Andy Stephens goes in search of the Gloucestershire crocodileSaturday 16th January 2021
Andy Stephens has been a member of the CFZ since the beginning, and although we have never met IRL I felt confident enough in our friendship to telephone him up one evening and say “`Ere. Wot about this bloody crocodile then?”…
Like Mark Martin only a week or so before, I can only stand back aghast at the hard work that people like him and Andy put in. It is the input of people like you that has made the CFZ the biggest, best, and fastest growing Cryptozoological research organisation in the world, and I am proud to be working with you all.
I first visited the Canal on Thursday 26th June, following an email request from Jon on the 23rd, asking me to investigate a report of a possible crocodilian attack on a waterfowl witnessed by Richard Lacy, a bridgekeeper, at ‘Sellers Bridge’, and reported in a press cutting from the Gloucester Citizen dated 19th June entitled ‘See you later alligator…?’.
The area of cryptozoological interest is centred on ‘Sellars Bridge’, a manned swing-bridge allowing pedestrian and vehicular access from the south to the north side of the waterway. The bridge is one of several crossing the canal along the stretch immediately south of Gloucester. The next nearest bridge to Gloucester is Rea Bridge, which is followed by Hempsted Bridge, very close to the city centre.
Pilot pub and pull in with the author’s Landrover (Maisie)
Sellars Bridge can be found by taking the Junction 12 exit from the M5, proceeding onto the southbound A38 (signposted Stroud) and then immediately taking the minor road/lane on the right-hand side signposted ‘Hardwicke Church’. Bear right around the Church corner following the lane until after approx ¼ mile or so you reach a mini-roundabout, where you turn left. Sellars Bridge is a few hundred yards down this road past the Pilot public house. The Pilot, situated on the south bank (see photo), overlooks the Bridge and the specific stretch of water of interest in this case. There is a small gravelled pull-in on the left just past the pub where 3 or 4 vehicles can park up.
Opposite the pub on the northern bank, there is a small bridgeman’s hut accessible by crossing the Sellars Bridge on foot or by car. An attendant can normally be found during normal working, daylight hours, either in this hut or on the swingbridge itself.
Bridgemans hut and canal at Sellars
Important note for potential researchers
The British Waterways Authority, as owners of the Canal, and the employers of the bridge attendants, have instructed them, and indeed any prospective interviewers of them, to gain permission prior to any interviews taking place.
This is entirely legitimate with them acting as a responsible organisation to ensure the effective management of any public safety issues that these reports may contain.
In view of this, I would respectfully request that all prospective investigators cooperate fully with the Authority’s request by seeking permission, and by proactively disclosing any significant findings from their research that would assist the authority in maintaining public safety.
In this regard, I would like to hereby acknowledge the assistance given by the Authority in agreeing to my interview with Richard Lacy.
First Visit Thursday 26th June
I arrived at approx 1.30pm, on a brilliant sunny day with temperatures in the 80s.
I first met Eric Perkins, 69, a retired bridgekeeper for more than 26 years, who was tending the garden of Bridgekeepers Cottage, which overlooks Sellars Bridge. He was initially defensive until I explained a little about the role of the Centre and my wish to merely collect the facts as they stood. Clearly temperatures were running a little hot, as the area had been visited by hordes of reporters looking to poke fun at the whole thing and, on one occasion, by a TV film crew who had turned up with their own green, plastic croc in tow!
Eric said he had been aware of reports about something unusual in the water for some time, but he hadn’t seen anything himself. He was personally sceptical but acknowledged that the key witness was very experienced on the waterway, and certainly had a good knowledge of the local fish, including obvious candidates such as pike.
On the general topic of out of place animals Eric said there were terrapins living further down the canal, and quite recently he had seen an attack on a rabbit by a ‘polecat’, which is interesting as this is the second report of polecats I have had from the area. However, I was pursuing the ‘croc-o-story’ as Jon called it, so I sought out the bridgekeeper’s hut where I discovered that, unfortunately, Richard was not on duty that day.
Rather than waste the visit I decided to take my camera and examine the animal life on and in the canal immediately around Sellers bridge (see below).
Second Visit, 7th July, including an interview with Richard Lacy
On my second visit I was told by the bridgekeeper of the day that Richard was to be found on duty at Rea, so I drove the couple of miles up to this location, where Richard was already aware of my visit. He had spoken to the Authority and already obtained agreement to giving an interview, in return for which I complied with the request to leave details of who I was, the organisation I represented, and the reason for our interest, along with my telephone number.
I had a preliminary general chat with Richard who said that his fleeting observation had been made through the window of the bridgekeeper’s hut at Sellars. He was keen for me to understand that he had extensive knowledge of the waterway and its fish life, and in particular that what he had seen was a ‘scaly’ animal, more or less completely airborne, and with legs ‘ it was no pike’.
I reiterated my position that I was not seeking to discredit him, or his observations, merely to record them and produce a report for the Centre.
