January 23, 1974
It was a cold, damp and moonless night in Llandrillo, a small village built around a broad stream at the base of the Berwyn Mountains in North Wales. The village postmaster was watching television with his wife when it felt like his house parted company from the foundations. The sodden earth beneath the village trembled and the grey slate houses shook as if Branwen the Giantess, a mythical goddess whose throne towered above the village, had risen again. Crockery flew off shelves and smashed onto flagstone floors. A deep rumbling accompanied the tremor, striking terror into the local community.
The postmaster rushed outside and turned to check on his post office, a low-slung, slate-roofed cottage in the center of the village whose front-room had been converted into a shop. But his eye was drawn to the left, where he saw a fireball in the sky. Could a plane have crashed, he wondered? Neighbors also stood and gazed skywards. The postmaster cast an anxious glance over the yard to the right, with its underground petrol tanks and rows of gas cylinders, and then set off towards the mountain to see what had happened and perhaps offer help. Police who had commandeered another Land Rover set off after him.
A hunting party was already up on the mountain, having finished their rabbit shoot, but other than the hunters’ vehicle, the searchers saw no one. They climbed the hill until they were surrounded by heather and grass. The black and almost indistinguishable masses of the magnificent Berwyn mountains extended to the southeast like giant knuckles. By the light of their requisitioned headlamps, police officers scoured the tufted landscape for anything untoward. There must be some clue to what had happened, the officer in charge thought. He could see white lights in various directions, but none of them looked unusual.
“That’s it!” one of the party cried out as something flashed in the sky.
But the flash subsided as quickly as it had appeared. Eventually, the searchers accepted that there was nothing to be found and descended, baffled.
No one in Llandrillo found anything on the mountain that night. In the following days, search efforts intensified. Royal Air Force personnel, scientists, journalists and UFO enthusiasts combed the surrounding land and interviewed locals at length but came up with nothing. The string of strange events was officially recorded as a coincidence of natural phenomena: an earthquake measuring between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale — by no means a major quake, but uncommon by UK standards — and a shower of bright meteors that burned up somewhere over the UK. Local teenagers joked about dynion gwyrdd bach (little green men) at school, while locals reveled in the attention, each claiming their part in the night when teams of police and military descended on the area, and how, for forty-eight hours, Llandrillo felt like the center of the universe.
It would be another twenty years before Margaret Fry, a world-renowned UFO investigator, unearthed the evidence that turned the case into what it is today: Wales’ answer to the alleged alien crash site at Roswell, New Mexico, and one of the most high-profile UFO encounters in the UK.
By the time Margaret retired to the Welsh-speaking village of Llangernyw from Kent, she was one of the premier UFO researchers in Britain, an older, more petite Dana Scully with soft curls, large almond eyes, and a quirky British-Indian lilt. Now in her sixties, she had thirty years’ worth of investigating experience but remained hungry for signs of alien life. Lately, however, life seemed to be throwing curveballs at her.
Moving to Wales, a country with majestic mountains and a long coastline, brought her close to her family — important now that she was older — but posed a number of problems. Margaret was afraid of heights and the ocean, to name two. She had never learned to drive a car, and bus services in rural Wales were either unreliable or non-existent, leaving her at the mercy of friends and family for transportation. And then there was the language. She found the Welsh place names, with their sparing use of vowels, impossible to remember. People were constantly telling her about paranormal incidents, and she could never decipher where they took place.
Margaret had grown up in India, a magical land that had opened her eyes to endless possibilities and instilled in her a passion for knowledge and discovery. She was a third-generation white settler in what was then British India, where — ironic now, given her fear of heights — she spent the long, hot summers in a Himalayan hill station where the mountains cap 6,000 meters. At night, the Milky Way, would appear like a luminous seam in the inky-black sky, the stars so bright that Margaret fancied she might reach out and pluck one. To earn small amounts of money during the school holidays, she would lead visiting scientists from British universities like Oxford and Cambridge down lonely mountain tracks into hidden valleys and craggy pockets to find alien rocks from outer space that had embedded themselves in the landscape. The idea that there could be other intelligent life in our galaxy was self-evident to her.
