Valley Optics or Valley Fever: UFOs, Watchers and Sibyls
Visions, visibility, seeing things is built-in to the physical and psychic landscape of these valley towns. There’s an optics at work, an optics of the overlook, the oversee; the watchers and the watched. Maybe it’s something to do with how the light moves (or doesn’t) in a steep-sided valley. Optics aren’t all about clarity. Clear distinctions are useful (e.g. built v natural structures) so long as they don’t obscure the blurred edges, the conceptual run-off. Todmorden’s a border town, a place in-between; a hybrid creature of here and there. When someone in Todmorden answers with “I see”, it sounds loaded, like a hidden question. There’s an undertow, an ambiguity, a space for doubt and doubling of meaning. Seeing has its flip-side; not-seeing, hidden, occulted. Is valley optics a hidden question of place?
Seen from London, the centre of power, the hills and valleys of the Yorkshire-Lancashire border were always inaccessible, ungovernable due to the terrain and a fear of the kind of inhabitants it spawned - savages, heathens, Papists, recusants and witches. Even today, there’s a remoteness. It’s easy to get lost, especially when you’re coming-up or coming-down from the moors – a realm known as ‘the tops’. Here, people orient themselves around an ancient vertical axis; a sort of bucolic Ballardian landscape, where worlds are stacked in layers and time moves differently in each. Sticky valley bottom has always been conjured as a dark and fetid swamp, unpassable until the 1770s when the first turnpike road arrived. Mobility was a thing of ‘the tops’, the high land and its web of ancient packhorse routes. Resources and productivity became concentrated on the high ground. Property prices rise with the gradient and ‘the tops’ still reverberate with tradition and old money. Medieval lords claimed the moors as deer parks, exclusive hunting grounds. Today, locals battle to ban the sale of ‘sporting rights’ to grouse moors. On a clear day, you can see the smoke as corporate wealth enacts a ritual burning of growth in hope of a summer slaughter. Meanwhile, a deluge of floodwater returns the valley to its ancestral swamp.
A slow road runs through the bottom of the valley, the A646. Traffic claws its way along to Cliviger while hills rise and mutate, from soft shouldered slopes to the looming cliff faces of steep ravines. The road feels tight, like a double-stitched seam, grappling with tension, struggling to hold together the valley’s fault lines. It was on the A646 in November 1980 that PC Alan Godfrey, on the look-out for a missing herd of cows, had his journey interrupted – by the presence of a diamond shaped UFO in the middle of the road.
Alan’s story is known internationally. One could say it’s ‘canonical’, recognised as credible. In 1980 he was a serving police constable coming to the end of his night shift or watch; a term that evokes the origin of policing in ‘watchmen’. Alan’s job was to keep an eye out, observe, record and testify to what he saw; so, he picked up a pen and drew a likeness of the craft before him.
I was a teenager when the story broke. For me, the idea of an alien craft in Todmorden, or any of the valley towns, felt incongruous, alien. ‘This doesn’t happen here.’ Or, does it? A Manchester UFO Research Association contacted Alan and from them he learned of multiple sightings in small West Yorkshire and East Lancashire towns. There’s a crazy statistic: between 1947 and 2001, 73% of all alien contact reported in the Pennines occurred within 10 miles of Todmorden. These hills were teeming with different intelligences, encountered mainly in the hours between dusk and dawn; heralded by lights, sounds, atmospheric disturbances and lost time.
Writing 40 years after Alan’s encounter I feel there’s a strong congruity between our skyline and other worlds. Traversing the vertical I frequently enter a different world. I’m high-up on top of a hill but there’s higher ground above, the moorland. As I climb the light changes and I enter a different weather zone. I move up into roaring wind or into silence. I stand on the moor and watch rain falling some distance away while I stand on dry ground. From the tops the view introduces a different scale and reflections on my place within it. It’s the high-ground of Romanticism, the sublime, the numinous.
