A crop circle said to be based on Euler's Identity, the 'most beautiful formula in mathematics', appeared at Wilton Windmill, Wiltshire, in May 2010 Photo: Mike Walker/Rex Features
Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, the notorious crop circle hoaxers, pictured with some of the tools of their trade
Last year was a bumper year for fantastically elaborate, large crop formations – 70 or so, many within spitting distance of the Barge and one taking three nights to fully emerge – and in early August this year, more than 45 had been reported. And, remarkably, in June the scientific journal, Nature, ran a piece on them.
They’ve certainly lured a shaven-headed David Cheeseman down from Lewisham and he’s sitting in the pub’s back room, looking at photos of recent formations.
He has, he tells me, in the past done ‘night watches’ on nearby Milk Hill, hoping to see circles emerge, and he’s even photographed much-revered-in-Croppie-circles balls of light flying around. ‘What do I think make crop circles?’ he says. ‘Well, some are man-made and some aren’t. And the ones that aren’t man-made, it’s something energetic. I can’t say it’s extraterrestrials but…’
Andreas, Doreen, Pauline and Philip – four jolly Belgians camping in the Barge’s grounds – have no such caveats. ‘We come every year for the circles,’ says Doreen, a headmistress, unzipping her hoodie to reveal a sky-blue crop circle T-shirt. ‘And we’re normal! We’re just like you!’ Up to a point; they believe the ‘Space Brothers’ make some of the circles. ‘The man-made ones have no energy. We were in one today – so vulgar. But if you go into one made by the Space Brothers, you can’t stay too long – it’s so powerful it makes you feel ill.’
Mike and Sue are camping, too, and Sue is adamant. ‘They’re all man-made. And,’ she says with a grin, ‘there’s fewer this year because of the recession; cutbacks have to be made everywhere.’ That seems a bit unfair: 45 is a decent number, but it's true to say they’re wider spread this year – possibly, one all-too-human circle-maker tells me, because the farmers near Honeystreet were miffed by last year’s abundance.
For, yes, humans have laid claim to making almost every circle known about. But their beauty, complexity and mysteriousness are such that not everyone is persuaded that a group of soi-disant artists, moving through the fields at night with planks, tape measures and garden rollers, could create such glorious formations. Particularly when the first circle-makers to tell their tale to the media were two pint-loving sixtysomething watercolourists from Hampshire called Dave Chorley and Doug Bower.
More spiritually, they’re documented by the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group, whose coordinator is a charming, softly spoken French-Canadian called Francine Blake. Their office, in Devizes, is stuffy and full of papers, so we speak in the car park; Francine – wavy, white hair, dark pink top, linen trousers – is excited because a new circle has been reported near Warminster: ‘The first since 1998!’ She has been studying the circles since 1989 and moved to Wiltshire in 1991, after a particularly beautiful, highly symbolic formation appeared at Barbury Castle.
In those pre-internet days, Francine only learnt of Barbury after it had been harvested – not for nothing are circles known as ‘temporary temples’ – and that prompted her move to Wiltshire. Now she and her ‘six or so’ staff send planes up to photograph the circles, publish a magazine called The Spiral and produce ravishing calendars of the best formations. She and her colleagues have also sent off soil samples from fields where formations have appeared to Defra’s predecessor and to laboratories abroad.
She spoke, she tells me, to ‘the head scientist’ at Defra’s predecessor and ‘he explained that the composition of the soil was completely changed – completely different to the rest of the field. That it had an input of energy so powerful it can create silica out of the soil. There are only two things that can do that: one is the passage of a glacier, which is obviously not happening. And the other one is the input of heat with the magnitude of a direct bolt of lightning. And that’s several thousand degrees of heat.’
There’s more: US labs have, she says, also found that the plants ‘have been subjected to very short, very intense bursts of energy. That burst of energy – before it disperses – affects our cameras, affects our compasses, makes people dizzy, makes dogs sick – a lot of people have had that.’
Ask Francine what she gets from the circles and she replies: ‘A sense of wonder. Which is something not many people feel these days. We’re so dull, so suspicious, so limited in our way of thinking.’ She speaks, tenderly, about the beauty of the circles, of how the lain corn seems to ‘flow like water’, of how each formation teaches each person something more about the field they’re expert in: the American Indian finds a message from Gaia, the Tai Chi guru a new form of Tai Chi, the physicist – well, one physicist said to her: ‘Quantum physics? Forget quantum physics. This is far beyond.’