Later, perhaps, it was also a wish — the fervent hope that a higher intelligence harkened a better future for humanity. As British India dissolved into sectarian violence, Margaret, 21 years old and married then with two children, hid families of Muslims beneath the floorboards at home while Sikhs brandishing kirpan daggers searched for them. Fleeing by train to catch a boat to Europe, her rail car was attacked by militants. Her husband concealed trembling fugitives under their seats while Margaret hid others in the toilet. Margaret later watched as militants seized a woman with a baby. The woman fought them off to hurl her baby out of the moving train’s window in the hope that at least her child would survive. When Margaret arrived in Southampton, she declared the UK the coldest, dreariest, most miserable place imaginable. She asked her husband: “Why on Earth have you brought me here?” Later, she would muse whether her passion for UFOs harkened back to her time in India, where there was much to wonder at.
Some fifty years later, however, living in a sleepy little town in North Wales, her biggest challenge was the loss of authority and creeping sense of irrelevance that came with age. The older Margaret got, the less inclined people were to listen. If introverts reenergize by being alone and extroverts by being with others, then Margaret is acutely extroverted, thriving on conversation and the company of others. She can also be naïve — too naïve to be a UFO investigator, her critics argued. But there were times, such as the Berwyn case, when her ingenuous enthusiasm coupled with dedication and exactitude served her well.
In her heyday as an investigator, Margaret had a direct line to parliamentarians, appeared on BBC television, and was in regular contact with British Aerospace. She still featured regularly on the pages of local newspapers as “a woman in search of mysteries,” and, as founder of the Welsh Fellowship of Independent Ufologists, she remained active with many friends in ufology. But the dawning digital era was elbowing her out; colleagues were starting to challenge her online, to view her as a relic of a bygone age. She soldiered on, sticking up notices in shop windows, giving talks in community halls, motoring around with her doting husband to chase leads, and striking up conversations in hairdressers and supermarkets.
In July 1991, a friend of hers had passed on an intriguing lead. A nurse called Pat Evans had seen something strange up on the Berwyn Mountains in 1974, on the night of an earthquake and meteor shower. Margaret had heard reports of earthquakes coinciding with UFOs. In fact, she had a theory that UFO-nauts, her term for the pilots of alien spacecraft, knew about them in advance and came down because of them. She also had a dim recollection of an article in the Flying Saucer Review about a mysterious explosion and strange lights on a Welsh mountain many years ago. She was keen to investigate so drove with two UFO-hunting colleagues to Pat’s village of Llandderfel, a picturesque clutch of houses beside an ancient bridge over the River Dee, to interview the nurse about the events of 20 years ago.
In her thirties at the time of the event, the woman who opened the door and invited Margaret in was now in her late-fifties. She was sensible-looking in her heavy-knit jumper and spectacles with large, clear plastic frames, and she appeared eminently believable to Margaret, who had learned to rely on her instincts about such things. Most importantly, the intervening years had done nothing to cloud Pat’s memories of that night, which she shared freely.
At 8:38 on 23 January 1974, she was in the kitchen, where the Rayburn range stove was gurgling on full blast. “One of these days, it’s going to explode,” Pat’s husband often said of the irascible appliance. So when she heard a loud concussion, she leapt off her feet: “Oh my God, it’s happened!” But the Rayburn was undamaged and the house looked intact.
“What was that?” shouted her teenage daughters, Diane and Tina, in a state of agitation. Pat couldn’t say, but she thought the explosion had emanated from the Berwyn Mountains. She tried, unsuccessfully, to contact the village policeman, but eventually got through to someone at the district headquarters in Colwyn Bay, a seaside town 40 miles north.
“Yes, we’ve had reports of an explosion of sorts and we’re not sure what’s happened,” the officer on duty said.
“Could it be an aircraft?” Pat asked.
“It could be anything really, we don’t know.”
