Country Matters: Furious energy from beneath the corn

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AS ALWAYS at this stage of the summer, excitement over crop circles is rising to fever pitch. Hardly had I arrived in the hamlet of Beckhampton on the Wiltshire Downs before rumours began to crackle like lightning: a new formation had appeared during the night in a field behind Silbury Hill; lights had been seen in the sky over A; Farmer X was demanding pounds 50 from anyone who wanted to inspect the circle on his land.

As my companion, Ted Fawcett, remarked, it was as if everyone had been drinking far too much black coffee. Ted - a distinguished garden historian, and now in his retirement an increasingly skilled dowser - had come from London for a day's circle-hunting; and we could have had no livelier guide than Lucy Pringle, membership secretary and treasurer of the Centre for Crop Circle Studies, who had donned a stylish pair of shorts for the quest.

In a preliminary discussion, which took place in the Waggon and Horses, Lucy revealed that membership of the CCCS rose last year to over 1,000, and also that tonight, at some unnameable rendezvous in Buckinghamshire, there was to be a competition in which the country's finest hoaxers would show what they could do.

Lucy's discourse flashed from one facet of the subject to another: when she dowses a circle with rods or a pendulum, she detects terrific energy, especially at the edges . . . As one man walked into a formation, the chewing-gum in his mouth turned to chalk . . . During 1981 Ray Barnes, a former aircraft engineer, actually watched a circle form, in only four seconds.

Lucy, we quickly saw, is a professional crop circle sleuth. By the time we took to the road, we amateurs were ready to believe anything - and in that part of the world expectations are heightened by the sheer antiquity of the landscape. White horses are hewn in the chalk hillsides and prehistoric burial mounds crown the summits.

Our first target was a circle that had appeared in a 300-acre wheat field the previous Sunday night. The field had been under scrutiny by a posse of crop- watchers perched on a hill nearby, but the night had been very dark and they had seen nothing.

With permission from the farmer, we approached the formation from behind. Because the field was so large and rose in the middle, we could not see the circle from where we left the car, and my companions consulted their instruments as to which set of tractor wheel-marks, or tramlines, we should turn down. Lucy's wire rods and Ted's forked buddleia stick both reacted at the same set, so down that we went - and came out bang on target.

The formation was not so much a circle as a ring, 40 yards in diameter, with a line of corn three-feet wide laid flat all round its circumference, and the crop in the middle still standing. Also, one straight line, like the minute hand of a clock, ran from the centre to the perimeter.

I felt at once that the whole thing was man-made. It is true that no tell-tale tracks led to it, but it was so big that it crossed one set of tram-lines (which run at 18-metre intervals), and anyone could have walked straight out to it without crushing a single stalk. Besides, as I proved by experiment, it is possible to move through standing wheat without leaving any trace, if one places one's feet carefully between the drills.

It looked to me as if the ring- track had been made by someone dragging a board. I imagined one hoaxer standing at the centre, and an accomplice circling him on the end of a cord held taut, so as to prescribe a true circle. Even on a dark night, one would need no light for such a manoeuvre. Another suspect feature was that the formation lay in full view of a main road, as if placed to attract attention.

Yet just as my scepticism was hardening, something very odd happened. Ted, dowsing on the perimeter, called out that we were standing in one of the prehistoric circles that form the central feature of ancient shrines such as Avebury. Since, on an earlier occasion, I had witnessed his astonishing ability to detect the sockets in which megaliths once stood, I knew his reaction was both absolutely genuine and likely to be correct.

Further experiments confirmed his diagnosis. He picked up traces of the avenues of stones - always set out in threes - that led in to the central ring of a prehistoric shrine. Was the formation in the corn, then, a natural one, caused by some difference in the conductivity of the ground, or was it a sophisticated hoax, for which the hoaxers themselves had dowsed an ancient shrine before deciding where to work?

We left with the question tantalisingly unresolved, and after lunch, proceeded to another formation, again by special permission. This one was completely different - so far from any road, and so much out of sight on top of a low, flat hill, that the farmer himself had not become aware of it until the pilot of a light aircraft told him it was there. This, surely, was the last place in which a hoaxer would have bothered to operate.

This formation also was in a wheatfield, but the moment I saw it I was overwhelmed by certainty that it was natural. My companions felt the same. The corn had gone down in three perfect circles, whose circumferences just kissed. Each was 30 paces in diameter. The ears had been laid in clockwise swirls, but, far from having been mechanically dragged over, they were still fluffed up and interwoven, some on top of others. The cut-off line, between standing and laid corn, was clean-cut. Towards the middle of each swirl some corn still stood - yet these tufts were not at the centres of the circles, but about a yard from them.

Lucy's pendulum detected such furious energy that she could hardly keep hold of it. The glass blob flew round horizontally on the end of its chain. Again, Ted dowsed numerous traces of prehistoric stones all round us, and deduced that we were in the middle of a huge processional way, once marked out by standing stones which had marched towards the burial mounds on the horizon.

From the middle of one of the swirls, he elaborated his theory of how stone-age people made circular floors of hard-beaten chalk, over which celebrants - priests? dancers? - could move freely in their ritual celebrations. These ancient floors, he believes, contain special magnetic energy, akin to static electricity, and differ in conductivity from the surrounding terrain.

He surmises that the magnetic force of such places increases as the temperature rises, and that, after hot weather, there comes a point at which the rings suddenly discharge, whereupon a swirl of energy explodes from the ground and lays the corn flat. Flash point probably comes in late evening or early morning, when the ears are full of dew.

Whether or not such an explanation is scientifically feasible, I am not sure. What I do know is that in those three strange circles I felt no fear or apprehension, but on the contrary, a sense of well being, or warmth, or healing, which many other people have reported.

I conclude that although hoaxers are undoubtedly at work up and down the country, they are only elaborating on a riveting natural phenomenon, whose nature will continue to puzzle observers for years to come.