England’s crop circle controversy

Although these mysterious formations have appeared worldwide, south-west England is the unlikely world capital of crop circles, baffling locals and farmers alike.
Ears of wheat prickled my shins and the sun beat down on my neck as I trudged through the tractor lines of a golden field on Wiltshire’s Hackpen Hill. It was August – the height of crop circle season – and I’d been directed here by frenzied online reports of a new formation, which had appeared, as they are wont to do, overnight; apparently unseen by observers. From the ground, I could make out nothing but intersecting lines of trampled wheat – but photographed from above the pattern resembled a crosshair.

Was this the nexus for some kind of potent Earth energy? Or, terrifyingly, a target for extra-terrestrial weaponry? In this instance, something more mundane. “That’s the logo of the Barge Inn down in Honeystreet,” chuckled a fellow visitor, a potbellied man in a Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt. “Probably man-made, this one.”

Although such formations have appeared worldwide, from California to the rice paddies of Indonesia, south-west England is the world capital of crop circles. They are particularly concentrated in the county of Wiltshire, where a treasure trove of ancient history includes the Neolithic sites of Stonehenge and Avebury – both crop circle hotspots.

Carving artwork into the landscape is an age-old tradition in these parts; chalk horses adorn eight hillsides in Wiltshire; while the UK’s oldest geoglyph, the stunning Bronze Age Uffington White Horse, sits just across the border in Oxfordshire. Reports of mysterious patterns appearing in wheat, barley and corn fields in the area began to circulate in the 1970s, but it was in the late ’80s that the phenomenon exploded. Circles began to appear more frequently and became far more ornate: some resembled trippy fractals; others rune-like hieroglyphs; others stylised animals recalling those of the Nazca Lines in Peru.

The county of Wiltshire is home to around 80% of the UK’s crop circles (Credit: Daniel Stables)
The county of Wiltshire is home to around 80% of the UK’s crop circles (Credit: Daniel Stables)

The intricacy and size of the formations, coupled with the fact that they would appear overnight, seemingly out of nowhere, baffled locals and farmers alike. In 1996, a crop circle appeared opposite Stonehenge depicting a mathematical fractal called a Julia set; a similar formation that emerged on Milk Hill in 2001 was one of the largest ever, stretching 900ft. A 2008 formation near the Iron Age hill fort of Barbury Castle required decoding by an astrophysicist, who concluded that it was a geometric representation of the first 10 digits of pi.

The phenomenon peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s, but continues today; an average of 30 crop circles appear each year in the UK, around 80% of them in Wiltshire. Formations reported in 2021 have included a hexagonal pattern overlaid with spirals in Avebury, and a pattern of concentric “bubbles” in Tidworth Down. Crop circle season usually begins at the end of May, with the first ripening of the barley, and ends by September when the harvesting of the crops cuts away the circle canvasses.

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As the number of crop circles has grown, so has the mythology surrounding them. Some invoke the theory of ley lines: mystical seams of spiritual energy that intersect at sacred sites like Avebury and Stonehenge. Others claim that the circles are created by an extra-terrestrial intelligence attempting to warn humanity about climate change, nuclear war and similar existential threats. One even appeared in May 2020 in the shape of a coronavirus, leading to feverish speculation that crop circles are trying to give us clues about immunology and Covid-19.

Among those who discount the alien hypothesis, a common theory is that human circle makers “tap into” some kind of collective consciousness, perhaps explaining the prevalence in crop circles of universal mathematical patterns that also occur in nature – the fractal branching of snowflakes and blood vessels and the spiralling shells of molluscs, for example.

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