By ROBERT HARDMAN, Daily Mail 00:07am 29th July 2006
Force to be reckoned with: Robert Hardman sorts out the true believers from the circle-makers
Supernatural energy is, apparently, buzzing all around us from beneath the flattened wheat. John Latta from Seattle is wandering round in a trance-like state. Katharyn Henderson, 24, a teacher from New Zealand, is lying on the ground, lost in a cosmic daze.
We are in the middle of a newly-discovered crop circle, an elaborate pattern carved into an unharvested field. This one is not a particularly memorable example but it is already attracting quite a crowd for one reason: the crop circle appears to be an endangered species.
This summer will go down as a dismal year for strange apparitions amid the cereal. Numbers are way down and no one knows why. Those who believe the patterns are extra-terrestrial signals claim the alien messengers have despaired of planet earth and have driven their UFOs off to another galaxy.
Others claim there is a farmers' conspiracy to destroy all circles as soon as they appear. The curious death of a well-known crop-trampling enthusiast has also been cited, as has the present heatwave. No one has blamed John Prescott just yet but it can only be a matter of time.
So, I am not surprised to find a busload of devotees embracing this formation outside the Wiltshire village of Avebury. As I approach, I am intercepted by their leader, Patricia Cori, selfstyled 'Scribe to the Speakers of the Sirian High Council' (not a local authority, I learn, but a friendly delegation of aliens).
Patricia, 54, is worried at first that I am a local farmer and assures me that her busload of 19 followers have all put a quid in the honesty box by the gate. When I explain that I am not the landowner, she very politely asks me to refrain from disturbing her group. 'They're toning,' explains this amiable American spokesman for the Sirian vortex. 'It's just so powerful here. Aren't you tingling?'
To be honest, I am not. I wander among the patterns, noting that the outer circle is precisely 12ft wide. It's good to know the universe prefers imperial measurements to metric.
To appreciate it properly, though, I need an aerial view and a few hours later, I am flying over it in a helicopter expecting to see a thing of beauty.
In fact, it looks a bit of a mess. The pattern is supposed to be three propellors around a big propellor but it has gone a bit wonky in places. Either the aliens were a little the worse for wear when they left this message or else it is a rather poor hoax.
'I think they forgot where the centre was,' says Rob Irving, 49, an artist and prolific circle-maker (he was commissioned to create an Olympic rings formation for last year's London bid). 'It looks like the work of trainees.'
The crop circle community is broadly split into three and, as I soon gather, the politics are almost as spectacular as the formations.
On one side, there are the true believers, people like Patricia who see crop circles as the work of strange paranormal forces. On the other are the circle-makers, hoaxers and artists like Rob who make crop circles for the sheer thrill of it.
There is no love lost between the two. The true believers denounce the circle-makers as frauds who are taking the credit for genuine alien messages.
The circle-makers regard the true believers as a bunch of oddballs and rather enjoy the hysterical reactions and wide-eyed wonderment with which their handiwork is greeted. And, unlike most artists, they shield their identities - this is, after all, vandalism.
In between these two extremes is the third group, the countless agnostics who accept that some formations are man-made but can't help thinking others defy any logical explanation.
But for once they are all in agreement on the fact that this has been a lousy summer - and all are asking the same question: where have the crop circles gone?
Some new examples have been popping up, notably in East Anglia and Italy. But the West of England is looking, well, rather more normal than usual.
Crop patterns have been a startling addition to the English landscape for a quarter of a century, mainly in the wilds of Wiltshire near the ancient stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury and the garrisons of Salisbury Plain.
They immediately struck a chord with the druids, the hippies and the UFO crowd, all of whom seized on them as evidence of either the paranormal or military conspiracies in weird and wonderful Wiltshire.
It remained a rather jolly mystery until 1991, when it emerged that the circles had been started by war veteran Doug Bower and his friend, Dave Chorley, after a night in a Hampshire pub.
The two men only went public after Doug's wife suspected that his high mileage and nocturnal absences were evidence of an affair. But despite the public exposure of their methods - planks, ropes, wire and tape - it did nothing to deter the believers.
As the New Age creed has gained mainstream credibility, more seekers of spiritual truth have become convinced these formations contain profound hidden messages.
At the same time, more and more copycat circle-makers have been creating ever-more ambitious designs using computers and surveyors' kit.
It has been great news for the British tourist trade. Every year, thousands come from all over the world to gawp, and the craze shows no sign of waning.
Rob Irving's The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making is published next month. This weekend, there are two rival crop circle conventions - one in Glastonbury (for the evangelical) and one in Devizes (for the more agnostic).
The believers will reconvene again in a fortnight for the annual Crop Circle Conference in Marlborough. Lectures include spiritual mandalas and crop circles and diatonic geometry of music and crop circles.
There is just one problem. They are running out of circles to study. I head for Thruxton Airfield near Stonehenge where Fast Helicopters do a roaring trade in crop circle tours.
'The circles account for about 15 per cent of our work but there is a lot less to see this year,' admits Captain Shaun Byam. We set off for a tour of what is on offer, sweeping over the stunning Vale of Pewsey.
