Lake District 2006Wednesday 6th January 2021
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
WHAT A LONG STRANGE TRIP IT’S BEEN
I first became interested in mystery animals at the age of seven when my mother presented me with a library book called Myth or Monster. I was living in Hong Kong with my parents, and was already fascinated by the world around me. My bedroom windowsill was host to a motley collection of jam jars, fish tanks, and shoe boxes overflowing with examples of the local wildlife, but in what turned out to be one of the pivotal epiphanies of my life, I suddenly discovered that some people believed in hairy apemen lurking in the foothills of the Himalayas, and mysterious giants in the depths of Loch Ness. Just as when, a few years later, I discovered that girls were different to boys, and that far from being the “ long haired twits” that my parents had berated, fellows brandishing electric guitars could – and did – make a life affirming racket, my life was never to the same again.
Twenty-three years later, at the age of thirty, I became a professional cryptozoologist, and the subject, which had enthralled me since childhood, became my life’s work.
Without question, the most iconic unknown animal [cryptid] is the Loch Ness Monster. For centuries there have been reports of giant creatures seen occasionally in the largest lake of the British Isles, but it was only in the mid-1930s when monster fever hit the United Kingdom in the wake of the original King Kong movie, and General Wade’s military road made Loch Ness accessible to the general public for the first time, that monster sightings began to proliferate. It would be a great mistake to see the events at Loch Ness in isolation. There are several other lakes in Scotland, quite a few in Ireland, and others dotted across Scandinavia, Northern Europe, Northern Russia, Canada, and parts of the U.S. where “monsters” have been reported. Generations of theorists have speculated that these creatures are surviving prehistoric marine reptiles, but this hypothesis just does not make sense.
- These animals would have been air breathers. There are just not enough sightings to support a viable population of air breathing animals.
- There simply is not enough biomass in many of these lakes, including Loch Ness, to support a viable population of large creatures.
- It is highly probable that animals such as Plesiosaurs would have given birth on land. There have been land sightings, but again not enough.
- The vast majority of these lakes would have been frozen solid during the last Ice Age.
- There is no evidence whatsoever that any of the giant reptiles, or indeed any non-avian dinosaurs survived the KT extinction event of 65 million years ago.
On top of this, many investigations, most recently by the BBC, who three or four years ago spent several million pounds on a documentary proving that because no sonar patterns of air filled lungs were picked up during a sweep of the loch that no air breathing animals of great size were living in the lake. This is all well and good, but it is grossly unscientific to say that because no animals of one type can be living in a specific location, that no large creatures of any type can be living there.
My colleagues and I at the Centre for Fortean Zoology [CFZ] – the world’s largest mystery animal research organisation, have believed for many years that if there are indeed giant creatures in these northern lakes, they would have to be enormous fish, probably eels. In 2003, we were given a piece of video footage which is now on our website. It has been interpreted as a giant eel – twenty foot long – thrashing around, probably in its death throes from a chronic infestation of ichthyophthirius, a parasitic disease found on freshwater fish. Webcam pictures of freshwater fish at the time show that this disease – or one closely related to it – had reached epidemic proportions on the salmon and trout population at that time. Since then we have been enthusiastically espousing the giant eel theory to explain lake monster sightings across the Northern Hemisphere.
The trouble is with eels, is that they just simply don’t grow to that sort of size – not officially at least. The angling literature for the past century and a half has produced occasional reports of massive specimens, but according to accepted wisdom at least, the European eel (A. anguilla) reaches a maximum size of three foot (females) and two foot (males). The current record for this species – and even this is accepted by most experts as a lusus naturae – is just over four feet. Whenever we have approached either icthyologists and members of the angling community we have been told that our hypthesis just cannot be.
Something that has always intrigued me is that – with one large, and glaring exception – every body of water is inhabited by a monster – at least according to those who live, and fish there. Every great lake has its version of “Nessie” and every village pond is the haunt of “the biggest perch you ever saw; it bit young Billie’s leg while he was paddling last year, honest sir”.
The one exception is the English Lake District. OK, Cliff Twemlow wrote a massively entertaining, but zoologically nonsensical novel about a giant pike in Lake Windermere a few years back, and renowned children’s author Arthur Ransome alluded to giant pike in the waters off Wildcat Island, but there is no historical tradition of lake monsters from the largest extant lakes in England. Not until now that is.
On 23rd July 2006, between 12 and 1 o’clock, Steve Burnip, a holidaymaker from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire was standing with his wife and some friends on Watbarrow Point, a small rocky promontory just below Wray Castle on the western shore of the lake. It was a fine July afternoon and one of the warmest on record. They saw a disturbance in the water that looked like a boat wake. It was caused by an animal which appeared to be at least twenty feet long and which was moving faster than a rowing boat. They saw what appeared to be a head and two portions of a long grey body, and although they watched the animal for approximately a minute, no visible eyes or facial features could be seen. Steve had a camera in his pocket – a powerful digital instrument with 8 mega-pixel capacity, but by the time he thought of using it, the creature was too far away. He did take a photograph, which we have seen. It appears to show several slate grey humps in the water, approximately fifty yards away, but for personal reasons Steve – at the moment at least – is loathe to release the picture to the press.
A week or so later, he told the story to the editor of a local newspaper – a personal friend – and on Friday, 18th August we were contacted by a reporter from the Westmorland Gazette who had googled the subject of giant fish in the UK and found that after our encounter with a giant cat fish in Lancashire during 2002, that we were generally considered to be the UK’s leading experts on the subject. We were immediately interested and as a result of our conversations, the paper ran a follow-up story appealing for further witnesses.
