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Friday, February 20, 2009


In August 1995, Martin Ball was walking along Chesil Beach at Portland when he saw what he described as a strange creature “some twelve feet high, half fish and half giant seahorse”. After some research he equated the creature that he had sighted with an ancient sea creature known as Veasta. As he wrote in an article for Dorset Life magazine:

“Veasta is a rather nice name for a monster. The root of the word stems from old Dorsetshire dialect, meaning a feast - the olden-day beach gathering that was held on warm summer evenings on the neatly shelved banks of Portland's Chesil Beach. This area once had well-established trade links with Spain. Depending upon the pronunciation, Veasta sometimes sounded like 'vista', that is the Spanish for 'sighting'. And so Veasta has been sighted, several times now, off the Isle of Portland on summer nights - sighted in all her splendour, bathing off the hidden shores of this mystical coastline.”

Martin Ball continues:

“The Age of Enlightenment may be considered to have begun in the year 1700. Veasta was sighted in June 1757 by no less than the Reverend John Hutchins, famous historian of Dorset. Not only was the monster seen but the corpse was washed ashore at Burton Bradstock. What happened to it? “

It is a good question. However, this isn’t the first mystery marine beast which has been reported from Chesil Bank or the island of Portland. According to Ralph Holingshead (1577) a monstrous marine cockerel which was seen by the entire population of Portland in November 1457. It was seen, rising up out of the water, with the mass of four or five men and standing on the waves. It was then described as crowing to each of the cardinal points of the compass before disappearing back into the waves.

I have always wondered whether Holinshed`s description of the chicken of the western world should be taken literally. Not, I hasten to add, because I believe in the literal existence of a giant cockerel four or five times the size of a man, but because of the possibility that what Holinshed – in his the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, - described as the entire population of `Ile of Portland', had been suffering from a mass hallucination, possibly caused by the ingestion of bread made from grain tainted with ergot.

Ergot poisoning, sometimes known as ergotism is one of the most common form of fungal poisoning and its cause has been known since the end of the 18th century although, its effects have been noted and feared for centuries before that. It is caused by the consumption of the sclerotium - the food storage structure that can be found in some fungi - of the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which is a member of the Ascomycota. Family.

The alkaloid present in the ergot fungus has been synthesised and used as the basis for several recreational hallucinogenic drugs. However we must return to Martin Ball who has proposed another, and less exciting interpretation:

“The earliest sighting of Veasta was misunderstood, because in the 15th-century, imagery of the cockerel and the pheasant was used to describe the unknown in terms of the known to a rural audience. It is easy to ridicule this 'hallucination' as pre-Age of Enlightenment delusion. Yet it is clear from Holinshed's Chronicles that 15th-century man could distinguish between whales, dolphins and sea-cows. However, Holinshed also tells us that a creature was seen in 1457 'in the isle of Portland'.

Should we agree with Martin Ball that the appearance of the giant underwater chicken was actually an early report of the giant seahorse-like beast that he saw four hundred years later? Shall we suppose that it was merely the result of a mass hallucination by a small population laid low with the effects of a psychedelic fungus? Could it have actually been all just a joke by Ralph Hollingshead? Or should we take note of the fact that a few years ago, the excellent Children’s ITV Series “Roger and the Rottentrolls” featured a storyline with a giant underwater chicken?

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