Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Weird Weekend of the CFZ 2012

My first Weird Weekend was in 2006, and it was the first time I met the crazy and wonderful people of the CFZ, the Centre for Fortean Zoology. I've loved cryptozoology since I was a kid, the bizarre stories of people experiencing strange creatures like Mothman, Owlman, Sasquatch, 'Nessie', Yowie or wondering what the hell the Beast of Gévaudan really was. It's funny, I think back to high school and how I used to read paranormal, supernatural, UFO and unsolved mystery stories in the library, often during free periods, or when I preferred reading books over hanging with friends. The last thing I thought would happen, would be that I attend cryptozoology conferences in a small village in North Devon a little over 10 years later. It was that, and a big thanks to Fortean Times magazine for getting me back involved in forteana - my life had been art, writing, medieval re-enactment and paganism for most of my adult life until then. The Weird Weekend is held every mid-August in Woolfardisworthy (Woolsery), a small North Devon village of no real significance except that the head of the CFZ  (Jon Downes) lives there, in an inherited cottage from his late father. The event runs in the local Community Centre and goes for a weekend. It’s only £20 to go – well, it's £25, but as a friend of the CFZ, I never pay that much – that price has not changed since I went in 2006 either. The lectures at the event can vary, and may not even be about cryptids either, just anything to do with forteana. On Thursday night, its the cocktail night, Friday night, the conference has its opening night, and the con starts at midday on the Saturday and Sunday. Then on Sunday its the end of weekend dinner.
The WW 06 was my final event in the UK, before I happily flew home to Australia. Then I never managed to get back to the WW again until 2012. While much had changed in that time, nothing really had changed with the CFZ crowd.

In August 2012, I was living near Huddersfield, and on the Wednesday before the WW, got the Megabus service to London (only cost £1!) and then to Exeter, then got a bus to Bideford where Jon Downes and his wife Corinna picked me up. It took all day to get there! I was going to be sleeping at their place. Beggars can't be choosers - I slept in the conservatory! Here's a run down of the event....

I arrived late on Wed night and slept in the lounge, promising to make cheese omelettes in the morning, which I did. The Thursday night cocktail party was a great success, even though the wind and the rain tried to spoil the fun – all those who attended gathered under the marquee in Jon’s yard, while Matt Osbourne and sometimes Max Blake mixed the margaritas nowhere near like Tom Cruise in ‘Cocktail.’ 

While the weekend appeared to hold the promise of rain, we began the talks on Friday night at 7pm by watching a video done by Jon, where he told a story about a sheep, a chupacabra and an alien coming to Woolsery for the Weird Weekend, with a song that he sung himself. It was typical Jon style music and video in an opening ceremony that was also very Jon style.
Richard Freeman began a talk about  ‘20 cryptids you’ve never heard of’ due to a cancelled talk, and half way through his list, was told he had 5 minutes to go. There certainly were cryptids I’ve never heard of, so the talk worked for me.

