Friday, 15 February 2013
The Barking Beast Of Bath: The Facts!
People ask me why I feel so insulted when someone decides to call me a “Fortean” or “Cryptozoologist”. Let me explain.
Well, Charles Hoy Fort apparently objected most strongly to the creation of a Fortean Society. Most Forteans, even when they get one hundred per cent incontrovertible facts, will mix in half truths or even lies to “fill in the gaps” concerning an event. They say it is “in the spirit of Charles Fort”. Yes, Fort liked a bit of dry wit but that was his style. To say that, as a Fortean, you are challenging science to look at mysteries is pointless if you cannot give straight facts. That is why Forteans are seen as a “loony fringe.”
Cryptozoologists. Well, there are those who stand out in my mind: Ivan T. Sanderson, Bernard Heuvelman, Loren Coleman and John Green. These people put in the work and reported facts, though a small amount of speculation is needed in this subject –but based on zoological knowledge.
Then there are “The Others”. These people like to pretend to be scientific but will appear on TV, radio and in the newspapers making fools of themselves and in some cases issue the most sensationalist or downright stupid statements that they later have to retract because someone checked and pointed out they were talking rot. These people will tell you with an inane chuckle: ”No such thing as bad publicity, old chap!” They will also plagiarise.
If the latter type could be gotten rid of then I might not be too insulted if someone asked whether I was a cryptozoologist.
I prefer naturalist-research investigator.
The case of the so called “Barking beast Of Bath” is a prime example and what these Forteans, Cryptozoologists and others say thirty years on I’ll come to later. First,the case itself and I need to point out that the incidents took place in the Limpley Stoke, Monkton Combe and Claverton Woods area not in Bath itself.
At the time of this case I was acting jointly as Director of UFO International and running a branch of the late Ivan T. Sanderson’s SITU (Society for the Investigation of The Unexplained). Both slotted in nicely with being Regional Investigations Co-ordinator (RIC) for the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA).
It was BUFORA that seemed to want to get me involved and the Press seemed to be desperate for any UFO group to get involved! The BUFORA National Investigations Co-ordinator at the time, Maureen Hall, sent me three newspaper clippings and urged me to get actively investigating –I was promised that more revealing information would be forwarded soon.
Suddenly, my phone began to ring non-stop with local and national reporters from newspapers, radio and TV asking how my investigation was progressing? I was told several times that “BUFORAs Press Officer said you were the man to contact”. I got the hint that more was going on than I was being told.
The Bristol Evening Post of 12th August, 1980, reported:
“Beware of the Beast! Anyone stalking the mystery
beast of Brassknocker Hill, Bath, could be in for a
nasty shock, RSPCA Inspector Peter Meyer warned
today. Renewed hunts are being made for
the creature after a policeman and a taxi driver
saw a monkey about three feet tall near the woods
behind the hill at the weekend. The beast first
appeared last summer, damaging trees and
frightening wildlife. Efforts to track it down failed.
Today Mr Meyer said: ’If it is a chimp or a
Monkey and it has been living in the wild for so
Long it could be extremely dangerous…”
The item went on to state that Mr. Meyer’s search on the 11th had been unsuccessful but that he planned another search that day. Mr. Ron Harper, a retired cabinet maker, who was then living on the edge of the woods, was convinced that this “beast” was a monkey. He told reporters:
“It has been here in the wood all the time but it
comes out in August when it gets warmer and the
new shoots appear on the trees. We think that it was
let loose from a car, probably by a foreigner who
didn’t want to report the loss.”
Mr. Harper repeated the same theory to me. As much as I looked I could find no UFO angle. The Daily Mirror of 12th August had a field day and what it was reporting was “interesting”. It reported that a “strange furry creature” was first seen in the August of 1979 and went on to inform its readers that:
“…shaggy shapes and glaring eyes made some of
the locals think twice about venturing out at night.”