Pat and her daughters, who were also trained in first aid, drove onto the mountain to see if they could help. From a vast, elevated expanse of heather moorland, the Berwyn range stretched away to their left, a row of sleeping giants. The girls became afraid. What if there were bodies, blood? At the wheel, Pat remained stolid until she got her first clear look at the mountaintops. Then she stopped the car in disbelief. Sitting on the shoulder of the closest peak, Cadair Berwyn, was a round, brilliantly illuminated reddish-orange ball. They sat watching it, aghast. At one point, Pat opened the car’s window, but there was no sound. The object had no perceivable windows or doors; it was just a well-defined and uniformly colored reddish-orange circle that sat on the mountainside and glowed, like a huge, spherical ember. Then, Pat noticed smaller white lights around it, vehicle lights, perhaps. The large circle changed color several times before their eyes, from red to yellow to white, then back to red. They watched it for what felt like ten or fifteen minutes, before Pat decided to drive home. It was clearly not a plane crash, and it appeared that other people were already at the scene. They drove home mystified, unable to get the object out of their minds.
After she interviewed Pat, Margaret knew one thing: her fear of heights would have to be surmounted for this case. The fear, which had set in sometime after she left India, was a mystery to Margaret. And while she knew it was irrational, it was a powerful and primitive emotional response that she struggled to ignore. Anxiety, in its insidious way, was manipulating her thought processes. Could the anxiety be linked to her upbringing in India? Or to the trauma of the war — which she had buried and never healed? Or was it just plain old caution replacing youthful nerve? All of these related to much the same thing: that Margaret’s fearlessness was long gone, together with her youth. Now, as she made one last attempt at cracking a UFO case, she suddenly felt compelled to overcome it. Before she could change her mind, she asked the nurse to guide them up the mountain.
It was a squally, overcast day and leaves danced as they fell from the russet and gold trees. It was still light outside but dusk would soon be approaching. Margaret watched anxiously from the passenger seat window as they crossed the stone bridge, its four arches stretching over a broad section of river. Turning sharply uphill, the cottages and demarcated areas of land started to fall away, as did the centuries-old walls made from piles of loose slate now covered in moss and lichen, which held up miraculously, without mortar, against the unrelenting elements.
At the top of the hill, the women found themselves on that same expanse of heather moorland where Pat had been two decades before. Margaret felt the exposure keenly. The only signs of modern man were the milky-white outlines of domesticated Welsh Mountain sheep. There — Pat pointed out the spot on the mountain where the UFO had been. Margaret, ignoring the flutter in her stomach brought on by the high vantage, began jotting notes about how long the journey had taken and making a sketch map of the area, delighting in the excitement of being back on a case.
Margaret had had her first encounter with an alien spacecraft nearly forty years earlier, in 1955, when she was in her late twenties, and it had changed the course of her life. It happened in Bexleyheath, an unremarkable suburb of London. Margaret was driving between pebbledash houses when the car spluttered and died. What looked like a flying saucer then plumped down on the intersection in front of her, blocking the way. It was the shape of a cloche hat but the color of pewter, roughly 35 feet across with a domed top, a platform around the base, and what looked like ball-bearings for wheels. The craft sat still for about five minutes, then it started trembling, tilted forwards and rose while swaying slightly back and forth. Once it was above her, a single porthole opened. Margaret’s heartbeat quickened as she realized there could be beings from another planet on board. But the craft continued to rise and then disappeared.
When Margaret told her father, then working on Britain’s atomic science program, he scoffed. Margaret felt a flush of anger; it was her first experience of not-being-believed. Her mother went to buy the local newspapers to see if anyone else had reported such a thing. Margaret’s parents were hard-working, practical types who valued fact over fantasy, so Margaret held out no hope of winning her mother’s support. It felt momentous when her mother came back waving the Erith Observer, shouting: “Margaret is terribly factual, she never lies!” A policeman and several other people claimed to have seen the spacecraft that day.
After that, Margaret’s life straddled two worlds, the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial. When she looked up at the night sky, the planets and stars twinkled with new meaning. But the loneliness of being a believer in a land of skeptics replaced euphoria. She felt, briefly, adrift. Then, in 1956, Margaret’s mother gave her a book on alien spacecrafts, Flying Saucers Have Landed, written by George Adamski, a California mystic, and Desmond Leslie, an Irish eccentric. Margaret devoured the book and saw that the photograph of an alien spacecraft on page three looked exactly like hers. It gave her the final validation she needed.
From that point on, it became Margaret’s quest to show others that humans were not the only intelligent species in existence, which she saw as a mission to promote worldwide understanding and tolerance. She soon became a researcher with the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA), where her determination and insouciance made her a star. She worked on many high-profile cases in the course of her career, advanced the field and amassed a body of compelling research, but she still longed for elusive proof, a case that would definitively illustrate the existence of aliens.