He explained that following the sighting it was suggested to him that he should contact the press, which he did, an action which he obviously regrets, as he had little idea of the media circus which was to follow.
We followed the introductions with some further general chat about the physical characteristics of the canal, and its wildlife, of which more below. With these preliminaries over, I switched on the tape recorder. What follows is a verbatim record. Any explanatory notes have been added in italics.
R: So shall I start from the beginning then?
A: So your name is Richard Lacy, you live on the canal here?
R: I live on a boat on the canal down at Slimbridge (some miles west of Sellars)
A: Right, ok, and your age is?
R: 56, and I’ve been a bridgekeeper for years, I’ve been on the canal as a boat owner for 40 years; I’ve also been a coarse fisherman since the age of 8. As far as this sighting was concerned it was 5 to 10 on the morning, sorry, I can’t remember what the date was, its gone out of my head, (we can conclude it was shortly before June 23rd when the report appeared in the Citizen) and I was looking southwards down the canal from Sellars, and I was on the phone (in the bridgeman’s hut) and there was a very strange disturbance in the water, not a fish-type disturbance, almost a boiling. Conditions were absolutely flat calm, no wind, no sun, very quiet, nobody about. On the edge of the disturbance was a duck, I think it was a mallard, you know a mallard?
R: and, she suddenly…she was acting very strangely, in obvious alarm, then she did a… best described as an emergency takeoff, you know, it wasn’t a normal duck takeoff, it was ‘Ah, I’m out of here!’ (joint laughter)
R: As she went up, um, this… I think its a caiman, but came right up out of the water, at an angle of 45 degrees, it was almost up on it’s tail, making a grab for it, and then it just went back down in the water. And it had a sh…it was about 3 foot long, um, I only had sort of 11/2 to 2 second view of it, about 3 foot long, ah, a head from about between about 10 to 12 inches, a short body, and a long tapering tail, and I could see it had two legs on it.
A: And as far as you were concerned the body was split up into 3 definite portions, a head, a body, and a tail?
(interview stopped for the bridgeman’s phone ringing)
A: (recommencing interview) So as far as you were concerned it had the three definite portions?
A: And how many legs did you say?
R: Well, I only see the two on my side
A: Ok, so your sort of saw it on a long low angle?
R: It was at an angle of about 45 degrees I would think, that order. It was going away…
A: From one side?
R: From one side, yea.
A: How close did it get to grabbing the bird?
R: 8, 9 inches
A: So it was really quite close?
R: It was … it was
(Richard gesticulates with his hands – a very short distance)
A: Let me just a…
(interview tape stopped, for Andy to take stock)
A: You were telling me that um, this isn’t the first report on something strange in that particular area of the canal.
R: Oh no, that’s right, about, I think for the last 4 years we’ve had odd reports about um, strange movements in the water, um, we’ve had a couple of people actually say they’ve seen a caiman or an alligator type-thing in the water. And we’ve put some of it down to the fact that we’ve got terrapins down there. They’ve been in there about 4 years, and they went in round about 21/2 to 3 inches across and we’ve got a couple down there nearly the size of dinner plates now.
A: Yes, last time I was here, actually, which was a week ago, well, Friday the week before last ( it was Thursday) I actually wandered down the river because one of the other chaps said you had terrapins and I actually photographed a terrapin on the other, side so I know the terrapins are there.
R: Yes, we’ve got another set up on the other side of this bridge as well now ( northwards from Rea bridge) so they’re surviving quite happily.
A: Yes, they’re out of place of course they shouldn’t be there should they?
R: That’s right
A: They, they’re not sort of indigenous to the UK
R: We’ve got all sorts of things out of place around here. We’ve got little egrets flying around down on the southern end of the canal, I mean, not exactly a local bird is it? (laughter)
A: No absolutely!
(I tried to obtain more specific physical information about the stretch in question)
R: The whole stretch is 151/2 miles from Gloucester to Sharpness. Its an average of 14 feet deep, its an average of about 100 feet wide. And the particular cutting we’re talking about is only accessible from one side. Its fairly well…um…a large amount of vegetation. There’s a lot of bank slips along there which creates a shelf varying from a couple of inches out to just under 2 feet for about 20 feet out into the whole canal, on that, on that length for just under a mile. And there’s a number of small culverts, um, channel culverts, off that section as well. That’s about all I can say. on that.
At that point I stopped the tape.
Richard at Rea Bridge
I returned to trying to establish the precise area where the actual sighting took place, which Richard confirmed was on the southern bank, 50 yards or so westerly from the Pilot, more or less opposite the navigation light, where there is a landslip.
He said it was interesting that this stretch was unusual in that it was the only stretch accessible from a single bank, the other being overgrown, and with landslips creating a shelf, and with culverts. He also described it as ‘lonely’, people do not come here in great numbers – a few walkers on the towpath, a few runners, but there is passing traffic on the water.
I had already observed on my previous visit that the passing of a large passenger vessel had little effect on the fish in the margins, and did not upset the basking terrapins (see below), but when still 100 yards away, had induced a pike (see below), to sink away, slowly into the depths.
