Friday, May 29, 2009
My friend Annie sent this link to me, which I thought you might find interesting.
Unconcerned at the journalists Who, Where, When, What Why directive, The General simply adjusted his shades and looked menacingly into the camera: “If there is anyone out there who denies the reality of such amazing phenomena I defy you to get down here and see for yourself!”
Meanwhile, Robin and Frieda Fox, teenagers from Upper Minster who had been watching the TV broadcast, decided to put their plan into operation because they had already seen enough..........
3. Lake Monsters
I’ve had the fun of joining in the hunt for a Lake Monster. Readers of Jon Downes’ book, The Monster of the Mere, will be familiar with this tale, which started early in 2002. Newspaper reports said a mystery ‘something’ had been attacking swans at a nature reserve in Lancashire; a giant unknown creature has been seen dragging fully-grown swans beneath the water at Martin Mere. So, off we went.
Now, a swan’s wing can break a man’s arm, so I wasn’t wholly convinced that it was safe to go out on the water, hunting this swan-killer, in a small inflatable dingy... nonetheless, I sailed forth on the murky waters. It amuses me that, although I was out on the water, paddling around with all the fancy sonar gear and a video camera, it was Richard Freeman, standing on the bank of the lake, who actually saw the monster and identified it as a Wels catfish.
I was duly informed that it was probably as big as a domestic settee (sofa) and had a mouth roughly of the aperture of a domestic rubbish bin, so I was still a bit dubious about paddling around. It wass reassuring to hear that they eat insects and fish and small mammals, but suppose it decided to embark on a gastronomical upgrade, just as I was passing overhead?
However, it didn’t; and I’ve remained intrigued by the Lake Monster theme ever since.
2. Life around hydrothermal vents
Still on an underwater tack, I like reading about the strange ecosystems being found around hot-water vents on the ocean floors. The foodchains there, which include normal sea-type animals such as fish, crabs, and shrimp, don’t depend on plants, since sunlight can’t penetrate such depths and allow any plants to photosynthesize. Instead, bacteria that are able to convert sulphur found in the vent's fluids into energy are the bottom of the foodchain.
This conversion process, chemosynthesis, is an interesting demonstration of the tenacity of life in gaining footholds in unlikely spots. The creatures that live in these spots also have to contend with mineral-rich hot vent water, and of course the tremendous water pressure found 2 or 3 km beneath the ocean waves.
It’s like finding alien life, but it’s here on this planet.
1. Alien Big Cats in Britain
I suppose it could be argued that Big Cats used to roam the area now known as the UK, and so they’re not alien at all; they’ve merely regained some old hunting grounds. It could also be argued that there’s enough evidence for pumas in the UK countryside for them to be no longer regarded as a mystery: they’re just there.
The man reasons I find the Big Cat scenario interesting are: the candidates are plausible (escapees or releases, possible relict survivors); I’ve met several candidates in captivity and liked them; and there’s plenty of food for them in the UK, so their ongoing survival is readily explainable.
Around 10 years ago, on a CFZ excurtion to Dartmoor, I was in a puma enclosure at Dartmoor Wildlife Park. I sat cross-legged on the ground and kept still, hoping some of the pumas would be curious enough to approach this visiting stranger. One eventually did, coming to within about 18 inches of me. Others plodded around me in circles, looking suspiciously at me.
The thing that struck me most, as I looked around the enclosure while sitting in the centre of it, was how elusive those pumas were. There wasn’t a massive amount of cover available, yet I could seldom see more than two or three at a time. If they stood or lay still, and were behind a bush or even a few branches, they seemed to fade away and become almost unspottable. I saw they’d brought self-effacing to a fine art.
So... the failure of people – not least, police marksman – to find them in the general countryside does not surprise me at all. I would be amazed if a group set out to ‘round up’ a puma, and then suceeded.
I like the thought that pumas inhabit our countryside, and I know that if I leave them alone, they’ll leave me alone. I think they’ve as much right to be here as I have.... or possible even more!
