THE CLAPHAM WOOD MYSTERY
Posted June 11, 2011on:
This area of rural West Sussex is one of those intriguing places which seems to run the full gamut of unexplained phenomena. Clapham Woods sits on top of a hill in the rolling Sussex downs, like a brooding giant clump of broccoli, and in its time it has played host to ancient folklore, (due to its close proximity to Chanctonbury Ring), UFO sightings, animal disappearances and rumours of Satanic ritual. I think it is fair to say that it is an area of high strangeness.
At first I had thought that most of the unusual activity was reasonably modern, that it only dated from the 1960s onwards. But in her controversial book ’High Strangeness: Hyperdimensions And The Process Of Alien Abduction’, Laura Knight-Jadczyk claims that strange lights and high strangeness in this area goes back hundreds of years, with even a report that someone had seen a “Moon-sized light” descending into the woods, leaving a smell of burning. This I find absolutely incredible. I mean let me run this past you again: a MOON-SIZED light!!! Do they mean something that looked like the size of the moon as it fell down, or actually was the size of the moon? It’s ambiguities like this that can be utterly maddening.
According to an article on Wikipedia there are early photographs of the area which purport to show a large crater in the woods. No one knows what caused it, although one theory (and arguably the most likely) is that it was a wartime bomb. Or it could even be something to do with the local brickworks, situated down the hill, which have been in the area for the past couple of hundred years. The crater may have been formed by them digging out soil for the works.
Most of the modern UFO sightings seemed to begin in the late 1960s. In the summer of 1967 Paul Glover, a member of the British Phenomenon Research Group was walking along the downs towards the woods one clear starlit night. At around 10 PM he and a colleague noticed a boomerang-shaped dark object moving quickly towards them, blotting out the stars as it did so. They said it couldn’t have been a cloud, as it retained its shape, and seemed to be on a definite course (just a thought – could it have been an owl? Their wingspans can be enormous). A few minutes later, they saw two bright lights in the sky. They said one of these lights released a smaller object, which travelled to the second light, and seemed to enter it. An hour later they saw two yellow lights descend into the woods, followed very soon after by two more, and then a final pair.
Again in 1967, in the nearby village of Rustington, two schoolboys called Toyne Newton (of which a bit more in a little while) and John Arnold, were playing around with a Ouija board, which they said spelled out to them that Clapham Wood (which they claimed they had never heard of) was a base for spacecraft, and that one had landed recently to collect sulphur and other chemicals.
In October 1972 a telephone engineer was said to have seen a UFO hovering over the woods before veering off. At the same time a couple walking in the area saw a light in the sky, sending down a beam of light into the woods before flying off.
SINISTER SHAPES & UNEXPLAINED ILLNESSES
In the early 1970s local churchwarden David Bennett liked to record nightingales in the area, but to his dismay he found that they could no longer be heard. The woods had gone ominously silent. Men working in the area reported that wildlife had also seemed to have deserted the woods. Ramblers walking there fell ill with headaches or stomach cramps. Several people have reported being pushed over by an invisible force, and feeling faint. On one occasion two men were both taken ill at the same time. One doubled over in pain, and the other clutched his head, yelling that he felt as though his eardrums were being pulled out of his head. The two men staggered for 50 yards before these horrible sensations stopped. Geiger counters revealed slight increases in background radiation, although I have been told that this wouldn’t be enough on its own to induce such a dramatic response in people. Two hikers fled from the woods when they said they saw a mist form itself into the shape of a bear. Meanwhile, drivers on the nearby A27 said they felt a strange force on the steering-wheel, pulling it out of their hands.
In August 1977 a sceptical investigator, Dave Stringer, of the Southern Paranormal Investigation Group, visited the area with a Geiger counter. He said that whilst there he saw a dark shape, about 12ft in height, and a large white disk which shot from behind nearby trees and disappeared into the sky. When it had gone Stringer retraced his steps and found an imprint of a four-toed footprint. He made a sketch of the footprint, and some observers have said that it bears a resemblance to an illustration in ‘Dictionaire Infernal’ (published in 1863) which is said to show a footprint belonging to the demon Amduscias!