Standing with the nurse on the Berwyn range, she felt she might, at last, be in reach of it.
Back home in Llangernyw, Margaret called her boss, Jenny Randles, the Director of Investigations at BUFORA, to relay the nurse’s story. To Margaret’s surprise, she learned that it was not the first time Randles had heard about the Berwyn incident. Months after it happened, Randles had received a typed letter in the post from the Aerial Phenomena Enquiry Network, a shadowy group that provided no return address. It read like a parody of bad spycraft: tall, humanoid aliens traveling in a flying saucer had landed in North Wales on 23 January, it claimed, and APEN was preparing to share their case report. A cassette tape accompanied the letter, which played a bizarre medley of Nazi marching tunes, excerpts from news broadcasts about UFOs, drunk-sounding Welshmen, and an American voice who claimed to be the Supreme Commander of APEN. Whoever was behind it styled themselves as a group of top-secret neo-Nazi alien-human emissaries, and it was simply too bizarre for the UFO community to swallow. When APEN started making personal threats against Randles and other ufologists, she wrote them off as callous crackpots and dismissed their reports as nonsense. Alarmingly, Pat’s testimony gave APEN’s claim, that aliens had landed that January night, new significance.
Citing Margaret’s interview with Pat, Randles wrote a colorful article for BUFORA’s magazine. The nurse’s testimony was hugely significant. She was a pillar of the community whose word would not be questioned, someone who was used to keeping a calm head in a crisis. Besides all of that, it wasn’t just the nurse who’d seen the object, but her two daughters as well. There was even evidence of a coverup, based on Margaret’s notes. On the way down the mountain, the nurse and her daughters had been stopped by soldiers who insisted they leave the area immediately. It was an incredible revelation.
The resulting article was shared widely by UFO enthusiasts across the country and set light to a powder keg of conspiracy theories and accounts of alien bodies littering the mountainside. It was the ’90s and Britain was heading for UFO mania. The X-Files set people’s imaginations ablaze and television newscasts showing amateur footage of strange lights and shapes in the sky held viewers in thrall. The Berwyn incident, cynics wrote, was something Britain’s ufologists had been longing for; finally, they had their own Roswell, complete with state cover-up.
Margaret sent Randles’ article to Pat, who called her back in a state of agitation. It is well-known among those who report for a living that publication of details revealed in an intimate interview can send a once-willing witness into a panic, even causing the witness to recant certain facts in order to avoid further attention. Margaret couldn’t say whether that was the case, but contrary to what she was sure the nurse told her, Pat insisted she had seen no one on her way home that night, and she demanded Margaret correct the article. Margaret did not own a tape recorder and kept only brief notes, but these appeared to back up the claims made in the article, that the nurse said she had seen soldiers that night. But then a different thought crept into her mind: was old age dulling her senses and costing her mistakes? Her usual confidence gave way to self-doubt. Why could she not remember things correctly anymore? Perhaps society was right in overlooking its oldest and most experienced members, in allowing old age to be defined by its youngsters.
She decided to contact the younger researchers who’d been with her to ask what they recalled. To Margaret’s relief, one was adamant that the nurse said she had seen soldiers. The other, who suffered hearing loss due to his days as a DJ, hadn’t heard much of the interview to begin with.
No — Margaret was sure Pat had told her about the military men, and so a new possibility dawned on her. Could the police or Ministry of Defence have told the nurse to keep quiet after the article came out? Ever since the 1940s, ufologists, who once included members of the House of Lords, have believed that secret political powers would do anything necessary to conceal the truth. Reports of “men in black” went back almost as far as the flying saucer story itself, and Margaret had reason to believe that these hidden powers had spent decades systematically silencing witnesses of UFOs and other paranormal phenomena.
Soon after, Margaret was in a shop photocopying an artists’ impression of the UFO Pat described on Cadair Berwyn when the woman behind the counter seemed transfixed by it. The woman apologized for prying and explained that she, too, had gone to the Berwyn Mountains that night and had seen precisely the same reddish, well-defined object sitting on the mountainside. Not only that, her car had been turned back by a police roadblock.
