Unidentified flying objects may be real, claims a recent Pentagon report. We told you so, say a group of alien obsessives in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. Matthew Campbell visits the UFO hotspot for a close encounter.
People arrive at the Golden Lion in Todmorden and, rather than heading for the bar, walk upstairs to the attic room — haunted, I'm warned — and sit in a circle. This is not a seance: in the middle of the room stands Oscar, the group's mascot, an 18in silver alien figure with black oval eyes. This is a meeting, convened by Colin Lyall, 63, secretary of the local UFO club, to discuss extraordinary events. After seven decades of discrediting sightings, the US military has recently confirmed that UFOs are a subject of concern. Its report did not find proof of alien visits to Earth but — this is the important bit for believers — nor did it rule them out.
In Todmorden, a windswept town in the Pennines known for strange goings-on — and a hotspot for UFO sightings — news of America's volte-face has caused a buzz of excitement. Will the stigma surrounding the local alien spotters — and the scorn and ridicule often heaped on them — soon go away? Lyall believes so.
"Now perhaps we won't seem quite so strange," says his wife, Kate, an artist whose latest oeuvre features paintings of "skinned aliens", a reflection of her concern that any ET trying to make contact would be dissected for science. The attendee Paul Kemp, 55, admits the report is a "comfort", adding: "It will allow disbelievers like my mum and my sister to accept it."
I have spent half my life living in various parts of the world as a foreign correspondent. But rural England, with its passion for the paranormal, seems far more exotic terrain. Todmorden — or "Tod", as locals call it — made headlines in 1980 when Alan Godfrey, a police constable, claimed to have witnessed an alien spacecraft hovering over the road while he was out investigating a report of escaped cattle. Under hypnosis he described how he had been abducted. He complained subsequently of being hounded out of the force. Did someone slip something into his brew?
"Ordinary people often have extraordinary experiences," says Lyall, a trained counsellor who also runs the town's last surviving second-hand bookshop. The society gives them a "forum in which to discuss their encounters without fear of ridicule". Despite the town's reputation as a UFO magnet, it is divided: detractors enjoy nothing more than deriding devotees after a drink. "We've had people come up from the bar, saying, 'What a load of rubbish,' " says Kate. "But if they try to poke fun at us, they learn very quickly we won't accept a lack of respect. We tell them to wait their turn before speaking."
Her husband, also an artist, tells me how he drew a triptych depicting the constable's abduction experience for an exhibition dedicated to local landmarks in 2017. The avalanche of public interest it unleashed prompted him to set up the Todmorden UFO Meet, which he publicised with a poster on his shop door. "We got 20 people at the first meeting," he recalls earlier when we meet in the bookshop. It soon rose to 50.
Today's meeting is limited to half a dozen "core members" due to Covid, although, I am told, ghosts may be present: a woman who uses the attic space for reiki classes has seen five, including a Victorian gentleman in black as well as a child and a maid.
The living attendees soon strike up a lively conversation, roaming from string theory to the work of the video artist Bill Viola and the writings of Carl Jung. Besides Colin and Kate Lyall, the circle includes a designer, a librarian and another artist. Between serving customers downstairs, Ophira, the barmaid, joins in. The debate moves on to animal mutilations — cattle found dead and drained of blood, with mysterious laser "incisions". Possible indications of alien experiments, the group grimly concludes. Then someone mentions "earth lights" — perhaps a result of the region's abundance of electromagnetic quartz: is that what attracts the UFOs? Or is a local landmark, Stoodley Pike, a "cosmic beacon" transmitting to the universe?
It is time to "share": Kemp, the librarian, describes spending his evenings scanning the heavens out on the "tops", as locals refer to the moors. Twice he has seen a "flake of glitter" dropping from the sky before "it suddenly stopped and sped off at a right angle". Sam McLoughlin, an earnest young man who claims to have had many "weird experiences" involving aliens, says he has learnt to keep quiet. "I've got friends who are into witchcraft and tarot," he says. "But mention alien abduction and they call you a crank."
James Fearon, 61, another artist, calls the group "Aliens Anonymous", an "alternative AA" that has helped him come to terms with a life-changing experience three decades ago in Portadown, Northern Ireland. He believes he was abducted by aliens and bravely admits: "I was a bit drunk at the time." He was seized by "impish" extraterrestrials — a bit like Oscar, the mascot in front of us — under the command of a larger female figure with "reassuring eyes". They put him on an operating table and did unpleasant things to his head before whisking him back to his bed and disappearing through a wardrobe.
He recalls how he made the mistake of telling a friend about the experience: "I said, 'You'll never guess what happened to me last night.' When I told him, my friend replied, "F*** off, Fearon.' It felt very real to me, but I didn't speak about it again until I came to these meetings."
