Thursday, 21 January 2010

Circular arguments

On one hot Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1973, I decided to go for a walk up and over Lansdown Hill, and look for a secluded spot to lie in the grass and read a book. Turning off the main road as the hill leveled out about 2 miles from the city centre, I made my way down a rough and overgrown track which I knew would eventually lead to a flat stretch of land which overlooked the vista of western Bath.

As I approached this rough, unkempt meadow, I noticed something odd roughly in the middle of the knee-high, dry grass and I waded through to get a better look.

A vast and perfect circle had been depressed in the standing hay - I guess about 100 feet or so in diameter. When I got closer and stood in the depression, it was apparent the circle had been formed so that the flatted grass lay in a perfect spiral formation emanating from the exact centre, and the perimeter of it was so crisp and uniform, that whatever had formed it seemed to have stopped with the precision of the width of one stalk around the entire circumference. Although I believed - and still believe - that it must have been formed by some natural phenomena, it just seemed as though this phenomena could not be a wind-vortex alone. It was just too perfect.

Of course, this was in the days when crop-circles were unheard of - I had certainly not heard of anyone talking about them. It was also in the days before the internet, so the next day, I made my way to the public library to see if I could find any reference to them. What I found in a couple of books were images such as the one above - 17th century and earlier wood-cuts depicting the work of the Devil in places like Hertfordshire. This woodcut print seems to coincide with the time when the greatest number of 'witches' were burnt at the stake in Britain for want of better scape-goats for any number of minor catastrophes or lazy ways to explain the inexplicable.

It was quite a few years before the complicated, geometric patterns began to appear in standing crops, and this period coincided with two major social developments: the all-night, open-air raves in secluded areas which were fueled by the drug 'ecstasy', and the beginning of sophisticated CAD systems for personal computors which enabled highly accurate mapping systems to be drawn to scale for patterns of a previously impossible size.

The one feature about the simple crop-circles which often distinguishes them from the larger, more complicated ones, is that they are often to be found in out-of-the-way places which are not necessarily overlooked by busy roads, etc. One of the pilots that I flew in hot-air balloons with was a keen circle spotter, and we found quite a few of the simple ones in really remote areas of farmland over a couple of summers. From a height of about 1000 feet, it is easy to spot tracks and footprints in even short grass in the early morning dew, even if they are a few days old. In all the circles we saw, there was no sign that they had ever been visited by humans.

When the famous, large crop circle of Alton Barnes, near Marlborough first appeared, I got together with a fixed-wing pilot friend of mine, and we hired a light aircraft out of Bristol to fly over it. A striking feature from the air was the smaller, crudely executed design of a happy 'smiley' face next to it - the universal symbol for 'E's at the time. The next day, I got into the car and drove to it, as I heard the farmer on whose land it was, was charging a small entrance fee for going in to see it. I suppose he had to make up for the loss of revenue from his standing crops somehow.

Once there, the thing which most impressed me was not the huge, geometric design in the main field, but some smaller, more simple ones in the surrounding fields. I discovered that if you looked closely under hedges - sometimes having to pull the foliage apart with your hands - there were tiny but perfectly formed miniature circles of about 3 inches in diameter, which looked as though they had been made by eddies that had tangentially spun off the main circle, and these were very difficult to find - almost hidden.

In the Pewsey Vale near Devizes, there are two pubs quite close to each other in the same village. One is frequented by the crop circle die-hard enthusiasts like Reg Presley (he of the 60s pop-group, 'The Trogs' who used to almost break his neck with each performance of 'Wild Thing'). I am told that the walls of this pub are covered with crop circle images and notices, and that the group holds regular meetings there in the summer months in order to discuss the latest alien invasion.

The other pub is frequented by the local wags who actually go out at night and make them.


  1. I blame Winchester Art College sculpture students, along with the early 70's adoration of Richard Long.

    I even seem to remember a certain Tom S digging a very large circle. Much more back-breaking.

  2. Yes, I did dig that circle with pick and shovel - 100 feet in diameter - ditch and bank - sadly now built over and gone forever. These days I prefer Goldsworthy.

    Believe it or not (and you should, because it's true), Richard Long made a visit to Farnham and saw my circle shortly after I had left it. A little later, he produced 'Spiral Jetty' using machine diggers.

    So - who inspired whom?

  3. Just between you and me, I think our first-born was conceived mid-your-circle. You're right about Goldsworthy, a far more creative mind.

  4. Ah! (sotto voce) Well I hope you cleared up afterwards - that was a sacred space. I hope you called him Tom too.

    The poetry society (Dr. Crow) held meetings in the middle of it too - did you perform during a reading?

  5. A Crow is a bird is a Crow is a bird is a....

  6. Dear Tom, sorry to spoil your fantasy about Richard Long stealing your ideas but Spiral Jetty (1970) was Robert Smithson's work.

  7. ...and, by the way, there is only one pub in the village of Honey Street: The Barge Inn. It's the one with the pictures on the wall.

  8. Damn! Thanks for the info, Anonymous. I did get confused between Smithson (who did actually visit Farnham - I think!) and Long, and the bit about the pubs in Honey Street was actually told me by a boat-dweller who was moored up nearby, and my Fact-Checker was on holiday.

    In any case, I have already promised - right at the beginning of this blog - never to let the facts get in the way of what I think is a good story.

  9. Also, the name 'The Barge Inn' reminds me of a fictitious country house called 'Surley Manor', where the butler answers the phone in a rude and gruff way, regardless of who is calling. Sadly, my fact-checker has already established that no such village as 'Surley' exists, so I will not be spending a fortune on an elaborate and expensive hoax.

  10. I expect the world looks quite different to a canal barge dweller and all pubs are local. I worried that I was a bit pedantic there, so thanks for your friendly reply, and the humorous tale of Surley Manor. I have friends who went to Farnham. Funnily enough, one of them makes crop circles. Small world, and beautifully circular. Nice blog, btw.

  11. Was 'Spiral Jetty' Smithson's only ever job? I've never seen anything else by him.

  12. Thanks, Anon. Yes, I did talk to the boat-person in my pub, which is full of boat-dwellers. I need a bit of pedantry sometimes, especially when Fact-Checker is on holiday.

    I seem to remember looking at a coffee-table book on Smithson's stuff, Cro, (but it could have been Long's...). I care so little about it these days, that I can't be arsed to look it up on Google, and neither can you by the sound of it. I did hear that 'Spiral Jetty' created a fabulous area of marine bio-diversity, though, and I think it is protected now for that reason alone. Maybe I should have filled my circle up with water - it might still be there now.

  13. Tonight, I have met the pilot of the above mentioned plane that we flew over Alton Barnes in, and he tells me that the trip took place in 1990 - almost 20 years ago. My God, how time flies without a log-book.

    It is because he HAS to keep a log book, that he can be so accurate with the dates.

    He also told me that he once witnessed a simple circle being formed in cut hay-stalks, caused by a wind vortex alone. Shame.

  14. PPPS - He also told me that the plane we flew in was destroyed - by some high winds whilst on the ground!

  15. You'd of thought with the 50k reward offered initially by the NFU for finding the makers that they may have found someone by now