The search for British Bigfoot
What is the mysterious humanoid that keeps being seen in British woodland? James McMahon sets off to investigate an enduring legend.
“It must have been mid-afternoon when I saw it,” says British Bigfoot expert Deborah Hatswell. “The sun was shining on us. It was a lovely day, really. I was chatting and laughing with my friend when we both caught a slight movement in the bushes and shadows. I was just a kid. A teenager…”
She pauses, her now 52-year-old mind scanning for the exact details of an otherwise average day within a codex of otherwise average days, growing up in Pendleton, Salford in the 1980s. Hatswell has been investigating Bigfoot and other weird phenomena since the early 1990s. For her, the search for Bigfoot is personal.
“The next thing that happened was a huge, hairy, gorilla type-face was thrust at us from the bushes. It was a huge thing, like a man and an ape had been pushed together. It had amber dark eyes, with dark brown hair, and yet it had a redness to it. Its jawline was thickly muscled, and its teeth were like a human’s. His nose was flattish, like a boxer. It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life. I pushed my friend over and ran screaming for my life…”
Britain is a land that is old and scarred with folklore, a place where ancient Pagan stories echo through the ages, despite Romans, Vikings and Christianity having made the island their home too. A melting pot of conflicting superstition and belief, it’s said there’s a sea monster in Loch Ness, Scotland. Sightings of UFOs above Suffolk’s Rendlesham Forest (next to an RAF base). Ferocious beasts roaming upon Bodmin Moor since 1978 (surely the inspo for high-end monster movie An American Werewolf in London). Vampires and ghosts seen in Highgate Cemetery, north London. The mermaid of Zennor, off the coast of Cornwall. But Bigfoot? An American icon to rival burgers and Elvis?
Now there’s a name you rarely hear uttered in this part of the world.
“I looked back,” says Hatswell, resuming her story, “and my friend was running too. But the creature just leant back into the greenery as if he’d melted away. I still can’t really explain what I saw. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t wish for it. I must have looked a right state running home, my face full of snot and tears like I’d seen a ghost. I often wish it had been a ghost. There are explanations for seeing a ghost. Everyone wants to hear a ghost story. No one wants to listen to a 15-year-old girl who insists she saw an ancient ape man while she was playing in the park.”
Another sigh. “I’ve been obsessed with uncovering the truth of what I saw that day ever since…”
“It was right here,” says Stacia Briggs, pointing to a patch of ground at her feet in the woodland in which we stand. “We saw it just as we were leaving the forest after we were last here looking for Bigfoot. We’d spooked ourselves by wandering into deep thickets of trees and swearing we could smell the tell-tale odour that people claim Bigfoot has. We saw a clear sign that something the size of a fairly small deer had been dragged from close to the roadside into the trees…”
You join us on a chilly Saturday in Thetford Forest – the largest lowland pine forest in Britain, in fact – which is situated at the point whereupon the northern tip of Suffolk meets the south end of Norfolk. We’re here with Briggs, as well as her friend and colleague Siofra Connor. And maybe Bigfoot. Somewhere. Behind a bush perhaps or lurking behind a tree. It’s possible. There have been sightings in this ancient forest for decades.
Briggs (a journalist) and Connor (a Visual News Coordinator, whatever that is) met at Archant, a newspaper and magazine publisher in Norwich. They were the company weirdos, drawn to each other by a shared interest in sea serpents, demon goat heads and witchcraft – in the 1600s Norfolk was the hunting ground for Matthew Hopkins, professional misogynist and the country’s self-appointed Witchfinder General. Together, Briggs and Connor run the Weird Norfolk podcast, which, for the last three years, has chronicled the region’s remarkable history of strange goings-on. They’re never short of material.
“Norfolk is a large rural community,” explains Connor, blowing on her fingers to warm up. “Farms stay in families, so folklore, traditions and superstitions get passed down [from] generation to generation, and are still shared today. And our rural landscape hasn’t really been encroached upon by modern developments. There are still places in Norfolk where you feel like you are a million miles from anywhere or anyone. There’s still magic here. The environment lends itself to weird tales.”
Indeed, just under 50 miles east of here is the aforementioned Rendlesham Forest; an alleged UFO sighting back in December 1980 has seen the area nicknamed ‘Britain’s Roswell’ ever since. Then there’s the “demon dog” Black Shuck, one of Britain’s most infamous cryptids, seen on coastal plain The Fens. There’s been sightings of headless horsemen in Bristol. Of “Lantern Men”, fiery visions that lead enchanted victims to death by drowning, in Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire. Plus more ghosts than you can shake a shitty bedsheet at. Deborah Hatswell heard about a Bigfoot sighting at Kelling Heath in Holt, north Norfolk this summer.
“A 12-year-old boy came and told me he and his friend saw a large hairy man with a dog’s head about 7ft tall in the woods,” said the witness (who told Hatswell about it). “He said it had white eyes and they heard it walking about, too. I went to the wooded area on my own, but I was overcome with terror and didn’t dare go in. I felt I was being watched or warned off. Seriously, I have been in situations in my life that are scary but this was terrifying…”
On the stretch of road that runs parallel to the forest we stand in today – the A1075 – there have been dozens of sightings of a bipedal, fur-covered creature.
