Over the border to North Berwick

I sometimes think I don’t get out of London enough. Reflecting on the summer holiday on the train back into the Big Smoke I thought ‘I’ve been abroad 3 times – twice to England and once to Scotland’. Because leaving London is like traveling to a foreign country – the capital is a City State – an island. In Broadstairs I witnessed quaint folk traditions and swam in the sea. In Devon they almost speak a different language and everyone is old – the lady in the Nepalese restaurant spotted us as foreigners straight away although she thought we were Australian which I suppose is half right as my wife hails from Sydney.

North Berwick

But at least Scotland is a foreign country to all intents and purposes – with a proper border and a dramatically contrasting landscape to the chalk hills us southerners are accustomed to. North Berwick took us by surprise with its rugged beauty and crystal clear waters. A crab got hold of my toe and rendered me one-legged in agony for a few hours.

Tantallon Castle

We set off one day for Tantallon Castle. I’d warned the family they’d be unlikely to see the sun in Scotland (I hadn’t on 4 previous visits) but it belted down all week, especially on the day we set off along the coast with temperatures pushing 30. Bass Rock shimmered white out in the Firth of Forth – we assumed it was chalk catching the sun in the sea haze. Looking through a telescope in the castle grounds we saw that the whiteness came from a thick coating of roosting sea birds flapping their wings.

Gazing out across fields of shimmering wheat heading back into North Berwick I thought of the fields around the edge of Epping Forest – paths I’d yet to walk. I had physically left London but a part of me was still there. I picked up a copy of C.E.M Joad’s ‘A Charter for Ramblers’ and started planning future expeditions.

Morris Dancing by the sea at Broadstairs Folk Week

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

To Broadstairs for its famous Folk Week. The sense of anticipation built as we walked around the headland from Ramsgate – except amongst my kids who just wanted to go home after swimming in the sea.

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

The Morris Dancers turned the cliff top amphitheatre of the bandstand into Strictly Folk Dancing as each side took to the concrete floor led on by an announcer who seemed overly keen on the sound of his voice through the PA – with the introduction to one side lasting longer than their actual dance.

 

The central streets of Broadstairs were closed to traffic and Hooden Horses wandered the cute thoroughfares alongside banjo slingers tucking into Ice Creams from Morelli’s Gelateria.

Morris Dancing Broadstairs 2016

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

I was sucked into a second-hand bookshop and was about to leave empty handed when I discovered the natural history shelf at floor level and bagged a 1907 edition of Richard Jefferies’ Field and Hedgerow for £2.

Looking for Gaudi (Barcelona)

Barcelona 1993

I last visited Barcelona in 1993. There I am in my Ride t-shirt on the hill just above Park Guell. It was a peculiar trip for reasons to banal for a blog but I was staying with a Historian who showed us around some of the Civil War sites. I’d recently studied Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia so that was the my main interest in the city – that and visiting the Nou Camp.

Park Guell

23 years later here’s my eldest son in more or less the same spot (the roof of the house just above the white van can be seen to my left in the photo from 1993). After the trip in ’93 I was due to start an MA at Birkbeck. Upon return to London I deferred my place on the course and in the end used the money I’d saved to pay for my fees to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. I met my wife in Sydney about 18 months later. Our first son was born about 10 years after that trip to Barcelona.

El Carmel

It was my son’s idea to go to Barcelona during the Easter holiday – I just needed to get out of the country somewhere and wanted to take one of the kids with me. He asked for a hotel by the beach with wifi in the room. I didn’t hold out great hopes for extensive sightseeing so was glad when he suggested going to look for the ‘Gaudi Park’ – Park Guell.

El Carmel Hill

We had to wait 6 hours to get into the Gaudi bit of the park so my son suggested climbing to the top of El Carmel Hill. As we got higher and higher with each view surpassing the previous one it occurred to me that I hadn’t been this high up when I’d visited all those years ago – I wonder why not. But back then you just strolled into Park Guell, no queues and very few people inside the park.

