We were drawn by the mystery. It was a journey not so much into a forest, but into the very fabric of our psyches. Yes, forest there was, but it was the unseen that called to us.
From the depths of time and space it beckoned us on a two-and-a-half-hour journey from the gentle Chilterns to the golden, barleyed plains of Suffolk. And there we marvelled at what might have been, and what might yet be.
Answers? No, we did not seek them, nor did we chance upon them. We were guided by the great Truth, which tells us that it is through ever-wider questioning that we grow our understanding, rather than in answers that diminish the landscapes of our curiosity.
You may ask, this place, this Rendlesham, what can it possibly teach us of eternity? It is a splendid forest, for sure, though managed and tamed for the enjoyment of the public and the economic good of the nation.
Still, why this one?
There are plenty of forests. We have a small one just across the road. So why trek boldly on a close day to an unremarkable tract of pine and oak on the far side of London?
Jung would have nodded sagely. John Michell would have smiled indulgently. Velikovsky may have shrugged.
For we were called by the mystery of life from the far reaches of the Universe. The ever-present nagging notion that we are not alone. The certainty that only arrogance separates us from the dust of time.
Rendlesham, you see, is Britain’s Roswell. A place of pilgrimage for Ufologists and denizens of the conspirasphere. Here, at Christmas some 35 years ago, something, or someone, or both, came down to Earth from the heavens and left traces that linger, begging questions that yield only contradictions and more questions.
It was seen by USAF servicemen from the neighbouring RAF base. Not once, but twice, on successive nights, and they had Geiger counters.
But when reporters and inquisitive alien-seekers asked awkward questions, stories changed, files disappeared and platitudes abounded. It was probably a lighthouse, or freak weather, or cars, or something. They said.
So, like Roswell, Rendlesham remains a mystery. A proper, gold-plated, covered-up, spooked and provocative mess of possibility and frisson.
How could we resist?
When you go there, there’s a Forest Centre. A large group of people were having a family day out when we arrived, involving barbecues and a riotous tug-of-war competition. It dimmed the intrigue somewhat, but it looked fun.
The Forestry Commission is one authority which has not sought to deny the mystery and has, in fact, created a UFO trail through the forest. It marks the key points where the events of Christmas 1980 unfolded. And, it’s a lovely walk.
Off we set.
Rendlesham Forest is not a wild place. The paths are broad, many of them specially prepared for fun family cycling. Entering the forest at the start of the UFO Trail, the raucous tugging-of-war and flustered nagging of parents shepherding youngsters on bikes did their best to undermine the moment.
They didn’t though.
We – the daughter, the boyfriend (hers, not mine) and I – strode hurriedly down the wide dusty path in search of the first clue.
Our way was thoughtfully marked by alien signposts, each bearing a Greek or mathematical symbol. Had we noticed sooner, we may have pieced together the meaning of the symbols, but we missed a few.
As we got further into the forest, the more prosaic sounds of happy family life receded. Trees are nature’s baffles and we were soon treading paths where encounters with others were rare.
But then, new sounds began to find us.
Hard, mechanistic sounds, whining and screeching through the woodland. Was this some unsubtle attempt to spook us by the Forestry Commission? Or were we to witness the final chapter of the Rendlesham story? Was this to be a Close Encounter Of The Fourth Kind?
Actually, it was a track day at Woodbridge airbase. As we approached the first information point on the trail, we could see through the big steel gates through which the Americans must have scurried on that chill December night.
A couple of hundred yards beyond the gates, muscle-bound saloon cars and hatchbacks were speeding and drifting, with howls of acceleration and the screams of tyres forced into shapes they never expected to make.
Still, here we were, by a big noticeboard that gave an account of the first part of the Rendlesham story.
I’m not going to tell it here. It’s pretty well told on the website about the incident and I first heard about it through Fortean Times. Jenny Randles’ accounts of her attempts to get answers about the incident are particularly intriguing.
Let’s just say that we did our best to picture the scene. Two USAF men, detailed to investigate reports of strange lights, stepping out into the cold with torches. They probably weren’t too scared; mainly curious, or perhaps just annoyed at having to head out into the forbiddingly still forest when they should have been getting ready for bed, or another whisky or two.
Because, in fairness, any forest can be a little scary in the still of the night. Even the forest over the road.
We dutifully read the board and moved on, guided by the alien markers.
Our next destination lay across the road from the airbase. We were now heading into the part of the forest where whatever happened, happened.