When I talked and corresponded with Mr. and Mrs. Harper they made it very clear that they were in no way afraid of the creature. Mr. Harper was not amused by the Daily Mirror report.
John Elphinstone, a taxi driver, was driving along when the beast, according to reporters, ”hailed him” from the roadside. Now that would have been a site; a strange, shaggy creature flagging down a taxi? A policeman dispatched to the scene was just in time to see the creature lope off. Inspector Mike Price of Bath Police said:
“We were sure that this mystery creature would turn
out to be a monkey of some sort. After all, men from
Mars aren’t hairy are they?”
I decided that I really needed to track some of these people down and see what they were really seeing / thinking. According to most of the reporters Bath’s neighbourhood was being invaded by night-crawling hairies from Pluto!
My first port of call was the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) Bath office. I tried to telephone and make an appointment to meet Mr. Meyer. It took several attempts but I then spoke to someone who asked me to hold on. I waited for minutes and was then told “Mr. Meyer is not here. Can you leave your telephone number?” The way it was said I knew I was getting the brush off. I pointed out that I would be in Bath the next day –perhaps if I popped in? Silence. Then I was given several reasons why Mr. Meyer might not be in the next day.
I left my telephone number and asked if he could contact me urgently it would be greatly appreciated. I was using my naturalist hat and never even once mentioned UFOs, shaggy men from Mars or anything of the kind. By nine o’clock in the evening it was obvious Mr. Meyer was not going to return my call.
The next day I concluded my business at the Ministry of Defence in Bath and walked around to the RSPCA office. The person I spoke to said Mr. Meyer was not in that day but I showed my semi-official (non-UFO) credentials and the lady went through a door to reappear several minutes later with another lady. This lady told me that Mr. Meyer’s was not in and was in fact on leave. Glancing through a window I saw a man whom I recognised from a TV news item as Mr. Meyer rush into a car and drive off.
I actually laughed out loud. The two ladies stared. I handed a business card to them and pointed out that I was not a nut-case but a naturalist and I was interested in talking to Mr. Meyer –confidentially if need be— about the concerns of residents regarding the animal in the woods.
I never did hear from Mr. Meyer or find out why he avoided me –though a few years later I did get offered one explanation and it involved the “beast”.
When I later contacted the Bristol RSPCA to explain my interest and the situation I was told, without a moment of hesitation: ”You ought to try the Primate Protection League.” So, I contacted the International Primate Protection League and explained my interest as a naturalist. No response to my letters. I tried telephoning but was asked to leave my number and someone would get back to me. No one ever did and this was the Secretary of the League.
I then tried to get a response from the League’s local representative, Mr. tony Pain. No call back after I left a message. No responses to letters. I was beginning to think the shaggy men from Mars were mind-controlling people –and that is a joke, just in case someone thinks I’m being serious!
An area changes a great deal in thirty years-luckily I still have my old field map showing how sparsely populated the area was in 1979/1980. H6 marks the Brassknocker Hill area.
A reporter –a stringer for The Daily Telegraph—contacted me and asked if I had heard about the strange lights being seen at night at the same time that the beast was seen stalking the area?
I was getting fed up and fast. So I contacted Bath Police and a very helpful officer told me: ”Oh, right. You really need to read the Daily Mirror article!”
The situation was becoming a farce. It seemed half the reporters in the country were out at Brassknocker Hill. I needed to talk to Maureen Hall at BUFORA and find out just what the additional information was that she hinted BUFORA had. I got through to Maureen and after a few pleasantries got down to brass tacks and asked just what it was BUFORA knew because as far as I was concerned all that had been reported was an escaped primate. I was promised “certain information” was going to be forwarded to me very soon. Whichever way I asked I just could not get any hint of what this information was.
I’d already visited the area where, apparently, ”everyone” was said to be either searching/hunting/pursuing the beast. I saw no one. Locals responded to my question: ”Have you seen the RSPCA man or journalists around?” with a look of surprise and, usually, the words: ”Are they supposed to be around here?” It seems that, apart from local BBC TV and ITV news types who went “a bit potty” when the story broke, that was it.
