The 1980 crop circles at Westbury are notable for being the first, at least in the era of the contemporary phenomenon, to achieve public exposure in the pages of a newspaper. They were also the first to have caught the attention of a UFO group, PROBE.
On 15 August 1980 the Wiltshire Times ran a story titled ‘Mystery Circles – The Return of the Thing?’
‘The Warminster Thing,’ the paper speculated, ‘could be back. Speculation that the UFO, which hundreds of people claimed to have seen in the mid and late 1960s, began again this week after three circular depressions appeared in cornfields near Westbury White Horse.’
According to Rob Irving in his book The Field Guide, the ‘article went on to describe the clockwise swirl [of the depressions] and the absence of tracks. The latter was the earliest indicator that humans could not be responsible for the formations. And besides, the circles looked much too well defined and regular, beautiful even, to be the work of jokers. The army was mystified, denying that the tightly-swirled lay of the crop could have been caused by the downwash of helicopter blades. Nor could weather have been responsible, according to a local farmer, who told the paper “I have never seen marks like it before. It certainly cannot be wind or rain damage, because I have seen plenty of that and it is just not that regular. If it’s not a helicopter, then it’s very mysterious.”‘
The Warminster Thing
Westbury is approximately four miles north of Warminster in Wiltshire. During the 1960s the area was plagued by a succession of strange events, including the alleged sighting of UFOs. These craft were collectively christened ‘The Thing’ and attracted flocks of ufologists, sightseers and skywatchers to the hills above Warminster.
The Wiltshire Times‘ story caught the attention of PROBE, a UFO group from the local area. They visited the site and began an investigation, written up by Ian Mrzyglod in vol. 1, issue 2 (August 1980) of The Probe Report, their in-house journal:
The Westbury UFO Nests
On Wednesday 13th August 1980, three circular depressions were discovered in the cornfields belonging to Mr. Scull, a local farmer, beneath the Westbury White Horse in Wiltshire. Complaints were made to the local school of infantry about the depressions on the assumption that they were caused by a helicopter, but these were met by denials as the military had no knowledge of such helicopter activity. On Saturday 16th August, with the prior consent of Mr. Scull, Mike Seager and Ian Mrzyglod of NUFOR (SOUTHWEST) visited these depressions and initiated an investigation. By that time, one field had been harvested, obliterating one of the circles leaving only two. These were in the same field, about 150 yards apart.
The two depressions were slightly different in size and had differences with regards to shape and ‘bed’. The circular depression we designated as No. 1 was the smaller of the two, measuring 58′ 7” across its largest diameter, whereas No. 2 measured 61′ 8”. It should be noted that neither of these depressions were exactly circular, but about 90 – 95% so. The beds of the nests consisted of flattened corn, although in No. 2 there were small patches where the corn was still standing at varying heights, (between 1′ 6” and 3′ 6”), but in general the corn was totally flattened at ground level creating a spiral effect in each circle that extended from the centre in a clockwise direction. However, the centres of the two spirals were not in the actual centres of the depressions themselves.
From close examination, the corn appeared to be undamaged and bore no burn or scorch marks. Also no marks or holes were found in the soil from our search, but it is only fair to admit that not every square inch was covered. This would indicate that the corn was flattened by air pressure or pressure of a similar nature. There are no tracks leading to or from the depressions except for the small tracks made by Mr. Scull and ourselves, plus a few sight-seeing tourists. Samples of the soil were taken along with samples of the corn and are at present undergoing investigation and analysis by the Bristol University. At this precise moment, not results are available yet.
A peculiar aspect of both depressions is the way in which the perimeter was formed. There was not the slightest hint of tapering, the effect a hovering helicopter would produce. In other words, the flattening effect did not gradually reduce outwards until the corn was left unaffected: in this case the corn was totally flattened to a mean level of 3” right to the perimeter where it was then abruptly untouched, standing at an average height of 3′ 6”.
The weather conditions for the night of the 12th/13th August were obtained from the Met. Office at RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire, who gave us the following details:
Heavy rain until midnight, caused by a warm front from the west, then light drizzle with scattered fog patches for the rest of the night. There was low cloud, with a base averaging between 100 and 200 feet, and there was a light southerly wind ranging in speed from 5 to 10 knots (6 to 12 mph). A spokesman from Lyneham said, “The weather was not responsible; I suggest you try elsewhere.” He did point out that the heavy rain could have flattened the corn, but not in such isolated cases of this nature.
We contacted various Police stations throughout Wiltshire, and the Principal Station at Chippenham and nothing had been reported to them. This is not really surprising considering the low cloud-base. There was however, a sighting of an unidentified light source on the evening of the 13th at Warminster and this is now being investigated.
