Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

MIKE HALLOWELL: Devil's crabs

Two years ago my book Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Northumberland & Tyneside (CFZ Press, 2008) informed readers about a cryptid called the Cleadon Big Cat, a terrifying sea monster at Marsden Bay called the Shony and a fascinating entity known as the Giant Lobster of Trow Rocks. Since then I've written up stories about a desiccated mermaid on display in a barber's shop and a weird man-beast from Hebburn known as Blue Eyes, not to mention a huge, hairy hominid said to wander Cleadon Hills after dark.

Now, South Tyneside is the smallest Metropolitan Borough in the country and you'd think its residents would be pleased to brag about one cryptid, let alone seven. However, against all the odds it seems another cryptozoological conundrum may have to be added to our rich and varied folklore.

Two years ago whilst chatting to Ronan Coghlan, I purchased a copy of his book A Dictionary of Cryptozoology, (Xiphos Books, 2004) and have to confess it's one of the most fascinating tomes I've ever come across. Now, here's the funny bit, and for those of you who are of a delicate disposition I'd advise you to avoid reading the following paragraph and simply skip to the one that succeeds it.

My writing partner Darren W. Ritson paid me a visit last week as we had quite a bit of work to do on a book manuscript we're working on. Suddenly I felt a sudden urge to pay a visit to the Little Boys' Room, as they say, and had a gut instinct that my sojourn there might be somewhat protracted. I tend to get bored sitting on the loo, and so I made a quick detour into my study to find something to read whilst nature took its course. On a whim, I settled upon Ronan's book.

As the muscles in the lower part of my torso set about their business, I fascinated myself by imbibing strange tales of the Antarctic Narwhal, the Hairy Fish and the Sherwood Forest Thing. Then, without warning, my eyes were drawn to a short entry entitled, South Shields Crab. As I only live a very short distance from South Shields and have written literally hundreds of articles concerning its Fortean history, I must be forgiven for becoming somewhat excited. After a brief distraction with something soft, strong and very, very long – you've seen it on the TV ads, so kindly refrain from making up sordid jokes, if you don't mind – I decided that the matter would have to be looked into further (Look, I've told you; no sordid jokes).

According to Ronan, the possibility exists that a hitherto unrecognised species of crab might be living off our coastline, although he does acknowledge that it could just possibly be, "a colour variation of a known species."

Well, I've heard tales about these mystery crabs before, and they fascinate me.

Some years ago I had several engaging conversations with the late archaeologist Evelyn Waugh-Almond (she was alive then, for the record) and she told me that just off the northerly aspect of Marsden Bay, at the rocky outcrop known as Velvet Beds or Camel Island, there were "crabs living unknown to man".

Now back in Victorian times, Velvet Beds was a favourite pic-nic spot. Hordes of mothers, fathers and their offspring would go there with meat pies, ham sandwiches and tubs of potted brawn to take in the sea air, which was said to be most efficacious in the treatment of the humours and, if you were unfortunate enough to have them, the vapours. At that time the rock was covered in a thick carpet of lush, dark green grass which supposedly felt "just like a bed of velvet" under one's feet. According to tradition, that's how the rock came to be known as Velvet Beds. The grass has all but gone now – only a few tufts remain – and most folk refer to the rock as Camel Island due to the fact that rapid erosion of the striated Magnesian limestone has left it looking like a camel's hump.

But there's another tradition, which espouses the idea that the rock gained its name from the large number of velvet crabs which inhabited the waters around it.

Evelyn told me that the crabs "unknown to man" looked like velvet crabs, but were taxonomically different. They were alleged to have a "nasty disposition" and were extremely aggressive. This, plus their distinctive red eyes – also possessed by velvet crabs, I've been told – led to them being given the alternative monikers of Devils Crabs and Witches Crabs.

One correspondent told me that the crabs at Velvet Beds can grow to a width of 14 inches, which makes them far larger than the average velvet crab. To my knowledge, none of this size have ever been caught. Trevor Wilkinson, another reader of my WraithScape newspaper column, told me that they can grow to "enormous size". Just how enormous he was unable to say.

Ronan references Animals and Men as his source for the story, but doesn't give a particular month or year or provide the issue number, so I'm hoping Jon Downes might be able to provide some more detail on this cryptozoological enigma. I've put out a call to all South Tyneside's craberati, hoping that someone might come forth with a photograph, a specimen or at least an anecdotal tale or two.

As for me, I've learned a valuable lesson; even when you're sitting on the Great White Throne doing what comes naturally, cryptozoological enigmas are, like that soft, strong and very, very long roll of toilet tissue, never far from your grasp…

1 comment:

Syd said...

"One correspondent told me that the crabs at Velvet Beds can grow to a width of 14 inches, which makes them far larger than the average velvet crab. To my knowledge, none of this size have ever been caught."
Do you really think that with the price of crab as it is, if a fisherman was to catch such big crabs, he would tell anyone where they were - not a chance.