Encouraged, Margaret hired a community hall in the town of Bala and stuck up notices on wooden telegraph poles to alert people to her inquiry: What happened on that night in 1974? Back in the ’60s, she had appeared regularly on the UFO public-speaking circuit. This community hall was far smaller than the venues she was used to, but that didn’t make it any easier; she was exposing herself, standing up in front of a hall packed with farmers and agricultural workers, retirees, and the children of late-relatives who claimed to have seen something that night.
There was a hush as Margaret, the small but commanding UFO lady, addressed the room. She spoke of the significance of the case and encouraged people to tell her what they saw that January night 20 years earlier. Suddenly, the room was abuzz as people stretched their hands up and jockeyed to speak over one another. Out of their mouths spilled stories of military convoys roaring through the area around midnight, cars backing up on the mountainside trying to catch a glimpse of the UFO, and strange red lights elsewhere. One gentleman, an amateur astrologist, had written a detailed description of a reddish-orange orb in his diary at the time. The barmaid in a local hotel recounted how glasses had flown from the shelves, and that the next day taciturn strangers in dark suits had checked in for a whole week, spending every day up on the mountain.
Overwhelmed, and struggling with the Welsh accents and unutterable clusters of consonants, Margaret asked people to write their contact details so she could conduct proper interviews. In the weeks that followed, almost every day the postman would deliver a handwritten letter from someone who’d been at the meeting or heard about “the UFO lady.” Out of fear, perhaps, many of the authors chose to remain anonymous. A few had stories that Margaret found difficult to square. A friend with an interest in UFOs claimed to have seen a huge object pulsating on the mountain that night, but when Margaret attempted to find the track she claimed to have taken up the mountain, she could not. Could her friend have made the story up?
The retraction about Pat having been stopped by soldiers on the mountain damaged Margaret’s professional standing, and she could not afford to make another mistake. What Margaret needed now was another reliable, independent witness to what Pat had seen, which would help convert the nurse’s claims into the sort of evidence that would stand up in a court of law. From there, she could build her case to convince both the cynics and believers.
There had always been rivalry in ufology. Margaret recalled the time when a colleague had given a biting description of her as a middle-aged housewife repeater — a derogatory term to imply someone lacks credibility — even though she was just a young woman at the time. But these days it felt dirtier and less supportive than before. Once, when Margaret expressed her concern to a prominent ufologist that he had misinterpreted a number of documents she had given him, the ufologist threatened to visit her and beat her to a pulp. Unperturbed, Margaret continued her work. She approached police and military sources about the Berwyn incident and acquired a copy of the police report from the night, but it revealed little of significance.
At the same time, a number of cynics — or debunkers as they are commonly called — had been attracted to the case and wanted to dispel all claims of paranormal activity. The mainstream media repeatedly showcased these cynics’ opinions while excluding researchers like Margaret from the debate. In later years, one of Margaret’s friends and allies crossed over to the other side to publish a book with the renowned debunker Andy Roberts, called UFOs that Never Were. Chapter eight was dedicated to the Berwyn Mountains, “A British Roswell?”
Roberts, a prominent voice in UFO circles, was a formidable researcher who spent years trying to disprove UFO stories and was now acquiring documents relating to the Berwyn case. Just as Margaret believed firmly in the possibility of alien intervention, Andy did not. Andy is a youth worker, historian, and author with a cropped white beard who bears more than a passing resemblance to the ageing rocker Sting. He had discovered psychedelic drugs in his youth and his experiences had led him to conclude that there was a far greater gap between reality and perception than we realize. After hearing repeatedly about the Berwyn incident, surely a classic example of human misinterpretation, Andy made it his goal to prove that the whole Berwyn episode — including what Pat had seen — was simply an unlikely coincidence of celestial and terrestrial events perceived by an emotionally-charged human being. In short, an outstanding example of modern folklore in the making.
