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.

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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.

From the crumbling coastline to the Suffolk death road

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On a whim I decided to make for the headland that juts out from the shoreline north of Southwold pier. A simple 30 minute walk along the beach I thought – and perhaps it would have a been a straightforward 90 min stroll along the beach if the tide were out – but it was high tide and the waves were happy slapping the sea wall.

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The only way to continue the walk was inland along a green tunnel footpath hoping that it would turn across the adjacent farmland. But in fact it mislead me to the busy main road at Roydon. I was loathe to quit despite heading half-a-mile in the wrong direction.

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I found a dusty farm track where the sea shimmered over the swaying ears of golden corn dotted with poppies. The end of the track was barred – Danger No Entry – Cliff Eroding.

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I passed beside the end house into a field then skirted the edge past a digger dumped in the corner and along the top of the crumbling coastline which gently sloped down to the beach at one end. This was now far away from the holiday vibe and the 6-figure brightly painted beach huts. This beach was deserted, otherworldly, apocalyptic. Danger signs abounded. The trees in the wood that gave Southwold its name tip-toed on the precipice of the cliff root toes dangling over the edge waiting to swan dive into the sea in the next storm.

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Finally I sighted people, and a church spire in the distance – that must mean food and drink and perhaps even a pub. A footpath ran from the sand dunes direct to the romantic ruins of St. Andrews Covehithe. The first vicar was appointed here in 1459 but two hundred years later they realized the church was too big for such a small parish and tore sections down to build the smaller church within its precincts where I now sat and considered my options. There was no food or drink in the village and my solitary bottle of water had expired a while ago. I’d have to walk along the road the 5 miles back to Southwold in the hope of finding sustenance on the way.

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It was a mile along the country lane to the Lowestoft Road. Soon the grass verge pavement dissolved into steep hedgerows as the busy road narrowed. What now?

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I clambered through hedge and over ditch into farmland to skirt the fields that hugged the road but was quickly forced away back through trees onto the Death Road. Across the road I found a beguiling lost byway that provided sanctuary for a while along its zigzag route. The map on my iPhone was blank, I was in a land beyond the omnipresent reach of Gods Apple and Google – did the place in fact exist then?

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A field of freshly harvested corn stalks slashed at my shins – the hacked off stems poking from the cracked earth like broken scimitars. Another hedge scramble to escape left nettle stings and bramble thorns the length of my sorry legs – feet and ankles like pin cushions.

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A second church spire brought salvation for a while – saved by the delightful old ladies of the South Cove Flower Show and the cream tea they served up beneath the thatched roof of the church. I feasted on scones and clotted cream followed by a slab of Victoria Sponge (they only served scones and cake – no sandwiches – what could I do?).

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Refueled I headed back for more near death experiences walking along the Lowestoft Road. Deciding I’d rather incur the wrath of a farmer than get splattered on the road I again found a breach in the 10-foot hedge and scuttled through into a rough field of weeds.

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I pursued the field boundary in the direction of the sea and soon spied an actual marked footpath into a nature reserve. Over a small wooden bridge and the path disappeared almost instantly among head-high reeds and grasses. I ploughed on regardless until I felt the water rising up to my ankles from the bed of the marsh. I retreated and fell into a 40-minute vortex of looped and blocked paths. When I eventually came onto the other side of the Nature Reserve I saw the orange barrier declaring the path I’d entered on the far side Closed.

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I was almost a broken man and started to wonder if I would ever make it back to Southwold and see my family again. Another car hooned past my shoulder. All I’d seen were DANGER – KEEP OUT signs and automobiles intent on murder. It felt like Suffolk was telling me to Fuck Off.

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I negotiated one more field boundary that led to a farm house and had a final hedge scramble that filled in any unmarked areas of my shins with cuts and nettle stings. Finally I hit solid, firm pavement at Roydon with blood-streaked shins scarlet and humming with stings. It was a great unplanned walk in inadequate footwear with no map – an excursion which nearly killed me. Can’t wait for the next one.

George Orwell and the Walberswick Ghost

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Whilst waiting for a video to render the other day I turned round and took Vol.1 of George Orwell’s Collected Essays and Letters off the shelf and opened it at random on Orwell’s letter to his friend Dennis Collins dated 16th August 1931. The correspondence wasn’t concerned with Orwell’s investigations into the condition of what he refers to as the ‘Lower Classes’ in the letter but ‘a ghost I saw in Walberswick cemetery’.

Collins lived in Southwold where Orwell spent time at his family home, across the River Blyth from the ancient village of Walberswick.  He produced the hand-drawn sketch (above) of Walberswick Churchyard, where the ghost sighting took place, to illustrate the experience which occurred at 5.30pm on 27.7.31

IMG_7695“I was sitting at the spot marked X, looking out in the direction of the dotted arrow. I happened to glance over my shoulder, & saw a figure pass along the line of the other arrow, disappearing behind the masonry & presumably emerging into the churchyard. I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure, small & stopping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of its features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road – this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it; & in any case there were only 2 people in the road, & neither at all resembled the figure. I looked into the church. The only people there were the vicar, dressed in black, & a workman who, as far as I remember, had been sawing the whole time. In any case he was too tall for the figure. The figure had therefore vanished. Presumably an hallucination.”

He then goes on to talk about making arrangements to go hop picking and the fate of some tramps he’d met.

I’ve always thought of Orwell as such an arch rationalist that it came as a real surprise that he even entertained the notion that what he’d seen was a ghostly apparition.

 


When I wrote the original draft of this post and scheduled it for publication today I had no idea that it was the anniversary of Orwell’s death in 1950 – spooky coincidence

Southwold wander

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First night in Southwold I went up to Gunhill and thought about WG Sebald coming up here on his first night in the town when passing through on his walks in The Rings of Saturn. “Footsore and weary as I was after my long walk from Lowestoft, I sat down on a bench on the green called Gunhill and looked out on the tranquil sea, from the depths of which the shadows were now rising.”

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Last year when I was here I followed Sebald’s footsteps to Walberswick, this year I followed my nose past the water tower and over the  Common towards St Felix.

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St Felix seems to be an area populated by Hobbits as the banks were pock-marked with these peculiar front doors. I considered knocking and seeing if I could blag a legendary Hobbit second breakfast but didn’t fancy my chances.

 

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A sequence of fieldpaths brought me to the door of St Margaret of Antioch church, Reydon wearing a wreath presumably to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.
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After allowing myself a childish snigger I realised that this was the birthplace of the radical country and western singer Hank Wangford who I’ve seen play live in Leytonstone on a couple of occasions. It should be renamed ‘country and eastern’ music in his honour.