After a dinner break, we went back into the Hall to watch Paul Screeton ‘s ‘The Quest for the Hexham Heads, which I enjoyed because he went into detail about a few of the particular incidents that surrounded the heads. I've spoken about this topic on this blog before, but in regards to photography issues with stone heads of mysterious age. Paul even had two heads there – The first was a clay one made in art class by Colin Robson, one of the boys who found the original two heads in his garden in 1971 – he had made it in art class a couple of months before he moved to the house where he and his brother found the heads – the irony of this was added to the mystery. The second head was a carved one from concrete by the man who claimed to make the heads originally, as he used to live in the house where the Robson's lived. Paul had been given these heads back in the early 70’s when he researched this strange incident. He even went into detail about the strange cryptid sightings that occurred with the neighbours (the half-man, half-sheep animal in the bedroom) and Dr Anne Ross's werewolf that was seen in her house more than once.
NOT the Hexham Heads. The one of the left is a pottery
head made by the boy who found the heads, and the one on
the right is a similar head made by the man who claimed
he made the two, now missing, Hexham Heads 
Paul's book ‘Hexham Heads’ has also been published by CFZ press and tonight was the book launch of it, so Paul signed a few copies and showed off the two heads he had.
The final talk of the night was Richard Thorn’s ‘The Hunt for the Pink-headed Duck.’ Richard has been to Burma 3 times looking for this pink-headed duck, which apparently became extinct in 1935. His third trip was only taken this year, and the successful part of the trip was when his two tour guides took him into the wilds of Burma where all the lakes were, and they met many locals who recognised the duck and had seen it only a few days ago. Richard felt very close to the possibility of seeing it, but he had no success on this particular trip. He does know where to begin to look again, but due to the restrictions and laws of Burma at the moment, it might be hard to get into certain areas. You need a permit for a lot of things these days. Everyone enjoyed his talk immensely, and we all wished him the best with full support and encouragement.
Jon Downes and Max Blake
After I slept in a conservatory next to a tank of rare caecilians, I got onto my laptop to post on the CFZ Australia blog about the day-to-day occurrences of the WW.  Today in the intro, Jon Downes began with the question ‘What is cryptozoology’ in which he asked the youngsters, (some who are crew or just ‘gophers’) and they could not answer – or were too shy to. Even I asked for the microphone to give 3 categories of it –
1. Study of strange cryptids not yet recognised in the animal kingdom.
2. Study of animals previously thought extinct but rediscovered.
3. Study of animals not discovered until now.

I was right, except for another category – the study of out-of-place animals - like big cats running wild in Britain or Australia without knowledge of how they came to be there.
Nick Wadham was back with his bugs – dangerous and creepy looking ones – consisting of large snails, spiders, tarantulas, centipedes, cockroaches, stick insects and scorpions, even an Argentinian Boa. He got the kids up the front to hold the creatures and described how their victims were killed and eaten.
After some lunch, Max Blake spoke about the Analysis of the Borley Bug (left).
In 1938 Margaret Wilson, an artist, saw a strange creature one day in the garden of the Borley Rectory (the most haunted house in Britain), describing it, and sensing that it was supernatural, Max’s talk was to perhaps work out exactly what kind of bug it was, the closest thing it could have been was a dragonfly.
Jon McGowan talked about large cats in Britain – focusing on his location in Dorset. Jon is one of those very few people that can prove big cats do haunt the British countryside because he goes out into the wilds three times a week and watches their movements. His findings were amazing, and knowledge of big cat behaviour is brilliant.
Glen Vaudry spoke about Scottish Sea Serpent carcasses, and spoke about many findings that occurred in previous centuries as well as the more recent ones – quite often the carcasses turn out to be rotting basking sharks, complete hoaxes, or made up.

