Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Cannock Nessie - 10 Years on

From April 2003 onwards, hysterical, and pretty much near-unbelievable, rumors wildly spread around the English town of Cannock, Staffordshire to the effect that a giant, marauding crocodile was on the loose in the area. Yes, really!

Local police, the nation’s press, and even representatives of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) all wildly rushed to the scene of the action – which was the Roman View Pond (pictured above), just outside of Cannock, and only a 5-minute drive from the village of Pelsall where I grew up. Collectively, they valiantly sought to determine the full facts about what, amongst the local media and the populace, was fast becoming known as the ‘"Cannock Nessie."

As a result of all the burgeoning publicity that quickly surrounded the odd affair, a team from the Devonshire, England-based Centre for Fortean Zoology - which was led by CFZ Director Jon Downes - headed off from Devon and made their convoy-like way to the little, innocuous pond where all of the monstrous action was said to be taking place.

And, since Jon Downes (pictured below with me), arguably more than anyone else, was in a prime position to chronicle the facts and the expedition’s highlights, it is over to Jon that I now turn you. In Jon’s very own words and style:

"The affair started with an e-mail message from Nick Redfern. He may be living in Texas now; living proof that one can take the boy out of the West Midlands. But, the fact that he still keeps a finger on the pulse of the event’s of his hometown, prove that one may not be able to take the West Midlands out of the boy!  It was a story from the Wolverhampton Express and Star dated June 16, 2003, written by Faye Casey, and titled Mystery as 'croc' spotted at pool."

The article read as follows: "A Staffordshire community was today trying to unravel a pool monster mystery after reported sightings of a 7ft 'crocodile' type creature rising from the deep. Police officers, RSPCA inspectors and an alligator expert from Walsall were called to the pool in Roman View, Churchbridge, Cannock, on Saturday afternoon when reports of the sighting were first made.

"They searched the area and found nothing, coming to the conclusion that the creature must have been a fish or possibly a snapper turtle. But locals are not convinced and youngsters have designed their own “croc on the loose” posters to stick on lamp-posts. One man, who did not wish to named, said he called the emergency services because what he saw in the pool was not a large fish. He and members of his family had being feeding the swans when the creature emerged.

"'We were there looking at the two swans and their baby cygnets,” said the man. “And there was a commotion in the water and lots of turbulence. “It was far too big to be caused by a fish. As the creature went past I saw it had a flat head, a 5ft long body, and 2ft tail. It was not smooth and was moving in a snaking action - my initial reaction was it was a crocodile or alligator and so I called the police.”

"Linda Charteras, from nearby Cheslyn Hay, was also feeding the swans on Saturday afternoon. “I saw the creature first - a large pool of dirt came up. It looked as though it was after one of the cygnets. I saw its head and long nose and thought there was no way it was a fish,” she said.

"Natalie Baker, who lives on nearby Nuthurst Drive, said her children and their friends had been designing the posters. “There has got to be something in it for the police and RSPCA to come out.”

"But despite growing local interest in the creature - a group [was] out with their binoculars scanning the water last night - the RSPCA say it is highly unlikely the beast was an alligator or croc. Nick Brundrit, field chief inspector for the RSPCA, said the team kept up observations at the pool for around an hour and a half on Saturday, but there were no obvious signs of an alligator-type creature. He said the sighting was more likely to be a group of basking carp swimming together, or possibly a snapper turtle."

And so, the scene was now firmly set for the CFZ’s adventurous quest to begin in absolute earnest. Once again, over to Jon Downes:

"Following on from the excellent preliminary fieldwork carried out by Mark Martin, the main CFZ expedition finally reached Cannock in the early afternoon of 21st July. After a rendezvous at our digs, the Exeter contingent and Mark Martin drove in convoy to the pond at the end of Roman View. No matter how many times one carries out an expedition like this to finally see the location of a series of mystery animal reports for the first time. The pond where the crocodile had been reported was surprisingly wild looking; an oasis of sanity in an increasingly desolate and unattractive West Midlands Environment.

"Especially considering that on the far side of the pond from where we set up our temporary base camp, a new section of the M6 was under construction. And with what looked as if it had once been virgin woodland on the hillside opposite had been flattened, in order to build a featureless and rather nasty out of town shopping centre, the ground immediately surrounding the pond looked even more inviting.