There are reports by several witnesses of a “bear” wandering Thetford Forest back in 1979 – police searched the area, nothing was found. But “The Beast of the A1075”, as it’s come to be known, was first “seen” in June 1986. The witness reported seeing the four-legged creature – covered in scraggy grey hair – rise up to its hind legs, standing like a human. It was estimated at eight feet tall and resembled a bear or wolf. In 2007, another witness described seeing a similar creature in the same area. Two years later, in 2009, a rambler came face to face with a creature “not of this world” in a clearing inside the forest. Then in 2011 a lorry driver saw a four-legged creature running at speed through grass. It approached him, rose on to two legs, then ran away. He describes the creature as being “ape-like”. In 2017 a “tall and inexplicable” creature was “seen” walking along the side of the road.
Others report stones being thrown at them. Glowing eyes coming from thickets, at a height too high to be human. There have been reports of dogs refusing to enter the forest, while some claim they’ve felt an overwhelming sensation of being watched or trailed.
“Something I’ve found interesting are how many woodwose carvings there are in the churches around here,” says Briggs, wading through long grass. “In folklore, woodwose are wild men, though there’s a rare female carved into the font at St Catherine’s Church in Ludham [in Great Yarmouth]. They’re depicted covered completely in hair and carrying a club. They started cropping up in the design of churches during the twelfth century, and it was believed that they scared away evil spirits. They were said to eat children and grab people and shag them. Not saying there’s a connection, but…”
“Look over here,” says Connor, gesturing to what looks like a crudely built wigwam. “And over there. And over there.” On closer inspection the structures resemble ‘teepees’, the name used for structures made out of arched branches in Bigfoot investigations across the globe. “People believe that Bigfoot uses them to communicate with other Bigfoot. Um… Bigfeet?” We laugh. The “teepees” do make for a weird sight. And, like a coffee cup in the final season of Game of Thrones, once you’ve seen them, you can’t stop seeing them. What could have made these strange, surprisingly complex structures? “It might not be Bigfoot [that] people are seeing,” says Connor. “But they’re seeing something…”
And then I see it. Something moving fast in the distance beyond the treeline. I am instantly unnerved – and yet, for a moment, ridiculously excited. All this talk of woodwose and teepees has left me feeling unnerved but giddy. Am I going to be the one to finally solve the Bigfoot mystery? I imagine my smug face on the cover of Fortean Times. I stride away to investigate under the cover of having a wee, not telling my companions for fear of looking silly.
It’s a man and his dog. I may not look silly, but I certainly feel it. Time to go home.
The British photographer Harry Rose grew up obsessed with Bigfoot. “I loved science-fiction and Stephen King and The X‑Files,” he explains. “Anything mysterious and weird. And I loved Bigfoot. I was always sad that Bigfoot was in America and I was in Britain. And so when I found out that there were people who believed he existed here…”
Rose had just completed a project in his final year of college that led to him looking for the location of his late father’s ashes. Exhausted, seeking some levity, he decided his next project would be looking for British Bigfoot. He packed up his life. And a tent. Then he drove to north Wales, pitched his tent on the spot where two campers went missing in 1998 – no bodies were ever recovered – and promptly lost his mind.
“After day four, I was talking to myself,” he recalls. “I spooked myself something unreal. I was seeing stuff that wasn’t there. That said, I had a tree thrown at me, a full-on tree. Not some sapling, a big tree. It came thundering over a tree in front of me and rolled past me. That shit was weird…”
“I heard some strange noises while I was taking a photograph of a broken sapling,” he continues. “That’s said to be Bigfoot’s warning sign. Moments later a gargle followed by a tree came hurtling my way. The photographer in me should have been calm, looked at what happened and took a photo. [Instead] I ran so fast. I guess in my head I’d been so willing to experience something but, when I did, I ran faster than the wind.”
Did anything else strange happen?
“Well, I did come across a field of dead sheep,” he says, his eyes wide. “The farmer couldn’t work it out. Not just dead, but decapitated. No wolves in the area – foxes, sure, but they couldn’t have done that much damage. An entire flock wiped out. That was also alarmingly close to where the backpackers went missing…”
At the end of it, what do you believe now?
“Looking back, I now realise how much of a low place I was at in my life. At the time, I was looking for a sign of it being real. Something to confirm so many sightings and stories. These people can’t all be lying, right? Now I know that looking for Bigfoot was a vessel for keeping myself busy. I mean, if Bigfoot exists, it’s in America, not in the UK. The landmass of the UK just isn’t big enough for an eight-foot ape to migrate and live without regular contact with humans…”
Rose pauses, his mind drifts.
“I think what I was doing out there,” he says after a time, “was trying to distract myself from what was going on in my life at the time. That’s what I think lots of people do when they get obsessed with this stuff. Bigfoot is escapism. It doesn’t matter if he’s real. He’s respite from reality.”
He smiles. “I mean, who doesn’t want a break from reality?”