Brenda Butler paused at the barbed-wire fence separating us from the field where the spaceship had landed. It was 2am. In the gloom I could just see the outline of the 60-year-old grandmother and UFO expert as she watched her partner, Peter, disappear into the darkness. He had gone in search of Marek, another of our party, who had stepped over the barrier and walked into the field a minute earlier.
Not long afterward, a lone figure loomed out of the darkness, stumbling over the ploughed earth towards us. Peter was back. "It's your mate," he whispered to me urgently. "He's passed out."
Half a mile behind us, down the Forestry Commission logging-road known as track 10, was RAF Woodbridge. This small Second World War airfield used by the US Air Force until 1993, hidden in the depths of Rendlesham Forest, in Suffolk, had been back in the news recently after two decades of anonymity with the release of the Ministry of Defence's Rendlesham Files. Now available for public inspection, the files contain information about Britain's most celebrated UFO sighting; their release was followed on Monday by the parliamentary ombudsman's announcement that the MoD had repeatedly suppressed information about what had happened in the forest. Particular secrecy has surrounded a "restricted file", the contents of which have been whispered about for years.
Over three nights around Christmas 1980, it is said, several spaceships visited the airbase after one of their number ran into trouble and had to stop and make repairs. What makes the Rendlesham Incident unique is the subsequently released memorandum from the base's deputy commander, Lt Col Charles Halt, to the Ministry of Defence. In the memo, Halt, who was later promoted to full colonel, described how two airmen, investigating strange lights in the forest, came across a "metallic, glowing object", which "manoeuvred through the trees and disappeared", whereupon the animals on a nearby farm went "into a frenzy". Two nights later, he reported, the object returned. Halt was out in the forest with a patrol when they saw a "red, sun-like object". After they had followed the light through the trees, it divided into five, and part of it "beamed down a stream of light from time to time". Here, at last, was the evidence that the ufologist community had been waiting for: official endorsement of an extraterrestrial encounter.
On the third night, Halt made a tape on his micro-cassette recorder, covering several hours on just less than 19 minutes of tape. The greater part is taken up by Halt's patrol of four officers assessing the site of a suspected landing, checking radiation levels and having trouble with their electrical equipment.
In the last few minutes of the tape, at around 2am, the men start to see lights moving through the trees. Their initial composure suddenly gives way to breathless panic: "It's coming this way. It's definitely coming this way... There's something very, very strange," says the deputy commander at one point.
At 3.15am, the light-show is still going on as Halt exclaims: "Here he comes from the south! He's coming in towards us now!"
Right beside him, another officer says: "Shit!", and a moment later, beams of light start hitting the ground around them.
"This is unreal," Halt gasps.
Almost 22 years have passed since the Rendlesham Incident, but the enthusiasm of ufologists has only intensified in that time, with one author calling the area "Black Hole Disneyland". Several books and hundreds of websites about the events either confirm Rendlesham's status in the international ufologist community as being second only to Roswell in importance, or debunk the notion that anything out of the ordinary happened at all.
The first book to be published, entitled Skycrash, was co-written by my guide on the expedition into the forest, Brenda Butler, who has spent two or three nights a week out in Rendlesham Forest since the alleged landing.
I had phoned Butler, who could hardly be described as a sceptic, in the hope of discovering more about this tantalising chapter in the history of UFO sightings and official secrecy. But it soon became apparent that I would need someone to show me the landmarks in the 3,500-acre forest, so I asked if I could accompany her on one of her sky-watches. As their popularity had increased, she had had to divide the group into two parties that patrolled different areas of Rendlesham; she was happy for me to join hers. On the night we were due to meet, I had been fortifying myself at a party when I ran into a hypnopsychotherapist, Marek Sinski. When the quietly intense 40-year-old learnt of my plans, he expressed a strong desire to come along, too.