It’s easy to suppose that the article that appeared in The Guardian on the 23rd August, 1979, had much to do with the mystery and confusion. However, when I contacted the reporter, Mr. Dennis Barker, he could not recall much other than that there was “something” to do with UFOs. All his notes were gone anyway –though he did later find a couple of contact numbers that I had already told him I had. This was very surprising since it turned out that it was Mr. Barker who tried to rope in UFO International in 1979 –a year before BUFORA had contacted me.
Barker’s article reported that the four feet tall (1.2m) tall beast had shattered the peace of the little village “using its Draculaesque teeth”. I love reporters. The beast gave the impression of wearing white (framed) spectacles. Pigeons, magpies and jackdaws had vanished from the area and bark had been stripped off trees as far up as twenty feet (6 m). Yes, this is why it was hailed “the barking beast of Bath”, not because of any vocalisation but because it tore bark from trees. If it had barked I’m sure that it would have been reported as stalking the quiet village with “werewolfesque teeth”!
The theory was put forward, though I have no idea by whom, that the beast must be able to hang upside-down and lean over to do the damage. The beast always did its work at night it seemed.
Bless him, but Mr. Harper then gave reporters (mainly Mr. Barker) a morsel that they could use to boost the story even more. Mr. Harper reported that it was some kind of rodent. And he wrote that a man from the Bath Parks Committee had paid a visit and stated:
“You know, Mr. Harper, if I was not talking silly, I
would say that you have a squirrel ten times
bigger than normal.”
I’m glad he wasn’t “talking silly”; though I have mused over that line many a time. Mr. Harper also wrote that the teeth marks found were “ten to twenty times the size of a squirrel’s”.
I think we need to interject a few facts into this madness. When I spoke to the head of the Bath Parks Committee he admitted his man had made the remarks quoted by Mr. Harper. He wishes that the man had not but he did and was not thinking anyone would publish them.
There were no Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in the woods around Monkton Combe, Limpley Stoke or any part of Bath. So that would leave the Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis),of which there was some evidence but I got the distinct impression that squirrels, like magpies and pigeons, were “fair game” to humans so the drop in numbers might not be that unusual.
The total length of a squirrel skull is under 54 mm [just over 2 ins],it has a hind foot measurement of roughly 2.5 x 3 cms (around 1-1.25 ins)). The body length is 200-236 mm (roughly 9.5 ins); the tail on average is 165-200 mm (roughly 6-9 ins). The body weight is approximately 250-400 g..
So, if in proportion with the teeth at 10-20 times the size of normal, you’ll get a squirrel with a 0.508-1.016m (20-40 ins) long jaw; a 0.254-0.508m (10-20 ins) hind foot not to mention a 2.29-4.88m (7.5-16 ft) long body and to which we can add a 1.53-3m (5-10 ft) long tail. More worrying, it would weigh around 2500 – 5000 g (5.5-11 +lbs) body weight—and the ability to hang upside-down while leaning over!
Impressive. No wonder some foreigner passing by dumped it from his car!
The Harpers noted that their pet goat would not go near to one tree that the beast had “attacked”. There were some fifty other trees damaged in a similar fashion in the area.
At the time of the stripped bark being discovered, no one had actually seen the alleged beast or, at least, had they it was not reported. This all changed when, at around 00:30 hours, Mr. Christopher Morris and a friend were driving through Monkton Combe. Both saw the beast in the middle of the road, illuminated by the car headlights. “It” was 3-4 feet (90 cms- 1.2m) tall and had what seemed to be bright white rings around the eyes which were interpreted as looking like spectacles.
Interestingly, Mr. Morris thought that the beast “looked like a baboon”, though his companion was quite adamant that it was a chimpanzee.