Clapham Wood also saw a spate of murders which went unsolved for quite some time, although personally I have doubts that they have been completely cleared up yet. The first was in June 1972 when a 47-year-old police officer Peter Goldsmith disappeared whilst out hiking in the area. Mr Goldsmith was very fit, an ex-royal marine commando and a keen rambler, so I can’t imagine he would have been a particularly easy target for anyone. He was last seen alive striding briskly along carrying a holdall. His body was found 6 months later, hidden in a patch of thick brambles. The second death was a pensioner, Mr Leon Foster, who disappeared whilst out for a walk in the summer of 1975. He was found 3 weeks later by a couple who were searching for a missing horse. His body was in such an advanced state of decomposition, that forensic officers said the rate of acceleration must be down to “unknown factors”.
Death number 3 is, if possible, even more inexplicable. The Rev. Harry Neil Snelling was the former vicar of Clapham. He disappeared at Halloween 1978 on his way back from a dental appointment, when he decided to walk to his home in Steyning via Clapham Wood. The area was thoroughly searched, but his body wasn’t finally located until August 1981, when it was found near Wiston Baron on the Downs. He had been found by a Canadian tourist, who only contacted the police after he had left Britain, when he wrote to them enclosing Rev. Harry’s credit card! The 4th murder, in September 1981, is the only female victim of the group, Jillian Matthews. Jillian was a homeless schizophrenic. Her body was found 6 weeks later. The poor woman had been raped and strangled.
A man called Jim Withers was subsequently jailed for all 4 murders, but trying to find information on this person is like searching for hen’s teeth, and having just read all the above perhaps you can understand why I find it implausible. The murders don’t fit the usual patterns that serial-killers normally seem to operate by. The death of Jillian Matthews is the only one that seems to conform to the usual depressing pattern. She was a lone, vulnerable woman, and the killer’s interest in her was clearly that of a sexual opportunist. He saw his chance and took it. So we’re looking at the usual sexual psychopath. The other 3 victims were all male, and from what I can gather, there doesn’t seem to have been a sexual element involved. It would seem that they were just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are also big time-gaps between each one, and serial-killers on the whole tend to operate within a tight time-frame, finding a fresh victim on a regular basis to satisfy their blood lust, even if (like Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper) this can last over a span of many years. To me, it just feels odd that Jillian’s death was perpetrated by the same culprit as the other 3 were.
Apologies for any mistakes I’ve made in talking about these crimes, but trying to get a cogent clear picture of what happened has been difficult in the extreme.
Just as curious are the spate of animal disappearances in the 1970s, mainly I suspect because this can be linked to both UFO and Satanic activity. This aspect of the case began in April 1975 when a pet chow, owned by Peter Love of nearby Patching, was being taken for a walk in the woods by his son. The dog ran into the trees and vanished. It was never found. A 2-year-old collie belonging to John Cornford also disappeared when it suddenly ran off into a small copse between two trees known as The Chestnuts. The dog was never seen again. In other cases a golden retriever was found paralysed, and a pug had an epileptic fit. As news of these horrible events became public more dog-owners came forward to say that their pets had had traumatic experiences in the area, or had become strangely aggressive. One dog-owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said that her pet became very agitated in this area, running around in circles and foaming at the mouth, eyes bulging with terror.
All of this was quite concerning enough, but the whole Clapham Wood case took a dramatic new turn in 1987, with the publication of a book, ’The Demonic Connection’, by Toyne Newton (who I mentioned previously), Charles Walker and Alan Brown. The authors made the sensational claim that the woods were regularly used by a devil-worshipping group calling themselves Friends Of Hecate, and they were the ones behind the dog-killings, using the animals in ritual sacrifice.
This kind of thing certainly wasn’t anything new. In the mid-1970s David Berkowitz, who carried out the Son Of Sam killings in the United States, claimed he was attached to a Satanic group, which routinely slaughtered dogs as part of its dubious activities. Dogs allegedly aren’t the only victims of such revolting antics. Horses are considered to be prime targets for devil-worshippers, and some believe that this is the reason for the mysterious horse-disappearances and mutilations that have been occurring in different parts of Britain for many years now.