Over the next month we received six further eyewitness accounts. Interestingly, one was from the late 1950s, and another from the early 1980s. The other contemporary sightings followed in much the same pattern as Burnip’s, but – for me at least – the most exciting account came from Kevin Boyd, an amateur diver who is extremely conversant with the wildlife of the area, and has seen eels of over six feet in length on a number of occasions, both in Windermere, and in the neighbouring lake of Coniston Water.
On 11th October, a five-person team from the Centre of Fortean Zoology travelled to the Lake District for a three-day fact finding mission. The team consisted of:
· Jonathan Downes. Team leader, Director of the CFZ, author, cryptozoologist, and journalist specialising in freshwater creatures.
· Richard Freeman. Zoological Director of the CFZ, expert in Lake Monster and Dragon stories worldwide, author and cryptozoologist.
· Mark North. Assistant Director of the CFZ, author and folklorist.
· Lisa Dowley. Amateur Archaeologist and CFZ investigator, and driver of one of the mission’s two cars.
· Corinna James. Administrator, writer, Jon’s fiancee, and driver of the other CFZ car on her first cryptozoological investigation.
We were also accompanied by Jon Ronson; journalist, author, documentary filmmaker and radio presenter. He has been a mate of the CFZ’s for a decade and has long wanted to accompany us in the field. With Jon were Laura, a producer from Radio 4, and Dominic, a cameraman from The Guardian.
Organising even the most simple CFZ excursion seems to take an inordinate length of time, and this – featuring as it did eight different people scattered all over the country was logistically somewhat more difficult than normal. Things were complicated by the fact that I was seriously ill throughout September, and although I had recovered enough to travel to the Festival of Fishkeeping in sunny Hayling Island the previous weekend, together with my long suffering and very beloved Corinna, I then managed to contract a heavy cold, and mild bronchitis, and spent much of the two days between our return to CFZ HQ from Hayling Island, and our departure for the Lake District.
I relied on Corinna and Mark to load up her little turquoise car with the equipment and luggage necessary, and languished in bed coughing and spluttering, and quaffing Lemsip and honey until the very last moment, only emerging, sounding – and probably looking – like a bad tempered and somewhat elderly walrus, a few minutes before we left. There is a lovely line in Moby Dick about “setting sail into the dark Atlantic” and I am always reminded of this when, after the hour or so it takes for us to leave my native North Devon, when we finally enter the busy sea-lanes of the M5.
I felt particularly sorry for Corinna. Not only was I in a foul mood, coughing and spluttering like a grampus, but our journey was interrupted every few minutes with incessant mobile phone calls from newspapers, radio stations, and television companies. Having learnt from previous expeditions, how once the newspapers get hold of the story they stick to it like terriers to a badger (with me being the badger), I had carefully refrained from publicising this – our first trip to the Lake District. I had always intended that if we decided at the end of this exploratory investigation that there was, indeed, a bona fide mystery worth solving, this would only be the beginning. My great hero is, was, and probably always will be, Gerald Durrell, and as the CFZ progressed over the years, I have tried to base its modus operandi upon that bequeathed by Durrell to the wildlife preservation organisation which now bears his name. I have no truck with self-styled monster hunters who spend a few days of their summer vacation travelling to exotic (or not so exotic) locales, carry out a half-arsed investigation, and then push off back home stating confidently that as they have not seen the creature in question that it cannot exist, only to do exactly the same thing with another cryptid the following year. The CFZ has a commitment to long-term investigations; we have been to Sumatra twice, and are going back again soon, are intending to revisit Mongolia in either 2007 or 2008, and right from the beginning I intended that should deem the investigation to be valid, the Lake District project will last for at least 12 months. So, I felt no need to involve the media at such an early stage, but like moths to a flame (with me being the flame), they swooped in and did their best to take over the entire expedition.
I am always in a difficult position here. I need the media far more than they need me, but I am an awkward son of a bitch, and nothing irritates me more than having the activities of the CFZ curtailed by media intrusion. At Martin Mere we had wasted nearly an entire day because someone from Sky News wanted to film us from every conceivable angle, and then spent several hours asking us intrusive and impertinent questions. However, I tried to maintain cordial relations with the gentlemen of the press, and so during our journey I did several interviews, and agreed to meet TV crews for a number of live broadcasts.
By the time we reached Birmingham, the parallels with Herman Melville’s novel were getting more and more evident. The rain beat down upon the windscreen of our tiny car and it did seem like we were a tiny wooden ship buffeted by the elements, as we headed into the unknown. OK, the crew of the Pequod sang sea shanties to lift their spirits while we listened to a compendium of Hannah Barbara theme songs followed by selections by T.Rex and Rammstein, but the parallels seemed good enough to us at the time. When Corinna couldn’t handle driving any further, we stopped for copious amounts of coffee and buns before continuing our journey towards the frozen north.
In the car, Corinna, Mark and I were feeling in quite a bouyant mood, and we were pleased to hear from Richard that he and Lisa had already arrived at Windermere and were busily getting their bearings, and finding out the locations of local businesses with whom we would have to liaise during our sojourn in the Lakelands. These included marine chandlers, a fishmongers, and an Internet café; and I mused to myself how not only Melville, but Arthur Ransome himself, would have been quite au fait with the first two, but would not have had even the slightest inkling of the pivotal importance of a cyber café to a cryptoinvestigative anabasis during the early years of the 21st Century.
The journey took an interminable length of time, and dusk was falling as we drove along the A591 from Kendal towards Windermere itself.
I had only been to the Lake District twice before in my life. Once as a child in 1967 (the year of Ransome’s death) and once as a slightly mad and very stoned adult during my misspent years working in the music business. At the time I was part of the touring party for Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel and we played an eminently forgettable concert in Kendal Leisure Centre before making our way back down south for the next gig. However, immediately upon entering Windermere I felt at home. Since I was a small child I have been a devotee of Arthur Ransome’s immortal Swallows and Amazons books and have read widely on the subject. For once, visiting somewhere that I have explored in my head a hundred times was not a disappointment. I was to find over the next three days that the genius locii of Ransome’s self-reverential Lake District transferred itself perfectly to the real Lake District of the 21st Century. Throughout the three days we spent there I found myself becoming ridiculously over-emotional when I saw yet another place that was exactly how I had imagined it to be.