Lyall wonders if Fearon is psychic and capable of communing with aliens on an astral plane or in a parallel world. "Look at what's happening in quantum physics these days," he says. "It's just like science fiction."
Known to locals as "UFO man", the affable, silver-bearded Lyall has also had an alien encounter. At a protest against public-sector cuts in Manchester a few years ago he saw a silver ball zoom across the sky before disappearing behind a cloud. "I felt a strange connection with it," he says.
Does this interest in UFOs reflect a spiritual malaise, I wonder. "In its report, the US military has admitted seeing these craft doing impossible things," McLoughlin objects. "That's a physics problem, not a psycho-spiritual one."
The American pilots cannot believe what they are seeing. "What the f*** is that thing?" asks one. "Oh my gosh, dude! Wow, what is that, man?" exclaims another as they watch in amazement from the cockpit. In 2017 videos filmed by infrared cameras on US military jets were leaked to The New York Times, which put them on the internet along with a story about a secret investigation into strange aerial objects observed by pilots.
It was the beginning of a remarkable shift in America that culminated in a report on June 25 in which the Pentagon, having previously dismissed UFOs as swamp gas or weather balloons — and those who believed in them as cranks and fantasists — acknowledged that there was indeed something strange going on in the sky. It declared unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, to be an issue of national security.
So what are they? The nine-page report analysing 144 sightings between 2004 and March of this year could explain only one of them: it was a large deflating balloon. The others, including a giant "Tic Tac" seen by four aircrew members in two planes as it rose out of the ocean off the Californian coast in 2004, were left unexplained. They may be attributable to secret US, Russian, Chinese or private-sector technology (all very James Bond supervillain). Or they could be "hoaxing", space "clutter" — or even plastic bags. Several of the sightings seemed to involve technology the report described as beyond anything known on Earth. "We're going to keep searching," Bill Nelson, the head of Nasa, told CNN after the report was published. "My feeling is there is clearly something there."
Few people have spent more time pondering that possibility than David Clarke, an associate professor at Sheffield Hallam University and author of The UFO Files: The Inside Story of Real-Life Sightings. A self-styled sceptic, he believes that most UFO sightings can be explained without invoking extraterrestrial visitors.
"How is it," he asks, "that no one has captured a really conclusive, clear image of one of these things? That's what I find baffling about the American study. You're not telling me they haven't got better images if these things really are buzzing around in the way they say they are."
For him, UFOs fill the "God hole" left by the decline of traditional organised religion. "People need to have magic in their lives, something to believe in," he says. Aliens, he adds, are "that religious instinct reasserting itself in the modern world. It's like a technological religion." The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, he notes, called UFOs "technological angels".
Should we ignore them? The defence ministry appears to think so, judging by the statement it sent in response to my request for a comment on the US report. "Since 2009 the MoD no longer responds to reported UFO sightings, or investigates them, as in over 50 years no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom."
I turn to Nick Pope, a former UK defence ministry official who investigated UFO sightings in the early 1990s, to find out more about Britain's extraterrestrial policy. "The MoD's apparent decision not to re-engage on the UFO issue in the light of the US report is a mistake," he tells me. He believes that UK pilots are seeing the same unidentified aerial phenomena as their US counterparts but "stay silent out of fear that they will be disbelieved or ridiculed. My understanding is that when pilots do come forward, they avoid the term 'UFO' and even the more respectable 'UAP' in favour of 'unusual aircraft' or 'possible drone'."
An exception is Ray Bowyer, a civilian pilot who saw peculiar objects as he was flying from Southampton to Alderney in the Channel Islands on April 23, 2007. The report he filed is regarded as one of the most impressive and perplexing testimonies to have found its way into MoD archives, along with the famous Rendlesham Forest incident in 1980 in which US airmen stationed at RAF Woodbridge claimed to have seen a UFO.
"Nothing in nature could ever match what I saw that day," Bowyer tells me over the phone from Alderney. With 18 years' flying experience, he had flown the same route several times but nothing could have prepared him for what was looming in front of him: a long and pointed golden object "the size of five or six battleships". At first he wondered if it might be reflected light from greenhouses on Alderney. Then through his binoculars he saw "a very sharply defined, solid, bright yellow-gold object with a couple of black bands on the side that were kind of shimmering". His passengers began to wonder what was going on. "The man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked, 'What's that?' " Bowyer recalls.
He radioed the control tower and was told the object was visible on radar — and another pilot flying into Jersey from the Isle of Man had seen the same thing. Then a second identical object appeared. "They seemed to be working in conjunction, two similar craft," Bowyer says. "You certainly don't see that sort of thing every day — it was such a big piece of kit. I was happy to get back on the ground and have a cup of tea." When he flew back to Southampton later the mystery object had vanished. But it has long haunted Bowyer's memory.