"A wide range of butterflies and other flying insects fluttered, hovered, and buzzed their way around the thick vegetation, which was about 800 yards long and 300 yards across and which was fringed by reeds and bull-rushes. A contemplative-looking Heron sneered down at us from a large bush at one end of the pond, and - indeed - most of the weekend there gazing down at us with a particularly supercilious manner. The pond was also home to a pair of swans and their three cygnets who cruised up and down the water like majestic galleons were and totally ignored us for the duration of our stay.

"From CFZ HQ in Exeter came me, Richard Freeman (who had only been back in the country for four days after his first expedition to Sumatra), Graham Inglis, John Fuller, and Nigel Wright (on his first CFZ expedition for some years). We were joined by the aforementioned Mark Martin, Peter Channon (from the Exeter Strange Phenomena group), Chris Mullins (from Beastwatch UK), Neil Goodwin (from Mercury Newspapers), and Wilf Wharton (the CFZ Wiltshire representative who was soon to be immigrating to the Antipodes).

"Much to my amazement, everybody turned up roughly on time, and we gave three short briefings: one from me, giving a general overview of the events; one from Mark who provided additional background data; and the third from Richard, who cautioned on the do’s and don’ts of handling crocodiles.

"I split the available personnel into three field groups. There was the Boat-Team (Mark and Graham); The Away-Team (Richard, Wilf, Chris, Neil and Peter); and the Shore-Team (me, John and Nigel). The initial idea was that the Boat-Team would spend Monday and Tuesday carrying out intensive sonar sweeps of the lake, with the intention of determining the depth any large fish or errant crocodilians. In the meantime, the Shore-Team would scour the shoreline in search of signs of a large beast and also to determine the entry and exit points of the pond.

"Even as John, Graham and Mark struggled to get our trusty dinghy, The Waterhorse (named after Loch Ness Monster-hunter Tim Dinsdale’s boat), inflated and onto the water, the first set of eyewitnesses arrived. They were a motley gaggle of teenage boys who came up to us; and in thick Brummie accents asked: 'whether you’re here for the crocodoile, loike?' We replied in the affirmative, and they told us that they had also had an encounter with a scaly creature in Roman View Pond. Richard quickly interviewed them."

So, with that last point in mind, before we return to the words of the good Mr. Downes, I have related below the entire interview between Richard Freeman (below) and the teenage boys:

RICHARD FREEMAN: "I gather that you've actually seen this animal and fed it? Could you please tell us exactly what happened?"

LADS: "We came down at just after the RSPCA had been here. We saw what looked like the animal in the water; and so Elliot went and got some chicken and we lobbed it into the water to feed it. Some of it went too far away. But then we threw one-piece and it landed just next to it and there was a massive splash and we could see both the head and the tail. We actually thought that we had seen two of the animals in the water but then remembered there is at least one massive pike in here and that the other animal was a fish."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "And what did this animal look like?"

LADS: "It was dark and about five-feet-long including the tail."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "Did you see scales or ridges on the tail, or anything like that?"

LADS: "We didn’t see its tail properly but there did seem to be a few spikes."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "And have you seen the animal since?"

LADS: "No. We stopped coming down here after the TV people had been. We have been told to keep away from the pond by some of the local residents." (Note from Jon Downes: "There then followed an amusing teenage rant about one of the women whose house overlooks the pond and whom the gang of lads seem to cordially dislike, before Richard managed to bring the conversation back on course.")

RICHARD FREEMAN: "Do you know anybody else who has claimed to have seen it?"

LADS: "Yeah, a couple of our friends. One of our friends had been out walking her dog and spotted it. This was the first time that it was seen. Also, a lot of kids from our school have been bunking off at lunchtimes it and coming down here. Some of them say that they have seen it. One day, we came down and there were about fifty kids sitting on the bank."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "Do you know whether it has ever been seen on land?"

LADS: "Not to our knowledge. No."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "Does anybody - not necessarily you - have any ideas about where it might have come from?"

LADS: "We were told that it might have been a pet that got too big and was thrown out."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "There seem to be a lot of little streams and pipes which come in and out of the pond. Do you have any idea where they go to?"

