Whatever happened to... crop circles

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The second coming?

This time of year - late July, early August - is when circles in the corn appeared in the late Eighties. Some 5,000 cropped up, often in ancient sites of supernatural interest such as Silbury Hill and the Iron Age forts of the Ridgeway. At the peak of the excitement this caused, a "cerealogist" (circle-spotter), Pat Delgado, wrote an instant best-seller called Circular Evidence, which was followed by an avalanche of explanatory theories ranging from ley lines and rutting deer to aliens and magnetic fields.

UFO or OAP?

In 1991, though, things fell apart. One Doug Bower announced that most of the patterns had been made by him, equipped with some planks of wood, balls of string and a torch or two. Delgado reacted badly: "We have all been conned. Thousands of lives are going to be wrecked over this."

"It got beyond a joke," admitted Bower. "Whatever I did, there was always someone ready with an explanation. If people want to believe in alien beings rather than a 69-year-old man from Southampton, that's their look- out."

The devil's scythe?

The circles had appeared before, though. Recently a privately owned pamphlet from 1678 came up for auction. It told how strange, spiralling circles had appeared one August night in a field in Hertfordshire. Every straw was "placed ... with that exactness that it would have taken up above an Age for any Man to perform". It was illustrated with a woodcut of the field being mowed with a scythe by the devil. Locals had seen the field "to be all of a Flame, to the great consternation of those that beheld it".

Its hour come round at last?

The flame is still burning. The media has become disillusioned, but the circles still appear. The debate has moved to the Web; enter www.rspeight. demon.uk/crop1997.htm, for example, and you'll find a long list of this year's circles, starting in April around Avebury, and continuing into the summer. The site's aerial pictures of swirls, spurs, gyres, interlocking lines and even triangles, all made from flattened corn, are stunning.

They may be the devil's work, alien landing sites, even a secret known only to the MoD - but they sure are beautiful.

Tom Hampson

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