Just below the white horse etched into the hill above Alton Barnes, a wheat field contains a star and two hearts. It's a tidy little design but not a patch on the colossal 800ft, sixarmed monster with 409 individual circles, which appeared here on Milk Hill one wet night in August 2001.
We fly over the uninspiring Avebury circle where I discovered Patricia and her followers. A newly-harvested field nearby contains the shadow of a formation from last year. It is far more impressive.
In West Overton, we spot a messy design which looks like a botched knitting pattern or a logo for some dreary EU quango. Outside Marlborough, I spot ten people meditating inside a rather stronger specimen resembling two gas rings alongside two trays of concentric croissants.
Interestingly, the standard improves the further we travel from the traditional hunting ground towards Oxfordshire.
At Charlbury Hill, two circles contain some intricate topiary while, further on at Wayland's Smithy, we encounter the excellent, threedimensional depiction of a series of skyscrapers.
Finally, next to the remnants of Uffington Castle is a neat design resembling a bird unfolding its wings. But, after more than an hour aloft, that is our lot and we return to Thruxton.
I set out by car in search of answers. First stop is the enchanting Barge Inn, a canalside spot just outside Alton Barnes. This is a mandatory halt for all circle-seekers, with one bar devoted to crop circle pictures.
The landlords, June and Adrian Potts, even have a crop circle mural painted on the ceiling.
'It's definitely an off-year,' says June, 'but all our regulars are still coming through which is nice.' These include a Berlin surgeon and his chum who come every year to study force fields in the previous year's crop circle sites.
One regular who won't be returning is Paul Obee, a quiet circle-maker who was found dead in his car earlier this summer with a note beside him.
'I heard he wanted to see what was on the other side,' sighs June. 'Perhaps his friends have stopped this year which is why it's so quiet.'
A friend to both the true believers and the circle-makers alike, she is convinced that some formations defy rational explanation.
'I know some are hoaxes but I saw that one in 2001 over there on Milk Hill, and it gave me the heebyjeebies because it was far too big for humans to have done it.
'You do see some strange things round here. One night in 1997, several of us saw this strange ball of light which suddenly filled the whole sky and then vanished. I don't know what it was.'
A few miles away, I stop on the A4 at the Silent Circle Cafe, a spiritual home for the true believers. Owner Charles Mallett, 36, dismisses those who claim to be circle-makers as 'circle-fakers'.
'I was camping on Milk Hill with my dog the night those 409 circles appeared and we didn't see or hear a thing. Explain that,' he says.
'I'm not a loony. I'm a regular guy who likes his bacon sarnies but I have had enough experiences to know that crop circles represent an interdimensional communication with the human consciousness.'
So why the shortage? 'Maybe the forces involved have moved on. I am sure it's directly related to the way the world is going. And the farmers are chopping them as soon as they appear. They should just put out an honesty box and make lots of money.'
Tonight, the cafe is staging a talk entitled the power of collective thought, by Andy Thomas, 41, a writer on psychic phenomena. The little tea room is hotter than an allday breakfast but 20 people have paid £7.50 to listen.
He has another theory for the vanishing circles.
'It's the hot weather,' he says. 'Most crop circles appear near strong energy fields and strong underground water sources, which is why the ancient world was drawn to this part of Wiltshire, too.
But the water table is right down.'
One of his audience offers me a simpler theory. 'I know the spirits who make the crop circles because they live in my New York apartment,' says Nancy Burson, a photographer and author from New York. 'These spirits are sad that the farmers keep cutting down their messages so they have just given up.'
What do these spirits, er, look like? 'They are balls of light. I call them extra-celestials. We have to stop destroying their messages.'
The next day, I meet someone who has been destroying extracelestial messages for years. Robin Butler's family has been farming this land since 1937, including the
Avebury field where I found the crop circle. He tells me that crop circles are an expensive nuisance. Not only can they ruin several hundred pounds of crop but they devalue the next one.
'I need to replant that field with barley for next year but all the heads off the trampled wheat are now in the soil, so I'll have a mixed crop. This is just countryside graffiti.'
What about the fabled fortune from the honesty box? He laughs. 'I usually find a few 1p coins in there.'
He denies any conspiracy to wipe out the circles. 'Some people might take out a small one before it becomes an attraction but a big one is too much trouble so you wait until the harvest.'
He puts this year's decline down to the fact that the harvest has come early so there are fewer fields to vandalise.
So what do the circle-makers say?
Rob Irving points to the death of Paul Obee and the emigration of another top circle-maker. 'People are moving away from Wiltshire - we call it Ground Zero - because the farmers are fed up.
'But I have noticed a lot of trial runs which suggests that new teams are coming through. It's not the end of crop circles because it's still a lovely way to spend an evening and these artists are going much further than Damien Hirst because their work is treated like a religion.'
There will be plenty of worshippers all over the West Country this weekend. And long may they continue - as long as they remember to stick a quid in the honesty box.
They don't harm anyone and they are helping a struggling rural economy. What's more, if the Scots can still make a mint out of a Loch Ness monster no one has ever seen, why shouldn't England's fields enjoy a mystery of their own?