What Ransome had not prepared me for, however, was the massively eccentric proprietor of our B & B. He was like a cross between Adrian Edmondson and Basil Fawlty, and once one began to appreciate his wry and somewhat peculiar sense of humour, one became almost fond of him. It has got to be said that he should be commended for having put up with the disruption that the arrival of eight peculiar and self-opinionated investigators and media types caused, without so much as batting an eyelid. He showed us to our rooms, archly warning us not to spill anything on the carpets, smoke, or touch any of the made up beds that we weren’t actually going to sleep in, before grinning manically and disappearing. We unpacked, showered and went downstairs, to find that not only were Richard and Lisa esconsed in the reception lounge, but that Jon Ronson had arrived and was stalking around like a slightly predatory water bird, brandishing a microphone under people’s noses and asking questions about our plans for the next three days. His producer was not to arrive until the following day, and Jon was doing a very creditable performance at trying to record material for a fly-on-the-wall radio documentary about the investigation. I have always been rather fond of Jon and – to his credit – he never let his role as humerous journalist get in the way of the main matter at hand.
We spent forty minutes or so discussing what was to happen next. Richard and Lisa had already interviewed one of the eye-witnesses in Manchester on the previous evening, and had been mightily impressed with his testimony. This interview had been with a man who had seen something strange in the lake as far as back as 1959 and established that this lakeland phenomenon, which was nowhere near as famous as the one at Loch Ness, at least had an impressive provenance.
At half-past eight there was a knock on the door, and a tall, weather-beaten man joined us. It was Kevin Boyd; the diver who had seen extra large eels in both Windermere and Coniston Water on several occasions over the past few years. If one needs one word to sum him up it is ‘capable’. He is the sort of man who can turn his hand at most things, and we liked him immediately. He was strong, confident, and intelligent, and on hearing his testimony we were convinced – as if any convincing was needed – that there was no doubt that some individuals within the eel population in both of these great lakes do indeed reach sizes far in excess of what they should do. Whilst we were talking to Kevin, the door opened again, and Dominic – a mild-mannered, friendly and highly professional photographer – walked in. He had been sent by The Guardian to cover the events of the next three days, and although none of us (including, I suspect, Jon Ronson) were expecting him, he turned out to be one of the nicest blokes we have met in a long time.
One of the things that I like about these expeditions is that we make friends very quickly and very easily, and after an evening spent in the pub it was like we all had known each other for a heck of a long time. I have known Richard and Mark for well over a decade, Jon Ronson intermittently since 1997, and the two girls for only a couple of years, but we soon found that we had forged into an impressive, and quite formidable, investigative unit. We retired to bed soon after closing time, whereupon I received a telephone call from Radio 5 Live. I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to be doing an interview for them about the expedition. The interview had been scheduled for quarter past midnight, but a very apologetic producer telephoned to tell me that “all hell had broken loose” in the BBC offices because a light aircraft had flown into a tower block in New York.
Of course, the news gathering machine which had built up since the tragic events of 11th September 2001, had kicked into action, and although it appeared that it was merely a tragic accident in which only two people were killed, the spectre of another major terrorist attack loomed over all concerned, and it was not at all surprising that I had to wait until one in the morning until I had my interview.
By the time I did, I was half-asleep, but I acquitted myself well, even managing some mildly witty jokes upon being told that one of the national newspapers had dubbed the beast of Windermere as “Windy”. My suitably veiled ribald comments seemed to amuse the presenters who asked me to come back in a few week’s time and tell them what – if anything – we had discovered.
I slept like a log. This is unusual for me, as when I am alone in my bed at night I quite often do not enter the arms of Morpheus before dawn. However, when sleeping next to the woman I adore, I sleep like a baby, without recourse to the chemical cosh, and I was really quite surprised at eight o’clock the next morning I realised it was time to get up.
I have always thought that the English breakfast was probably the main contributing factor to us having gained the biggest empire the world has ever known. It is hard to imagine Cecil Rhodes, Clive of India, the Duke of Wellington, or Major Richard Sharpe, subsisting on a handful of nuts, a latte, and a cheese croissant, and so it was particularly gratifying to find that mine host had laid on one of the most impressive full English breakfasts that I have sampled in many a year.
After breakfast I gave one of my daily expedition briefings, which are familiar to anybody who has ever been on a CFZ expedition. However, Richard was the only person who had been into the field with me before, and I hope that the newcomers were not too put off by what I had to say. I come from a military family, and basically the only way I know to run even the slightest of expeditions is as some sort of analog to a military operation. Lisa and Corinna were dispatched to find somewhere that we could hire a boat on Coniston Water, and Mark to find the library. The girls soon found somewhere where we could hire a boat at a ridiculously low cost, and as Mark scuttled off to find out whether the library had a reference section which he could use to research any incidents of lake monsters in lakeland folklore and the historical record, the rest of us hurriedly reshuffled our plans for the next three days.
We had originally intended to spend the Thursday interviewing witnesses, and to spend the Friday out on a boat in Lake Windermere, where – accompanied by Kevin the diver – we would lay bait sacks primed with a chemical attractant which is allegedly irresistable to predatory fish. However, on the previous evening two events had conspired to make this schedule unworkable.
