Close Encounter of the Yorkshire Kind (2008)

One of the four weird experiences I’ve had in life. Perhaps I’ll blog about the others some time. From Death Ray 10, published in January 2008.

After speaking to Nick Pope last month, I got to thinking about my own UFO sighting. Here’s the story of something odd on the moors.

It’s funny really. I have a relative, an ex-doctor, who, ever since I got my first job as an SF journalist, keeps ribbing me about little green men and alien abductions. “It’s science fiction I do,” I tell him through gritted teeth. “Not real space aliens. Star Trek. Star Wars. It’s not the same, you know.”

Apparently he doesn’t. And even if I managed to chip away his preconceptions that all SF fans are watching the skies, he’d probably just start on conventions. I’m just pleased he doesn’t know what happens there. If I told him about the obese Klingons sweating under brown make-up, the bearded transvestites dressed up as Yeoman Rand, the burly hordes of Xenas, well, I’d never hear the end of that (all these things I have borne witness to, by the way).

I’m annoyed by his jokes because I don’t want to be associated with the UFO fringe. I have nothing but whole-hearted scorn for the fevered imaginings of the UFO conspiracy theorists. For the simple reason that things a lot less important than this are regularly blown wide open. For the other reason that human beings just aren’t that organised. If there were hordes of bug-eyed Grey-skinned Zeta Reticulans working hand in pseudopod with Uncle Sam we’d almost certainly know about it.

But that does not mean to say that what they base their crackpot theories on is all bunk. To dismiss anything out of hand without fair consideration is foolish; dangerous even. I’m not talking about bullshit whispered over the internet, swallowed whole, digested and regurgitated as fact, nor this friend of a friend of a friend urban myth bollocks – The Queen is obviously not a shape-shifting interdimensional lizard – But the things that people you know and trust see, they’re harder to disbelieve. While the things you see yourself… a different ball game altogether.

I’ve seen some weird stuff in my time, some of it terrifying. Here I’m going to tell you about something pretty, but perplexing.

I grew up on the moors of West Yorkshire. Not the rolling, high green vales of North Yorkshire, where Mr Herriot haunts roads shadowed by limestone bluffs, but the far more dramatic sandstone landscapes of Britain’s old industrial heartland. Rivers slash dramatic knife-wounds deep into the earth here, steep narrow V’s choked with quiet woods where once clanking mills began to change the world. Even now, you can wander through these precipitous forests and find a lone chimney stack, monolithic and brooding, bearing testament to very different days. Crest the lips of these valleys, and you’ll find an emerald mantle of farmland crisscrossed with drystone walls, draped like ermine and chains round the stately shoulders of the Pennines, for these are old and noble hills. And above all, the trackless moorland, brown heather and bog, rolls out in every direction, a ten-mile wide swathe of land where few live. Pushing down from the broader plateau of North Yorkshire to link it with the high peaks of Derbyshire, this tongue of nature forces the Manchester and West Yorkshire conurbations apart, a belt of rumpled wilderness jammed between the cogs of the 21st century.

In 1989, and we were finishing our GCSEs, only the second year to go through these new-fangled O-level replacements. But they were nearly over, only a couple of exams left. As was our wont, three of us had met at the house of a friend in the village of Heptonstall to play games. Risk, or possibly an RPG. After finishing, we went for a walk round the edge of the village, skirting along the field margins, chatting as we went and enjoying the long summer night. Gradually, it began to fall dark, the light leaching from the sky to leave it pale blue and luminous as the hills turned black as coal beneath it. To the west, a broad band of white slowly dimming to orange where the sun went down, while the darker hues of mauve and night blue crept up and over the heavens from the northern and eastern horizons.

We chatted about this and that, the four of us, what we’d do next year, what we wanted to do with our lives. One of us was going to Canada, one leaving school. The other two of us were joining the Sixth Form. Simple stuff, the detail of it escapes me now. And there was some larking about, but no drinking.

Opposite us, across the valley, stood Stoodley Pike, the biggest hill in Calderdale, 450 metres of steep-faced millstone grit, crowned by a 30 metre monument (it’s a common mistake to call this the Pike, it’s actually the name of the hill). It draws the eye somewhat, this mini mountain and its massive block of Victorian masonry.

A light was moving toward it.

“Look,” I remember saying, “an aeroplane.” That’s what it looked like, a plane seen from a distance, so far away that its navigation lights blend into one twinkling whole, though this seemed closer to us than that.

“And there’s another,” one of the others said.

“Oh yeah.”

Slowly, no faster than planes, the two lights flew directly towards one another as if they were on a collision course. Then, when they were the width of a thumb apart, they stopped dead.

This is not usual.

“That was a bit strange,” I said.

“Perhaps they’re helicopters?”

But it was a still night, sound carries very far up there. You can hear a helicopter or the drone of a plane miles away, and we discussed this among ourselves. Besides, that was not the end of it.

Slowly, silently, the lights began to dance. First they described circles around one another, then they began to move all about the sky, halfway between the hilltop and the sparse cloud cover of the night, all the while circling round and round each other, occasionally becoming obscured by a cloud, stopping entirely on several occasions. It was all quite stately, all quite slow, but something an aircraft would have found very difficult to replicate. Helicopters – they would have had to have been helicopters – would have had to put themselves in peril to act so – illegally, I might add. For 10 minutes we watched the lights, no brighter or bigger than a bright star. As time passed they began to move more quickly, accelerating away from each other at speeds so amazing we audibly gasped, again to stop suddenly, streaking parabolas across the sky, moving further apart, now nearer, always dancing. No aircraft built by man can do those things. Excited, we watched intently, but did not speak, not much, anyway.

Finally, the lights came to a halt, opposite each other, in the same position and about as far apart as at the beginning, like two dancers at the conclusion of a song. After a pause of some seconds, they began to go their separate ways, moving parallel with the horizon, one heading to the west, the other east.

One of the lights suddenly accelerated up and away, into the sky toward Halifax, moving so quickly that it became a streak of light, like a shooting star falling upwards into space, disappearing into a cloud then reappearing in a rent before finally vanishing, heading outward and upward into the waking stars. The second light dawdled along in the opposite direction, almost nonchalantly. If we’d not seen the previous display we’d have thought it a distant aircraft. It eventually was lost to the gathering clouds and distance.

This sighting provoked excited chatter among us, and we undertook an expedition the next week to the summit of Stoodley Pike, where we inadvisedly camped. No one was kidnapped by aliens, but it was cold, one of our tents blew down, and I lost my new  watch.

This was not a life changing experience, and I’m not saying those dancing lights were spaceships. They could have been experimental aeroplanes (very unlikely though) or perhaps some kind of rare, little-understood atmospheric effect. But the important thing is that it was not explicable, and it was beautiful. When I feel tempted to dismiss some supposedly impossible thing, or perhaps feel a certain melancholy that all the mysteries of the world are solved, I think on things like this. We can’t explain everything, and sometimes the unknown can appear right in front of us.


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