In January 2010 a Brighton newspaper reported that mysterious plaits found in horses’ manes could be attributed to witchcraft, and that some horses targeted in this way had subsequently disappeared a few days later. The police claimed they had been contacted by a warlock, who had been responsible for giving them this colourful information. The article caused offence and ridicule in equal measure, and the general consensus seemed to be that the police were wasting everybody’s time chasing witches and devil-worshippers all around the Sussex coast.
Perhaps, needless to say, horses have also gone missing in Clapham Woods. One man said he tied his horse to a tree so that he could briefly go off and answer the call of nature. When he emerged from the bushes he found that his horse had gone. He searched the area exhaustively, and questioned locals, but the animal was never found.
One of the authors of ’The Demonic Connection’, a council-worker called Charles Walker, claimed he was contacted by a spokesman for the cult, who asked to meet him in Clapham Wood. What follows next is weirdly Monty Python-ish. Sort of Bicycle Repair Man Takes On The Devil-Worshippers. Walker cycled to the designated spot, and was spoken at by a mysterious voice hiding in the bushes, who warned him off investigating Friends Of Hecate any further. The strange man in the bushes also warned Walker that the group had friends in high places, and would tolerate no interference. He also said the group intended to use the woods for at least another decade before moving on.
Other paranormal investigators have queried why Walker didn’t try and get a look at the mysterious person in the bushes. In December 2009 Walker popped up on ‘The Unexplained’ forums to say he hadn’t stolen a look because he had found this person to be very threatening in the way he spoke, and that he was alone at the time. Reasonable enough.
Anyway the Friends Of Hecate (assuming they exist) didn’t get to spend another decade in Clapham Woods after all. The great storm of October 1987 put paid to that, when it damaged large areas of woodland, and nearby Chanctonbury Ring. Walker subsequently claimed that the storm had “cleansed” the area of the group’s activities, and that Clapham Wood was now free of their antics.
… and then he changed his mind. Walker went on to make even more outlandish claims. He said someone had pulled a gun on him in Worthing High Street, and that he had been involved in high speed car chases. He also said that, on another occasion, he had been visiting the church at Clapham, when he spotted a Medieval barn in the grounds of the Manor House (which has historic links with the poet Percy Shelley). He said he remembered the FOH representative telling him that they made other arrangements when the weather was bad (this source does seem to have been remarkably free with his top-secret information). Bearing this in mind, Walker went to investigate it. The group had (rather carelessly) left the barn unlocked, and Walker went in to find the inside of it decorated as a Satanic chapel. He took some pictures of it, but when he left he was confronted by a rather unpleasant yokel wielding a shotgun. (Having grown up in the country, I can at least believe that one!). There is a picture of one of the wall paintings, depicting what is presumably a bald horned demon, on an extensive article written by Mr Walker on the ’Mysterious Britain And Ireland’ website, under the heading ’Black Magic In Clapham and Sussex’.
After this piece appeared on my website, I was e-mailed by Brian Pritchard in May 2011, who has also been investigating The Clapham Wood Mystery. He said that the village barn had once been occupied by squatters, which puts a whole different slant on the demonic wall-paintings story.
In September 2002, in a local newspaper, Walker reported that he had been routinely staking out the woods once a month for 30 years, in the hope of catching the Friends Of Hecate up to their Dennis Wheatley-ish activities. No luck so far. Walker as stuck resolutely to his story though, and to this day routinely pops up on paranormal forums to talk about the dark happenings in Clapham Woods. He does claim though that since 1995 he has found evidence of ritualistic practices (candle ends, animal bones etc) at the site of an old gibbet on a track between Blakehurst and Burpham. He also claims that a friend who works for an animal welfare organisation says dogs and cats are routinely going missing around the Sussex coast area.