As Andy commenced his work, a potentially explosive break crossed Margaret’s desk in 1996: a known source passed along information allegedly collected from a retired, high-ranking military officer who went by a pseudonym, James Prescott. The officer, Margaret’s source claimed, had been deployed to Llandderfel, Pat’s village in North Wales. Soon after the explosion, he and a small team had driven up and collected a number of oblong, coffin-like boxes before driving them to Porton Down, the UK government’s most secretive science park. There, scientists had opened them. Inside, Prescott had seen two dead aliens who conformed to the description of those seen at Roswell in New Mexico: small, thin humanoid beings with skin covering skeletal frames. These beings are colloquially known as greys due to their skin color and account for over 40 percent of reported alien sightings in America. Margaret had misgivings about the information the source was feeding her. The officer was refusing to meet in person — he refused even to provide his real name — and aspects of the story didn’t add up. Margaret wanted to drop it and pass the information on to a younger researcher who had time and energy to spare. But the same hope that drove her in the past won out — that maybe, just maybe, there was some truth in this. Margaret and Ron, her ailing husband, set off for West Wales, a 300-mile round trip, to interview a young soldier who claimed to know the real James Prescott, an officer killed in the Falklands.
Nothing came of it, and Margaret was still looking into the claims of the enigmatic James Prescott when, in November 1996, she received a call from Mike Saville, a gentleman in the South of England. Mike and his wife had been living in a farmhouse on the edge of Llandderfel, close to Pat’s house, when they had felt a terrible rumbling. They had stood on the steps to an old slate barn and watched as a bright, clearly defined orange circle came down to rest on the mountainside some three miles from their house. It hovered on the horizon for around half an hour, then dropped out of view. He didn’t see any small white lights, as Pat had, and he didn’t see any military activity. But it was clearly, as far as he was considered, a UFO.
Later, a local man came to Margaret with a pile of notes and an annotated map that was soft and yellow from age and handling. The documents had been given to him by five retired professionals, including a solicitor and a doctor. These men, the local claimed, had independently witnessed an alien spacecraft crashing that night. Using their illustrious standing and professional networks, they had discovered that the Royal Navy had engaged two UFOs that night, which had risen from the waters of the Irish Sea. The smaller of the two UFOs had reared up into the sky while the larger retaliated, zapping a naval ship and killing a number of its crew (whose deaths were, presumably, covered up). The larger UFO then took off towards North Wales, with fighter jets in pursuit. It flew over the island of Anglesey and the university city of Bangor before turning south towards Snowdonia National Park. Finally, amongst the snowy peaks, a fighter pilot had hit his target and the UFO started to descend, zig-zagging wildly, before crashing on the western slopes of Cadair Berwyn. At this point, the gentlemen had seen the alien spacecraft lift itself onto a military transporter, while aliens with large heads and eyes wearing jumpsuits — which Margaret recognized from their description as greys — surrendered and were driven down the hill.
The moment Margaret heard the story, she knew it was improbable. Whyever would an alien spacecraft — particularly a damaged one — lift itself onto an earthly transporter? She conceded that parts of their story jibed with other reports she’d heard over the years — of military jets chasing UFOs and there being underground bases for UFOs, such as Dulce Base on the border of Colorado and New Mexico — but did she have the energy to investigate it? She agonized over the decision in a way that was unusual for her, because there was so much bound up with it. Margaret was one of the most experienced ufologists in the UK. She had trained under the greats — men such as Brinsley Le Poer Trench, 8th Earl of Clancarty, an aristocrat and editor of the Flying Saucer Review. With experience came a sense of privilege. Margaret believed that people who see UFOs are never the same again. They grow spiritually and expand intellectually, perhaps to prepare for the acceptance that life does not end on Earth. It was a gift that she cherished and did not want to let go of; she was flush with confidence. But, at other times, doubts crept in. Her husband was now in a wheelchair and could not drive long distances. Could she ask him to drive her again, after the last failed trip? She was also unnerved by how much disinformation surrounded her. False claims abounded and hoaxers went to great lengths to trick people like her, whose principle of dutifully following up every lead left her vulnerable to tomfoolery and propaganda.
Meanwhile, more alleged military sources contacted her, claiming they too had seen or heard of aliens being retrieved from the Berwyns and taken to government facilities. The theory that a spacecraft had crashed was getting more and more attention in the specialist UFO press. The internet was emerging as a tool for research and publication, and the field of ufology was in rapid transition. The Wales case represented a turning point, and Margaret, very much a representative of the old school of ufology, found herself stuck in the slack tide. Whilst Margaret ran herself ragged in her attempt to chase down the mounting leads, other ufologists went in a new direction, dismissing the whole Berwyn episode as nonsense and siding with Roberts, the denier.