He falls in love with an upper-class art student, but is too shy to approach her, and when - by chance - he wins a large amount of money on the football pools, he spends it on an isolated house deep in the countryside, and becomes obsessed with his plans to kidnap his inamorata, and somehow manipulate her into falling in love with him. Obviously, it doesn't work out like this, and all ends nastily. However, Fowles's novel inspired a host of tributes ranging from a single by The Jam to at least two majorly unpleasant serial killers.
Butterfly collectors have often been treated with distrust over the years. Eleanor Glanville (c.1654–1709) was a 17th century entomologist who lived in Lincolnshire, and later Somerset. She was particularly interested in butterflies. She collected large numbers of butterfly specimens, many of which survive as some of the earliest specimens kept in the British Museum (natural history), and has been immortalised for British entomologists by being one of the only two people to have a native British butterfly - the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia) named after them. The other, by the way is Real's Wood White (Leptidea reali), a species only discovered in 2001, which appears to be endemic only to parts of the Emerald Isle.
In 1776, the year of the American revolution, Moses Harris, usually described as the father of British entomology wrote of the discovery of the Glanville Fritillary: "This fly took its name from the ingenious Lady Glanvil, whose memory had like to have suffered for her curiosity". Thus started the only two facts that most historians know - or think that they know - about Eleanor Glanville. However, like so much that appears in print each year, both `facts` are completely wrong.
Firstly, although nearly every book published since refers to her as `Lady Glanville`, she had no title. Harris had merely given her the honorific of `Lady` because she was a gentlewoman - the female equivalent of a `Gentleman`. Secondly, her memory had not "suffered for her curiosity". Harris went on to write: "Some relations that was disappointed by her Will, attempted to let it aside by Acts of Lunacy, for they suggested that none but those who were deprived of their senses, would go in Pursuit of butterflies".
Poor Eleanor Glanville. The pursuit of Natural History was not the socially acceptable, genteel occupation that it would become a century or so after her death, and women who were perceived as having an unhealthy relationship with the natural world were still accused of witchcraft. The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, nine year’s after Eleanor’s death, when Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth were hanged, so Eleanor’s researches into things that were either ignored, or worse ridiculed, by her peers, were actually very brave indeed. To – as her neighbours were quoted as claiming - beat the hedges for "a parcel of wormes", was actually, for a seventeenth century woman, a very brave thing to do.
It appears that Mrs Glanville's interest in the natural world seemed that began in maturity, in the aftermath of a disastrous second marriage to Richard Glanville, a violent psychopath who threatened to shoot her again on several occasions. Quite possibly her life with her second husband drove her towards her eccentric behaviour. As well as threatening to kill her, he also organise the plot to kidnap one of her sons with the aim of getting him to withdraw any claim against the property that he stood to inherit upon the death of his mother. Eleanor withdrew into herself and embarked on a love affair with nature, and in particular British butterflies, which took priority in her battered psyche over what she perceived as the rampant injustices of the real world.
Because of the behaviour of her estranged husband, she arranged for her estate to be dealt with by a board of trustees after her death, and when her will was finally published, her eldest son entered into litigation seeking to set her will aside on the grounds that his mother had gone mad, "for they suggested that none but those who were deprived of their senses, would go in Pursuit of butterflies" and according to Michael Salmon writing in The Aurelian Legacy, had believed that her children had "all been changed into fairies!"
Writing as someone who has very little faith in the rule of law, it is comforting to be able to report that this outrageous legal gambit failed spectacularly.
Moses Harris wrote: "fortunately and Mr Rae defended her character. This last gentleman went to Exeter, and on the trial satisfied the judge and jury of the lady's laudable inquiry into the wonderful works of Creation, and established her will".
Eleanor's posthumous reputation, and indeed her estate were secure. But this story is far more than a mildly interesting 18th Century legal anecdote. I can understand what happened to Eleanor, because much the same has happened to me over the years. My love for the natural world has got me through more bad times, than my fondness for hard liquor or the fruit of the poppy ever did. I, too, fell in love with the natural world, and in particular British lepidoptera many years ago, and I, too have my share of mental health problems.
