Silly season goes out with a roar, but the Essex lion frenzy proves to be just a cat flap

Police hunt finds nothing to support sightings near caravan park
  • @mjpmccarthy

And so it passes into myth, and joins the Beast of Bodmin, the Surrey puma and other such legendary creatures – the 24-hour wonder that was the Essex lion.

Yesterday, police called off the hunt for this prime example of the king of the jungle, allegedly seen in the somewhat unregal surroundings of a field adjoining a caravan park at St Osyth, near Clacton-on-Sea.

It was the biggest thing to happen to St Osyth since the North Sea floods of 1953. So the eventual police assertion of its non-existence – "we believe what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wild cat" – produced a palpable sigh of disappointment across the nation, which had quickly become obsessed with it, and in particular the media, which was suffering the effects of a late-onset, post-Olympics silly season.

In its short life, the Essex lion was near the top of every news bulletin. Sky News and the BBC news channel ran plentiful coverage until the hunt was called off, while the Daily Mail, expertly sensitive to the darkest fears of Middle England, gave it the whole front page for some editions of yesterday morning's paper, complete with picture of roaring male lion baring fangs. For this was an August Bank Holiday story that had everything. Not only was our beast an ABC, which is how Alien Big Cats are referred to by cryptozoologists, those amateur animal hunters convinced that the Yeti, the Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster are all out there. It was the biggest ABC of all, carrying the suggestion of law-abiding citizens being torn to pieces and eaten.

Yum yum. But more than that, they would be torn to pieces and eaten in Essex – excuse me while I try to stop chortling – seen by some as Britain's most comical county, a land so proud of its own stereotype of flash geezers and women with hair extensions, skyscraper heels, fake tans and trout pouts that there is a TV show devoted to it. And now this.

Imagination ran riot as the mythical beast produced a Twitterstorm. An army of tweeters chuckled, tittered and guffawed online with Essex-lion jokes about big hair and tan-coloured skin. One message, from comedian David Schneider, read: "All I'm saying is I remember when we spotted our first fox in London, and now look how many there are." The @Essexlion spoof account attracted nearly 40,000 followers before Twitter suspended it.

But all the while, Essex Police were taking the suggestion of a lion on the loose seriously and had employed helicopters with heat-seeking equipment, armed officers and vets with tranquiliser guns (no figures were available for the cost of the operation). They had little choice. Witnesses swore it was a lion. Rich Baker, 39, from Romford, Essex, who was staying in a nearby caravan, said: "It was a million per cent a lion."

Yet eventually, the search drew a blank, and an Essex Police spokesman was forced to concede: "Nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area."

In the Middle Ages, they had books called bestiaries, which were compilations of both real and mythical creatures, beautifully illustrated by monks. Maybe we need a British bestiary now. The Beast of Bodmin would go right in. So would the Surrey puma. And the Essex lion – why, that would have the place of honour.