We laughed and joked, and posed for silly pictures by the alien signs, but somehow, we all knew our over-brightness was tempered with a quailing uncertainty. What DID happen? And why shouldn’t it happen again?
I strolled ahead of the others, pondering the nature of these things. Since the Cold War, RAF Woodbridge has been split up as a base and is used by the RAF for training. And is let out for track days too, obviously. The USAF has long gone.
But that’s just what they’d WANT you to think, isn’t it?
Was it just the end of the Cold War that marked the standing down of this previously active airbase? Or was Rendlesham a near miss, a too public exposure of the real purpose of the facility that set newshounds, conspiracy theorists and Ufologists on the scent?
Perhaps they were testing some weird science-fictionesque new war machine. Or perhaps Rendlesham was a portal for the aliens who visit us constantly. That night, something went wrong and the cover was almost disastrously blown. The portal, having moved from Roswell to Rendlesham, had to be relocated again.
Almost certainly, they moved it to the place where they’ve just refurbished the water tower at Christmas Common, near us. Definitely. That’s what it is.
Anyway, as these thoughts wandered through my mind, another nagging sense of something began to emerge. Just because Woodbridge was no longer active, the paranoia of those in the know would not have simply gone away. Surely, they would have to maintain some kind of watch. Were we, even now, appearing on CCTV monitors in those carefully-battered buildings behind the fence?
Or worse still, could we expect an encounter with the Men In Black?
We would, of course, never know.
We pressed on, past footprints that were probably just those of a deer, probably. Most likely.
And then, we found it. There, just where the alien craft described by the USAF men was seen, was a reasonably impressive replica, built to match their description.
Two things occurred to me:
i) If you wanted to hide an alien craft, what better way to do it than passing it off as a replica?
ii) It IS weird that while other trees have flourished round the clearing, this clearing, and others, have been strangely unwelcoming to new growth. Probably they don’t get enough sun, I expect.
From here, the aliens direct you to a picnic table by a fence overlooking an open field. Here, the reports say, witnesses saw a pillar of yellow mist, which then appeared to transform into an eye-like shape.
Of course it did, you scoff sarcastically.
They were probably too locked into their imaginations to see it for what it really was.
Maybe they were. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there when they saw the Loch Ness Monster either, but when you GO to Loch Ness, it’s a darned weird place. Flat, only gently shimmering; if something broke the surface, you couldn’t possibly miss it.
It was the same here, in a different way. This open field is very open, and you have a line of trees on the other side to define the shape of anything in or floating just above the field. Whatever the mist was, part of me is glad I didn’t see it. There was definitely something a bit odd about that field.
The last point on the trail is little more than a summing up, with a few extra details about screams and frenzied cattle. We strolled on, well satisfied with our three-mile journey into the unexplained.
And then there were two silver lights shining at us from the end of the path. They didn’t move, but they shone brightly, even though it was a sunny four o’clock.
Were these the MIBs?
Obviously not, otherwise I wouldn’t have remembered them. Actually, it was the sun shining on the windscreen of a car in the camping site over the road at the end of the path. Though it was definitely two lights.
Back at our car, the tug-of-war was still in full haul. Beer called to us across the tree tops, from the most excellent and dog-friendly King’s Head in Orford. And we got back in time for fish and chips.
So, we saw no aliens. As far as we know.
But the point of Rendlesham is that we don’t know. The most likely explanation for the so-called cover-up is that nobody knows, but what can they do? if they say nothing, we speculate like mad. If they tell us the truth, saying they don’t know what happened, well then we still speculate like mad, but with the added intrigue of the whole thing being officially unexplained.
And this is why things like Rendlesham, and Stonehenge, and Loch Ness still fire our imaginations. We live in a world of arrogant certainty, where imagination is marginalised. Worse, it’s analysed. The most flimsy research is taken as Truth, because we can’t accept anything that does not fit into our narrow set of measuring tools.
But this dull, mechanistic approach to life is at odds with our daily experience. All of us have stories of unaccountable things to tell, from humble coincidences, to really strange experiences that just don’t fit.
And there ARE times before we go to sleep when the questions run too deep for such simple folk.
Golf is said to be a nice walk ruined, which is a bit harsh really. Rendlesham is a nice walk enriched by a frisson of mystery, tastefully and respectfully honoured by the Forestry Commission. They are to be commended for not making fun of it, but making it fun.
That’s it, I think. I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything.
But then again, how would I know?