Why Cracoe Fell; Part One. David Clarke

cracoeThis account of the extraordinary story of the Cracoe UFO photographs begins on a remote hillside in Yorkshire and ends in furious claims, counter-claims verbal abuse and physical violence!

From Magonia 26, June 1987


I am writing this account as an independent observer of both the main protagonists involved in the birth and demise of the Cracoe, north Yorkshire, UFO case. As a BUFORA investigator in the Yorkshire area I have watched the presentation and propagation of this case by it proponents, the Yorkshire UFO Society, and the counter-investigation by the West Yorkshire UFO Research group. The sequence of events between 1981 and 1987 is so complex that the following can only serve as a summary of the documentation from WYURS’s case file, and from YUFOS’s published case reports, and from their respective magazines, UFO Brigantia and Quest.

The Pennine Hills of northern England have experienced many waves of UFO activity. At least every years since 1973 reports of brilliant lights and glowing disc-shaped objects have emanated from the hills and moorland between the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire, the Yorkshire Dales and the High Peak of north Derbyshire. Two major UFO investigation groups have been active in this area – the Yorkshire UFO Society (YUFOS) founded in 1981 by two investigators from Contact UK, Graham and Mark Birdsall; and the West Yorkshire UFO Reaserch Group founded in 1983 by Nigel Mortimer, a BUFORA investigator.

It was YUFOS who originally investigated the Cracoe sighting and subsequently released a report (the ‘Cracoe File’) giving details of the photo analysis conducted into a series of six photographs taken by wirnesses at the time. According to Mark Birdsall in his report Cracoe: the Evidence published late in 1986,

” … the [Cracoe] incident is one of the most conclusive pieces of evidence regarding the UFO phenomenon ever aquired in the UK”.

On Monday 16 March 1981 a layer of thick cloud covered the Yorkshire Dales at 2000 feet altitude. Although the weather was cool and free from precipitation, it had been raining moderately during the previous week and snow had been noted 24 hours previously. A slight 9 knot wind was blowing, and occasionally the sun broke through the cloud cover for a minute at a time.

Cracoe village is situated a few miles north of the market town of Skipton, surrounded by the fells and valleys of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. ‘Cracoe Fell’ is the name give locally to only one part of a large rock outcrop designated as Rylestone Fell on Ordnance Survey maps, which runs north – south at a height of 1600 feet above sea level. The surrounding area has experienced a lot of UFO activity since the late 1970s, numerous police officers being amongst those reporting incidents, especially around Carleton and Elslack Moors to the south of Skipton.

At approximately 1055 hrs on the morning in question, the wife of a police officer living in a police house in Cracoe village opposite the Fell looked out of the kitchen window and was astonished to see a series of brilliant lights. They were positioned against the Fell loverlooking Cracoe village to the south-east. She immediately called her husband and they watched the brilliant lights for a while, before calling another off-duty police officer. These three witnesses described seeing “up to five distinct white coloured orbs” situated 50 feet below the Fell summit.

They noted that the central light of the formation seemed to be the brightest, as well as a separate ‘blob’ of light to the left of the formation.Through binoculars one of the officers described seeing a “triangular shaped fin” behind the central light, as well as a “long tube shape of white light”. The whole barrage of lights, said to be so bright that on “occasion [he] had to turn his eyes away” was estimated to be 40 feet in diameter. A “distinct haze” was noticible between the lights.” At 1115 hrs. the officers telephoned police sergeant Tony Dodd at Grassington, who at the time was a local UFO investigator although he did not arrive on the scene until the lights had disappeared.

At 1130 hrs. the observers were convinced that a UFO was hovering in the air beside the Fell, and they then proceded to take six 35mm colour photographs of the lights through the open window, one of the shots (the fifth) using a zoom lens. These photographs constitute the main evidence from which the Cracoe controversy has arisen.

During the observation (which lasted one hour) two jets passed over the Fell, once at 1125 hrs and again at 1205 hrs after the lights had disappeared, this time passing low over the spot where they had been. These jets were part of a NATO exercise (in which helicopters were not involved) taking place that morning. However the authorities denied that they had anything to do with the lights.

Another witness saw the lights along with the police. He was Mr D. Carlisle, a Cracoe farmer. Although the police witnesses were convinced that what they saw could not be explained as a natural phenomonon, Carlisle dismissed the lights as sunlight breaking through the clouds on dull days, and reflecting off the millstone grit.

At this stage it would be helpful to give the statements of the three primary witnesses. The first is by PC Derek ingham, made on 21 March 1981:

On Monday March 16th 1981, I was in the kitchen of my house when I saw three bright lights on the rock face. I looked at the lights with my binoculars but was unable to get a clear view, as if I was looking straight at car headlights. The lights were in a line, but there appeared to be a smaller light just to the side of the main light source. I saw a shape at the back of the lights but was unable to make it out. Sometime around 11.30 a.m. two RAF jets flew over the area, first one then another, flying very slowly. there is no water on the rock face to give a reflection, and to the best of my knowledge mo metallic deposits. At around 11.55 a.m. the lights dimmed and became bright on several occasions. I have observed the Fell every day at the same time, the light source has not reappeared. I have also spoken to several village residents who state that they have no knowledge as to what might have caused the lights.

Second is the statement of PC Steve guest, made on 28 March 1981:

Please see account [above] which I totally agree with. I remained in the house during the entire incident until ther lights disappeared. I am a keen amateur photographer and took the pictures between 11.15 a.m. and 11.40 a.m. The lights appeared just below the top of the Fell, they were hovering. The array of lights varied in intensity and after one hour they vanished. there was no concrete shape yet the colour was the same an magnesium lights, they were brilliant. I found the lights unusual because on the Fell (which is very steep) there is nothing to stand the lights on. The terrain makes it impossible to duplicate such an effect.

Finally the statement given to WYURS by the farmer, D. Carlisle on 28 September 1986. His testimony is crucial to the interpretation and explanation of this sighting, but even though he is mentioned in the local police report and in a newspaper story of 1983, YUFOS sted in 1986 that they “rule out the farmer as a vital witness”. It must be noted that between 1981 and 1986, the time when YUFOS investigated and promoted this case, not once did they mention anywhere in their magazine, case reports, or public lectures, that a witness existed who believed the lights to have a mundane explanation.

I was present outside Cracoe Police Station on the 16th March 1981. I observed the lights for not more than 15 minutes. The lights were on Rylestone Fell [note correct term for Cracoe Fell]. People present were Tony Dodd (a police sergeant), D. Ingham (policeman). The weather conditions were overcast with outbreaks of sun. The lights observed were as portrayed in the photographs and in that location. I have seen these lights both before and after on several occasions, as have my wife and sone. The lights appear when the sun shines on the wet surfaces. It does not occur on bright sunny days, only on cloudy days with outbreaks of sun. My attitude towards the UFO phenomenon is one of an open mind and in my opinion and the lights I saw were nothing else than the sun shining on the rocks. On the day in question the lights were stronger than I had seen before. I did not notice any structure whatever behind the lights.



Not once did YUFOS mention anywhere that a witness existed who believed the lights to have a mundane explanation


Although articles relating to the Cracoe case, and naming the witnesses, had appeared in the local paper The Craven Herald following the sightings in 1981, YUFOS did not go public with the case until the summer of 1983 and by this time the officers involved had requested total anonimity (they hoped the case would go no further). YUFOS had the six photographs developed by a ‘police contact’ in Hull. He concluded that they showed “a series of bright lights against the Fell … far brighter than the Fell and surrounding areas”.

Two slides and a negative were then sent for analysis by an expert at Leeds University who suggested that the policemen had been looking at a physical object which was “tilted back towards the Fell face … at an angle of thirty degrees”, and that the blobs of light were on the underside of the object. Slides were sent to contacts in London where the image was enlarged 80 times. Here it was said that the ‘fin’ could be picked out behind the lights. However, nowher in YFOS’s reports is documentary evidence given to back the above conclusions.

By 1982-3 YUFOS had decided to send the photographs to independent analists in America and West Germany, and at the same time work in the Cracoe area was carried out by members of YUFOS’s field investigation team led by Philip Mantle

YUFOS investigators placed markers on the fell, and on instructions from observers in Cracoe village plotted the exact location of the ‘lights’. The team also ruled out the possibility that the lights could have been mom-made (i.e. markers for the NATO exercise) due to the inaccesibility of the steep rock and the fact that the police observed no-one.

In a trip up the adjoining section of the fell in June 1981 Philip Mantle and his team discovered ” … hundreds of dead trees … it looked like a mini version of the Tunguska fireball event.” YUFOS stated that samples of this damage analysed at Leeds University “were found to have been burned by a severe heat source placed quite close for only a few minutes … not consistento to a lightning strike or a normal fire”. No documents were given to back up these claims, and the evidence now at hand indicates that the damage could just as easily have been caused by a forest fire. In their 1986 report YUFOS admit this is the probable explanation for the tree damage. Nevertheless this has been associated with the Cracoe Fell sighting during public lectures given by YUFOS. [Including one given to the 1986 Anglo-French UFO Symposium at Hove, attended by Magonia editors - JR]

By 1983-4 YUFOS had received the results of the analysis carried out by Ground Saucer Watch (GSW) of Arizona, and by the independednt West German researcher Klaus Webner, into the Cracoe case. Although YUFOS have claimed that in particular GSW’s computer techniques lend support to the UFO designation of this case, the facts clearly show that both of these analysts conclude that the photographs do not show a solid object, and that the light was probably caused by some sort of light reflection.

GSW state: “the shape is both irregular and non-symetrical” and that “there is no photographic evidence that the image is structured … computerised data suggests that the AI [anomalous image] is tenuous in nature and is either light producing or light relecting”. They conclude that “there is no evidence that the AIs are ‘objects’ hovering between the witness and the distant hills”, and that explantions of “natural landscape, i.e. limestone rock formations or water reflecting sunlight are plausible … the densitometer readings reveal that the AI is not as bright as the sky, but is contrasted due to the surrounding darker area”. Although computer scans failed to pick out other areas of rock/sunlight reflection on other parts of the rock face, they did find areas of residual snow which could possibly have reflected sunlight.

Webner’s analysis, based mainly on distance factoring, states:

I have found no movement of the light spots, so they must have a stationary source (consitent with a reflection) … I have found no evidence that there was anything in the air between the Cracoe Fell and the witnesses … I have found no evidence of a flying or flyable object … no shot shows the appearance or disappearance.

In the original Cracoe File Mark Birdsall writes that: “It is quite obvious that these results relate very closely to the original analysis offered by GSW, the original police report and the resulting investigation by Tony Dodd”. This statement does not stand up to scrutiny, for the original police report implies that something solid was present and Webner’s (as well as that by GSW to an extent}, does not. None of the analysts picked out a fin or any kind of structure behind the lights.

The GSW alanysis is described as ‘sparse’ in the Cracoe File, and as regards Webner: “using all [his] figures, options and comments, we feel nothing is based on proper scientific analysis”!

One of the reasons for the confusion above is the fact that many of the data supplied by YUFOS to the photo-analysts were inaccurate and misleading. Many of the estimates given, e.g. the distance between the observers and the lights and the estimated diameter of the ‘object’ are contradicted by the photographic analysis. The distance given by the police and cited in the original Cracoe File was three-quarters of a mile: a reference to a map shows the true distance is nearer two miles! (admitted by YUFOS in their 1986 report). Both Webner and GSW conclude that the spot causing the light is very small in surface area. Webner concluded originally that the diameter of the object was under one meter (corrected by YUFOS to five feet taking into account the true distance). YUFOS had concluded that the size of the object was around 40 feet in diameter.

Also contradicted by the GSW analysis is the initial statement by the witnesses that the lights attracted their attention due to their ‘dazzling’ brilliance. GSW conclude that the “AI is not as bright as the sky … the photograph does not support ‘three very intense white lights’” GSW’s discovery that “evidence of snow is obvious” on other sections of the Fell face also contradicts the statement of the YUFOS investigators that no snow or ice was visible on the Fell (however YUFOS add in 1986 that “there was of course the possibility that small snow particles had formed in the cracks of the rock face”)

The case reports released by YUFOS are riddled with similar errors of omission and commision. Both distances and directions given are very vague (no grid reference is given in the original file, and the one given in the 1986 report is inaccurate – the correct map reference approximated by WYURS is GR 965576, sheet SD 85/95), so that a person unfamilar with the Cracoe area would only be able to find the place mentioned with difficulty. YUFOS states over again that the phenomenon was observed on ‘limestone rock’, when in fact it was observed on quartz-bearing millstone crags. All the rocks of the area are basically limestone, but layers of rock at the tops of the fells are composed of resistant caps of millstone grit. This rock glistens when wet (it had been raining several days previous to the sighting), and is known to retain moisture for length periods.

Despite all these inconsistencies YUFOS conclude ” … there is certainly a great deal of evidence both scientific and circumstantial which supports the UFO theory … YUFOS feel that information … at least partly supports the structured image theory”. Clearly, these statements are nonsense. None of the independent scientific analyses found any ‘structure’ behind the lights or any evidence that the lights were three-dimensional.

Nevertheless, in the summer of 1983 the story was carried by the local and national press as confirmed evidence of UFOs in the Yorkshire Dales. At one point YUFOS were offered £500 by the Mail on Sunday to admit that the photographs showed ‘aliens from space’. Although YUFOS admitted that ‘they didn’t disagree with this’, to their credit they refused the offer.

During the burst of publicity surrounding the photographs those who had perhaps been convinced by YUFOS’s statements might have missed a small item which appeared in the Skipton newspaper, the Craven Herald on 2 September 1983. This was a report on the beliefs of the Cracoe farmer, D. Carlisle.:

Reports that a shiny object on Cracoe Fell was conclusive proof of alien visitors to earth have been dismisses as ‘rubbish’ by a local farmer. Mr D. Carlisle said the phenomenon often occurred on dull days when the sun caught rocks on the fell. “It’s quite spectacular, but that’s all there is to it”, he explained.

Although YUFOS had not mentioned this item in their reports of the case prior ro 1986, it was obtained by Nigel Mortimer of WYURS, through the usual press-cutting channels shortly afterwards. He decided to look into the sighting on behalf of BUFORA, WYURS and NUFON, and contacted Mr Carlisle for his story. The farmer confirmed his belief that the lights were a reflection, and his story has never changed from that interpretation.

Nigel also visited Cracoe Fell and saw unusual shimmering light reflections caused by the lights of Threshfield Quarry opposite. He soon ruled these out as the explanation (they were never turned on during the day) although it did demonstrate that unusual reflections could be observed in the area. However, in 1986 Mark Birdsall maintained that YUFOS investigators had visited the area more that 90 times and over 600 slides had been taken, but “no unusual light reflections of any kind were observed even in bright sunlight”.

Throughout the period 1983 – 1986 YUFOS lectured widely, claiming the photographs showed a UFO, and used them to boost their status within ufology and their claims to ‘Britain’s leading UFO publication’.

Continued in part two >>>


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