DEVIL-WORSHIP IN MODERN BRITAIN
Of course rumours of Satanic activity in Britain in the past 50 years have been quite prolific, particularly during the Swinging Sixties and 1970s, when the Clapham Wood mystery really kicked off. This era also saw the legend of the Highgate Vampire, which also came complete with horrific murders, and was thought to be the inspiration behind the Hammer Horror film ’Dracula AD 1972’. The Highgate Vampire is a tedious case though. Any potential interest in it is negated by the presence of its two main protagonists, David Farrant and Sean Manchester. I have lost count of the number of threads on paranormal forums that I have seen ruined by their childish squabbling. Both are rather sad deluded characters, most particularly Manchester, who styles himself Bishop, and calls himself the UK’s No.1 Vampire-Hunter (probably the ONLY vampire-hunter, but never mind). Manchester (Bishop Buffy) is a prime example of what psychologists call a Right Man, that is someone who has an unshakeable belief that he is right in all things. The fact that he bears an unnerving resemblance in his photographs to a bearded Tony Blair only reinforces this image in my mind.
The ruined church of St Mary, just above the village of Clophill in Bedfordshire, was also said to have been frequented by devil-worshippers, and in the 1960s Sunday newspapers were full of lurid stories about the alleged activities up there. When I heard that Janet and Colin Bord had found the place thoroughly unnerving when they went to take photographs of it for their book ‘Atlas Of Magical Britain’, I had to go and have a look for myself. We walked up there one hot, thundery evening way back in August 1990, and found inverted crosses painted on the inside walls of the church, and some of the gravestones had been wrenched apart. I can’t say it was a particularly nice atmosphere, but neither did it have an oppressively bad atmosphere either. I’ve been in more forbidding places than that. I’ve heard recently that there are plans to turn the ruined church into an overnight bothy for walkers, complete with a warden to keep an eye on things, and it will be interesting to see if this halts any further sensational tales.
It’s easy to see that in the Anything Goes 1960s that getting involved in devil-worship, with its heady overtones of drugs and sexual abandonment, would have been quite popular. Something to titillate jaded palates. Whether it was ever anything more than that, I don’t know.
CLAPHAM WOOD NOW
Meanwhile, the mystery of Clapham Wood lives on. To this day visitors report that the woods are unnervingly quiet, and there is an absence of birdsong. Some occult circles believe that the ley lines in this area are toxic, and can attract unbalanced people. Well certainly it attracts a new generation of sensation-seekers. Like the Ancient Ram Inn, it has become a popular haunt for anyone looking for somewhere different to hang out on their birthdays or stag and hen nights. In January 2008 a group of friends who went there for a birthday jaunt seemed to be genuine when they said they had been scared out of their wits late at night by “black faceless beings”.
Others have posted Blair Witch-style little films they have made themselves about the area, and posted them on YouTube. Many witnesses over the years claim to have felt being pulled back as they climb over the style near the churchyard.
And we’re still not done with the Friends Of Hecate either. In May 2010 someone asserted on a paranormal forum (I don’t know whether this was the ubiquitous Mr Walker or not), that FOH are being supported by “several members of the Clapham community”. This poster also claimed that the cult had permeated our government, and can be found not only here in Britain, but France, Portugal and the United States. This person also claimed to be working on a book and film to prove these assertions.
It’s all so easy to be cynical I guess, but much as I want to dismiss it all as a load of David Icke-style moonshine, it’s not that simple. The story may have some basis in fact, but whether it is as prolific and powerful as it is made out to be is highly debatable.
The night after I first began reading up on Clapham Woods I had a rather nasty and vivid dream about being pursued by Satanists, so perhaps I’d better be careful what I say! Shortly after this , I was browsing on Amazon, looking for a copy of ’The Demonic Connection’ (with no success), but read a review of it which said that Toyne Newton (who has written other books as well about the dark arts) has withdrawn from the case completely, as the whole subject has simply become too risky.
I saw Clapham Woods for the first time on a stormy August afternoon, and seeing it in the flesh (as it were) I am now more confused than ever. It would be great if I could sign off this piece about it with some witticism about Mr Walker being completely deluded, and that the whole thing is a load of old hooey, but … well let’s just say now I’m not so confident about that one. Confusion reigns.
We re-visited the area at the beginning of June 2011. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and the area looked perfectly tranquil and downright idyllic, a far cry from the brooding stormy feel of the previous August. As I said before, confusion reigns.
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