There’s a sense of this in the Panopticons project; a series of public sculptures placed at high points on the moors as 21st century landmarks. The Atom, The Halo and The Singing Ringing Tree provide eerie upland encounters. The Singing Ringing Tree, a sound sculpture high above Burnley, attracts a thin procession of people struggling against high winds to be deafened by its cries. The Tree is best experienced in high winds when its acoustic force rings out over the moors like the legendary sound of howling dogs associated with Gabriel Ratchets, a spectral wild hunt and harbinger of death. On my last visit, I noticed empty bullet cartridges scattered nearby and remembered this place was an RAF decoy site during the Second World War; fires were lit to charm the bombs away from engineering factories. The empty cartridges also conjured an image of someone firing a shotgun at this powerful, metal intruder in a scene that has yet to be written for a lo-fi Northern sci-fi about sentient public art.
The 21st century art project was focussed on spectacular viewing sites. Any connection to the Panopticon as a system of control by surveillance is tellingly absent from the information boards. The Panopticon was proposed as an 18th century model prison, designed around a central observation tower within a circle of cells. It’s an arrangement whereby the occupants of the cells never know if they are being watched. They never know if there’s a watcher in the tower. The mechanism itself has agency. An architecture of power, reaching into their skulls, instilling a consciousness of visibility. I sometimes wonder if the artists
worked with the surveillance implications of their Panopticons.
The Halo and Singing Ringing Tree can be seen for miles and seem to interact with or call-out to invisible intelligences. In contrast the Atom is more discrete. It allows you to hide within, look out, and oversee the land around Pendle Hill. But your place as the watcher is constantly challenged by the stream of visitors seeking refuge from the wind; eventually, you feel herded like sheep in a futuristic pen, awaiting an unknown shepherd.
Todmorden straddles the shifting border between West Yorkshire and East Lancashire. As such it witnessed the birth of the textile industry and the emergence of a new architecture of power, the factory system. The factory brought with it a new time – factory time and the notion of ‘lost time’ that workers had to make-up. Many of the first public clocks in these towns were erected by factory owners. Eventually horns were used, ringing out like angry bells, signalling the start or finish of a shift; a Gabriel Ratchets of capitalist production.
Todmorden factory owner, John Fielden, led a campaign to reduce the hours worked by children in the textile factories. In his pamphlet, The Curse of the Factory System (1836) he points to a landscape he knew well, suggesting its implication in the abuse of young apprentice boys sent to work in the mills. The northern counties, he says, and their many “beautiful, Romantic valleys” were “secluded from the public eye” and “became the dismal solitudes of torture.” Hidden factories in which practices fell beneath the threshold of public notice were themselves structured around a hierarchy of vision – overseers managed the day-to-day running of the mills, and an army of overlookers focussed on machine processes. Looking, seeing (not glancing) was skilled work, separate from that of ordinary factory hands. There was a discipline and specificity to looking.
I recall this language from my childhood and the image of textile factories it conjured: eyes on stalks, overlooking a myriad of processes. The complex optics of machine watching within the textile factories was a political force – looking became heavily unionised. Did agents of the state keep an eye on the Union of Overlookers? This specific dynamic between watcher and watched mutated, becoming the object of multiple new gazes when the mills were transformed into heritage objects in the 1980s.
A new strata of optic-relations was in formation. It ushered in a new designation, we were ‘former towns’, strung out across the Pennines like ageing beauty queens – former textile towns, our best days far behind us. Attempts were made to stem the tide, hold back the swell of memories and ruins. The last gasp of the Fielden empire was a switch from cotton to plastics. They won the UK rights to manufacture a Finnish Futuro House and went into production at Waterside Mill.
This image shows the Futuro being transported from the Mill to the town centre, where it functioned as a ticket office for Todmorden’s civic celebrations 1971. The Futuro was implicated in Alan Godfrey’s encounter, with some saying this space-age house had worked its way into his subconscious, stained his retina and seared itself upon his brain. This, they said, was the origin of the thing he saw on that November night in 1980. Alan isn’t convinced, and it seems likely if he’d seen the Futuro being driven down the Burnley Road at that time in the night his suspicions would have turned to theft rather than something so inexplicable he had to pick-up a pen and draw it. But, there’s a mystery surrounding what happened to Todmorden’s 2, possibly 3 Futuro Houses – they’re still missing. Were they abducted?