Firstly, Kevin told us that it was impossible to dive on Lake Windermere without a permit – and even then, only in strictly proscribed areas. However, he tempered this blow by telling us that although he had seen one extremely large eel the previous summer on Windermere which – allowing for the distortion caused by viewing through glass and water – was at least eight feet in length, he had seen eels of six foot plus in a particular location on Coniston Water on a number of occasions. He told us that the best time to dive for them was just after dusk, when, several times, he had witnessed a mass of eels of varying sizes carpeting the floor of the lake about forty foot down. Amongst them had occasionally been fish in excess of six foot in length.
The second curve-ball was that Jon Ronson had pressing business in London on the Friday evening, and would, therefore, have to return on an afternoon train. We teased him that as a media luvee, he couldn’t bear to be away from the exclusive restaurants and fleshpots of Islington for more than 48 hours, but we knew that he had a young family that he dotes on, and was loathe to be away from them at weekends.
Therefore, we planned to do the exercise with the boat and the diving in the late afternoon of the Thursday.
However, we still had three appointments to deal with before then, so as time was of the essence, we summoned Mark back from the library and left our digs just before 10 o’clock. Mark had had a mildly disappointing time. The area of the library that he wanted to peruse was out of bounds that morning because of a meeting, so he came back empty handed and feeling mildly grumpy. However, he had a present for me; the first of several books that I was to pick up that week on the subject of Arthur Ransome and the real life background to his novels.
Our first appointment was at 10.30 that morning. We were to liaise with a TV crew and a bevy of newspaper reporters at Watbarrow Point – the sight of Steve Burnip’s sighting back in July which had kickstarted the whole expedition. On the map, it looked quite easy to get to, but as always seems to be the case, the reality was far less inviting. We drove in convoy; us first, Lisa and Richard following in her somewhat sinister looking 4 x 4, and Jon and Dominic keeping up the rear. We made our way to Ambleside at the head of the lake, and although I knew that it had been demolished over half a century ago, I looked out for the hexagonal summerhouse which had provided an eminently satisfactory ‘North Pole’ for the Swallows and Amazons in Winter Holiday (the fourth book in the series).
Once we had left Ambleside behind us, things started to go wrong. We had agreed with the TV company to liaise at Watbarrow Point having been assured by the adenoidal girl on the ‘phone that it was easy to get to and that there was a large car park.
And there wasn’t.
More by luck than judgement, we found ourselves in the pouring rain parked in a small car park just beneath Wray Castle. The air was sundered by the incessant baying of large dogs, and I waxed lyrical upon the subject of hound trails – the traditional lakeland pastime described so evocatively by Ransome in Swallowdale – the second of the lakeland books. However, it was nothing of the sort; it appeared that the local police were training guard dogs there that day. Richard and I filmed each other doing brief introductions for the expedition as we waited for the TV company to arrive. However, although they were meant to be there at 10.30 we received a number of prevaricating ‘phone calls and they finally turned up at quarter past eleven, as did a seedy looking man in a grubby raincoat who introduced himself as a reporter from some paper I have never heard of. What I should have done at this point, was to tell them that they had left it too late, but being a trusting sort of cove I accepted their assurances that not only was Watbarrow Point a few minutes walk away, but that they would only want to film us for a maximum of ten minutes, giving us plenty of time to return to Bowness for our next appointment at mid-day.
Malcolm McLaren once said that one should never trust a hippy. This hippy now says that one should never trust TV journalists – at least as far as scheduling is concerned. It took us the best part of a quarter of an hour to get down to Watbarrow Point, by which time Richard and Lisa were only able to stay there before having to return to the digs for their next appointment. However, Mark, Corinna and I, together with Jon Ronson and Dominic stayed at the Point to play the media game and to grok Watbarrow Point in its fullness.
Throughout the three days, I felt the ghost of Arthur Ransome breathing down my neck. Everywhere we went we could see his fingerprints across the landscape, and it came as no surprise to find that Watbarrow Point was one of the locations that Ransomeologists have postulated as being the location of ‘Darien’, the place where the first book in the series begins.
As my researches continued, I found that although Ransome claimed that the four Walker children in his books – the eponymous ‘Swallows’ – were merely figments of his imagination, it seems that this is not quite the case. As a young man Ransome had been in love with Dora Collingwood, the daughter of the author of Thorstein of the Mere, a favourite book from his childhood.
Although Dora had gently rebuffed his advances, Ransome remained a friend of the family, and when she married Dr. Ernest Altoynan, a half-Armenian, half-Scottish/Ulster physician who spent most of his working life in Syria, Ransome not only remained friends with the couple, but, when in 1928 the family returned to their native Lake District on holiday, Ransome befriended their four children, and incorporated them into the novel he was writing.
For the purposes of the narrative, the eldest daughter, Taqui, underwent literary gender reallocation and became ‘Captain John’, but the other three; Susan, Titty, and Roger, were transferred relatively intact to the book and its sequels. Titty was one of Ransome’s most eloquent creations; a sensitive, spiritual, and literary, child; she was perhaps the nearest to her real life counterpart. For the record, her real name was Mavis, but her nickname came from a much loved Victorian children’s book called The Tale of Tattymouse and Tittymouse, and generations of adolescent smutty jokes, and snide remarks by alternative comedians during the 1980s were dreadfully misplaced. The fictional Titty had named the promontory upon which the four children had sat looking longingly at the great lake after a poem by Keats which describes the emotions felt by the explorer and genicidal murderer Cortez upon first seeing the Pacific Ocean. I found myself singing Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer (which, told the same story from a totally different perspective) as I strode uncertainly towards a landscape so familiar to me from Ransome’s prose, and charming pen and ink illustration.
It was an idyllic scene. The rocky promontory towered out over a tiny bay in which the water was so crystal clear that you could see the tiny fish swimming happily in the waters below. The trees of the ancient wood towered over us as I sat on a rock and answered a series of questions which I had answered so many times before. How had I become involved in cryptozoology? Did I really believe there was a monster in the lake? Did I believe in Bigfoot? Were we really going to catch a twenty foot eel?