As for mathematics, earlier this year a formation appeared at Wilton Windmill, which seemed like Euler’s Identity, one of the most beautiful equations known to man. Alas, one mathematician pointed out that the formulation was so executed that its translation from binary code was altered from an ‘i’ to a ‘hi’, which could, the mathematician said, ‘be somebody’s idea of a joke’. Worse, the ‘h’ could be a nod to Planck’s Constant – and planks are used by human circle-makers to create their formation.
No wonder Francine is suspicious of the media, and certainly of me. ‘My hopes,’ she says, sweetly, ‘are not very high for this interview. We tend to have very inaccurate, depressingly trivial articles on crop circles.’
But at least she’ll be interviewed, unlike Michael Glickman, a long-term luminary of the circle scene, whose mathematical interpretations of the phenomena are far too abstruse for me. Instead, he lets rip with a majestic telephonic tirade. ‘The media are stupid, narrow-minded, bigoted and boringly predictable. I want nothing more than sensible treatment of the most important event on planet Earth.
'The hoaxers are the most constant con tricksters and liars in the world,’ Glickman says. ‘They are out fundamentally to deceive; we are out fundamentally to tell the truth. Hoaxers have never made a circle of quality. We’ve seen what they can do and it’s crummy. It’s the difference between a five-star meal in Lyons and a Big Mac.’
That’s Francine’s position, too, and the Earl of Haddington’s. ‘There are greater artists at work [than the hoaxers],’ he says. ‘Indeed there are. But so many are man-made. You have to wait.’
Lord Haddington, who’s taken a keen and sympathetic interest in circles since the late Eighties, tells me he thinks all this year's are made by man; Francine disagrees and is certain that it’s physically impossible for such work to be done in a short summer’s night. So off she directs me to a recent circle near a Saxon flint church at Chisbury.
It’s a five-pointed star, surrounded by five chevrons, 10 diamond shapes and 41 mini-circles – I’ll later read, on Crop Circle Connector, that ‘it seems to call our attention to a close conjunction between Planet Venus and the bright star Regulus in Leo’. It’s gorgeous, though better in the photo, but I don’t feel anything. And my tape recorder works.
Which doesn’t surprise Rob Irving, the main author of The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making. It was to Irving that a Wiltshire policeman uttered the immortal line: ‘I don’t want to get involved in a philosophical discussion with you, sir, but they can’t all be hoaxes.’ Irving would take issue with the word ‘hoax’ because it presupposes that there are ‘genuine’ circles, though he does think it possible that weird winds may have brought about some circles.
Irving’s a big fellow, with a bit of beard below his lip, greying hair and a black T-shirt. He’s 53 and first got involved in the Croppie scene in ‘1990, 1991’. He started to make circles, he says, ‘because people said it couldn’t be done’. He’d gone to a talk about circles and the speaker, a ‘field officer’ for the Centre for Crop Circle Studies, had said: ‘While we don’t know what's creating circles, we know what isn’t – and it’s not humans.’ He laughs.
Soon Irving was out in the fields, with planks, tape measures, ropes, gardening poles and a diagram: ‘You make your first circle and it’s visited and probably ridiculed as being man-made. And in the space of two or three outings, you learn quickly. You go from stumbling, blind human to God-like extraterrestrial within weeks. Within weeks, you’re producing “the real thing”.’
Now he’s a poacher turned gamekeeper, occasionally doing commercial circles for the likes of Mitsubishi, but essentially an artist and doctoral researcher into art and the landscape, which is, partly, what he sees crop circles as being about. As to their originators, Irving says, tongue only half in cheek, Doug Bower is ‘the greatest artist of the 20th century – or the most provocative’.
Doug Bower? Well, it was he and Dave Chorley who swirled the first crop circle, back in 1976, after a few drinks at the Percy Hobbs, at Cheesefoot Head, near Winchester. They’d been talking about UFOs and the books by Arthur Shuttlewood, a journalist on the Warminster Times, about UFOs over Warminster and what his paper called the ‘Warminster Thing’. Might it not be fun, they thought, to swirl some UFO landing pads of their own?