In Todmorden, the Futuro didn’t happen. It was a bold shot at something ‘modern’, something post-cotton, post-work. Something European. The old photographs and TV footage evoke a kind of kitchen sink futurism of leather-patched elbows and somewhere to do the ironing. Something about it feels English. Like an 18th century Grand Tour but skewed, rendered strange or simply more honest than the first time around. Romantics went to Europe to paint the grandeur of the Alps, capture the sublime ruins of a Classical past. Pick-up something portable and Greco-Roman for a snip. In the 70s, sensing the onset of a new world economic order, Waterside plastics brought back a future relic, a Finnish ski chalet; a leisure home resting in a Northern town during the winter of discontent. Maybe valley optics is just a desire to see something beyond the valley? Something less weighty than the past. In the 70s and 80s, the popular past was inoffensive and familiar. I recall the birth of steeplejack Fred Dibnah as a TV presence. A soft-scoop Hobgoblin demolishing factory chimneys one week, restoring steam engines the next. A trixy creature of common-sense and detonations, perched high on the horizon with his cameraman, Martin Lightening.
In Alan Godfrey’s book, I recall him saying he’d watched Star Warswith his kids (1977, 1980). He didn’t express an opinion on the films or say whether his kids had the branded toys. I think mention of the films was part of his dismissing the idea of a Futuro influence in what he saw. I’m not sure if he’s into Sci Fi or if he’s seen Todmorden’s encounter film The Watchers (1969).
The Watchers is a one-off, a student production from The Royal College of Art, made with a non-professional crew. Despite this, its soundtrack and visual effects stand-up. Filmed on location, mainly on the moors above Todmorden, the alien presence is seen in glimpses; a delirium of light leaks and haloes. It was a project made possible by the BFI’s Production Board, a funding stream which replaced the Experimental Film Board in 1964 as a mechanism for backing non-commercial, weird films. Forgotten for decades, the film gained a new audience via the BFI Player online, and by its use in Paul Wright’s Arcadia (2017), which made use of ‘Julie’s Song’, a chant heard during the lead character’s encounter with the alien.
The film’s a strange and compelling mix. It’s an eerie tale of teenage sexual awakening told through the prism of landscape, kitchen sink realism, Old Testament prophecies and science fiction. Here, ‘teenage sexual awakening’ is shot through with horror; in the act and its acceptance. The weirdness kicks in early, with a picnic up on the moor at one of the many groups of strangely shaped stones above Todmorden.It's difficult to tell which stones they are. It's tempting to say it's Bridestones but I know that’s not the case. Tempting because I remember the ‘Bride’ stone was known as the ‘alien’s head’ in the 1980s. As Julie unpacks picnic food the camera looks-up, following the gradient of the land. It lingers on the point where 60s mini-dress meets the tops of her thighs. She’s the sexual centre of the film and as it progresses we see her hunted by something from above. Until the story’s denouement, it seems the only thing hunting her is the camera.
There’s a strong paranormal thread in the film. At the picnic Julie’s anxious about spilled salt bringing bad luck and within minutes she has a ‘vision’; she encounters a child and watches it become encircled in light then disappear. Later, her school friend mentions a palm reader at the fairground foretelling a pregnancy. We hear Julie’s frenetic internal dialogue; a voice over where she struggles to restrain what she believes are telekinetic powers and a claim that ‘I can fill this little room with ghosts if I want to.’ Her sense that something’s happening peaks as she exits a local shop, her arms filled with bread and fruit. It’s at this point she literally starts to lose her shit as groceries slip from her arms, roll into the road and the film’s tempo moves-up a gear. From above we see her running, terrified and looking-up – at the camera, at us.
Before we see the alien, we follow a scenic bus journey across the moor as Julie and her mother visit grandma’s house. The bus looks small, inconsequential as it moves through the vastness of the landscape. Grandma’s house is a stone cottage where the women sit in silence and Julie looks through an album of family photographs, births, marriages, deaths. Visually, this scenic interlude echoes forward to the photographs of rural isolation captured in Martin Parr’s collection Non-Conformists (1975). The return bus journey however has very different echoes. We see panoramic views of the moors and hear Julie’s voice recalling a dream-like event. Walking through tall grass on a summer’s day she encounters four flat stones and after digging the earth away discovers they’re the bases of statues buried upside down. Unearthed, she forms them into a circle. This ring of “old gods” fall inwards, trapping her. She survives this entombment and pushes the statues away but where each one hits the earth a tree grows and begins to burn. Julie cries out, ‘don’t let the trees burn, burn me instead’. A ring of fire surrounds her, then gathers beneath her feet into a blue flame that lifts her into the sky.