Margaret’s own health was also declining — she had bronchial troubles that prevented her from being outside at night and gazing up at the stars, let alone exploring the mountainside for topographical features and signs of disturbed earth. A sheaf of newspaper cuttings that lauded her achievements as an investigator were filed neatly away in clear plastic wallets in a trunk. But the more she investigated, the further she was from the truth. She could no longer sense the way forward, and her long-trusted instincts on whom to trust were wavering.
Andy Roberts, who was enjoying a rising reputation in UFO circles as a professional irritant, was making great progress on the case. Among his findings, he had discovered that, in 1997, in the nearby county of Staffordshire, a tent with a hunting lamp inside had been mistaken for a UFO, a perfect example of how misperception could re-frame an unidentified but prosaic visual source as something otherworldly. Had Pat, the nurse, similarly been looking at a hunters’ lamp? He and others exchanged their views on a website, Ufology in UK. Many of them were disparaging of Margaret Fry, and when a young gentleman called Scott Felton, a newcomer to UFO research, started asking them questions about the Berwyn case, they were quick to disregard Margaret’s research as “ just the rantings of an old woman,” as Scott recalls. Scott felt they seemed all too eager to dismiss the story, so he contacted Margaret to see for himself.
When Margaret read Scott’s polite letter expressing an interest in her work, worries about her age, mistakes, and critics dissipated; she felt like Dana Scully once more, hot on the heels of truth. She invited Scott to visit her bungalow in Abergele, a market town pressed in between the popular beach resorts of Rhyl and Colwyn Bay, to go through her research notes. Scott was a marksman and gamekeeper, trained to breed and protect animals for conservation and sport-hunting purposes. He was some thirty years younger than Margaret and respectfully deferential; a quiet but fervent believer in aliens. Feeling in charge, Margaret appraised him and decided he had the physical fitness and driver’s license that the Berwyn case required.
Sitting on her couch, Scott told Margaret that he had seen a UFO back in the eighties, although none so dramatic as hers. It was dawn, he said, and he was overlooking the Mersey estuary in Liverpool, where he regularly went duck-shooting. As he approached the ducks’ feeding spot, he called his gundog, Lucy, to heel — but she ignored him. He called again. Lucy was pointing at something, front paw raised, tail rigid, eyes unblinking. In the faintest traces of dawn, Scott could make out the outlines of oyster catchers and curlews as they skittered along the shoreline. To the left, the reflection of a vast oil refinery glimmered on the water. Then, suddenly, in the direction of Lucy’s inquisitive nose, a light snapped on. It was no more than 10 feet from them, and it hovered above the ground, illuminating the shingle below it. Lucy stood transfixed. Eventually, the object moved away to the water’s edge, where a flock of birds erupted in a cloud of flapping wings and alarm calls. For Scott, the object was unidentified, and it was flying, so it was, in the purest sense, an unidentified flying object.
Ever since he had become interested in the Berwyn area, Scott had wondered whether government intelligence agents were watching him. He had recently been arrested for shooting and dismembering a cow — a crime he did not commit and was able to produce an alibi for. Could this have been an attempt to warn him off the case? Margaret said yes, this was possible. She made him a cup of tea, arranged a few biscuits on a china plate, and produced a mountain of documents for him to browse through: folders, scribbled-on paper scraps and notebooks, all brimming with a bewildering array of information relating to the Berwyn case.
Scott was struck by the unexpected openness and trust from this elderly woman, who was at once childishly naïve and determinedly cynical. He was new to ufology but felt convinced that what they needed was not more information but less — they needed to sift out and discard everything questionable, including all anonymous testimonies, and focus on facts. Scott was flattered by Margaret’s willingness to collaborate, and Margaret by Scott’s interest. She knew instinctively that his intrepidness and systematic approach would complement her curiosity, physical shortcomings, and fear of heights, and she agreed, despite his lack of experience, to collaborate on the case. They made an improbable duo — a plump Miss Marple and a gun-toting gamekeeper — but both felt energized by their meeting.