Park Guell

Despite his astonishing achievements as an architect it’s sad that Gaudi’s most prominent biographical note is that when he was run over and killed outside his great work of the Sagrada Familia none of the passers-by recognised the iconic shaper of their city. That’s a bit rough on Gaudi – how many architects today would get recognised lying dead in the street?

Bogatell Beach

Watching the surfers at Bogatell Beach reminded me of Sydney – a real urban beach where people step out from their daily life to catch a wave or two or lie and soak up some rays.

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Towards the end of our short stay I coaxed my son into a look at the Gothic Quarter – but he was knackered and wasn’t buying it. ‘This is just like London’, he said. I was stumped, this couldn’t be less like London I replied. We were sitting in a small square on a bench. ‘It’s buildings and people walking past, it’s basically the same’. Like Bloomsbury I asked. ‘Yes, just not as big’. And you could see his point. It wasn’t as distinct as the rocky trail up El Carmel Hill or the clear blue water at Bogatell Beach. We went back to the hotel and ordered room service.

Milton Keynes – City of the Future

I didn’t even bother to check my iCal when Andy from Video Strolls asked if I wanted to come to screen in their event at Milton Keynes Gallery – I just said YES! I’ve shown films in two Video Strolls events in Birmingham and had a great time, but here was the added appeal of an excuse for a wander round Milton Keynes at night.

I’d bought a GoPro on the Monday of the week of the screening for the Nightwalk I filmed with Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting for the Overground film. I’d be leaving Iain and Andrew at Hampstead and the plan was that Andrew would wear the GoPro on his head to capture some of the remaining epic nocturnal schlepp (he did and it’s great).

milton keynes go pro

Arriving at Milton Keynes station 10 minutes before the event was due to start I strapped the GoPro on my head and set off across the Milton Keynes grid bound for the gallery on the FAR SIDE. And wow.

I visited Milton Keynes as a kid on a coach trip from High Wycombe with my Mum. Nominally in the same county as Wycombe but further away than London, Milton Keynes was the new town on the map – the concrete citadel of the future rising from the lower end of the Midland Plain. We felt like primitive people from the Amazonian jungle propelled into a Flash Gordon future on a Green Line Bus. I’d never been back since.

Milton Keynes

Although my hazy memory of MK matched what I was seeing 30+ years on – Milton Keynes still seemed futuristic. I think it’s the absence of any other older reference points – a blank architectural slate and the clinical nature of the urban planning. The imposition of paganistic street naming and alignments – Midsummer Avenue is apparently aligned with the Summer Solstice sunrise – has an ‘Age of Aquarius’ tinge. I kept seeing Blake’s Seven super-imposed over the shopping halls – partly because that’s what I was obsessed with at the time I visited Milton Keynes in the 1980’s (Glynis Barber did so much to get me through those difficult early teenage years).

So I swept in late to the Video Strolls event with the red light on my GoPro flashing and introduced my River Roding film with the camera still rolling (don’t worry, the video above is intercut with my point-and-shoot camera). After the screening I walked back through Milton Keynes with Andy Howlett, one half of Video Strolls, and we attempted to process our reactions to this uncanny landscape and ponder on the future of films made purely from strapping a GoPro on your head when out for a wander as a perambulatory equivalent of the early cinematic ‘Phantom Rides‘.

I’ll need to get the camera set on my head straight for a start.

Along the River Deben to Sutton Hoo

The day before I headed into Rendlesham Forest on the UFO trail we took a family walk along the River Deben at Woodbridge aiming for the site of the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

The wind was so intense half the family bailed before we reached Wilford Bridge, but nothing was going to stop my youngest son completing a journey we’d been planning for years.