So, first with iron rods and then with plank stompers, a loping stride and a circular wire sight dangling from Doug’s cap, they started off. They kept it up for four years, barely creating a ripple of interest. Then the Wiltshire Times ran the headline: ‘Mystery circles – the return of “The Thing”?’
Cerelogogy, as crop circle study became known, was born. One researcher attributed the phenomenon to ‘plasma vortices’ – essentially wind effects that produced the swirling; and as Doug and Dave expanded their repertoire to incorporate straight lines and pictograms, so did the plasma vorticist expand his thesis. Others embraced more esoteric explanations, such as psychokinetic downloading from the collective unconscious, UFOs and higher intelligences. And the number of circles grew and grew, many of them 30 miles from Doug and Dave’s patch, and highly complicated. Doug and Dave were clearly not alone.
Still, it was Doug and Dave who went public in 1991: Doug told television cameras that there was nothing like being in a field of English corn at two in the morning, after a few pints and some cheese rolls, stomping corn.
Interestingly, the ITN report on their self-disclosure said: ‘This doesn’t mean all the circles are fake. After all, one counterfeit coin doesn’t make all coins counterfeit.’ And, among some devoted cerelogists, it became accepted wisdom that 80 per cent were man-made and 20 per cent ‘genuine’.
But a display of circle-making by a team of young engineers who won the 1992 International Crop Circle Making Competition was a revelation to the maverick biologist, Rupert Sheldrake: ‘For flattening the crop, they used a roller consisting of a piece of PVC piping with a rope through it, pushing it with their feet. To get into the crop without leaving footprints, they used two lightweight aluminium stepladders with a plank between them, acting as a bridge. For marking out a ring, they used a telescopic device projecting from the top of an aluminium stepladder. A string was attached to the end of it in such a way that by holding the string and walking in a circle around this central position a perfect ring could be marked out without leaving any trace on the ground in the middle.’ That’s complicated kit.
Mark Pilkington, a writer and publisher who helped with some of the more beautiful and complex late Nineties/early Noughties formations, talks of teams of three or four, using only the planks et al. It is, he says: ‘Physically and mentally hard work. Even after a modest job, you’re flat out. It’s often disorienting. I’ve worked on formations and when I’ve seen the photographs afterwards, I’ve thought: “Bloody hell! How did we do that?” ’
The designs are marvellous: perhaps it’s no wonder that, as Pilkington says, some cerelogists believe human ‘circle makers are channels for a greater force and that some formations are made by divine intervention’. Certainly, when Pilkington has told people what he’s done, he’s got into near fights: people want to believe. Such antipathy has gone to extremes: according to one of their number, one group of circle-makers had ‘potatoes stuck up their exhausts, wing mirrors ripped off our cars and threats of violence’.
Irving thinks people want to take ‘a vacation from rationalism’. And, he adds, it’s particularly the case that ‘people associate certain landscapes with legends. That’s why circles come to sacred sites: Avebury and Stonehenge galvanise this idea of mystery. I see it as a feedback route: people go to a certain place with certain expectations. Then something happens and they leave satisfied.’
It’s to sustain the mystery, he says, that circle-makers never claim authorship of a particular circle: ‘In our culture, art is all to do with artists: it’s about whodunit, not about what art does. With the circles, it’s about the effect they have on people.’
On the afternoon I meet him at the Barge Inn, Irving finishes his pint of Croppie and takes me to see what he classifies as ‘a schematic plan of a set of cruciform solids’ – or a formation that looks from above like a cross-hatched 3D image that reminds Irving of a pharmacist’s sign. It’s on Cley Hill, near Warminster, and in its middle are a collecting box (suggested fee £2) and a plastic folder containing an aerial photo and a copy of the Crop Circle Etiquette Guide. Irving nods appreciatively: ‘They’ve gone the extra mile. Normally, this would be set in a circle, but they’ve gone to the trouble of putting an outline round the thing.’
We move back towards my car. A couple appears and the woman asks if we’ve been at the circle. They’re Inga and Erik, and they’re Dutch, over here to look at circles. They were at Chisbury yesterday, and it was perfect: they’re very keen to see the Cley Hill formation. And what, I ask, do they think brought the circles into being?
Inga smiles, knowingly. ‘You mean, are they man-made, or not?’ She smiles again. ‘That’s mystic: that’s a mystery.’ And off they go, ready for a sense of wonder.