Friday, 1 April 2011

The Fen Werewolf

The Fens have long been renowned for their atmosphere and spectacular wildlife. But according to some startling recent reports, they may be a good deal wilder than we’d like to admit. Daniel Black investigates.

It was 10:58 on a dreary evening in late Autumn 2001 when Michael A’s car drew to a halt on a desolate Fen road, several miles past Ten Mile Bank. He recalls looking at the clock on the dashboard because he was running late, and cursing the fog. ‘It was so thick that the road ahead disappeared after only about ten metres. I had no idea where the road was heading or how to get back. Turning around seemed impossible.’ At the time it seemed a stupid inconvenience. What happened next was to turn that evening into one he was never likely to forget.

Michael, a landscape gardener who at the time lived in a village just north of Cambridge, had been on his way to visit a friend in Wisbech when he had taken a wrong turn in the rapidly encroaching fog, taking him deeper into the Fens instead of north into Wisbech as he’d hoped. With no lights to be seen but his own, he had become anxious that the car could veer into one of the ditches that ran on either side of the road. Though he couldn’t see them, he knew they were often treacherously deep, and so had stopped to take stock and consult a road atlas. ‘I realised that without some identifiable topographical feature, the map wasn’t going to be much use, so I flicked off the car lights in the hope of being able to see further into the fog, or maybe spotting other lights.’ The moon was bright that night, and although it could no longer be seen gave the fog a strange luminosity. ‘I couldn’t see much further than before – certainly not enough to pick out any kind of landmark in that featureless landscape.’ He then leaned over to pull out the road atlas from under the passenger seat. ‘As I was leaning over, I heard – and felt – something brush against the outside of the car, just inches from my head. It sounded like a stiff paintbrush against the passenger door. Then, almost immediately something caught the wing mirror as it passed.’ The mirror snapped back with a loud ‘clunk’. ‘The night was utterly silent – no birds or traffic. That sound made me jump out of my skin.’ As he sat up, Michael recalls hearing another sound. He describes it as ‘the same sound my dog’s feet make when it trots across the kitchen floor’. Looking out at the road ahead, and half expecting to see a dog or a fox, he was surprised to see an upright figure standing in the middle of the road. ‘It was tall, but hunched, about five metres from the front of the car. It looked like a man with his back to me, with his head down and his collar turned up, I thought, though I couldn’t quite make it out.’

Michael flicked the headlights back on, and got the shock of his life. ‘It immediately turned and looked towards the car, apparently startled. Its proportions weren’t like that of a man. The shoulders were very broad and its arms much longer, with an arched back. Its head was large and pushed forward, almost like a bear’s. The lower body appeared hairy, but the head and neck were covered in shaggy grey fur. It looked damp and matted, like the fur on a fox, and for a moment its eyes reflected the headlights straight back like cat’s or a dog’s. I knew it was looking right at me.’ After a seconds hesitation, the figure ‘dropped on all fours’ and rapidly disappeared into the fog ahead. ‘I heard its feet for a few seconds, muffled by the fog, and then it was gone.’ The clock now read 10:59. The entire encounter had lasted less than a minute.

Afterwards, Michael reversed the car to a point where he could safely turn, and headed back the way he’d come. ‘I was just cutting my losses. After that all I wanted to do was go home.’ Nevertheless, it was some time before before the experience began to properly sink in. ‘At the time, although it was all very real, it had a quality rather like a dream – you know, where you just accept what’s happening, however odd. But the next day, when I saw the wing mirror still bent forwards, the reality of it really hit me. And the need for some kind of explanation.’

Explanations proved hard to find. Like a lot of people who experience things they can’t explain, Michael was reticent about making it public. He had nothing to gain from such a frankly bizarre story – quite the reverse – and, despite locating the spot and returning over a dozen times, made only tentative enquiries, and even then only anonymously or with people he knew and trusted. ‘People said it was a man walking a dog, or even a startled sheep,’ smiles Michael. ‘I’ve seen a lot of people walking dogs and a lot of sheep in my time. It wasn’t either of those.’

But what was it?

It was almost a year before Michael’s story reached me and truly came under scrutiny and into the public domain. This happened quite by chance, while I was pursuing another, apparently fruitless story on the southern edge of the Fens. Chris Nailer was visiting friends out in the wilds near Burnt Fen, some miles from Ely, when, soon after midnight on 22 August 2002, they had heard some strange sounds, somewhat like those of a dog, outside the house. When the owner of the house shone a torch from a downstairs window, he glimpsed something ‘very large and dog-like’ disappear through a gap in the hedge. Though it had clearly been disturbing for them, the phrase ‘like a dog’ cropped up a great deal in their testimony. So much so that, regrettably, there seemed to be only one conclusion to be drawn. I left feeling convinced that they were unfortunate victims of a local stray and ‘Black Shuck mania’.

Afterwards, I was discussing the matter in a local pub with a friend. We talked about the recent phenomenon of the Fen Tiger, and Black Shuck – a great black dog, said to inhabit the Fens (there have been numerous terrifying encounters with this beast since the earliest properly recorded sighting in 1570, near Bungay, Suffolk). This friend, it transpired, also knew a friend of Michael’s and mentioned some of the details of the case. Though he was concerned about betraying a confidence, I made subtle enquiries and met Michael two weeks later, who, it turned out, was very willing to talk. I had the impression that while he had been reluctant to push his case before the public, it was a great relief to him that someone had finally come to take the matter off his hands. We talked several times over the next couple of weeks, and he produced a drawing of what he had seen. It was all perfectly clear in his mind, even after many months, though he apologised for the quality of his draughtsmanship (‘I’m not an artist...’ he laughed). I was firmly convinced that he believed in what he saw, and that it was something quite real. Nevertheless, for the moment, as so often, the investigation was at a dead end – a detailed account, but nothing more.