LADS: "Not really."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "Prior to this there has not been anything odd reported in this lake before?"

LADS: "I don't think so. I seem to remember that there was some speculation about something in this pond a few years ago but can’t remember the details."

And with the interview complete, let us once again return to the words of Jon Downes:

"The group of teenagers went about their business, and we went about ours. However, at least at first some of the other local residents were not as friendly. From the moment we arrived the net curtains began to twitch, and soon a procession of local residents walked past us - nonchalantly - to find out what we were doing. Nigel spent much of his time in conversation with these people, explaining the details of our mission and reassuring them that we were perfectly harmless.

"There was one slight problem however. Despite having made every effort to contact the owners of the pond (we had even instituted a search with Her Majesty’s Land Registry), we had been unable to find them. After we had been at the pond for less than an hour, one irate local who claimed to be a friend of the owner approached us in a combative and pugnacious manner. For a brief few moments if looked at us if we were going to be embroiled in an unpleasant scene. However, John Fuller and I managed to calm the situation down, and the man disappeared, reasonably mollified.

"Finally we managed to get the boat onto the water and the away team was dispatched to the far side of the pond. Then pay-dirt! Nigel, by luck more than by judgment, ran into the lady whose family had been renting the property for 38 years. She could not have been more helpful; and despite the fact that we were trespassing on her property, she granted us permission in writing to carry out whatever investigations we felt were necessary.

"At about 6.15, after a series of false alarms, Mark Martin - in the boat - had a sighting of what appeared to be the 18-inch long dark blackish green head of a large animal. It was not a positive sighting of a crocodile; but it was the best that we had managed to achieve. At the same time, the away team found an area of flattened reeds, which had looked as if a large animal had made itself comfortable; after emerging from the waters of the pond. Unlike other such areas around the shores of the pond, there were no downy feathers from one of the swans; and as the area of flattened vegetation was too big for any known mammal species from the area, it seemed quite possible that this had been the resting place of our mystery crocodilian.

"As soon as we had permission to survey the pond and its surroundings, and we were now no longer conducting a covert operation, we laid a series of navigation lines across two sections of the lake. We took a series of sonar readings to determine the depth of the lake along the lines and found to our surprise the depth of the lake seemed to change by the minute. The next day we found that the lake was fed by a series of sluice-gates from connective channels which crisscross the entire area. We discovered that the bottom of the lake was mostly fairly thick silt, and found that the influx of water from the north end was causing waves in the silt itself, which meant that the depth of the lake fluctuated in some places from between 2.5 and 4.5 feet. Then in the early evening, John Mizzen, one of the original witnesses who had been interviewed by Mark Martin, turned up."

Yet again, we turn the reins over to Richard Freeman:

RICHARD FREEMAN: "Basically, can you recount the story from scratch?"

JOHN MIZZEN: "We were over on the other side of the pond feeding swans, when about five feet from the water’s edge my daughter-in-law was looking down this way while I was looking at the lake. She saw the - what ever it was - and said: 'That's never a fish.' It then swam along the water’s edge, where I reckon that the water is no more than two-feet deep and it was about five-feet-long and that's including the tail. When it got five or ten feet away from us, it came up and broke the surface. Its head was flat, as was its jaw and its nose, and it was dark greenish black in colour and about eighteen-inches wide. The tail had a scaly appearance, and then it went underneath the water and we just lost contact with it. It had been on the surface for about three or four seconds and in that time it covered about fifteen to twenty feet."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "On its head did you notice anything about the eyes?"

JOHN MIZZEN: "I didn't see anything of that; not the eyes sticking out of their head or the water or anything. I only saw it from behind and the surrounding parts to its eyes were not visible as far as I could tell."

Jon Downes once more picks up the story: "Later that afternoon at Richard spoke to a number of other elderly gentlemen who requested anonymity. One of them told us that there had been a series of incidents at a slaughterhouse which was on the shores of one of the other ponds connected to Roman View Pond by a watercourse. Apparently this establishment - which dealt predominantly with the dispatching of elderly and ill horses - supplied meat to local zoos. Some of the meat was hung in a concrete pit in order to prepare it for consumption by zoo animals. Whilst it was hanging something had taken enormous bites out of the carcasses.