Richard said that this report was unusual, as most incidents have been reported later in the evening, whereas this reported attack was in the morning.
Notes on physical characteristics of the canal
The Gloucester and Sharpness Canal is a 151/2 mile long canal starting a mile north of the city of Gloucester and running south and west until it terminates at Sharpness docks, on the banks of the river Severn, some 1 3/4 miles north of the nuclear power station at Berkeley.
The Canal is on average 100 feet wide, 14 feet deep in the middle, tapering to 3 or 4 feet in the margins. It is a regular summertime haunt for pleasure boats, long boats, sports rowing boats, anglers and the walkers who take advantage of its extensive towpaths.
Notes on the canal ecosystem
On walking the stretch on my first visit the first thing I noticed, as a fisherman and amateur naturalist of some 35 years experience, was just how healthy the ecosystem is on this particular stretch of Canal.
Running South and West from the Pilot this stretch of the Canal is, as Richard says, unusual, in that for a mile or so the south bank is overgrown and cannot be reached on foot. The accessible northern bank however has a well-defined towpath/footpath. Even so, the area between the towpath and the water is generally overgrown with grasses, trees and bushes. In most places the bank is undercut and any attempt to reach the water would be to risk falling in, but there are several places where concrete blocks and/or corrugated steel sheeting have been put in place to reinforce the banking. These allow access to the water’s edge.
Standing at these points you can look into the water and see more or less to the bottom. In every case these margins were full of large shoals of fish fry. Looking to mid water small to medium sized perch were visible amongst the weed growth, which is quite light. Below this shoals of mixed size roach and rudd were seen grubbing around in the mud. The fish were as prolific as I have ever seen on any stretch of UK canal.
A pike just under the water. Could this be mistaken for the forequarters of a crocodilian
On the water, healthy populations of swans, mallard and coot were going about their business. In the air large numbers of pigeons were flying between the numerous trees, and swallows skimmed over the water’s surface.
As I walked westerly and the Pilot pub disappeared from sight round a slight bend I took particular notice of the opposite (South) bank where Eric had advised the colony of terrapins were be found basking on partly submerged logs on hot days. Sure enough I saw a red eared terrapin some 10 inches or so in length basking on the logs, and a photo taken with a Nikon Coolpix 5700 on full zoom accompanies this report.
A naturalised colony of red-eared terrapins exists in the area.
On returning back northwards and eastwards towards the bridge I saw a medium sized pike about 3 feet long hanging in the water below overhanging branches (see photo). There are obviously much bigger sized pike to be found, Richard Lacy thinks they might grow to 30 pounds or so on this waterway. The notorious out of place invader, the zander, has unfortunately found its way into the canal, and Richard thinks they may get to the 14lb mark.
Richard tells me that many other species of fish and eels also thrive in the waterway. The banks are the home to the usual small indigenous species such as vole, mice, rats, stoat, weasel, and rabbit, as well as an increasing population of that voracious hunter and invader, the mink.
It goes without saying that pike in the middle and upper, and zander towards the upper levels of their size band could attack the wildfowl on this stretch. However, I have to acknowledge here the experience that Richard has of the wildlife on the canal. He remains convinced that what he saw was not a pike; indeed his observation of three definite parts to the body, the last one being a long tapering tail are not characteristic of UK freshwater predatory fish.
We should also note how he first saw an odd disturbance in the water, and then, with his extensive knowledge of behaviour, gained from years of wildlife observation at close quarters (he lives on the water for goodness sake!) he was drawn to the unusual behaviour of the duck.
I am worried though, by aspects of the testimony. Richard, with all his experience, was not certain what type of duck it was (‘I think it was a mallard’), yet he was convinced what he saw was a caiman-like animal and not a pike. There is an inconsistency here I am uncomfortable with, especially when the observation was snatched, through a window, whilst the observer was answering the phone.
I have absolutely no doubt Richard believes he saw a caiman-like animal, I do not doubt his honesty for a second, and I would want to go on record to remove from the equation in this case, one of the potential causes for some crypto reports, that of dishonesty by a misguided individual.
Playing Devil’s advocate, from my short walk, I would have no hesitation in concluding that the ecosystem supports more than adequate numbers of food species to keep a single crocodilian, or indeed a small colony, well fed, as long as they could survive the rigours of the English winter. Clearly the terrapins manage; demonstrably, they have been here for 4 or 5 years.
It is worth recording that I have lived in Cheltenham for 61/2 years (only 10 or so miles from Hardwicke) and all the recent winters I have experienced have been uncharacteristically mild and wet, with few long periods of sub-zero temperatures.
Jon and I agree that no crocodilian could, in all likelihood, thrive in a UK climate without there being a source of heat to maintain its body temperature throughout the winter months. We need to ask along the crucial stretch, what do the culverts drain, could they be the source of any flow into the river during winter, which might raise water temperature?
In the absence of any further information, the file must remain open. The Original story from The Sun