We met Butler at midnight beside the barrier to track 10. Behind me was the perimeter fence of the airfield; the disused runway lights loomed into the night sky. Ahead, the logging-road stretched away like a canyon, with its black walls of 70ft-tall Corsican pines. By the dull glow of a car's interior light, I could make out the small, dark woman surrounded by three regulars on her sky-watches – Terry, Paul and Jonathan – and her partner, Peter Parish. Her pure-white German shepherd, Mason, galloped around us, chasing his ball.
As we set off down track 10 on foot, Butler spoke, in her soft Suffolk accent, of some of the experiences she had had here, seeing glowing orbs and meeting extraterrestrials. "Last year, the yeti was down here," she said matter-of-factly, "looking very, very sad." The yeti, she explained, had followed the group on many occasions: "We had some people from Blackpool down here, and they also saw him. He freaked them out, actually."
Butler indicated a drain cover to our right. "It leads to an underground installation," she said. One day she was sitting on top of it when she "lost" four hours, a phenomenon known as missing time. We turned down a side-track. After a hundred yards, Parish led the way into the undergrowth off to the side, and we scurried through, bent over to avoid low branches, which we politely warned one another about, and only straightening up when we emerged into a clearing. "This", said Butler, "is Colonel Halt's landing-place."
We sat in silence, contemplating the events that took place there more than two decades ago: Halt and his fellow officers had been taking radiation readings and measuring imprints in the ground when they suddenly saw a bright light moving near by.
"What can you feel?" Butler asked.
My new friend Sinski broke the silence. "It's strong, isn't it?" he said.
Butler's dog, Mason, began dashing around us, growling happily. "He always goes mad where there's energy or there's been contact," she remarked. "On several occasions he's been chased by strange lights which engulf him." Her online journal goes into more detail: "Mason had disappeared for several minutes", it states, of one typical evening, "during the time when Brenda spoke in an unknown language. He returned covered in red, green and blue fibre-optic-type lights, and licked each person, still in the circle, by placing his paws on their shoulders."
Leaving Col Halt's place, we returned to the small avenue, veering right toward track 12. As we walked in single file along the narrow pathway, I asked Butler about her life. She had been a clairvoyant, she told me, with her own circle, and had been involved "in a lot of things – paranormal, ghosts, poltergeists" ever since being contacted by an alien named Ra when she was five.
"I've been abducted on several occasions," she added. Her kidnappers, she had learnt since undergoing regressive hypnosis, were the "greys" – "classic" small aliens. She now worked in a home for people with learning difficulties.
We came out into a clearing at the edge of the forest and saw the flash of the Orfordness lighthouse on the horizon. "This is Larry Warren's landing-place," Butler declared, indicating a field. It was then that Sinski stepped over the barbed-wire fence and strode purposefully into the darkness.
Larry Warren's extraordinary book Left at East Gate was published in 1993. The former airman, a member of the security forces at RAF Woodbridge, claimed to have witnessed the overall commander of the twin-base complex, Squadron Leader Gordon Williams, conversing with extraterrestrials. After that, said Warren, a New Yorker, he was taken to an underground installation and introduced to an alien "who had an accent I couldn't identify". His description of the visitors had clearly struck a chord with Butler: "Little tiny ETs dressed in white jumpsuits!" she exclaimed. "I've seen them myself!"
"Do you ever worry that people may think you're a bit strange?" I asked her.
She cheerfully dismissed my suggestion. "I don't care what they think," she replied. "It's better than sitting at home drinking coffee and watching television day in, day out." But if I was finding things weird, Sinski was taking to it all like a duck to water.
When Butler's partner came out of the field to tell us that the psychotherapist had passed out, ufologists were quickly dispatched to carry him back, but he returned with them on foot without saying a word, and in the awkwardness of the situation, we found ourselves moving on.
As we struggled through a dense patch of undergrowth, I recalled the 1956 Incident – in which up to 18 objects apparently combined to form a single radar echo, which was then clocked, and witnessed from the air and on land, doing roughly 12,000mph over the airbase – and wondered why UFOs were rarely seen nowadays.