Being young and stupid I decided to check the area out and lived rough for a week, not telling any locals who might be hoaxing or unintentionally mention the fact to hoaxers. Each evening I climbed up into a different tree. I covered myself in dirt and leaf sap to try to hide my smell.
Above: Just some of the news clippings pertaining to The Barking Beast Of Bath and covers the sensationalist warnings of possible attack by “the beast” to its connection with UFO sightings. These reflect the tones taken by local BBC TV and radio as well as Independent TV. More than one reporter refused my invitation to join me at night in the woods.
In that entire week, while the RSPCA and reporters were supposedly moving around by the handful I saw no one. No RSPCA Inspector. No member of the International Primate Protection League. Not a solitary reporter. Well, I did hear someone one evening; a couple decided to go to a tree nearby where they got rather ”involved”, shall we say. I couldn’t very well make a noise to let them know I was up a tree close-by or else they may have wondered just what I was doing up the tree. I also had to consider the possibility that the police might be called and then I’d have to explain to them what I was doing. I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears –one has standards.
I did find one quite old track in dried out mud that looked like a chimpanzee foot but damp had gotten into my camera and when I later returned with casting material there were deer tracks obliterating it. But by a shed frequented by the beast there was a strong smell. One I knew all too well. While at Greenway Boys School in the early 1970s, we one day had a visit from the owner of the Westbury-on-Trym Wildlife Park a nice spot to visit in Bristol back then. The owner had, in those pre Dangerous Wild Animals Act days, brought along a chimpanzee with a couple more mundane creatures. As the chimp was held up to be handed to me it decided to relieve its bladder…a lot. That smell, mentally, has stayed with me for a long time now, but in 1979/1980 my hair stood on end when I smelt that same odour again.
I checked but there were no droppings I could associate with a chimpanzee. Ron Harper had told me that he had seen a chimpanzee on several occasions and. later, his widow re-iterated that they had both seen the chimpanzee on a stone wall that stood next to one of the damaged trees –the tree their pet goat would not go near.
A few years later  when I wanted to see whether anyone else might have plucked up courage to finally report their own sighting, I received at least two phone calls from different sources telling me that there could be between 2-3 chimpanzees loose in the area. I checked but it seemed, as I suspected, to be nothing.
I had, through a contact, seen the statement made by two police officers who had clearly seen a chimpanzee –one had been to Bristol Zoological Gardens a few days before and spent some time watching the chimps. Sadly, as is procedural, the reports were later destroyed along with other files when “dead”.
But 1996 saw a letter arrived from the Isle of Benbecula, in the North Atlantic. The taxi driver mentioned in the press reports, Mr. John Elphinstone, was now living on the isle but a relative had sent the article mentioning the beast to him. He wanted me to know that he was familiar with chimpanzees and their habits and was worried it might be approached by a child or member of the public with an image of friendly “chimp tea party” creatures in their heads. It was because he saw the animal so clearly that he contacted the police and he pointed out that the policeman had gotten a good long look at it –not the brief glimpse suggested by the press.
Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries surrounding The Barking Beast Of Bath involved the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [RSPCA]. Contact with the Press/Media was always strictly guided and watched over. Their Inspector at Bath tried to take ludicrous measures to avoid me [as did other staff]. An RSPCA Inspector’s face all over TV news items as well as in the Press and same Inspector making statements on radio would, you might think, be known to the RSPCA hierarchy but when Bath HQ told me I needed to speak to Bristol I got the above letter. The Media sensation was totally ‘unknown’ to them. In 1981 a similar statement came from Bath HQ.
Back in 1980, smelly, cold and really needing a bath, I arrived home and immediately telephoned Maureen Hall. I told her that it was clear that one of the odd lights seen in 1979 was a meteorite as that had been seen by amateur astronomers I knew. The other lights seemed to be aircraft and a military helicopter. I emphasised that there was no alien or aliens running around the area. What I was then told helped me decide to leave BUFORA.