Despite the early stage of research, several facts and conclusions have become apparent and although it is impossible at this moment to state what caused the depressions, we can say that it wasn’t a helicopter or similar aircraft. The manner in which a helicopter would flatten the corn bore no resemblance to the two depressions. Another conclusion that can be made is that nothing actually landed or touched down, but possibly hovered within a few feet of the soil, and this may account for the unaffected patches.
Whatever caused the circles may have descended to a height as low as 1′ 6” where a section of the perimeter of No. 2 consists of corn actually broken at this level or to within an inch of two.
The object (or objects) may have described a circular pattern of its own and this could explain why the centres of the spirals were off-centre in the nests. The spiral-centres may well have been where the object was last positioned before it departed, and due to the spiral being, at its closest point to the edge, 25′ 11”, this could indicate an object measuring in size roughly 50 feet in diameter.
Something definitely approached from the air and left by the air. With the weather and conventional aircraft being written off as the cause, as well as a practical joke, we have to leave this case as unexplained. UFOs are not ruled out, neither readily accepted as an easy answer. No animal could have caused the damage due to the vast amount of the area and the almost perfect precision. And as said before, there were no tracks. There are several irregular marks in the same field which bend the corn to a certain extent and these may be connected. Further enquiries may establish their cause and connections to this case, or they may be explained away naturally. These points, plus more photographs and the results of the sample analysis will be detailed in the next issue.
View scans of the article, including diagrams:
The second part of the PROBE investigation was published in the vol. 1, issue 3 (December 1980) edition. The article details how the group approached Dr Terence Meaden of TORRO, the Wiltshire based Tornado Research Organisation, who suggested whirlwinds may have been responsible for the Westbury circles. This is the first mention of Meaden in relation to the crop circles, beyond anything that may have appeared in his own publications:
The Westbury Circles – Part 2
This article starts off with an apology in respect of incorrect information provided in Part 1, last issue. We were led to believe that the three circles appeared overnight on 12th/13th August 1980, and when we interviewed the farmers were told no different. The blame must lie with us for taking the press stories as true, and for not ascertaining these simple facts from the outset.
With three separate dates now available, we had to think again about our previous conclusions: the weather could not now be ruled out as we originally decided. To obtain fresh weather reports we had to determine the exact dates when the circles were first discovered, and this proved impossible. The first circle (which we never saw) appeared in the middle of May but the precise date is unknown, so we could not carry out a weather check. The second circle was first seen on the morning of 21st July and the third on 30th July. (Editor’s note: in part 1 we labelled the two existing circles as ‘No. 1 and No. 2’ Because we were under the impression that they were simultaneous in appearance this was purely for differing the two and should now be ignored. In fact No. 1 should now be No. 3, whilst No. 2 remains unchanged.)
The investigations were started again and we tackled the possibility of helicopters causing the damage. This proved difficult as the photographs were shown to members of the Royal Aeronautical Society and they refused to comment. Some did think that the damage was consistent with helicopter rotors at the Bristol University, but an aviation expert was insistent that it wasn’t. Although opinions were mixed the majority rejected the helicopters as responsible. The unfortunate aspect is that no-one would commit themselves to giving a professional statement.
The weather was looked into via the Tornado Research Organisation in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. The resultant replies expressed the opinion that whirlwinds could have been active in the vicinity of the Westbury White Horse. ‘A whirlwind is born of a rising column of warm air called a “thermal”. The air in a typical thermal normally rises straight upwards without marked rotation, and it does this in the presence of the wind-of-the-day. When a thermal acquires a steady rotation, a whirlwind has been born. The transition from thermal to whirlwind happens in the presence of wind-shear regime. This seems to be what took place below the Westbury hills; it is most likely that the proximity of the steep hill immediately behind stabilised the axis of the rotation of each whirlwind. You might think of such winds as resembling eddies, at a street corner. The White Horse faces west; winds from the north-west approaching the steep hillside will, if the necessary whirlwind criteria are met, produce eddy-like whirlwinds having the observed clockwise rotation.’
So whirlwinds could possibly have produced the circles providing they occurred during daylight hours, probably around noon or early afternoon. But the circles, all three of them, were first discovered in the early morning hours. This doesn’t mean to say that thy appeared overnight, but it strongly points that way. Another factor which could indicate the overnight theory: On the night of 30th July, the housekeeper of farmer Geoff Cooper’s farm was awakened by a series of strange sounds emanating from the direction of the field where the third circle appeared. Third circle was found the very next morning. Mr. Cooper’s two dogs also kept howling and barking all night until the noises stopped.
Although not ruling out the whirlwind theory, several points did need clarification. The sizes of the circles were immensely large and it seemed difficult for a simple whirlwind or ‘land devil’ to create them. The neatness of the edge of each circle also seemed too neatly cut. And the evidence leading to the circles appearing overnight does put some element of doubt on the whirlwind theory.