"On another occasion a horse was attacked. Apparently, in the vicinity there is a training-stable, at which horses learn to draw old-fashioned hearses. One of the ways that they trained these animals to walk slowly is to swim them in another of the local ponds, which is connected by a watercourse to Roman View Pond itself. On one occasion whilst one of these horses was swimming, it was attacked by something. When they got it out on to the bank it had a massive bite on one of the back legs. It was eight-to-ten-inches deep and went right down to the bone. The horse was immediately taken to the knackers-yard and shot.

"By this time it was beginning to get quite late in the evening, and so the team then decamped to the local pub, by way of one of the most unpleasant tasting fish suppers that it has been my misfortune to eat. Later in the evening, as it was approaching dusk, we returned to the pond and spent three hours searching the surface of the pond with three one-and-a-half-million candle power spotlights. The Away-Team, with head-torches strapped on, scoured the bank, and out in the middle of the lake Mark and Graham sat patiently in the boat waiting for a scaly monster to surface. Needless to say all these searches were fruitless and at about one in the morning we packed up for the night.

"The next day the CFZ posse was all up and about relatively early. After an excellent breakfast we arrived at the lake soon after 10 o’clock in the morning. Within twenty minutes everybody else had joined us (except for Wilf, who had been forced by the pressure of work to drive down to the south at the end of the previous night’s escapades).

"In many ways the second day was a slight disappointment after the adventures of the first. It seemed like that. Although, when you look back, it’s now easy to see that we achieved even more. However, at the time it didn't feel like it. Whereas on the first day we had been rushing about, and we had even logged a sighting, much of the second day was spent hanging about, waiting for something to happen.

"The boat party continued their sonar sweeps of the lake, while the shore party continued their explorations of the bank in search of footprints and signs of crocodilians. Sadly, no such signs were found. Indeed, although on the previous day, we had managed to log one pretty good sighting by Mark Martin, today we had none at all. However, this did not mean that the day was a complete waste of time.

"In the original newspaper report, a local lady called Natalie Baker was quoted as saying that her children and their friends had been so excited by the media activity following the initial crocodile sightings that they had spent some time making coloured posters of the animal as part of a school project.

"Now, Nigel has been working with and for me and nearly seven years now, and over the years I have asked him to do some extraordinary things for me. I have never before said to him: 'Dude, I want you to find me a little girl who draws pictures of crocodiles.' But I did, and - not at all to my surprise; because over the years I have known him I have come to rely on his powers of deduction a great deal - he not only found me the little girl, but managed to persuade her to give me one of the aforesaid posters. Flushed with success after that particular triumph, Nigel and I went off in order to try and solve another mystery, which - we felt - was likely to have a pivotal importance in solving the case of the Cannock crocodile once and for all.

"Richard and I have been members of what I like to call the 'UK Animal Mafia' for some years. This is a weird sort of freemasonry that consists of people on the fringes of the pet trade, the zoo trade, and the professional zoology trade. These people - even when it would seem that they have completely opposing agendas - often co-operate to a surprising extent. One of the foremost members of the Zoo Mafia in the Midlands had warned us about the activities of a particularly unscrupulous reptile dealer who was – allegedly, at least - operating in the Cannock area. Nigel and I left the shore party and the boat party doing its own respective things and went undercover.

"It was surprisingly easy to track this fellow down. He had left a trail of debts a mile long; and whenever we went we couldn't find anybody who would say a good word about him. We found the shop where he had once operated a business, which - according to one of our informants - had been closed down on animal welfare grounds.

"We spoke to his erstwhile landlord and found that when he closed he had left large sums of money owing. We found that he had then set up business under another name in another part of town, but this too had gone the way of all flesh. After two failed businesses, we discovered that the person question had most recently been sighted working part-time for a pizza delivery company, and selling the remnants of his stock through small ads in the local paper.

"Although we cannot prove it, we were convinced that this discovery had essentially solved the provenance of the Cannock crocodile. It was obvious that somebody had been dumping exotic reptiles in the district. Only a couple of days before we arrived, the Wolverhampton Express and Star had carried a story about a large common snapping-turtle which had been captured in a local brook.