Recently Nick Harling of Blackburn Museum while searching through the Blackburn Mail found some interesting Fortean articles which were posted on the CFZ blog as “STRANGE STORIES FROM BLACKBURN”
on March 20, 2009. It was the article for November 6th 1793 which caught my eye describing a very bizarre case.
What was this weird sounding amphibious man-beast? All sorts of strange humanoids have been reported in Britain over the years from Owl-man to the mysterious Man-monkey of Ranton. Could this be another addition to their ranks? Should I dash off to Accrington to see if this horror still lurked there? In Lancashire strange things still lurk the CFZ investigated reports in 2002 of a “lake monster” in Martin Mere in Ormskirk attacking swans, a beast which was probably a large catfish. Jon discusses this case and the local folklore concerning a mermaid in the area in his book the Monster of the Mere.
I thought more research was needed however into the history of the area before getting too excited. My investigations revealed that the area in which this “Toadman” was supposedly seen was at the time the cradle of the industrial revolution in Lancashire, a revolution which later spread across Britain and from there to the world, and an important part was played by Sir Robert Peel senior, (1750 – 1830), the father of the famous Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. Near Accrington is Stanhill where the inventor of the Spinning Jenny, James Hargreaves lived, and his device was used in Robert Peel’s Cotton Mill at Brookside, Oswaldtwistle. In 1768 the mill was attacked by angry home based cotton workers who thought Peel’s use of spinning jennies in large quantities would destroy their livelihood. Eventually Peel moved away from Brookside by 1779, and he had already set up another works in 1772 which involved the printing and dying of calico and these were the printing works at Church Bank, Oswaldtwistle, mentioned in the article. This involved various chemicals which undoubtedly would be disposed of in nearby water courses such as the River Hyndburn, which is the river which the "Toadman" would have lurked. Peel’s works were part of the expansion of cloth industry and made the family very wealthy leading to Peel and his son both becoming MPs . One result of this industrial expansion and chemical experimentation was the work of John Mercer from nearby Great Harwood (1791–1866), a pioneering chemist who discovered Antimony orange and the mercerisation process and made many discoveries in dying and printing fabric. Entirely self taught, Mercer never went to school, he later became a member of the Royal Society because of his pioneering role in industrial chemicals at Oakenshaw. As industry expanded in the area the Liverpool to Leeds Canal passed nearby to take finished cloth to port. In the nineteenth century several chemical works were established near the canal to supply textile printers, with one building formerly run by William Blythe remaining today.
When I learned that the beast was seen near the print works at Church-bank and there was much experimentation with chemicals in the area my mind boggled inspiring some strange theories. As everyone knows, well everyone who watches the right B-movies (see the excellent Korean film The Host for a prime example], the main problem with spilling with industrial chemicals and waste is that the inevitable result is gruesome mutated people or animals of one kind or another with a grudge against humanity. Was the toad-man actually a former dye worker who had fallen into a vat and had been horribly disfigured and driven mad? Did the Peelers or police force founded by Sir Robert Peel conspire to hide the depredations of the monster on innocent millworkers? Or was it a prehistoric survival possibly from the Silurian period perhaps disturbed by the quarrying and mining also found in the area? This mining at led to the Aspen Coke Ovens, at Oswaldtwistle, which are curiously known as the Fairy Caves, which still stand. Then there is the ancient folklore of Lancashire which includes numerous hostile water monsters such as Jenny Greentooth in the Ribble, the water-devils of the River Lune or the Mermaid of Martin Mere.
More careful investigation however revealed sadly that the tempting idea that the toadbeast was the hideous spawn of the Industrial Revolution was more to do with my imagination than reality. The clue comes from the curious interest of the creature in alcoholic beverages, rather than the food usually favoured by such monsters as brains, blood or spinal fluid. In fact what might seem to be a report of a cryptozoological oddity is I believe in this case more to do with local political intrigue and industrial development. As mentioned earlier the Liverpool to Leeds Canal eventually was built near this area. I discovered in my research that the canal’s route caused some controversy at the time of the article:
“As the Leeds and Liverpool Canal winds its tortuous way through East Lancashire it seems to carefully avoid Accrington. However, when the canal’s route through East Lancashire was planned in 1793, it was to continue up the valley of the Hydburn, crossing it at a point close to the old Grammar School on Blackburn Road. The proposed Haslingden Canal was to join it here, creating a waterway link with Bury and Manchester. Had this happened there would have been a wharf near the junction where goods to and from the town could have been handled.