For me, this motif of death followed by resurrection and bodily ascension resonates loudly with Catholicism, especially the Assumption of the Virgin. In the middle ages, the Feast of the Assumption, August 15th, also known as Lady Day in Harvest, was a time of fairs and celebrations. Processions would carry statues of the Virgin and re-enact her burial and bodily ascension. Indeed, it’s still common in Catholic communities to build huge bonfires on August 15th. Renaissance depictions of the Assumption are some of the most bizarre images in European art. Check-out Correggio’s fresco in Parma and Botticini’s masterpiece. Allusions to the Virgin continue to the end of the film, when the Martin Parr image of rural isolation reveals its dark Gothic heart and twists into a Shirley Jackson novel.
The bus trundles across the pitch-dark moors, isolated, vulnerable. Its inhabitants are tired, fractious. It’s striking there are two Catholic nuns on the bus and their head coverings are medieval in style. Suddenly, the bus jolts to a stop in what seems like a crash or explosion – a flash of bright light. Passengers are seen fleeing the bus in panic. Bodies leap from the vehicle into darkness. Their panic shifts into a trance-like state as they see the alien. Liturgical chanting begins and a nun kneels before Julie in what can only be described as
The Annunciation of the Virgin, preparation for the moment when angelic forces mediate her insemination with the ‘Christ’ child. There’s a procession to another stone site.
Botticini, Assumption, 1470
Correggio, Assumption, c1530
This time it’s the appropriately named Bridestones, where the sequence culminates in the ‘event’. This encounter is represented by shadows crossing Julie’s face, heavy breathing and a strange clicking sound. The procession starts-up again and we see Julie lying naked on the moor. People return to the bus and Julie arrives fully clothed as a solo voice sings “the master’s mantel falleth on the virgin’s shoulders, a child of the earth will bear a child of light.” It’s daybreak and the bus drives back down to the valley.
Annunciation imagery, says poet Mary Szybist, seeks to ‘reinforce a vision that a transformative encounter between two radically different kinds of being is possible …’ The possibility of such encounters has long been a source of dark visions, cultural fault-lines and phantasy. The ‘watchers’ are a reference to early Hebrew texts, especially the apocryphal book of Enoch. Watchers were angelic beings who lusted after the daughters of Eve and begat monsters. Encounters with the other or between ‘others’ is central to the race phantasies of galactic sex tourism and ancient aliens, which gained a popular audience in the 1970s, following the 1968 publication of von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods. In Western culture, Enoch is also interwoven with the occult. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn developed a system of Enochian Magik, drawing on the ‘angelic language’ of Elizabethan philosopher-alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley. Their angelic language was divined by encounters with radically different beings, accessed by means of scrying, seeing, peeping, along with mediumistic possession and speaking in tongues.
The final scenes of the film prefigure events in Alan Godfrey’s encounter. A routine journey is interrupted, there’s a bright light, they leave their vehicle and come face-to-face with something not of their world. There’s a sense of lost time and they return to their vehicle, start the engine. go home. The film ends at this point but Alan recovered his lost time under hypnosis and his story became one of abduction, medical examination aboard the UFO. Alan’s sceptical of the memories recovered under hypnosis. Abduction stories had solidified into their familiar shape long before 1980. The first popular media account was Betty and Barney Hill, an American couple abducted in 1961. The best-selling book detailing their experience was published in 1966, The Interrupted Journeyby John G Fuller.
A complete account of Alan’s experience is provided in his book Who or What Were They?(2017), and he talks of reading Interrupted Journey. There are unexpected elements in Alan’s account of his time on the craft, the presence of a tall humanoid in Biblical robes named Joseph/Yusef and a big black dog. The memories he didn’t know he had feel at once futuristic, historical and domestic. In Todmorden, even the space of abduction is messy, a collage or cut-up. It doesn’t look how you expect it to.