About half way through, as I was posing in ever more unrealistic contortions for the TV and newspaper cameras, we were joined by another pair of reporters – this time from the Westmorland Gazette; the illustrious organ without whom we would not have been there in the first place.
Both the reporter and the photographer from the Westmorland Gazette were of a significantly higher calibre than the others we had met. Their questions were intelligent, insightful, and they seemed to have a genuine interest in who we were, and what we trying to do. As the questions and photo sessions progressed, the rain came down harder and at one point Corinna lent me a very fetching lilac brolly which made me feel for all the world like one of the Teletubbies as I sat beneath it answering fatuous questions from the gentlemen of the press. By this time we were running seriously late and so I did my best to truncate the session so we could have at least some chance of meeting our 12 o’clock witness. Alas, this was not to be. The first, and least attractive, of the newspaper people had insisted that we bring our fishing net and traps down to the lakeside edge. Although knowing full well that we were on a tight schedule, the TV grabbed these nets and high-tailed it to the other side of the promontory to do arty cutaway shots of nets swooshing through water, and this held us up even further.
By this stage I was getting cross, and as my mobility is somewhat more impaired than that of any other of the party, I started to trudge my weary way up the hill towards the Wray Castle car park, leaning heavily on my walking stick. It took nearly a quarter of an hour for us to retrieve our equipment and make our way back to the car. Richard, and Lisa, had left forty five minutes previously, and – or so we had been informed by a text message – were now comfortably esconsed in a friendly hostelry in Windermere with the witness. Jon Ronson and Dominic followed us as we drove through the twisting lanes towards Ambleside and then Windermere. By the time we got to the pub to meet up with Richard, Lisa and our lunchtime witnesses – Mr and Mrs Gaskell who had seen the creature whilst boating on Windermere during July – we were not in the best of tempers, and nearly an hour late. However, Mr and Mrs Gaskell were such obviously nice people, and their testimony so compelling, that any feelings of grumpiness soon went out the window.
Also at the pub were Kevin Boyd – our friend from the previous night – and his fourteen-year old daughter Kelsey, who has ambitions to become a marine biologist, and who had managed to get the day off school on the grounds that hanging out with the CFZ is an educational experience. They had been busy during the morning, and had acquired some bait, rope and flotation buoys. Just a note about bait: it is now illegal to use live or dead freshwater fish as bait on Windermere or Coniston Water. Kevin and Kelsey had therefore got herrings and squid, a combination that we hoped, when liberally doused in Predator Plus, would prove an irresistable lure to any large eels that happened to be in the lake.
Although Richard and Lisa had already carried out the main interview with Eric Gaskell and his wife, they were happy to talk about their experience further, and when, at about half past one, the delightful, and ever so slightly scatty, Laura – producer for Jon Ronson’s BBC Radio 4 programme – turned up, the Gaskells went through their story for a third time. They told me that they went boating very regular on Windermere and that not only could we come out with them next year on our return, but they would put the word around to other friends of theirs in the boating fraternity and that it is quite likely that we will have the run of the lake in any of several vessels.
On the July afternoon in question, Mr. Gaskell told me that the weather was dry and fine, with little breeze and the surface water was warm and calm. They have, on many occasions, seen fish jumping and surfacing in the lake, but on this particular day they were travelling about 4 knots near the yellow 6m/h marker at the entrance to the Ambleside basin, at the north end of the lake, when they both saw a disturbance in the water, about 20 yards astern. Mr Gaskell told me that they had seen something very large surfacing and diving again, which looked like a seal or dolphin without the fin, leaving a large wake and ripples. They did not see it again that day, or anything similar since.
I had to leave the rest of the party, and disappear off to a quiet side room with Jon and Laura. They needed to interview me in some depth for their Radio 4 show, and because of the noise from an air conditioning vent that kept switching itself on and off quite randomly the process took much longer than it should have done. By the time it had finished it was time for us to go off in convoy to Coniston Water to begin preparations for the evening’s dive.
This is where things got very complicated. We left Richard, Corinna, and Mark, back in Windermere. They had to fulfil a four o’clock interview with Michael Brook – a witness who had seen a strange animal swimming across the lake in the early 1980s. While they did this, a three-car convoy; me, Kevin and Kelsey in the lead, Lisa in the middle and the BBC/Guardian posse bringing up the rear made our way slowly towards the western shore of Coniston Water.
Michael Brook told Richard, Mark, and Corinna, that he had been standing on the western shore of Lake Windermere, not far from Stewardson Nab when he had seen a strange shape moving in a straight line across the water from the other side of the lake in the vicinity Hammer Hole. He estimated the height to be about three foot by comparing it with a buoy. He had tried to climb higher up the hill to get a better view but by the time he had done this the shape had disappeared. After the interview with Michael Brook, Richard, Mark, and Corinna, took the car ferry across Lake Windermere and made their way around the narrow, twisting, undulating roads to Coniston Water to rendezvous with the other party.
Meanwhile the rest of us were having a quite unexpected adventure. The juvenile protagonists of the Swallows and Amazons books always referred to local people, and indeed all grown-ups as ‘natives’. As we hurtled along the narrow country lanes, although Kevin was rapidly becoming both a friend and a valued member of the team, I was still thinking of him in terms of being a ‘native guide’. I wonder whether any of the great journeys of exploration across the Dark Continent were ever hampered when the native guide took a wrong journey. Ours certainly was. By his own admission, Kevin took a wrong turning just outside Hawkshead and we ended up driving for nearly an hour across some picturesque, bleak, and completely irrelevant Cumbrian countryside. As things turned out, it didn’t really matter, and I think that the experience was actually a positive one as it gave me and Kevin a chance to really bond. I was very impressed at Kevin’s knowledge of the local wildlife, and we talked for hours about pine martens, sparrowhawks and large pike. At one point, we hurtled over the brow of a small hill to find ourselves in the middle of a flock of at least sixty pheasants of varying sizes which ambled around the road in the slightly retarted way that pheasants are prone to do.
