the undergrowth; although other people present did. Eight people were watching the woods and five of us saw an enormous man-shaped object run from right to left, disappear, and then a few moments later run back again.

"When the expedition returned on Monday, we conducted experiments to find out exactly how far away the creature – if it was a creature – was from the excited onlookers. We were able to make a fairly accurate estimate that the creature had been one-hundred-and-thirty-four-feet away at the time of our sighting. We also estimated that the creature had run along a distance of between twelve and eighteen feet. About five minutes after the encounter, we wandered across the car-park to the location when Naomi had reported seeing the creature. There, too, a sensation was felt of intense fear.

"After an incident like that, anything else would have been an anti-climax. However, Geoff Lincoln took the CFZ team to interview two further witnesses. The first was a young man living in the suburbs of Newcastle, who told us of his encounter with an enormous man-shaped being next to a hollow tree in the woods, some months previously. The incident had taken place while he had been walking his dog. He had been so frightened by his experience that he refused to ever go near the lake again. Finally, we went to another pub where we met another man called Neil. He had been with the first Neil at the time of his initial sighting.

"We were all impressed by his sincerity and by the way that he corroborated his friends’ testimony in what seemed to us, at least, to be a very natural and wholly un-contrived manner. One day later, we all returned to the lake. We proceeded to carry out a thorough photographic survey of the final two sighting locations to ascertain – as far as was possible, at least – the size of the thing that had been seen on Saturday night, and its approximate distance from the eye-witnesses.

"As the EMF scans had been remarkably unsuccessful, we tried to scan the area for magnetic anomalies using a pocket compass. Mike Hallowell, a friend and excellent researcher, registered a strange magnetic anomaly at the location of the fisherman’s first sighting. However, it must be reported that when the team tried to replicate this later in the day, they were unsuccessful.

"That evening, we interviewed a final witness: a woman in her late fifties who had been visiting the lake about five years before with her son who was then eleven years old. Like Naomi, she reported intense feelings of not exactly hostility; but what she interpreted as a message not to investigate a peculiar tree formation any further. She discussed these tree formations with us at some length. She had been surprised to find them at several locations throughout the woodlands. Our work was then finished and we returned home."

It seems pretty evident from the report of Jon Downes that whatever the Beast of Bolam was (and still may be), it inhabits a realm of existence that is far removed from that of straightforward flesh and blood entities. In future posts, I'll expand on my (and Jon's) views on how we might best explain the presence of these mystifying beasts.

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