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Sunday, July 05, 2009


On the 19th June 1984, Fred and Elsie Down, both aged 80, of Halsdon Road, Exmouth, were settled down ready to watch Crossroads (which started at 6.35) when they were startled by a crash, which rocked their terraced home. A large block of ice crashed through the roof and into their tiny house. The report gave no estimated size or weight, but the hole in the ceiling is over 2ft by lft. Fred said: "When we opened the bedroom door I could not believe my eyes. There was a terrible mess. You could see the sky through the roof. It smashed clean through the slates and broke a rafter. There were also lumps of ice the size of two men's fists lying on the bed."

Although anomalous falls of ice are often blamed (these days at least) on ice that formed on and then became dislodged from the wings of flying aircraft - or more unpleasantly on the frozen sewage discharged from airline lavatories - some anomalous objects that can and do fall from the sky are far less easy to explain.

During the summer of 1983, a year before Mr and Mrs Down had their unfortunate accident, I was working in Exmouth. I was a student nurse on attatchment to Stoke Lyne (a hospital for mentally handicapped children, which has now been demolished). I became friends with one of my co-workers there, a Mrs Rowley, and I often used to visit her at her home in Littleham where I would stay for an evening meal with her and her two young daughters. One early evening in July the elder of the two girls - who must have been about twelve - came running in, greatly excited to tell me that there were three “horrid snakes” in the garden. Replete from an excellent meal, her mother and I wandered out into the garden expecting to find that the girls had discovered a nest of slow-worms, or perhaps grass-snakes. Much to our surprise, there, arranged neatly on the lawn in an almost perfect triangle were three dead, and very dessicated pipe fish.

Several species of pipefish (peculiar creatures closely related to seahorses) live in British waters and they are not particularly rare beasts, but they are one of the last things that one expects to find strewn neatly across someone`s lawn in the midst of comfortable suburbia. Mysterious falls of living creatures (sometimes called fafrotskies - an acronym for Fish And Frogs Raining Out Of The SKIES)) are a well known phenomenon.

Charles Fort had several bizarre and gloriously imaginative theories to explain such strange falls from the heavens. His most imaginative idea was the concept of what he called the 'Super-Sargasso Sea'. Just as the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic is supposed to be full of shipwrecks and all manner of objects caught up in its gulfweed, so the 'Super-Sargasso Sea' might be a repository for terrestrial and extra-terrestrial matter high above the earth's surface. Sometimes the sea would suck things up; at other times it would spew them back down to earth. He also formulated the theory of 'teleportation' - a force capable of transporting objects and animals from place to place without traversing the intervening distance. This has been used to explain several anomalies including creature-falls and the anomalous appearance of various out-of-place animals, which appear in places that logic and the accepted dicta of conventional zoology suggests that they should never be.

Other explanations for such phenomena are numerous, but Dr Mike Dash calmly and logically manages to demolish the most widely accepted of them:

“...Another explanation is often advanced to account for the fall of frogs and fishes: the hapless animals were scooped up from a river or a pond by a passing waterspout and deposited later, some way off. This theory has something to recommend it: for one thing it has long been recognised that a number of falls really are caused by waterspouts. A whirlwind dropped fish at Quirindi, New South Wales, in November 1913, and fish fell from a waterspout in Louisiana in June 1921. Nevertheless, the waterspout hypothesis has weaknesses. There do not seem to be any accounts of rains of tadpoles, nor of smelly mud, broken bottles, old bicycles and the rest of the detritus that normally lurks in ponds alongside the frogs and the fish. And the theory cannot easily explain a number of the most peculiar cases. There are instances of extremely localised falls: at Mountain Ash, in south Wales, a large number of freshwater minnows and sticklebacks fell from the sky, in February 1859, covering a rectangle of ground, some eighty yards by twelve, with fish. (For a long time it was supposed that none had landed outside this extremely limited area, but one recent researcher has shown that a few came down in the surrounding hills.)”

None of these theories explain my one brush with a fafrotskie. If the Celestial Sargasso Sea is an inate part of the way things are, then surely the creatures would not have been dried and dessicated when we found them - they would have been fresh and possibly even still alive. The children had been playing in the garden all afternoon and were adamant that they had not been there earlier.

The same would seem to be the case if they had been transported there by virtue of a mysterious waterspout. Firstly, there had been no rain for days, and secondly, even if there had been an isolated shower that had managed to evade the detection of both us and the Metereological Office, and even if this reticent rainstorm had contained a number of fish, then why were both the fish and the grass around them as dry as a bone?

The last theory that anyone has come up with is that the fish could have been dropped into my friend`s garden by a passing seabird. My only answer to that is that if one is forced to hypothesize a mysterious flying piscivorous predator that lived exclusively on dried and dessicated fish then we would be faced with a putative phenomenon far more bizarre than the one that we are actually examining.

Like so much in this book fafrotskies in general, fish falls in particular and my experience with the three pipefish specifically are just part of the way things are, and are presently completely inexplicable. I included this little anecdote in this book purely to underline (as if any such underlining was needed) that Exmouth, and in particular Littleham has the potential to be an extremely strange place.

But these two were not the only anomalous falls in the Exe Estuary area at that time.

Sometime during the first week of March 1983, a few months before I had my encounter with the unidentified flying pipefish, and several months after the couple from Exmouth had their unfortunate encounter with a block of falling ice, Mrs Rita Gibson, of Topsham, on the other side of the Exe Estuary from Exeter, found a "scattering" of strange pink beans in her back garden. "They could not have been thrown," she says, "because our house is surrounded by three walls around a courtyard." But if they fell, where did they come from? The nearest Mrs Gibson could come to identifying the beans, which were larger than rice grains and smaller than orange pips - see photo - is that they looked a bit like iris seeds; but iris seeds are orange, not pink. Another oddity is that the seeds/beans are quite out of season. Mrs Gibson adds: "They do not look like last year's because they are fresh, not dried out."

1 comment:

Chris Clark said...

I can't help with the pipefish, but the lumps of ice are not from space or anywhere near. Several of these fell in Spain around 2000/01 and were recovered. Isotope analysis of the O18 and H2 concentrations showed an origin in the troposphere. Cometary debris would be quite different. Also, lumps of ice sublime quickly in earth orbit and would fragment when they hit the atmosphere. This makes it either ice from aircraft wings, or some sort of monstrous hailstones. The largest piece weighed about a quarter of a ton (Brazil), which would need an updraft of several thousand mph to keep it aloft, so my bet is on aircraft.