Eventually we found ourselves approaching Coniston town and driving down the west side of the lake in a southerly direction. As we pulled in to Lower Peel Near, I breathed a sigh of relief. We unpacked our equipment, and, leaving Lisa, Dominic and Kelsey to set up camp, Kevin, Jon, Laura and I drove as fast as we could to the opposite side of the lake.
Donald Campbell died on Coniston Water in January 1967 when his boat Bluebird K7 flipped and disintegrated at a speed in excess of 300 mph while attempting to break his own water speed record. To commemorate this, the Bluebird Café was built just outside Coniston on the shore of the lake. It was here – next to the Coniston Boating Centre – that we had arranged to have our next rendezvous. I had been telephoned some days before by a genial chap called David from BBC Manchester. Having completely forgotten about him, I was slightly perturbed to receive a ‘phone call from him whilst we were at Watbarrow Point that morning. I was in the middle of answering a particularly fatuous question posed to me by one or the other of the local newspapers (not the Westmorland Gazette, as they were genuinely nice people), when he ‘phoned. Without really thinking about what I was saying, I arranged to meet them at 4 o’clock at the Bluebird Café. A few seconds later, he ‘phoned back. As we were going out on a boat that afternoon, would it be possible for him to accompany us? Yes, I replied, and put the ‘phone down. A few seconds later he ‘phoned back. What was our policy on Health and Safety? Had we completed a risk assessment form? Could I give him the ‘phone number of his Health and Safety Officer so I could contact him? I lost my temper. “It’s a bloody tourist power boat!” I snapped. “And anyway, Health and Safety is for wusses”.
As a result, I was not sure whether the BBC would have taken enormous umbrage or not, or even whether they would turn up. By this time I had had more than enough from our friends in the media, and decided that I really didn’t give a damn what the BBC decided to do.
However, when we pulled in to the large car park – just over an hour late – we were greated by a huge BBC Outside Broadcast truck, and a little guy called David. Despite the fact that by this point in the expedition I was heartily sick of the media, David was such a nice bloke that I immediately warmed to him.
Laura went and paid for the boat, and we were given strict instructions by the bloke in charge that we had to be back by six. At this point, this seemed an eminently reasonable request. However, I hadn’t realised – and neither had anyone else – that not only was our destination three quarters of the way down the lake, but that the boat itself was only capable of toddling along at about 1 mile an hour. The original plan had been to use Predator Plus and bait sacks from the boat, and to keep a watch on the waters below using our sonar fishfinder. There had been yet another cock-up, when we found that an integral part of the fishfinder had been left behind in Exeter, and to be quite honest with less than an hour to play with, the excursion across Coniston Water in the boat was only really to provide window dressing for the BBC Radio and TV crews.
We all clambered aboard and set sail in a southerly direction. During the journey I did a long and eloquent piece to camera for the benefit of David and the BBC North crew back on shore, and then a further interview for Jon and Laura. It soon became very evident that our schedule would have to go our of the window. It took over half an hour before Kevin piloted our little craft into the bay where Lisa, Kelsey and Dominic were waiting for us. I was a little worried to see that Corinna and the two lads had not rejoined the main party, but we were in such a mobile ‘phone blackspot that it was impossible for us to contact them.
As we slowly sailed in, we passed a tiny island on the left hand side and I realised to my great pleasure, that it was Peel Island; the original prototype for Arthur Ransome’s Wildcat Island. There was the entrance to the hidden harbour. There was the look out crew. And there, with a sickening thump as we hit it, was Pike Rock upon which the Swallows had been shipwrecked in Swallowdale. Luckily, we were travelling too slowly to do any damage, but as we manouvred gingerly away from the rock we almost immediately ran aground. The whole excursion was rapidly taking on a very Swallows and Amazonesque air. Luckily, Dominic, clad in wet suit, was already in the water and he helped us get afloat again and pushed us as near to shore as possible, whereupon Kevin rolled up his trouser legs and jumped overboard to help him.
This was not quite as bizarrely macho an exercise as it might seem. The water was only about eighteen inches deep! With a wonderful display of gallantry, Kevin gave Laura a piggyback ride to shore, and then – to my great delight – returned to do the same for Jon Ronson. I found the sight of our guest celebrity being carried to shore by our diver irresistably funny, and I am glad to say that this display of intrepitude on Jon’s behalf has been captured for immortality on film.
Because time was running out, David and I had no real option but to turn round and start heading up the lake again towards the Bluebird Café. We ran aground twice and had to be manouvred off the shoals by Dominic and Kevin and when, by luck rather than by judgement, we hit Pike Rock again with a sickening thud I stood up in the stern, put my arms out in the manner of the two people in the front of the Titanic in the iconic film poster and started to sing For Those in Peril on the Sea. It took ten minutes to get into open water again, whereupon we had another problem. The engine wouldn’t start.
It took five minutes to coax the engine into life and we headed – somewhat unsteadily – north again. We were right in the middle of the lake, in quite deep water, when the engine conked out again. It was probably our imagination, but we could hear some unsettling gurgling sounds, and both David and I were convinced that we were just about to sink. We were not only supposed to be back by six o’clock to meet the boatman, but were also scheduled to make a live TV broadcast at 6.30 pm and as we coaxed the engine back to life again and limped back towards Coniston, all the while convinced that we were facing a watery grave, it became more and more obvious that we were just not going to make it back in time.
