Rod Dickinson clearly remembers the night he made his first crop circle. It was the summer of 1991, just months before the famous crop-circle hoaxing duo, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, came out about their nocturnal wheat-flattening activities; a time when the nation was still gripped by the idea that aliens might feasibly have been parking up in fields at night, all over the southern English countryside.
"No one had really mooted the idea these things might have been man-made," says Dickinson, an artist, "as far as people were concerned, me included, there were definitely other possibilities; at least some unexplained natural phenomena. I was fascinated." So when a friend challenged Dickinson to join him in an illicit attempt to create their own crop circle, the pair found themselves on their knees in the middle of the night, with a not very elegant, not very round mess on their hands.
Thirteen years later, Dickinson has just completed what he estimates to be his 500th foray into the art of what's come to be known as "circle-making". This time, things were a little different. The medium was sand, not crops, and the ambitious formation replicated a photographic image that Dickinson and his circle-making partner, John Lundberg, 35, had spent several weeks translating into a series of co-ordinates on a computer-design programme. From this, they'd created complex numerical spreadsheets, filled with measurements, from which his team of 13 assistants worked. He'd also secured advance permission from the landowner; there was a four-strong BBC film crew to capture the work in progress; a helicopter booked so a photographer could capture the end result, and a PR. Oh yes and, this time, he and Lundberg got paid several thousand pounds for their efforts by the satellite channel UK TV Gold, who commissioned the piece to launch their new comedy season.
Last year, Dickinson and Lundberg completed their most lucrative commission to date, for the American computer-chip company AMD. It involved making two "eco-paint" designs on grass in England and three across the States - one in sand, two in grass, all photographed by satellites. Thanks to the pair's slick, award-winning website (circlemakers.org), the business has snowballed since it was launched 10 years ago. They've also been booked by clients including Weetabix, O2, Big Brother, Mitsubishi, and Thompson Holidays, and have just taken on a commission for the Japanese company, Hello Kitty. The budget for the Big Brother campaign was rumoured to have been a quarter of a million.
It all seems a long way from Dickinson's renegade circle-making debut. Whatever happened?
On that 1991 night, Dickinson left the mess, convinced that man-made crop circles were not a feasible option. Then, a few days later, he picked up a newspaper to discover that a crop-circle researcher was claiming that his clumsy creation was some kind of supernatural miracle. "After reading that," he explains, "I realised there was another dimension to crop circles, that they could be a catalyst for people's already established beliefs, beliefs they were projecting on to the fields. Interesting territory for an artist." Hence, he and fellow artist Lundberg, 35, a documentary-maker, collaboratively explored what was possible.
It's not just Circlemakers who are cashing in. Crop-circle researchers and believers are still doing a roaring trade in tours, talks and books - fakers like Circlemakers, they insist, are responsible for only a percentage of formations. In particular, the summer tourist trade in Wiltshire, particularly Avebury, which has the highest proliferation of formations, also benefits. "Around 85 to 90 per cent of our custom during the summer months is connected to crop circles," says Jo Smith, an information assistant at Avebury Tourist Centre, where there are maps, calendars, tours, books and other circle merchandise on offer.
Farmers are also well remunerated by the commercial turn the phenomenon has taken. "We did a formation for the Daily Mail in a wheat field in Avebury," recalls Dickinson, "and the paper paid the farmer £6,000 for the equivalent of around £100 worth of crops". Unsurprisingly, circlemaker-landowner relations are improving. Even illicit circles can prove lucrative for the landowner. One farmer in the Stonehenge area is said to have made around £30,000 in four weeks after charging a couple of quid to tourists to visit circles that appeared on his farm.
But how does it feel to have a huge corporate logo slapped in the middle of your land? Very good, says a farmer paid £500 apiece for two fields to be used for Circlemakers' jobs. "If they'd been put in by an alien and I hadn't been paid, I'd have been hopping mad."
Rob Irving, 47, also an artist and a satellite member of Circlemakers was one of the first fakers to see the commercial potential in crop circles. "Well before Circlemakers existed," he explains, "a friend and I called ourselves Circumcereal Ltd and put an ad in the paper announcing that we were available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. A bunch of hippies paid us £250 for a formation in a field of thistles for their friend's birthday."
With all marketing trends, particularly those that exploit a cultural phenomenon, there is a risk of burning out the original medium. Sam Conniff, director of Livity, a creative-communications agency, assesses the risk: "If a company like Circlemakers is to survive, they will need to diversify - the less cool the brands commissioning them become, the more they'll need to offer. It's about turning your fad into an industry. Next they may start doing stone carvings, topiary, hillside formations; they could easily settle into a company known for shaping ambient brand messages into natural environments. If Cunning Stunts, the firm who projected Gail Porter's backside on to the Houses of Parliament, had stuck solely with projections they'd have been stuffed. Instead they branched out and began to think of alternative stunts, like floating icebergs down the Thames for Smirnoff."
It's hard to see the connection between all this corporate speak and the mavericks who once spawned front pages claiming that aliens had landed. Don't Dickinson and Lundberg feel they're selling out?
"Is that possible with circle-making?" says Lundberg. "Part of the point for me is to try to keep the crop-circle phenomenon in the public awareness. Plus, I used to run my own design company, so I have no qualms about working for corporations. If someone offers you loads of money to do something you enjoy what are you going to say?"
Lundberg argues that he and Dickinson are simply putting the skills they developed to commercial use. They are "second generation" circlemakers, he explains - the first generation being Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, the two Hampshire watercolour artists who spent 14 years perpetrating one of the most effective, elaborate and brilliant hoaxes of the 20th century. "We're more an art collective," continues Lundberg. Indeed, around 10 years ago Dickinson's old flatmate Gavin Turk, a one-time dabbler in circle-making himself, put the pair together for an exhibition focussing on mythologies, satanic cults and folklore. "There's always been a very strong artistic tradition in the circle-making fraternity." Bower and Chorley, he says, took inspiration for their crop circles from abstract and surrealist artists.
Absolute rubbish, says Bower, now 80, and slightly irritable about still being asked about crop circles. "The artistic side didn't appeal at all," he says, "it was purely about making it look as if a UFO had landed. Simple as that. When we went public [in September 1991] we thought that'd be the end of it. And it should have been. Trouble is, everyone else wanted to get in on the act, people wanted the publicity."
Bower is unimpressed by the technological developments of which Lundberg and Dickinson are so proud. The simplicity was part of the mystery: "The ones we created were nothing like the ones you see today. We just used planks and bits of rope."
He had no idea crop circles were being used for advertising purposes: "First I've heard of it," he says, "but it doesn't surprise me. It all goes to show the way people think these days - they're not satisfied with just having a laugh like we were."