 

Rendlesham Forest UFO Trail

We wanted to get out of London for a couple of nights after Christmas but had no idea where to go. Then watching UFO documentaries on Boxing Day I got a flash of inspiration – Rendlesham Forest, otherwise known in UFO circles as Britain’s Roswell, due it being the location of one of the most mysterious and compelling UFO cases ever. I sold it to the kids on the basis that it would be like the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost movie Paul where two hapless geeks make a pilgrimage to Area 51. Luckily they bit, we all love that film. There was also the added bonus that Sutton Hoo was nearby (more of that in another post).


I don’t mind admitting that I hadn’t felt this excited about a trip for ages – not since my excursion to a burial mound in Hertfordshire in mid-December – but this was more intense – I had a whole popular cultural history of UFO tourism to transplant from New Mexico to Suffolk and hours and hours of documentaries to watch in preparation. We wondered between us how much the picturesque town of Woodbridge on the edge of the forest had cashed in on its association with the UFO site, would it be like those towns along the Extraterrestrial Highway into Roswell with alien themed cafes and souvenir shops fully of bug-eyed aliens and flying saucer plushies?

It turns out that there was not so much a secondhand DVD of the X-Files in one of the numerous charity shops in Woodbridge. The two independent bookshops didn’t stock a single book on UFOs at all – anywhere. The local cinema had a solitary screening of Star Wars. Woodbridge was a town in denial of its true heritage as Britain’s No.1 UFO location.

River Deben
So on the final day of our stay, New Year’s Eve, the family caught the lunchtime train back to London and I headed for Rendlesham Forest. They’d seen the place was nothing like the movies, the weather had been bleak and I’d made them walk along the banks of the River Deben in a gale that threatened to blow our Pug into the water.

Due to the lack of daylight I planned to catch a bus to the forest, but I’d missed the one bus per day running in that direction. The only taxi company in town didn’t have any cars available till mid-afternoon, so I decided to walk the 6 miles to the forest edge. I dropped by the independent bookshop and bought an OS map even though I can’t actually read maps, I like looking at the pictures, it would give me something to read along the way. I filled my pockets with fruit bars from Holland and Barrett and headed along the road out of Woodbridge.

Woodbridge Golf Course byway
After crossing the Deben and taking the turning for Rendlesham Forest I headed up a Restricted Byway across Woodbridge Golf Course. The sky was clear blue, I was bound for the Forestry Commission’s UFO Trail – I felt like a kid.

The first sighting of mysterious lights to appear moving through the trees in Rendlesham Forest happened at Christmas 1980. Two US Airforce guards stationed at RAF Woodbridge Airfield spotted the lights from the East Gate of the base. They were given permission to investigate and followed the lights deep into the forest where they encountered a strange object hovering in a clearing. One of the patrolmen, Sergeant Jim Penniston approached the craft and reported touching it.

Two nights later the lights reappeared but this time a larger, better equipped team went to investigate. Remember this was the height of the Cold War, nuclear bombers were stationed at neighbouring RAF Bentwaters, and RAF Woodbridge was also a strategically important base with a large weapons stockpile and it has been claimed the storage site for nuclear warheads. This was a potentially serious incursion of the terrestrial variety.

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The party on this night was led by the deputy commander of the base Lt. Col. Charles Halt. They took geiger counters, floodlights and more significantly a small tape recorder on which Lt. Col. Halt narrated what he was seeing. On return to the base he filed a report to the US Airforce – released a few years later under FOI entering Rendlesham Forest into the annals of UFO lore and still one of the most compelling UFO encounters ever. Here I was following their footsteps on New Years Eve 2015, almost 35 years to the day since the event.

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But I had some ground to cover before I reached the UFO Trail on the far side of the forest and with my highly dubious map reading skills it was 50/50 whether I would ever get there. Luckily there is an enormous Airfield in the middle of the forest so if I could just find that I could follow the perimeter fence to the East Gate.