David had a mobile ‘phone which somehow managed to work. I suspect it was some expensive satellite ‘phone owned by the BBC but I cannot be sure. Although there was no sign of us getting lower in the water, we were both quite scared, and I borrowed his telephone to ‘phone Corinna. I was in somewhat of a quandry at this point. On the one hand I didn’t want to worry her, but on the other hand both David and I were fairly convinced that we might have to swim for it, and I was only too aware that the currents in the middle of Coniston Water and notorious for being very treacherous indeed. I was also too aware that it was very easy to get lost in the winding lanes between Windermere and Coniston and setting aside my worries about our nautical predicament, I was getting quite concerned that Corinna, Mark and Richard had got lost, and would be wandering around unchartered lanes in the dark. We had a brief conversation, and I felt comforted by the fact that even if our little vessel was going to sink, that not only had I had the chance to tell Corinna that I love her before I went down to Davy Jones’ locker, but that I had done so in a way that had not overly alarmed her.
Eventually, we could see the little white jetty which stuck out into the lake from the Bluebird Café. As we pulled in, I could see the unmistakeable frame of the boatman running towards us. I was convinced that as we were by this time forty five minutes late, that he was going to be furious, and that at the very least I was going to have to spend out a fair amount of my precious expedition fund in placating him. As he ran I could see him shaking. I assumed that he was shaking from anger. As he came closer, I shouted “I am so sorry” but still he was shaking. He must be beside himself with anger, I thought. But he wasn’t, he was laughing. Quite what he found so amusing I am not sure, but as we tied up, and shook hands, I could see that my fears had all been groundless.
That was one problem out of the way, but we were too late for the live broadcast. Naomi, the anchorwoman, was just extemporising something to camera about how the intrepid expedition was still out on the lake as David and I shamefacedly shambled past in search of a cup of tea. I have never been in the position of finding myself in potentially serious danger when accompanied only by someone whom I had only known for less than an hour, but, unsurprisingly, David and I bonded to quite a considerable extent. We promised to keep in touch, and David said that he would do whatever was in his power to help us when we return to Cumbria next year.
David drove me back round to the main party, said his goodbyes and left. By this time Corinna, Mark and Richard had rejoined, and we made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the shore as we waited for night to fall.
Before it got dark, Kevin had placed a number of baited sacks out in the bay. Each sack contained cut up fish and squid, Predator Plus and some rocks. Richard and I had carried out a similar exercise at Loch Ness the previous November, but were surprised at how difficult the process on Coniston was going to be. The currents were very strong under water, and the bait sacks drifted considerably. However, eventually the process was complete, and Kevin came back to shore. Just after dark, Lisa drove him back to the Bluebird Café on the other side of the lake to retrieve his car and upon their return he went back in the water, this time armed with an underwater camera, to see what he could find.
Richard and I had been planning this episode for many years. OK, we didn’t know it was going to take place in the Lake Distict but since the late 1990s we have been putting plans in place to do a dive for giant eels as and where it became appropriate. Despite claims made on our behalf in the media, we never had any great hopes of catching, or even seeing, an outside eel on this occasion. The main point of this three day expedition was to meet the eyewitnesses, suss out the lie of the land, and – as far as the diving was concerned – carry out something of a dress rehearsal. No matter how many times you plan something back in the office, the reality is always going to be significantly different. It soon became clear that there were a number of things which we had never even considered.
Firstly, we had always planned to dive during daylight or at dusk. Kevin explained that the eels come out to feed just after dark, and this was a contingency that we just had not planned for. The first thing that we realised was that on any future dives we would have to put lights on the buoys, and preferably on the bait sacks themselves. This will be easy to arrange using proprietry light sticks – tubes of chemicals which, when broken, emit quite a strong light for several hours – but this had just not occurred to us. Kevin was finding great difficulty in locating either the buoys or the bait sacks in pitch darkness, and I regret to say that this part of the experiment was a failure.
Another problem was the time of year. Whilst all of us were aware that by early October eels usually either disappear to sea or go to the deepest part of the lakes to stay for the winter, we had hoped that because it had been one of the hottest summers on record and because the water of the lake was allegedly eight degrees warmer than usual the eels would still be there. Sadly, this was not the case, and the anguilliform population of Coniston Water had followed the normal biological imperative and were nowhere to be seen. The water was also higher than normal – Kevin estimated by eighteen to twenty-four inches, and as Kelsey pointed out (to Richard’s and my embarrassment because as zoologists it should have been us who had thought of it not a fourteen-year old girl) that this would have affected the distribution patterns of the aquatic invertebrates on which the eels feed. Sadly it would appear that we were looking in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kevin did manage to get some remarkable pictures of the lake floor, of pike and of perch, and all in all, although we didn’t either catch or photograph any eels, we felt that our first exploratory dives had been a qualified success.
The night was very quiet, and very still. Sitting and standing on the shore where the only illumination were tiny pinpricks of light from torches, and the ethereal ghostly glow from Kevin’s underwater light, which would intermittently illuminate the water before us with a yellow green haze, was an enthralling, exciting, and oddly humbling experience. There are some people in the cryptozoological community who are scathing about investigations carried out in the United Kingdom. They seem to believe that true adventures can only be found in the jungles or deserts of the tropics. On this Thursday afternoon and evening I think that we have proved them wrong. David and I had come close to being shipwrecked, and here was Kevin risking life and limb forty feet below the surface of the water in pitch blackness. Surely, one could not ask for much more intrepid behaviour than this?
We returned to the B & B just after 11.00 that night and slept soundly. Although the most exciting part of the trip was over, there were still important things that had to be done on Friday and Saturday.
Friday morning, and Mark and Corinna set off to the library. Lisa went into town to get the underwater camera film developed, and Richard and I stayed back at the B & B to do our final interviews with Jon Ronson, and to plan our next move.
