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Travel | England

Confessions of a crop circle chaser

Whetting visitors’ curiosity, residents’ suspicions

Crop circles in an English field, where the stalks have been flattened by natural or unexplained forces — or hoaxers. BILL STRUBBE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Bill Strubbe Photo

WILTSHIRE, England — After extricating myself from the roundabout driving terrors of London, within an hour I was passing through a bucolic landscape of picturesque villages nestled among rolling hills and ripening barley fields.

Yet wild moors beckon here in southwest England, castle ruins emanate mystery, and in a shop a woman leans in close and says: “You see, last year we’d lost several sheep. Nightfall had set in and my husband went to check the far heath. Near the round barrows he heard strange sounds and saw the lights, the fairy lights you know. . . . And the next morning in our neighbor’s field a lovely crop circle appeared.’’


Though this phenomenon enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame in the 1990s, dozens of these often complex geometric patterns still appear every summer. Two pensioners claimed credit for some pedestrian formations, but despite night watches by researchers and irate farmers, circle makers are rarely, if ever, caught in the act and the mystery remains.

Crop circles — also called agriglyphs or pictograms — were the reason I ventured to Wiltshire. The center of things was the Silent Circle, a cafe and bookshop in Yatesbury started by Charles Mallett, a crop circle researcher who said sightings filter in from passing drivers or pilots scouting the landscape. Like storm chasers, once an approximate location is established, a carload of “croppies’’ heads out to find the circle.

A new one had been discovered that day, so I drove to East Kennet and parked. The midsummer sun lingered along the horizon as I walked up the tractor line to the formation. While some sleuths experience swoops of energy inside circles, anything subtle I might have felt was overwhelmed by excitement. Walking the perimeter, I eventually discerned its arcing quadrennial form. Initially I was disappointed by the seemingly uneven lay of the crop, but later aerial photos revealed a lovely Celtic cross, the interplay of light in the feathered lay creating a sublime three-dimensionality.


The next day another was reported near Chicklade, west of Stonehenge. Five of us crowded into a car and set off, scanning the fields until we spotted it. On reaching the formation the sun broke through, bathing the six-petal formation in light. Near the tidy center whorl I played my wooden recorder — when a truck bounded up and two farmers jumped out, one yelling, “This is criminal damage you’ve caused here!’’ Replying that we had only just arrived, he retorted, “You bloody well know you made it, and it’s a right poor one, too!’’ Our laughter irked him more, and he threatened: “You can leave now, I can call the police, or . . .’’ Not interested in the third option, we left.

Understandably, grangers are not pleased because of the crop damage. Some immediately mow circles out; others, especially in “popular canvas’’ fields, make the best of it with a donation box. One famous glyph, a Julia set fractal that appeared in daylight near Stonehenge in 1996, reportedly netted the farmer thousands of pounds.

In a formation dubbed “Unfinished Symphony’’ (mysteriously completed the next morning), within sight of one of Wiltshire’s eight White Horses etched on the hills, I met James Reed lugging a metal donation box, into which I dropped a few quid. “My fellow farmers would hang me for fraternizing with the croppies,’’ Reed laughed, “but if a third one appears in my fields I’m going to cut them all out.’’ Later that day, while I pondered the lovely swirls of another formation — two circles joined by cryptic code, Reed arrived again and laughed, “Well, this one was already here, so it doesn’t count.’’


In that same glyph, I met a trio of healers and convivial conversation ensued. “For eight years I’ve come to see crop circles and with all the energy lines intersecting throughout the countryside here I feel that this land is important,’’ said Cynthia Barnard, a shaman from Boxford, Mass. “The earth is alive, so I travel around the world to sacred sites to help reawaken and anchor the feminine energy.’’

Barnard added, “If I knew the answer I’d be a millionaire, but I feel it’s impossible for people with ropes and boards. Anyhow, I love the idea of an ongoing mystery.’’

While crop formations appear the world over, that a preponderance pop up in Wiltshire is not thought coincidental. Here, rendered in stone and earth across the landscape, stand countless ancient stone works, the most famous being Stonehenge. Far older is the mother of all stone circles, Avebury Henge, so enormous that thatched homes encroach into the ring. I spent a morning with Maria Wheatley, a dowser and author of several books including “Avebury: Sun, Moon and Earth.’’ Sheep grazed as we wandered among the hulking stones and Wheatley, with copper dowsing rods in hand, explained about the underground water, earth currents, and ley lines converging in the henge creating a “powerful energetic center that the ancients were able to perceive and harness.’’


Nearby is conical Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe. So deftly constructed was this 131-foot-tall mound that it has miraculously defied 5,000 years of erosion. Directly across the highway crouches West Kennett Long Barrow, believed to be a ritual chamber and later a tomb. After a 10-minute walk across fields, while basking in the sun above the stone entrance, I spotted another small crop circle.

Downing a cider at the lively Barge Inn, a tavern overlooking the Avon-Kennet canal, I met Mathew Williams, an ex-circle maker bearing the dubious distinction as the only person prosecuted for “criminal crop damage.’’ While he was explaining the thrill of the illicit art and the tricks with boards and ropes of his former avocation, the discussion unexpectedly veered to paranormal experiences that he and other circle makers had encountered while making formations: darting light orbs, shadow humanoid figures, eerie sounds, and once discovering he had created a formation that a group had meditated on the previous night. “Often circle makers don’t know why they suddenly feel inspired, and because of my strange experiences, there seems to be a lot more going on than meets the eye.’’

Yet human hands do not explain numerous associated anomalies: watch, cellphone, and camera malfunctions within formations; most famously, an inexplicable two-hour glitch in equipment hired by National Geographic; altered soil structure evidenced by “ghosts’’ of accelerated crop appearing in following summers and snow melting more quickly on former crop circle sites; elongated and blown-out grass nodes best explained by a microwave burst; and the ongoing, keen interest of the British military.


On my final days in Wiltshire, I splurged and in a micro-light plane swooped over the network of roads and hedgerows I had become so familiar with, the crop formations where I had mediated and met folks from around the world. Whatever the circle makers’ origins, the formations are masterful works in the heart of nature, art that weaves wonder and magic to those who seek them out.

If you go...

Visit Wiltshire


The official tourism website covering places to stay, dine, upcoming events, and music and art festivals, family fun, and activities.

Crop Circle Connector

Provides the latest updates and photos of crop circle formations in the United Kingdom and around the world, as well as interpretations and the latest research.
Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group


Established in 1995, the group supports scientific research and data collection, explores metaphysical aspects, and sponsors workshops, night watches, and an annual conference in August.

The Silent Circle


Website for the cafe and bookshop, the main gathering spot for crop circle enthusiasts to share information and experiences.

Dowsing Lessons and Tours


Maria Wheatley, dowser and author, guides private dowsing walks around Avebury, Stonehenge, and other stones sites.

Bill Strubbe can be reached at bsbillbs@yahoo.com.