Whenever friends visit from London, and we walk on ‘the tops’, they always imagine this landscape as somewhere other than here, like its presence off the A646 is somehow wrong. In Summer, they say ‘it couldbe France’; in Winter, ‘it looks like Siberia’. It’s a place foreign to them. A faraway place, a fragment out-of-place. Is valley optics a kind of misplaced seeing? Seeing here and there at the same time?
Misplaced seeing seems to fit with a popular Todmorden legend, Lady Sybil the witch of Bernshaw Tower. I’ve always warmed to the idea of a Classical prophetess, an oracle on a crag above a Northern town; a misplaced seer. Like many legends, Lady Sybil is the outcome of a collective storytelling that stretches across time, like a procession. It's a cairn that must be added to by all who pass; part game, part need to repeat – a rhythm or reflex. Eagles Crag is an outcrop of rock above Lydgate; a site where a witch and a spectral huntsman re-enact their doomed relationship each year on the Eve of All Hallows. The hunt is a journey that ends with death. In this case Sybil is the one hunted. It’s a story of cyclical return, and the legend has it that Sybil is buried here, so it’s also a grave site. This specific association with place, a high, rocky outcrop, and return, suggests pre-Christian origins. A supernatural feminine power, like the Celtic hag/witch/goddess Cailleach who returns on Samhain to rule the winter but is driven-out by Bride or Bridget at Beltane - May Day. Eagles Crag is perched on the opposite side of the valley to Bridestones. Could there be a conversation going on here?
The story as we have it comes from 19th century written accounts. Known locations are mentioned, Bernshaw, Hapton Tower and Cliviger Mill, but the name Sybil and that of her huntsman, Lord William, have no relation to the places mentioned. William is presented as a Towneley, one of the leading Catholic families in Lancashire. The family can be linked to Bernshaw and Hapton Tower but there is no William who fits the time frame. The joining of a witch and local Catholic gentry hints at the content of the written accounts – the Pendle witch trials of 1612 and 1633/4. The ‘old religion’ that panicked 16th-17th century authorities wasn’t so much Paganism as remnants of medieval Catholicism.
19th century accounts have Sybil ‘panting for communion with demigods and immortals’. She gets her wish and gives herself to the Devil on Eagles Crag. William knowingly pursues the witch and recruits mother Helston, another witch, to help (he’s a Catholic so he’s consorting with witchcraft - naturally). Next, he literally ‘hunts’ Sybil with dogs (witch hunt) while she’s in the form of a ‘milk white doe’ (Catholic legend of Bolton Abbey and the Rising of the North). At the point where he may lose her a large, ragged black dog appears and joins the hunt (mother Helston). Saved by this new magical energy, he throws a silken halter around the doe’s neck and leads her back to Hapton Tower. She renounces the devil, marries William, but a year later she’s back to her old ways. At this point Robin enters the picture; a stable-boy, groom, servant at Cliviger Mill who has a track record in defeating witches. One night he fights off a fury of cats and cuts off the paw of one. Next morning the paw’s a woman’s hand bearing a distinctive ring – he takes the severed hand to Hapton Tower and William recognises it. Sybil magically re-attaches her hand but she’s doomed and despite protestations the devil takes her.
Eagles Crag 1906, With permission, Todmorden Album.
These are the bones of the story. In some versions Robin has a rich backstory with his exploits at Cliviger Mill. The mill owner harbours a witch for a wife and she rises before dawn to ride a horse to the witches Sabbath, at Malkin Tower in Pendle Forest. She exhausts the horse and Robin’s master forbids the wife to ride again. Robin attempts to block the woman but she tricks him, throws a magic bridle over him, turning him into a horse and riding him to Pendle. On the return journey, he tricks her with the bridle and rides her back to Cliviger. His master removes the bridle and sees the horse become his wife. In gratitude, he leaves the mill to Robin. These stories are lifted, almost verbatim from a play, The Late Lancashire Witches (1634) by Heywood & Brome; performed in London as the witches and their accuser, a boy named Edmund Robinson, were questioned by King Charles. The magic bridle is mentioned in Edmund’s testimony, but the miller, Robin the groom and the severed hand are added by the playwrights.