On the second trip to the library, the documents that Mark had arranged to see on his visit the day before, were not as expected, as they were completely irrelevent to the investigation; being planning applications, speed restrictions, proposals, fishing rights and various minutes. Mentioning this to the librarian, Mark was told that we would have to go to the records office at Kendal if we wished to obtain more detailed information. However, not to be thwarted, Mark and Corinna delved deeper into a small shelf of press cuttings, pamphlets, and articles relating to Lake Windermere and the surrounding parishes, from which they found a few relevant references to fishing. Just before leaving, somewhat dejectedly, Mark was photocopying the few scraps of pertinent material that they had found (as they did not feel it wise to return to basecamp empty handed!). As the photocopier slowly and laboriously went about its business, Corinna was gazing towards the busy keyboard activity in the computer section when, looking beyond the monitors and the heads of those busy sending their emails, she noticed some wall cupboards. Not hoping for anything significant she wandered up to them, but upon inspecting them closely, was excited to notice that they were, in fact, holding quite a few books of great interest. A key was hurriedly obtained from the librarian.
They found volumes of the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society from 1886 onwards, some of which were unfortunately missing. However, from these and a few other publications they managed to find some useful material, for example a reference in a book entitled A Vertebrate Fauna of Lakeland by the Rev. H.A. MacPherson published in 1892 to various eels in Lake Windermere, including one that was caught weighing 9lbs, in the mid-19th Century.
Articles photocopied, Mark and Corinna returned to the B & B, satisfied that they had completed their mission satisfactorily.
By this time, Jon and Laura had caught the train to London, and the rest of us made our way to the foot of Lake Windermere to investigate the Aquarium of the Lakes. Since the age of four I have been visiting aquariums, museums and zoos across the world and I am not easily impressed, but this was one of the nicest, and best laid out theme aquariums that I have ever visited. I was particularly pleased when the marketing director came up to me, introduced herself and during our conversation on the subject of pugative giant eels, both in Windermere and Coniston Water, not only did not call me an idiot for believing in such things, but offered to help in any way that she could. If, during next year’s investigations, we do indeed manage to catch an eel significantly larger than it should be, we have already been told that we can exhibit it at the Aquarium of the Lakes, and that as far as possible their resources are at our disposal.
There isn’t that much more to tell for the Friday. We took a trip on one of the steamer ferries around the islands in Bowness Bay (although whenever I saw or heard the name Bowness, I took a leaf out of Ransome’s book and renamed it Rio). This was not just for fun, but to get photographs and film clips that can be used in the documentary film that we plan to make of this project.
That evening we met up with Kevin and his family, and we took them out to dinner. Kevin’s wife and other two daughters were incredibly kind and enthusiastic, and all want to be involved in the next stage of the operation. Kevin was ridiculously apologetic about his lack of success in finding any eels, and seemed to think that somehow it was all his fault! We reassured him, and showed him the photographs which he had taken which prove beyond any doubt that we are using the right equipment and m.o. He also told us that when he returned to Coniston that morning to retrieve the buoys and bait sacks, that something had taken substantial chunks out of the squid which we had left, although the herring had been left untouched! Proof again that we are on the right track!
On Saturday we tidied up a few loose ends. We visited the Steamboat Museum where I got ridiculously overemotional at seeing two of the pivotal boats in the Swallows and Amazons saga for real. The Amazon, a sailing dinghy bought by Dr. Altoynam for the real-life Swallows in 1928, and an ancient and venerable motor yacht called the Esperance which is not only the oldest motorboat on Lloyds Register, but was the model for Captain Flint’s houseboat, both in the books and the 1974 movie.
We then visited Kendal, where we photographed some rare birds in the museum, before saying our goodbyes to Richard and Lisa. Corinna, Mark and I drove across the Pennines to Hebden Bridge for the last objective of the trip.
It would have been ludicrous to have travelled all this distance, worked so hard, and talked to so many people, without meeting Steve Burnip face to face. Because of delays which were completely beyond our control, we were unable to make the original rendezvous at 2.30 pm, so by dint of mobile ‘phone (how on earth did explorers in the pre-digital age manage?) we finally met Steve in a car park in the middle of the pretty Yorkshire town just as it was getting dark.
There was not much that Steve could add to what he had already told Richard on the telephone, and what had already been printed in the newspaper, but once again we were touched by the sincerity of his account. He showed us the original of the photograph he had taken, still on his digital camera, and zoomed in. What had been merely discolourations in the water on the version that had been rather badly reproduced by the Westmorland Gazette, were actually what appeared to be quite sizeable humps. We hope that as time goes by we shall be able to persuade Steve to let us have a copy for our own use.
As we headed down the M1 towards Corinna’s house in Lincolnshire, we made plans for the next step. If we are to succeed in our endeavour in proving that there are indeed eels considerably larger than they are supposed to be in the deep waters of the Lake District, it is going to take a considerable amount of effort.
I am hoping that Eric Gaskell’s friends will come up trumps, and that we will have several boats to play with on Windermere itself. If we do, and if we can get permission from the relevant authorities to dive, I want to seriously consider carrying out a project similar to Operation Deep Scan which was carried out in Loch Ness in the 1980s by Adrian Shine.
I am also giving serious consideration to approaching the ferry companies. I wonder if they would be prepared to donate us season tickets and allow us to use sonar of the ferries which traverse large sections of the lake including the places where huge eels were seen during June and July this year. Kevin has pledged his support, and we are hoping that we will be able to get donations of time and equipment from other divers.
I am also hoping to involve various community groups like the boy scouts, the sea cadets and the angling clubs. As we scan the depths of the lake and attempt to the beasts with Predator Plus, I want as many ‘foot soldiers’ as possible stationed on the banks, and on the islands, with binoculars, long range cameras, and notebooks. This could be the largest cryptozoological investigation ever mounted on British soil.
If there are indeed large eels in Coniston Water and Windermere we are damn well going to find them!