"You're joking, aren't you?" Butler asked, before telling me about her last sighting, less than three weeks previously. Unfortunately, her partner had turned his flashlight on the spaceship, and it had disappeared.
"I won't be doing that again," he told me, sheepishly.
As we headed down track 12, Butler explained why she had had contact there. "There's a portal," she said: "they come through on interdimensional energy." On occasion, the ETs had pulled her hair, put things in her pockets and hit Parish on the back of the head. One night, the Dark Shadow pushed her backward, and she fell over on to her partner, who collapsed on top of their companion, Terry. "We have a laugh with them," she said.
At 3am, we returned to the Woodbridge runway lights at track 10. Leaving Butler deep in conversation about UFO organisations' finances with the second group, which had appeared from track 1, Sinski and I walked over to our cars, discussing the night's events. There was a hesitancy in his manner, but finally he leant toward me: "Something very important happened here tonight," he told me, though an explanation would have to wait until morning.
Driving home, I pondered the various theories that had been used to explain the incidents, mostly by people who weren't present. Georgina Bruni, author of the most recent book about the events, You Can't Tell the People, believes that there were three nights of activity, with a full-blown close encounter of the third kind. At the other end of the spectrum is Ian Ridpath, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy. In his view, excited airmen were merely chasing the beam of the Orfordness lighthouse, and the starlike objects of Halt's memo "were just that – stars."
Ridpath's scepticism is persuasive. In particular, he has shown that it is at least possible that when Halt's patrol came out of the forest, they, like the first night's witnesses, were confused by the lighthouse. But another airman says: "If Charles [Halt] says a beam of light shone down at his feet, then a beam of light shone down at his feet. You can take that to the bank."
Halt retired from the air force in 1991 and now lives in Virginia, in the USA. I managed to obtain an e-mail address for him and wrote several times without response before he was finally persuaded to answer. He was, he told me rather pointedly, "tired of being pestered" by what he described as "most unusual people".
Though he refused to talk about the Rendlesham Incident, we began a tentative exchange on the neutral subject of the airbase's history as a "crash-recovery" runway for damaged aircraft returning from raids over occupied Europe. He told me that "more than one young cop" swore he had seen East End Charlie – the ghost of a Second World War airman – from the guardhouse at East Gate, where the events of December 1980 had begun. "On one particular Friday night, late," he recalled, "I drove out the back gate, and the guard was trembling so badly, I ended up having a replacement sent out." In 1983 – 32 years after the Americans took over the airbase – they discovered that dynamite had been buried under the runway in case it was overrun by invading Germans. Despite the clean-up operation, Halt wrote, "we never were completely sure that all the explosives had been removed."
Sinski appeared after breakfast the following day, and we settled down to talk. I asked why he had been apparently unconscious in Larry Warren's landing-place, but he was annoyed that I'd thought he might have been. "I had a very powerful experience," he explained, "and I was recovering." He told me of a message he had received while out in the field. He assured me that, although it might not have meant much to someone like me, there were people for whom it was of great importance. "I can confirm that it is the greys out there, and that they are the ones responsible for the abductions," he told me, in his quietly compelling manner. "What they have been doing up until now has been very, very bad. I learnt last night that they are changing their ways."
In search of further guidance, I approached Reg Presley, lead singer with the Sixties pop group The Troggs and now an expert in the paranormal, and asked for his opinion of the Rendlesham Incident. He was very interested in the case and said that they were "all good sightings". Clearly not a man who had trouble believing in the possibility of abductions, he even mentioned his surgeon friend who removed pieces of alien hardware from people's feet and hands. "You wouldn't believe what he took out of them," he reflected, adding that the objects had "the teeniest-weeniest little wires".
The MoD has finally made a decision on the airbase after its nine years of neglect and has announced that two army regiments will be moving in after a £100m refit. The soldiers may be surprised at some of the visitors – alien and otherwise – they receive outside the perimeter fence. "Once you start coming here," Butler told me, "you can't keep away." For, although Woodbridge's role as an airbase may have been in doubt, its status as a UFO tourist shrine has never looked more assured.
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