I was seven years old in the summer of 1988; a little kid with a big imagination in a quaint English village called Little Haywood. My house looked out over an expansive forest called Cannock Chase. I didn’t know until many years later that this was, and remains, one of the UK’s top hotspots for UFO and paranormal reports; but there was always a magic about the place, and I loved spending time there.
On the morning of August 5, 1988, a classmate of mine, a kid called Mark, was speaking excitedly and insistently in the school playground that, last night, a flying saucer had landed on his car. His father and stepmother were driving him and his older brother home from something called a Gingerbread meeting. These meetings provide a space for single parent families to get together and meet new people, and to offer support. Mark’s mother had died of cancer a year or so earlier—a powerful memory from my childhood. I hadn’t known her, and Mark was hardly a close friend of mine, but the news of his mother’s untimely death affected me deeply—the notion of mortality is a scary thing for a seven-year-old, and, being a particularly empathetic child, I felt Mark’s loss like a sickness in my belly. In any case, this was a family in a liminal state, seeking to recover from a profound tragedy.
When Mark recounted his flying saucer story to his enraptured classmates, our responses were much as they would be for adults being told the same story by another adult—some “oohs” and “ahhs,” some giggles and some quietly exchanged glances of bemusement and mockery. I didn’t know what to think about Mark’s story, but, like a pre-pubescent Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe it. And it stayed with me, buried in the back of my mind for all the years to follow. Mark’s story implanted the mystery of the UFO deep into my psyche.
Eleven years later, in 1999, at the age of eighteen and now rather obsessed with UFOs, I revisited Mark, and his parents, to see if there really was any truth to the story I remembered so clearly from my childhood. Sitting in Mark’s living room with his father, Ron, a worker at the local power station, and his stepmother, Gina, I listened and took notes as the couple, now both in their fifties, recounted what happened on the night of August 4, 1988. It turned out that Mark and his older brother had been fast asleep at the time of the incident (unsurprising given that it occurred around midnight); Mark had simply based his embellished story on what he’d heard his parents discussing over some strong coffees the following morning.
The story as told to me by Ron and Gina in 1999 is as follows…
The family was just minutes from home as they travelled along the edge of Cannock Chase forest. They were approaching Weetmans Bridge, a small cobbled structure built in 1888 across the River Trent. Gina, behind the wheel, had been chatting away to Ron when, in mid-sentence, she fell silent, her gaze drawn off to her right… and up. As she began to turn onto the bridge, she saw what she described to me as a large, circular metallic object, “the size of a double-decker bus,” hanging silently, halfway over the bridge and halfway over the river below. She estimated its altitude to be roughly 30 feet above the bridge. Its circumference was bejewelled with multicoloured lights, pulsing slowly, on and off. The object was partially enshrouded in a circular pool of mist, which she felt in hindsight may have been generated by the object. Gina noted a total absence of noise, not only from the UFO, but also from their car. No engine sound, no ambient noise. Nothing. This effect is characteristic of what is known in UFOlogy as “The Oz Factor,” which UFOlogist Jenney Randles has described as a “sensation of being isolated, or transported from the real world into a different environmental framework” when in close proximity to a UFO.
Meanwhile, Ron, in the passenger seat, was similarly dumbstruck. He too was seeing the UFO, but, intriguingly, not quite as Gina was seeing it. As they turned onto the bridge, Ron saw what he described to me as a pool of mist hanging above the cobbles, within which was a circular object visible only by a thin rim of red light about its circumference. No multi-coloured lights for Ron, no pulsing on and off; only a steady circular red light. Again, though, what Ron saw was approximately thirty feet above the bridge and around 30 feet in diameter (roughly the length of a bus).
Ron and Gina shared an immediate feeling of panic as they felt they might hit the low-hanging object in their path. However, as their car turned onto the bridge, according to Ron, the object made a short and swift ascent, lifting vertically to perhaps twice its original altitude, before stopping dead and departing horizontally and silently towards the neighbouring village… quite literally in the blink of an eye.
It was gone, whatever it was. The whole encounter had lasted perhaps no more than sixty seconds, but its impact was deep, and lasting. Gina has been in mid-turn when the object had made it’s lightning-fast departure. She continued to drive for a few hundred feet, clearing the narrow bridge before pulling over and stopping at the side of the road. It was a quiet country lane in the dead of night. No other witnesses. The couple were in a state of shock and needed a few minutes to regain their composure. “What the fucking hell was that??” exclaimed Ron. A few minutes later, the couple had arrived home. Still deeply troubled by what they had witnessed, and with no interest in UFOlogy or knowledge of UFO reporting systems, Ron decided to phone the police.