I was told that the new chairman had instigated a big publicity push and had been contacted by Mr. Barker and a seeming promise of publicity was made (but never kept). BUFORA had been told about the meteorite and other information suggested to them that aircraft lights were the “UFOs” and because there had been a report from the south east of England of a UFO and “monkey-like alien in silver” they decided to get me to investigate: though they never had any doubt it was an escaped chimpanzee.
Speculation was that Mr. Meyers was a friend of Mr. Pain, the local Primate Protection League man and one of his colleagues. Mr. Barker, when I spoke to him on the telephone told me he would send a list of people he’d spoken to and added: ”Check out where the Primate man lives”. Mr. Pain lived in Limpley Stoke. The suggestion, unsubstantiated, was that somehow the wall of silence was due to a chimpanzee escaping locally.
The stripped bark that I saw looked as though it had been torn off in places but clearly squirrels had been at work on others. No sign of giant squirrel anywhere.
But the idea that the beast “comes out in August when it gets warmer and the new shoots appear on the trees” was mind boggling. No chimp could have survived the winter of 1979-1980 out in the open. On the 12th December, 1979, it remained at 8 degrees Celsius for a 24 hour period with sharp drops in the temperature throughout the month. In January, 1980 to temperature was fluctuating between 4 degrees Celsius in the day and 2 degrees at night –and those were town temperatures.
Foraging would not be good for a chimpanzee. My guess was that a chimpanzee kept in the area, had escaped twice; once in 1979 and again in 1980 and on both occasions was recaptured after a few days, though chimpanzees once they get the liking for it become habitual escapees as Longleat Safari Park found out in the early days.
It was as simple as that.
I wrote a report on this for the Flying Saucer Review which rejected the item because I could not see the cosmic game being played out by paranormal forces.
A more lengthy item was written and sent to The Fortean Times who acknowledged it’s receipt and I was told in a later phone conversation with one of the editors that the article would appear in the next year [over ten years later and I’m still waiting]
However, UFO groups as well as various Fortean sources got copies of the report and two even published the articles. The editor of one still wanted to make it a Fortean mystery despite the facts and still does. I’ve even put the article online sending out links. So, just to “see”, I ran an internet search. Not one source gives factual accounts and American Monsters, Man Beast UK, Farshores, Scottish Big Cats, International Folklore Tales as well as Tinwiki all list the Beast Of Brassknocker Hill as either some paranormal Bigfoot type, simple myth and even worse.
Rather like the Dead Aquatic Creatures of Canvey Island [related in Some Things Strange And Sinister], very little detail is given and even the basic data is distorted to keep it a mystery, yet I have had several articles published in widely read magazines explaining the events!
And when HTV set two very young producers the task of making a 25 minute documentary on the affair in the mid 1990s they were given complete files and I arranged for them to meet and film those witnesses still alive. On the day of filming I waited but no TV crew. Apparently they had decided to opt for a group of sensationalist Cryptozoologists who had never even visited the area and the whole programme turned into a very amateurish and horrendous to watch “Blair Witch Project” spoof –the higher ups at TV Centre were not amused and I don’t think the producers worked for HTV again.
So, please, understand why it is that I do not like being called a Fortean or Cryptozoologist.
1. Mystery Of Bath’s Beast Of Bark, The Guardian, 23rd August, 1979
2. Taxi! It’s the Beast, Daily Mirror, 12th August, 1980
3. Beware Of The Beast!, Bristol Evening Post, 12th August, 1980
4. Report On The Barking Beast Of Bath: Escaped Chimpanzee, Society for the
Investigation of The Unexplained [SITU], October, 1980. A copy of
this report was sent to the RSPCA Bristol and Bath as well as to the
Primate Protection League.
Note: Other letters, documents, etc., are contained in my report The Barking Beast Of Bath: 1979-1980 now unavailable. All original material is still held on file but contains personal information on witnesses, etc., so cann