'Bobby' of the graveyard
Jan Bondeson, who I also saw talk at the Fortean Times Unconvention in London, in November 2011. He’d spoken then about Talking Dogs. This time it was another dog - Greyfriar’s Bobby. Most people know about the small mongrel that apparently mourned his master’s death and sat by the grave in the kirkyard for several years around the 1860s and 70s, but Jan had wanted to find out whether that was true – indeed he had existed – a dog called Bobby did indeed live in the kirkyard, but it was not known that he mourned by the grave. He was well fed, even attending a restaurant where he got fed, at 1 o’clock after the gun went off daily at the castle, and had many friends in places he used to visit. It may have been romantic story tellers or journalists that made Bobby a loyal dog that never left its master’s grave. He may have not even had a dead master!
After Jan was the annual award giving – people who have been incredibly valuable in the CFZ, a great helper, or a great speaker and explorer get acknowledged by being given a Golden Baboon award, and certificate. It’s typical tongue in cheek CFZ humour and honour.
The night ended with a documentary called ‘Heads!’ about the Hexham Heads and other mystery stone heads of North England. It must have gone for close to 2 hours. Some more raffle prizes were handed out, and then Silas Hawkins read out another ‘Bedtime story’ from Richard Freeman’s book ‘Green Unpleasant Land.’ It was my favourite story - about a dragon/wyrm – Drake's Brier – which I found out was everyone else’s favourite too. Including Richard Freeman, as I found out while I was sitting next to him during the story. The Saturday ended at midnight, yet most people went straight to the bar.
Apparently, during the night in Woolfardisworthy, a leopard was heard calling nearby! Jon McGowan, the large cat expert and hunter, heard it at about 5am, while he camped by the local Community Centre. Jon has heard many large cats before, so he should know. Yes, all manner of weird things come to the Weird Weekend, even cryptids like out-of-place leopards.
First of the day was Richard Muirhead’s ‘The Flying Snakes of Namibia’ where he looked into old stories from the 1950s where someone saw a flying snake – or thought they did. Since then and in many areas of this south western part of Africa, people who see lights in the sky at night, don’t say it’s a UFO like we would, but that it’s a flying snake with glowing lights on its head.
Someone asked Lars a question about
Trolls during question time. (image
from 'Troll Hunter')
Lars Thomas gave us a run down on the cryptids of Denmark, ranging from bugs, beetles, wolves, and chipmunks, to trolls, hominids and lake monsters. Lars not only reads a lot, and travels to locations of sightings, but he uses the microscope to discover what is out there – and has tested many hairs under a microscope, finding leopards, out-of-place cats, hominids, and even a platypus hair…from New Zealand. The old stories in Denmark of hominids and hairy creatures are found in many old documents from wooden carvings to old manuscripts. He also knows of a colony of Siberian Chipmunks that live in forests in Denmark, but is uncertain how they got there. The questions at the end even involved Trolls, and it was clear to Lars and many others that questions were asked in relation to the ‘Troll Hunter’ movie, released in 2011.
Orang Pendek - bipedal hominid of
Sumatra, as yet unstudied
Richard Freeman spoke about the Sumatra expedition of 2011 – so far the largest group to go on an expedition, splitting 3 teams up to cover more ground to try and see the Orang-Pendek. There was no success in seeing the cryptid this time round, like the sighting in 2009, but Richard still has hopes to see something one day and tick this off as ‘found’ for the CFZ.
Ronan Coghlan, the CFZ’s ever hilarious trickster talked about Sinbad the Sailor, and the cryptids he encountered. This re-introduced us to creatures like the Roc, and the ‘Old Man of the Sea’ – from Sumatra and probably like our Orang-Pendek or even the Flores dwarf.
Jon ended the Weird Weekend by remembering those lost to us – Jeanett Thomas, the late wife of Lars, and Lionel Beer’s long time partner Joy. And acknowledging a CFZ birth and a wedding too.
The dinner was held in the hall this year, with a wonderful meal presented to us by the lovely ladies of the community centre, and we all ended the night eating a CFZ cake too. After dinner, a small few of us stayed behind and watched ‘Occasional Monsters’ a British film that was inspired by Nick Redfern’s book ‘Three Men seeking Monsters.’
The men off on a big cat hunt - Mark,
Jon, Darren and Max
Due to the excitement about possibly having a leopard nearby, Mark North, Jon McGowan, Darren Naish, and Max Blake (left)appeared to walk away from the Community Centre equipped with headlights, torches and wet weather gear, into the dark fields of the Devon countryside in search of it. The rest of us (now an even smaller group) listened to Silas Hawkins read out a third story of Richard Freeman’s book ‘Green Unpleasant Land’ – this one a rather creepy one about the Bodmin little people. Richard is an excellent writer of the macabre and I recommend this book.
This ended the XIIIth Weird Weekend for 2012, and as a representative of the Australian CFZ gang, I was honoured to be there (It certainly helped when you were living in Yorkshire). Thanks to Jon and Corinna Downes, and all other members of the CFZ that helped me out on that weekend. 

Paul Screeton signing books

Pink Headed Duck, extinct 1935 (or so to be believed)

Joe Thomas with Nick Wadham

Max and the Borley Bug


Quiz time!

Jon McGowan and big cats

Glen Vaudry and Scottish sea monsters

Jan Bondeson and Greyfriar's Bobby

Jon gives Richard Muirhead a Devo hat

Jon McGowan's collection

Richard Freeman and the Orang Pendek

Ronan Coghlan

Ronan Coghlan talks of Sinbad (Jon Downes' step daughter
on the floor as a part of Ronan's act)

The Sunday dinner- my table from left - Joe, Chris, Richard,
Nichola, Nadia and Lars

Jon Downes cutting cake

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