Statue of Peeping Tom, survived the Blitz in Coventry, Coventry Society
It’s a bawdy production and much is made of the gender, sexual and class inversions central to witch panics: a mistress rides a servant, the servant rides his masters wife, he also takes the hand of a noblewoman by force. It’s a world where men don’t control their wives or households; boundaries are all porous. The bawdiness and sexual energy of the play introduces an element that finds an echo in the pub directly beneath Eagles Crag. Today it’s known as The Staff of Life but its original name in the 1840s was The Peeping Tom of Coventry. Like Sybil, Lady Godiva gained literary popularity in the 19thcentury, notably in Tennyson’s poem (1859). The legend dates to the 11th century, Tom the tailor who peeped at the naked Lady is a later 17th century addition. The appearance of Peeping Tom below Eagles Crag is a fragment, out of place but feeding on the resonance of a story about noblewomen crossing boundaries, leaving themselves open to gossip, accusation.
The witch trial of 1633/4 was based on things a boy said he heard and saw. Edmund recanted, admitting he made up the story, because he was sent out to bring the cows in but lost track of time and feared his father’s wrath. He’d grown-up on tales of the Pendle witches (1612). Spinning a tale of witchcraft was as easy as breathing. The link between Pendle and the land from Lydgate to Cliviger seems to be forged in the 19thcentury. In one tale, there’s a sighting of Loynd’s wife, a real-life victim of the child witch-finder. She takes flight from Eagles Crag, claimed by some to have another name ‘the witches horse block’. Interestingly, the most popular Romance novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth, failed to mention Sybil or William in his epic The Lancashire Witches (1848) a fiction drawn from the 1612 trial. There’s a lengthy scene where a character rides from Todmorden to Pendle, at night. He’s forced to endure a passage through the rocky, savage lands of Lydgate ad the Cliviger Gorge.
He makes no mention of Eagles Crag but describes strange shaped rocks up above, one precipice with stones piled like a column on which a female figure stood, warning him to go back. A while later she blocks his way across a high precipice and he recognises her as a witch of Pendle; one with prophetic powers, come to warn him that Demdyke clan are waiting to rob him. Eventually, he escapes, but leaves Robin, his beloved horse, and rides on a broom with the witch to Malkin Tower.
Like The Watchers, Sybil spins out in all directions, different places stacked in layers. Echoes of ancient Gods, witchcraft, Catholicism, and sexual encounters with other beings. The Sybil story as we have it reeks of Romanticism and its refashioning of brutal histories, crusades, witch-hunts. Harrison Ainsworth, like the early folktale collectors who re-work the Pendle witch trials weren’t Lordly Romantics and it’s doubtful they ever visited Eagles Crag. Their idea of place was taken from antiquarian and topographer T D Whitaker, a resident of Cliviger. Again, Whitaker makes no mention of Eagles Crag or Sybil in his 1801 text. Interestingly, Ainsworth and the folklore collectors all follow Whitaker in referring to these hills as the English Apennines; a naming of here by reference to there, i.e. the Italian Apennines.
This was the standard way of naming the Pennines at the time. I can’t say what name was used by labouring people in the valley, but gentlemen, like Whitaker and his friends and neighbours Charles Towneley and Robert Lister Parker, knew the Classics and knew Italy very well. In describing his character’s journey through
the wilds of Todmorden and Cliviger, Harrison Ainsworth presents a sense of the Italian Apennines and Monte Sibilla, a wilder and more significant place than here, and one his readership knew. He doesn’t name the witch as Sybil but the image of her standing on a precipice in the Apennines, alongside rocks in the shape of a column – screams Sybil. He describes the light and colour of the scene as like something from ‘savage Rosa’ (Salvatore Rosa, 17th century painter of wild, sublime landscapes). A famous work by Rosa is River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sybil. Is Ainsworth’s veiled reference the basis for the Sybiline association? Or is there an earlier mention?
Whatever the roots of the association between Eagles Crag and a feminine, prophetic presence, we need to recognise who told the tale we know today; educated men of the 18th and 19thcentury. There’s every chance Ainsworth took a train through the valley but his knowledge of the topography comes from Whitaker’s text – zhuzhed-up with allusions to somewhere far away. Maybe valley optics is a way of seeing place as something always framed by multiple lenses, a glossolalia of different voices, some more dominant – like the dubious case of multiple personality disorder uncovered during hypnosis in Sybil (1973) by Flora Rheta Schreiber ...