Instead the route was altered. The Peel family asked the canal company to avoid crossing the Hyndburn above their textile print works at Peel Bank. At that time it was one of the largest factories in the world and used the river's waters during the printing process. Building the embankment for the canal to cross the Hyndburn would have interrupted this supply and caused production problems. Instead, the canal was built downstream, rejoining the original line at a right angle junction at Church. Much of the land for the canal deviation had to be purchased from the Petre family of Dunkenhalgh. Although they were quite happy for the canal to be built, they requested that the towpath was made on the side of the canal away from their house and lands. They hoped that this would prevent poachers from gaining easy access to their estate!” 
So it is seems likely that as well as a reference to the Peels that the Dunken Park reference in the article is an allusion to the house and estate of Dunkenhalgh Park in nearby Clayton-le-Moors which was owned by the Petre family. The controversy over the canal route would have been at its height in 1793 whether it ran near the Peel’s Print works or through lands owned by Lord Petre. Thus I believe that the toad-man is in fact a satirical reference to one of the canal promoters possibly to one of the Peels or Petres, describing him as a subhuman amphibious beast, a suitable form in the circumstances of discussing a canal, as well as playing subtly on an established reputation for indulgence in strong drink in the person referred to. The fact it was seen wallowing in the “mill dam at Accrington” may be another clue but there were already a number of cotton mills in Accrington and I am uncertain to what it refers to. Some local historian could probably work out the toad-man’s identity with more certainty. It is another case where a playful newspaper article has created a false mystery as in the Angel of Mons or the exaggerated mystery attached to Spring Heeled Jack, seen in Lancashire amongst other places, as a result of later Victorian newspaper sensationalism. It is another example of how the Fortean researcher should be careful to investigate the history of reports before leaping to outrageous ideas no matter how tempting.
Yet there is another aspect to the case which adds to its intrigue for there is a gruesome side to the history of the Petre family. Early in the eighteenth century supposedly a visitor to Dunkenhalgh Park had an affair with the Petre’s French governess, Lucette. He heartlessly ruined her, made her pregnant and then abandoned her. In despair the governess drowned herself in the Hyndburn. Her sodden ghost or boggart still haunts Dunkenhalgh Park and on the witching hour of midnight on Christmas Eve it supposedly can be seen climbing from the river near the bridge where she leapt to her death and then laboriously moves towards the house. So if the newspaper article is aimed at the Petre family then it seems possible that the toad-beast is perhaps also an obscure reference to a local scandal which produced a legend of an aquatic boggart.
Nick Harling also found a reference in the paper from 1794 to a strange creature found in Hooton Roberts in Yorkshire, a fourteen legged lion headed thing which is either an even more arcane reference or a genuine cyptozoological oddity.
1 - The History of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal . http://www.facebook.com/l/;http://www.cottontown.org/page.cfm?pageid=2594
The latest cryptozoology related news stories from the CFZ’s daily cryptozoology news blog will as ever follow this bit that nobody reads. Before that though there is the matter of tea of the week. This week our collective liberal guilt will not be satisfied merely by wringing our hands, saying “Oh those poor fellows, they really have it rough.” and donating 50p to Oxfam or something, Oh no. This week’s tea is Clipper fair trade green tea with lemon. Alright, I got these because of the really cool faux retro 50s box but they make a nice cuppa too. And now, the news:
New extinct lemur species discovered in Madagascar
Pink dolphin a standout in La. shipping channel
Siberian child 'raised by dogs'
Manitoba museum displays sea monsters
Nessie pops up to say 'Allo
Maybe Nessie was just pissing by their small beat after they set out from the dick. (Note to people who didn’t get that: look up Officer Crabtree + Allo Allo on youtube)