After ducking shanked drives on the Golf Course and nervously skirting an archery range I came to the edge of the forest. I ignored the orange tape barring a muddy path – the alternative was to flail amongst the featureless pine swamp. A short concrete post stamped with the letters MOD indicated I had hit the northwestern corner of the airfield. Looking through the chainlink fence at the disused runways – a relic of the Second War World and then Cold War, now an army facility, it was eery to think that there may have been enough nuclear warheads stored here to have triggered a nuclear apocalypse. The idea of little grey aliens from Zeta Reticuli paying a Christmas visit is quaint in comparison.

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I bumped into two men and a woman looking at the base through binoculars and making notes – we struck up conversation. They told me about the airfield’s original use as a WW2 landing strip for stricken bombers returning from mainland Europe. They were looking for remnants of the RAF’s FIDO system where petroleum was burnt in great plumes along the runway to disperse fog. I mentioned the UFO Trail as we walked together to the East Gate.

The light was fading now, the last hour before sunset, a good time to follow the UFO Trail into the forest, imagining how those young American airmen might have felt on that cold night 35 years ago following strange lights into the trees, it must have surely crossed their minds that it perhaps had something to do with the Russians? Maybe it did?

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There was no one around. The Forestry Commission have brilliantly marked a series of posts topped with metal ‘UFO Trail’ plaques, and bearing the popular image of an alien on the reverse. It really sets the scene. I looked down the straight lines of pines imaging the light slaloming through the trees, till I arrived at the clearing where Sergeant Jim Penniston encountered the craft. Fully entering the spirit of the tale the Forestry Commission have placed a full scale replica of the object as sketched by the airmen – including the strange markings on the side that Penniston claims to have reached out and touched. It is a fantastic location. I lingered in the clearing for a while with the craft as the sun descended to just above the horizon creating a halo effect through the pine trunks – an amber spotlight shining from the west.

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I would regard myself as a suggestible UFO skeptic, although I am beguiled by stories of mysterious phenomena – it’s just that beings traveling in space craft from a distant star system is probably the least likely explanation for the strange lights frequently spotted around the world. We live in a technological age so we look for a technological explanation and see spaceships and probes, in religious age they saw angels and gods, in a mystical age they saw spirits. Where explanations have been found for mysterious objects and glowing lights they are no less remarkable in my eyes – ball lightning, methane bubbles ignited by electrostatic charges in the atmosphere, millions of years old comets hurtling through our solar system, 1960’s Soviet space debris disintegrating on re-entry, test flights of top secret military aircraft that won’t be acknowledged for decades if at all. Who needs ET.

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I moved on to the open field where lights beamed down from the sky at the feet of the investigating party of airmen. Hardly evidence of extraterrestrial visitation but a very peculiar event nonetheless. They returned to the base in the early hours of the morning wondering how the hell this was going to look in an official report and whether they would still have a career in the military afterwards. I continued on to the final clearing where a craft had been spotted then down the muddy path through the trees enjoying the clear twilight sky.

Lt. Col Halt submitted his report and both the US Government and the UK Ministry of Defence investigated the events. In numerous UFO documentaries the witnesses have recounted stories of being interrogated by moody Men in Black, of being drugged and warned to keep quiet. All consistent with a sensitive Cold War situation as much as an episode of the X-Files.

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I found my way back to the carpark and used the last faint charge in my phone to call for an lift out of the forest, if it died on me or all the taxis were fully booked by New Year’s Eve revellers a space craft might be my best option for getting to the station. Luckily a Silver Ford Galaxy was dispatched to collect me. A Galaxy, how apt, and it was silver.

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To my knowledge there has yet to be a sufficient explanation for what numerous highly trained airforce personnel spotted on two occasions in Rendlesham Forest at Christmas 1980 – the woods are retaining their secrets just for now. It’s a shame though that Woodbridge can’t embrace it’s role as Britain’s Roswell and open up some tacky souvenir shops with inflatable grey aliens and a UFO themed cafe would be nice as well.