But more was to come, quite suddenly, and quite unexpectedly. While pursuing other investigations in Scotland towards the end of September, I picked up a message on my mobile from Chris Nailer, saying that the same disturbances had occurred again at approximately 1.30pm on the morning of 22 September. When he joined his friend for a walk later that day they had also found unusual, large footprints – one whole and three partial – which they said they could not definitely identify as either animal or human. ‘If they are made by a person,’ said Chris, ‘then they were walking barefoot and had claws’. These were found near a ditch at the edge of an open field, which according to Chris’s friend tended to drain poorly during Autumn, and was often half full of water. Chris speculated that the ‘creature’ had stopped here to drink. However, poor mobile reception had meant a significant delay in me receiving the message. The day after the discovery the footprints were already gone, the field having been freshly tilled. Most frustrating of all, no one had managed to take a photograph on Sunday, because the battery in the only available camera was flat. Neverthless, by this time I’d put myself on a train heading south.

On the journey, I had another dramatic call, this time from my partner Charlie Marlowe. A friend of hers – a long-serving country vet – had called her with a curious story about a cow that had been found dead – and severly mutilated – at a farm in the Fens. Both the farmer’s dogs had refused to go anywhere near the carcass. The farmer had called the vet immmediately. Several weeks had now passed since the original discovery, and the animal’s body had long since been destroyed, but I’d seen mutilated cattle before – in Nevada – and it is a horrific sight. Ironically, the usual explanation for mysterious cattle mutilations is that it is a predatory animal. It was clear that here it really was an animal that was responsible – but neither the farmer nor our friendly vet could satisfactorily explain what animal (in England, at least) could wreak such damage. Even more significantly – and this was not known to the farmer, the vet, or even Charlie – the attack had taken place just hours after Chris Nailer and friend had heard those mysterious sounds at the Burnt Fen house (in the early morning of 23 August), which was only 9 miles away. But by the time I got back into East Anglia, there was far more dramatic news. Over the weekend of 21 September, the same farmer had had another encounter – one that, this time, would not need to depend on anyone’s drawing skills.

The farmer – let’s call him John – had been severely shaken by the attack, and with a resourcefulness worthy of a true investigator immediately set about introducing security measures. The cattle were kept in a locked shed at night, opposite which there was already a security light. This is set off by movement in the yard – anything bigger than a rabbit will do it. On an adjacent barn, John installed a small webcam overlooking the yard, triggered by a simple light sensitive switch. If the security light comes on, the webcam snaps high resolution images every two seconds, saving them directly to the hard drive of a PC. It keeps this up until the light switches off again (once triggered it stays on for approximately 3 minutes, unless the beam continues to be interrupted). In the three weeks it had been in operation, it had snapped nothing but a few cats and the odd fox. Then something much bigger paid a visit.

At 3.20am on 22 September – again, just a few hours after the second disturbance at the Burnt Fen House – John was awoken by a loud crash. In the next few moments he was convinced he could hear something moving outside. Looking out of all the windows towards the yard and the nearby cattle shed, he could see nothing. But the security light was on. By now, the sounds had stopped. John headed to the PC to see what, if anything, the camera had picked up. What he found was startling.

At exactly 3.17am, an upright figure enters the yard from the left (the drive leading to the road), triggering the security system. Seemingly unpertubed by the security light, it stands for several seconds looking from side to side before moving further into the yard. It stops again, dead centre, in the full beam of the light, and appears to look directly at the camera. Then, very suddenly and swiftly, it moves off to the right, in the direction of the cattle shed and fields beyond. When I saw these images for the first time I found it a truly chilling experience. One can only imagine how John must have felt that night. This creature, whatever it was, had passed just yards from him only moments before. The first thing that struck him in the silence that followed was that his dogs hadn’t barked once. He found them downstairs in the kitchen, cowering in a corner, their ears flat against their heads. Needless to say. he did not investigate further outside until daylight. He never did discover the source of the crash. There were no other signs of an intruder of any kind.

What are we to make of these images? It’s one of the sad ironies of investigations of this kind that even when we do get some kind of photographic evidence, we often lack the frame of reference that we need to make a reasonable interpretation. Such is the case here. All we can say with any certainty – if we accept that all these instances are linked, and there are good reasons to believe that they are – is that some nocturnal, fur-bearing creature, which walks upright at least some of the time, is ranging across the Fens between March, Ely and Thetford Forest. It seems more active around the full moons (though it may simply be easier to spot at these times) and if we look closely at the details of the reports, perhaps also displays a hunting pattern, appearing in the north, near Ten Mile Bank, at around 11.00pm, moving down to the Burnt Fen area by midnight-1.30pm, and looping up eastwards towards Thetford forest by around 3.00pm – a distance of over 20 miles. If we close this circle, we have an even longer, circular route, which begins and ends in or near Thetford Forest. There have been no wild wolves in Britain for centuries, but like them, our night prowler seems strongly territorial. What kind of creature can this be? Are we mistaken in thinking that all these sightings are even the same creature? Doesn’t the logic of survival dictate that there must be more than one, and does the answer perhaps lie in Thetford Forest?

Daniel Black is an investigator with Marlowe:Black, a Cambridge based agency. For more info, contact: