In the early 1960s British ufologists were much concerned about mysterious craters which appeared in various parts of the country. Alan Sharp, a keen amateur astronomer and geologist, was convinced that they were all natural formations and had nothing to do with flying saucers.
This article appeared in the Merseyside UFO Research Group Newsletter No. 2, June 1965.
The following article was specially written for the Newsletter. Some of the suggestions contained in it were referred to very briefly in the March-April Flying Saucer Review, but here you will have an opportunity to study them in greater detail. The article does not necessarily reflect MUFORG policy.
During the vast span of geological time, the forces of nature have caused holes to appear on the Earth’s surface, varying in size from minor cracks and crevices to rift valleys and volcanic craters. Generally speaking, the term “crater” is reserved for such of these holes as have a certain regularity of shape, i.e. are more or less circular or oval in plan rather than linear or sub-linear.
In geologically very recent times indeed, man has added craters of his own making to those of natural origin, the former being classified as artificial and being due to such things as the use of explosives, mining subsidence and the occasional descent to ground level of Earth satellite fragments, rockets, etc. From such considerations, a start can be made on a table of crater classification:
- A. NATURAL
1. Natural impact
2. Natural explosion
3. Natural subsidence
- B. ARTIFICIAL
4. Artificial impact
5. Artificial explosion
6. Artificial subsidence
Grouping these into classes, we have the following causative agencies:
2. (a) Volcanic explosions (b) Lightning
3. (a) Volcanic subsidence
(b) Collapse of cavities of subterranean erosion, the burrows of animals, caves and similar voids
4. Artificial meteorites
5. Bombs, shells, blasting
6. Mining and tunnelling. Excavation generally, if of crater form
In addition to these, one must add the strange human category collectively known as the “hoax”, which may be subdivided into the hoax for amusement, the hoax malicious and the hoax for gain, not to mention sundry disturbances of the soil which scarcely merit the appellation crater.
Bearing this classification in mind, it becomes immediately apparent that many UFO craters fall into the latter category and should not be described as craters at all. This appears to apply to the Dufton Fell case, for instance, although here the geological context may still be significant.
It is worth remarking here that meteorite craters may contain virtually no meteoritic material if the energy released at impact is sufficient to vaporise the impacting mass. Drillings in the Arizona meteorite crater, for example, have not been successful in locating a large body of meteoritic material.
Swallow holes and solution cavities in limestone and other calcareous rocks are not the only results of underground erosion by water, since the normal effects attributable to surface erosion can occur where underground streams run through the enlarged cavities – such as faults – in non-soluble rock.
Percolating water can remove the “cement” from arenaceous rocks such as sandstone, producing a crumbly residue with marked lack of grain adhesion. Sand itself is subject to the phenomenon of slumping due to changes in the interstitial water content. This is true of most unconsolidated sediments.
From the above brief summary, it can be seen that there is plenty of scope for crater formation without having to introduce UFO intervention and indeed none of the British examples which can fairly be described as craters (UFO variety) need an otherworldly explanation, Niton included.
To take specific examples, Niton is quite clearly a case of subsidence into a smooth-sided cavity of subterranean erosion. This explains naturally the apparently miraculous disappearance of a large volume of earth and rock. It was not there in the first place!
The recent Berkshire craters have been diagnosed independently (Reading University) as due to subsidence into solution pockets in the chalk sub-stratum.
The Charlton crater exhibited a symmetrical pattern of surface indentations which accords well with drainage into a central cavity. Here again, as at Niton, we are near the contact between the Upper Greensand and the Chalk.
Flamborough Head, another crater locality, is also a prominent Chalk feature, whilst Dufton Fell, near Penrith, lies in the famous Alston lead mining district in the local Carboniferous Limestone and adjacent strata. Mines in this area have been worked since Roman times and Dufton itself was intensively prospected much more recently than that, at a time when the Lake District was a hive of metalliferous mining industry.
The Carboniferous Limestone everywhere, from the Mendips to Scotland abounds with mine workings, pot-holes and caves, many of which are world famous.
However, with forty sheep lost at Dufton, the possibility of a little rustling seems on the cards!
In Scotland, Sanquar lies on the fringe of the Leadhills mining district, also worked by the Romans, and, in addition, marks the southernmost limit of the Scottish coal mining area. The Lammermuir Hills, to the north-east of Leadhills, comprise crater locality in similar geological formations to those of the Sanquar district.
The sum of coincidence is too great to be ignored and, I suggest, the British craters must be seen in their true geological framework rather than in the enchanting context of visitations from outer space.
Alan Sharp changed his mind on the causes of some of the craters during 1965. The following item appeared in the December 1965 issue of MUFORG’s newsletter.
CHARLTON: A NEW THEORY
In the last issue, you may remember, we published an article on the origin and classification of craters by Mr Alan Sharp. This is how two of our readers reacted to the views expressed in the article:
“I found Mr Sharp’s article very illuminating. I accept his generalisations. One small question I do ask is: how many of the craters he mentions has he actually visited? I am particularly thinking of the Charlton crater, and am not too happy with his comment about drainage.” Lionel Beer, Vice-Chairman and Publicity Officer, BUFORA.
“I almost agree with Sharp’s crater analysis, but must draw the line at the Charlton one. Was he there? Has he forgotten the mass of substantiating evidence in favour of a more “enchanting” cause?” Michael Whitford-Walders, Welsh UFO Research Organisation.
These are typical of the comments received. In fact it seems that the majority of readers find it difficult to accept the swallow hole explanation.
We are now able to report that Mr Sharp has also rejected this explanation, but he still firmly refuses to believe that the crater was caused by a UFO. After visiting the farm at Charlton, testing soil samples taken from the area, questioning local inhabitants, and making a careful study of all the available evidence, he concludes that it was caused by nothing more mysterious than a flash of lightning. Here is his report:
“With reference to my article on craters, I have since conducted an exhaustive investigation of the mainland British examples, which is nearing its conclusion. As a result, and somewhat to my surprise, I can say with reasonable certainty that most are due to lightning and only two cases, those at Niton and in Berkshire, are attributable to geological subsidence; with the exception of Dufton, where surface movement took place as a result of heavy rain. Nevertheless, the geological line of attack has proved most fruitful, especially at Charlton where the soil abounds with ferruginous material.
“In all cases attributable to lightning there was a prehistory of severe storms in the locality, and in general the electrical discharge produced local magnetic effects, again as at Charlton. The work, though arduous, time-consuming and expensive has been very interesting and rewarding.”
In volume 4, number 6 (winter 1971) of Merseyside UFO Bulletin we published a short account of the Charlton crater affair, as part of a series on physical evidence.
THE CHARLTON CRATER
There have been relatively few cases of alleged physical evidence of UFOs in Britain, and of those few the Charlton crater is by far the most notorious example.
Serious attempts to provide rational explanations for the occurrence have been consistently ridiculed by the UFO enthusiasts who apparently prefer to believe that the phenomenon was produced by the landing of a flying saucer.
In July 1963, a crater about 1 foot deep, 8 feet in diameter, with a hole in the centre about 3 feet deep was found on the boundary between a potato field and a barley field at Manor Farm, Charlton, Wiltshire (near Shaftesbury, Dorset). The crater was discovered by farmer Roy Blanchard, according to Robert Chapman, (1) or by a Mr Reg Alexander, according to Leonard Cramp. (2) Take your pick.
It is not clear from the various accounts just how the crater came to receive such wide publicity and close scrutiny from military and scientific experts, journalists, ufologists, and assorted cranks and publicity seekers. The incident which seems to have attracted the attention of the national news media and Members of Parliament was the arrival on the scene of an Army bomb disposal squad. These gentlemen found no bomb, but did detect metal, which was in fact magnetite, naturally occurring in the soil of that area.
Unfortunately the sensational publicity accorded to the affair did not provide a suitable atmosphere for rational, scientific investigation. A lump of iron ore recovered from the crater by the Army team was pounced on by Patrick Moore, who hastily pronounced it to be a meteorite.
The issue was further confused by the arrival on the scene of a gentleman calling himself “Dr Randall”, who purported to be an “Australian astro-physicist”. This character assured the gentlemen of the press that the crater was caused by a flying saucer weighing about 600 tons, with a crew of about 50, and originating from the planet Uranus. Still further confusion must have been caused in the minds of interested observers when the newspapers printed these inane drivellings of “Dr Randall” apparently without taking the trouble to consult the appropriate reference books in order to determine his bona fides.
Questions in the House of Commons eventually established that the crater was not caused by a bomb or a meteorite and, so far as the authorities were concerned, the matter remained unexplained. Ufologists immediately took this as a licence to indulge in wild speculations about flying saucers and their alleged electromagnetic effects and “G fields”. Much was made of the fact that the magnetite in the soil in the immediate vicinity of the crater was found to have been magnetised. Much was also made of the alleged complete disappearance of potato plants at the site of the crater. (3)
The Charlton crater, among other, similar occurrences, attracted the attention of Alan Sharp who, as our readers well know, does not believe in spaceships from Uranus, or in fairies or Father Christmas either, for that matter.
Mr Sharp at first thought that the crater may have been caused by subsidence, but later revised his opinion and suggested that it was probably caused by a lightning strike. This would explain the magnetic effects observed by investigators. In a review of Leonard Cramp’s “Piece for a Jig-Saw”, Alan Sharp wrote:
“A great deal of nonsense has been talked about the Charlton occurrence but in point of fact this was a classic example of the type of “crater” ascribable to the strike of lightning on open ground. It displays radiating surface marks, removal of material and a central hole. It was preceded by a violent thunderstorm accompanied by strong winds and was in an area of considerable storm damage to crops. The lightning struck the ground where there was evidence of a local elevation of the water table and pronounced detectable magnetic effects in the magnetite-bearing soil, similar to those recorded at Cockburnspath in Scotland.
“The strike occurred at a point on a previous field boundary where a large iron straining-post had once been embedded in the ground and secured by metal stays. The disappearance of plants was by no means complete, as had been alleged by one person, according to Mr Bealing, the Shaftesbury photographer whose photographs appeared widely in the Press at the time. Captain Rodgers of the Army investigation team also reported the finding of plant remains at the site.” (4)
The lightning explanation certainly seems the most logical one in the circumstances, but it has been totally ignored by British ufologists, who prefer to indulge in bizarre speculations about flying saucers and their “anti-gravity” propulsion systems. The Charlton crater affair is a particularly interesting case in that study of the literature on the subject shows up the irrational and unscientific attitudes which prevail among British ufologists, even including those who are intelligent enough to know better.
1. Chapman, Robert; Unidentified Flying Objects, Arthur Barker, London, 1969
2. Cramp, Leonard G.; Piece for a Jig-Saw, Somerton Publishing Co., Cowes, Isle of Wight, 1966
3. Ibid., 184
4. Sharp, Alan; book review, “Piece for a Jig-Saw”, MUFORG Bulletin, February 1967