In the days and weeks after the sighting, fellow pilots began to poke fun at him, whistling the Close Encounters theme tune whenever he appeared — "just banter, just ribbing", he says. Others began confiding in him, however, about their own bizarre cockpit experiences.
"I was surprised when an ex-RAF pilot sidled up to me one day and said, 'Actually, I saw something strange once too — I flew past a wood-burning stove at 2,000 feet.' " Apparently he was not joking. "Another person told me in confidence she had seen a block of flats in the sky. She said it made her crash her car into the sea wall."
Looking back on his own experience, Bowyer says only one thing is clear: "All I know is what I saw was real."
Interest in visiting aliens has grown along with science fiction. In 1938 a US radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, the 1897 novel by HG Wells, caused panic among listeners who thought the Martian invasion was real. A decade later Kenneth Arnold, an American civilian pilot, reported seeing bat-wing-shaped objects that flew "like a saucer if you skip it across the water". They may have been migrating cranes, but the age of the "flying saucer" — a term coined by a newspaper sub-editor to describe Arnold's encounter — had begun. Since then a host of books, films and television series have catered to the fixation, among them The X-Files, which brought the paranormal into the sitting room in the 1990s along with its slogan, for believers a profession of faith: "The truth is out there." Now interest is being amplified on social media with the promotion of conspiracy theories about a government cover-up of extraterrestrial visits and reverse engineering of their technology. Polls have shown that half of Britons believe in aliens and 1 in 14 claim to have seen one, according to a survey in June.
Perhaps because of reportedly clearer skies — or higher alcohol consumption — sightings have shot up during the pandemic. "But all is not what it seems," cautions Heather Dixon, one of Britain's most respected UFO investigators and director of the British UFO Research Association. "There's a lot of human stuff that gets misinterpreted as extraterrestrial. In the 1990s it was laser lights bouncing around in the clouds." Lately Dixon has been getting "hundreds of reports" about Elon Musk's Starlink satellites that are being launched into low orbit.
She has dealt with some reports that defy explanation — the ball of light two elderly women claim to have seen hovering across their living room after entering through a closed window; the fiery sphere a man observed floating up his staircase until it "popped", leaving a sulphurous smell. "There are mysteries out there," says Dixon, who inherited an interest in space from her father, an aeronautical engineer at Nasa in the 1960s, "but I've never seen definitive evidence that we've been visited by extraterrestrials." In the end, she argues, UFO sightings are interesting for what they tell us about humanity. "The answer is in ourselves, what we believe, what we remember, how we interpret things."
She and other UFO investigators are expecting an even greater volume of reports in the wake of the Pentagon's investigation. "UFOs have moved into the mainstream," says Philip Mantle, founder of the publishing house Flying Disk Press. American military pilots whose videos feature in the US report have gone on television recently to chronicle their close encounters and this will help to stifle the sniggering, Mantle believes. "People who never would have dreamt of stepping forward and going on the record will now do so," he says.
On a tour of Todmorden (population 15,000) on the morning after the UFO meeting, I wonder if this liberation of expression about otherworldly experiences has already begun. Strolling through the market I meet Robert Heron, 55, who recalls seeing a brightly lit cigar-shaped object rise from the forest as he was hanging out the washing at the bottom of the garden one day as a 12-year-old in nearby Luddendon Foot. "I got bullied in school for talking about it, so I ended up just keeping it to myself."
At a nearby stall selling DVDs, fancy-dress costumes and second-hand Star Wars toys is Michael Howorth, 55, who will never forget what he and a group of friends observed hovering above a Todmorden street one evening when he was 14. "It was about this high," he says, holding his arm out at shoulder height, "and about 15ft long and 6ft wide, a dull aluminium colour with wavy patterns underneath and flashing lights. It does my head in just to think about it." He adds: "I don't normally tell people. They just think you're nuts if you do."
US officials have announced further research, including an analysis of historical radar images. It is possible, they reason, that Russia or China are much more technologically advanced than anyone suspected, leaving America vulnerable to attack. Or, just maybe, in the deepest, farthest, outer reaches of probability, we have become the focus of extraterrestrial attention. What would they want with us? Clarke, the academic, finds it "egocentric as a race to think that anyone out there would be interested".
Lyall, the Todmorden bookseller, is stilla believer. "The Americans have helped to stir the public debate and that's good," he says. "It will help us to find out more about what they are. If they're tourists or alien kids coming to Earth for a laugh on their gap year, I don't know. Nobody has the answer."
Not yet, anyway.
Written by: Matthew Campbell
© The Times of London