By the following morning, somehow, the story had leaked to the local press, and a journalist and a photographer paid a visit to Ron and Gina, requesting that the couple take them to the scene of their otherworldly encounter. The couple were surprised to see the press at their door, but, wanting to make sense of their experience, they obliged their visitors and drove with them back to the site of their experience the previous night, explaining as best they could what had happened. When they arrived at Weetmans Bridge a few minutes later, they were disquieted to see that they had company. According to Ron and Gina, across the road from the bridge, perhaps fifty feet away, was an unmarked white van, close to which were two men inspecting the hedges, apparently taking samples. When the men saw that they were being observed, they left.
As Ron and Gina showed the press the site of their encounter, they noticed that sections of the otherwise-green hedges adjoining the bridge were now brown and dying, and the foliage had been “pushed back” from the road, as if by something large and heavy. Additionally, a young tree in the field next to the bridge in the object’s line of departure had apparently been “swept over” and was now almost flat to the ground (I can personally attest that the tree in question remains in its bizarre “swept-over” position to this day, and has grown considerably, almost parallel to the ground, in the thirty years since the encounter).
A few days later, the story appeared in the local newspaper with a picture of Ron and Gina, stood stony-faced near the bridge. The article was light-hearted and dismissive. Naturally, the couple was now the talk of the village, and the talk wasn’t pretty. They had nothing to gain by spinning a UFO yarn. They received no money for sharing their story, only ridicule. After that, Ron and Gina kept themselves to themselves. Even their son, Mark, went quiet. They had learned a hard and fast lesson about what it means to speak out as UFO witnesses.
The eighteen-year-old me sat in silence as Ron and Gina finished telling their story. It was obvious that they hadn’t spoken of it with anyone for quite some time, and, clearly, they were still in awe at what they had experienced. In the eleven years that had passed, the couple had not pursued the UFO mystery at all. They wanted to move on with their lives.
I should note at this point that my interview with Ron and Gina was part of a broader retrospective investigation I was conducting into what was known to local UFO researchers as “The Staffordshire UFO wave.” This spate of several dozen independent UFO sightings across the county of Staffordshire had occurred during the summer of 1988, peaking in July and August. Witnesses had consistently been reporting sightings of anomalous orange balls of light; more interesting, though, were the numerous accounts of large black triangles sailing silently and at low altitude through the Staffordshire skies. Many of these sightings were logged by the UK ministry of Defence (MoD)—a fact unknown publicly until the new millennium when the MoD began releasing large batches of its previously-classified UFO files. Interestingly, despite it being registered with the Staffordshire police and being featured in the local press, there is no mention of Ron and Gina’s UFO sighting in the MoD’s declassified files pertaining to the Staffordshire UFO wave of 1988. If indeed the couple’s mystery white van men had been taking samples for some government agency (and this remains pure conjecture), we can only assume that any data that may have been gathered relating to Ron and Gina’s dramatic sighting remains under lock and key to this day.
I would later learn that the couple’s sighting had been investigated a few weeks after its original reporting by representatives of BUFORA—the British UFO Research Association. I obtained their original case report, and it made for frustrating reading. Key parts of the couple’s testimonies had been overlooked or ignored by BUFORA, such as Gina’s strong insistence that the UFO appeared “metallic,” (she described it to me as “like brass”), and that that it displayed multi-colored lights around its circumference that flashed slowly and steadily on-and-off. The BUFORA report also neglected to note Ron’s description of the object’s departure, which appeared intelligent, controlled, and impossibly fast. Instead, BUFORA focused on the pool of mist the couple had described as partially enshrouding the UFO—this, they theorized, was indicative of a natural phenomenon, possibly relating to so-called “Earthlights” or something similar, thought to be generated by seismic activity or through the coalescence of other mundane phenomena in certain environments.
Whatever it was that so startled Ron and Gina on August 4, 1988 remains a mystery. The couple tried as best they could to forget it, but, for me, hearing their story (or a version of it) from their young son at the age of seven was enough to set me on a lifelong pursuit of the UFO enigma. And so, you are reading this now, a memory of a memory, for what little it may be worth, because of something I never saw on an August night in 1988, but which sparked in me the flame of cosmic wonder—such is the lure of the UFO; succumb to it at your own psychological, emotional, and financial cost. I know I did.
NOTE: All witness names in this article are pseudonyms.