"The newspaper report claimed that the turtle - named “Lucky” - by the RSPCA inspector who captured him could have been over 20 years old and had “probably lived most of his life in the wild”, having inspected the brook in question, and furthermore knowing that when snapping turtles achieve the size of the specimen fished out of this tiny brook in Staffordshire they are very sedentary creatures, who on the whole sit on the bottom of a stream waiting for something to swim into the open mouths, I feel it is far more likely that 'Lucky' was dumped into the stream in question within the last few weeks.

“Feeling rather pleased with ourselves, for having completed what we regarded as a rather tidy piece of detective work, we returned to the lake. We discovered that in our absence the CFZ operatives whom we had left behind had discovered some useful data about the age of the lake. Apparently, it had begun life as a pit from which locals dug coal. When the coal petered out, in the mid-1930s, it had begun to fill with water. However, it was a long and slow process, and it wasn't until after the war that the water was deep enough to swim in.

"We also spoke to one of the head-honchos of the local angling society and we discovered that although there were some very big carp in the pond, the largest pike that anyone had managed to catch was only about 9lb in weight. However, according to the local water bailiff there was at least one massive pike weighing in excess of 23lb and probably more than three-and-a-half or four-feet in length.

"The Shore-Team had also managed to identify a number of other small ponds in the area and had found of that most of these were interconnected - either by culverts or by open-water courses. One of the strangest things that we discovered was that somebody had been dumping koi-carp into several of these ponds.

"As some of you may know, I used to write a column for Koi Carp magazine; and so with these very limited credentials Nigel, Richard, John and I paid a visit to a small koi-farm about half-a-mile away. They too had heard the stories about koi-carp - some of them quite sizeable and worth quite a lot of money - being dumped into these local ponds. But there they were completely unable to let us know who had been dumping them and why.

"The next day, we found ourselves in the middle of Cannock Chase, and deep in conversation with the local wildlife-officers who told us that koi had also been turning up in isolated ponds across Cannock Chase, as well. It seems as if there is some kind of strange, Piscine Johnny Appleseed at work, doing his best to stock of the waterways of the West Midlands with these large, ornamental fish.

"Back at the pond we were ready to do a reconstruction of the original sighting by John Mizzen, Linda Charteris and her children. Some time before, we had instituted the practice of performing reconstructions of sightings filmed from two or three different angles; much in the manner of the BBC television programme Crimewatch.

"We have found that using these methods is an invaluable tool in field investigations; and although we had already interviewed both John and Linda in some depth - as had Mark right at the beginning of the investigation - we decided to carry out one of these reconstructions are at the pond. We filmed it from three angles; Neil on one side, Mark on the other and Graham filming from the boat. It is always interesting carrying out up one of our Crimewatch reconstructions and we have never yet done one where we didn't learn something new.

"John Mizzen is probably one of the most professional and accurate eyewitnesses that it has ever been my pleasure and privilege to work with. During our Crimewatch reconstruction we discovered that his estimates of the distance that the crocodile had been from the shore and our measured distance differed by only a few inches.

"After the Crimewatch reconstructions, we slowly began to break camp. John and Neil lit a barbecue, which had been donated to us by Chris Mullins, and soon the fragrant smell of slowly charring burgers drifted over the evening wind. Someone produced the remains of a bottle of Scotch, and Nigel appeared from Sainsbury’s with two dozen bottles of beer. The CFZ drank, ate, and watched the sun go down. Neil disappeared back to Liverpool, and the rest of us went down the pub.

"Tomorrow was another day; but, unfortunately we had not caught a crocodile. From the eye-witness descriptions, Richard and I are fairly convinced that we are talking about a spectacled caiman of between three and five-feet in length. Sadly - unless it is very lucky, and somebody manages to fish it out of one of the connecting streams - it is doomed to a slow and ignominious death as soon the first chills herald the advent of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. And all because of some stupid selfish Bastard who wanted an exotic pet! C`est la vie; unfortunately."

And there ends Jon's story and, unfortunately and almost certainly, the life of the "Cannock Nessie." Indeed, as the heat of summer gave way to the cold of autumn, the curious, out of place beast was never seen again. Perhaps, today, ten years on, its bones still litter the bed of the old Roman View Pond...

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