We contacted the Met. Office who provided us with accurate weather reports for the required dates. The results were interesting in that a Met. Office spokesman examined the data and provided the following report: “The only Meteorological phenomenon which could have caused the damage seen in the photographs would have been a funnel cloud which reached the ground at the point of damage. On the evening and night in question (30th July) a thunderstorm was reported at Cardiff and some stations in the South and Southwest reported seeing lightning. The weather situation overnight was favourable for the development of this type of cloud formation.” These funnel clouds, when they do touch the ground become a type of tornado and can create excessive damage that can be restricted to a small vicinity. The funnel cloud can then leave the ground and therefore only cause isolated marks.
We put the testimony of the housekeeper to the spokesman who explained that a tornado would make humming whooshing sounds as described but would only last for a short while. The witness did say that she heard several short bursts of noise, but her description fits that of a tornado. The wind details for the area that night gave a South/Southwesterly of Fresh to 30 knots. The pressure ranged from 1015 mb to 1019 mb.
We put our investigation results to the farmers themselves, Mr. John Scull and Mr. Geoffrey Cooper who both immediately rejected the whirlwind theory. They have farmed the area for many years, 40 in John Scull’s case, and in that time have witnessed whirlwinds or land devils appear during the day and lift loose hay 100 yards up into the air, but have never seen damage left behind in that manner. In fact they are both against the weather theories. They did make it clear that they were hoping to be able to blame someone in order to claim damages, someone like the military.
We never saw the first circle but Mr. Cooper told us that it measured roughly the same size as the later two. However, it was not found in 3′ 6” oat, but in 2′ ripe barley. It would have required a tremendous force to break those stalks at ground level; much more than needed to break the dry oat stalks. But we are convinced that all three were caused by the same phenomenon. In the last issue, the diagrams show circle No. 2 with areas of corn standing, and this has easily been explained. That particular circle was 10 days older and the oat was beginning to stand up again.
The samples that were taken by us to Bristol University were analysed by the scientific staff, the oat stalks subjected to spectroscopic analysis checks and also radioactive tests. All the tests proved negative. Unfortunately the soil samples were not tested because the consensus of opinion was that contaminates, if present, would be in far too low a concentration to give a positive result. So the overall tests proved nothing and only have more evidence for a natural cause.
Actually, a UFO was reported to us from a woman living in Beckington, near Frome. Over a telephone conversation she told us of a bright ring of lights in the Westbury White Horse direction and said she would gladly fill in a sighting report form, which was immediately dispatched. After three weeks I contacted her and was advised that it had been completed and posted that very morning. About a week later the S. A. E. arrived containing a blank report form and a note saying, “I do not wish to complete the form.” There was no reason given but we did not push the subject and have not contacted her concerning the matter.
Conclusions: After taking into account all the testimonies and factual evidence, we are convinced that the circles can be attributed to funnel cloud/tornado damage. It does seem coincidence that three should appear over a period of twelve weeks and not at any other time, but that may not be the case. Similar events could happen in the very same fields when the crop height is minimal and not leave such marks behind simply because the short stalks would not sway over and break. Secondly, coincidence does exist and is no reason to rule it out. There is no evidence to support the appearance and possible landing of UFOs.
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Although Mrzyglod and PROBE had listened to Meaden, they did not share his conclusion a whirlwind was responsible for the Westbury circles. This encouraged Meaden to correspond with Mrzyglod through the pages of the PROBE Report, vol. 2, issue 1:
Dear Mr. Mrzyglod,
I read with interest your two articles on the Westbury Circles in the PROBE Report, issue Nos. 2 and 3, but I cannot agree with your conclusion that a tornado funnel cloud was responsible on three three separate occasions in the same geographical area in the space of about two months. This is taking coincidence too far, because tornados are very much rarer phenomena than fair-weather whirlwinds. Current statistics show that tornados are reported in Wiltshire only two or three times each decade, whereas hundreds of minor whirlwinds are seen every summer. Moreover, the great majority of tornados rotate anticlockwise, and clockwise-turning ones are extremely rare. Contrary to the Met. Office advice mentioned of page 7 of your second article, weather conditions on 30th July (as on 31st) appeared perfect for summer whirlwind formation. My own Trowbridge weather notes show that good days also occurred in the third week of May and on 20-24th and 27-28th July. Another important point is that whirlwind diameters up to 20 metres (60 feet) are common. I have seen two myself, and I have also seen one with a diameter of 40-50 metres, (‘Weather’ vol. 36, 47-48, 1981). A fuller account of my preference for a whirlwind explanation is given in the Journal of Meteorology, vol. 6, No. 57 (March 1981).
Dr G. T. Meaden. Editor Journal of Meteorology, Cockhill House, Trowbridge, Wiltshire
Meaden’s persistence and theorising ensured he was not to be written off. PROBE invited the professor to comment on the 1981 circles at Cheesefoot Head, Hampshire. It would pave the way for Meaden to become an important player in crop circle research.