Scott drove up the mountain to retrace the nurse’s steps for himself. Alone on the desolate moorland, buffeted by wind, his curiosity deepened. Virtually none of the so-called ufologists writing about crash landings and alien bases in North Wales had bothered to stand out here and consider the feasibility of their claims. It was ridiculous to think that a UFO had crashed here and that government agencies had somehow removed the debris without there being witnesses to it. The access was dreadful; to remove any trace of the impact would have taken weeks. Scott realized with a jolt what was missing: of all the researchers, not one had truly got to know the terrain, walked the land, and watched how the light up here behaved. There was no way that what Pat had seen was actually a tent lit up by torchlight, as Andy Roberts now claimed.
Scott wandered around on that shelf for over two hours, slowly discounting 90 percent of the theories that existed on the internet. All of the research and information to date had focused on Cadair Bronwen, the mountain closest to the village of Llandrillo, but the nurse had clearly been looking at Cadair Berwyn, which no one could have seen from the village. His curiosity was later tinged with anger as he thought how hoaxers, lazy researchers, and people with fixed agendas buried the facts. As a youngster, Scott was into Star Trek, not Star Wars; science fiction, not fantasy. He didn’t believe aliens walk among us, because how could they if they had evolved on a different planet with a different atmosphere? But he did believe that our infinitesimally large universe teems with extra-terrestrial life, that on rare occasions certain species visit Planet Earth, and that the elite few who really run the world, the shadowy figures pulling the strings on their puppets in parliament, were well aware of this.
UFO research turned out to be compelling work and, with Margaret’s guidance, Scott returned every few weeks to the Berwyn Mountains to continue what he had started. He hiked up the passes that had been inaccessible to Margaret, and searched for signs of disturbed earth, finding nothing. He even tramped through heather for miles to the spot Pat had been looking at and moved around with a headlamp powered by a car battery until it was dark, while a friend videoed his experiment from where Pat had been standing. The headlamp was just a speck on the horizon and could never, no matter what the weather conditions, be described as a huge pulsating orb. When rival Andy Roberts published his version of events in a book, The UFOs That Never Were, Scott was incensed. Roberts wrote that, on the evidence available, “it is certain that the nurse saw the poachers with their lamping lights at the point they met and talked to the police.” But the hunting party — or “poachers” — weren’t even on the mountain then! Scott wanted to scream.
Roberts’ book was a blow. Suddenly, it felt like even Pat’s testimony, the most incontrovertible account of a UFO, was being disregarded as bunk. If Margaret and Scott couldn’t find another witness willing to put their name into the public fray, they feared Roswelsh would go down as Roswasn’t in the annals of history. They went back to Margaret’s reams of notes. Multiple people, not just the nurse, had claimed to see a huge, glowing circle hovering on the mountain that night, but they were all either dead or uncontactable. Scott felt certain that nothing had crashed on the mountain — there was simply no evidence for it. But nor was there much evidence for anything else. The absence of official documents relating to the incident was remarkable and, Scott felt, reason to suspect a cover-up. Scott wrote multiple times to the British Geological Survey requesting information on the incident but was told they had nothing. He wrote to the police and Royal Air Force. The police told him that they had destroyed their records of the night, in line with policy, and the Royal Air Force claimed to have no reports of UFOs that night. It would not be the first time a UFO event had been covered up by authorities in Britain. Prime Minster Winston Churchill had taken the issue so seriously that he commissioned weekly reports during the 1950s, the dawning of the space age, and insisted UFO-sightings be kept secret to prevent mass panic. Scott worried it may have already been too late to obtain documentary evidence.
When he heard that Roberts had acquired a copy of the police log as well as other documents relating to that night thanks to some sort of preferential access to the British Geological Survey, Scott was livid. He filed a freedom of information request immediately, but received a response saying the documents didn’t exist. This compounded his feeling that everyone was conspiring to conceal the truth.
A television producer contacted him to say she was filming a series about paranormal activity called Britain’s Closest Encounters, and that one episode focused on the Berwyn incident. Could she interview him? Instinct told him not to get involved. While it was a chance to set the record straight, it also posed a risk. Too often, the mainstream media made heroes of the debunkers and portrayed serious ufologists as nutty conspiracists. But the television producer was persistent, and Scott eventually agreed to an interview. He explained that the UFO had been on an entirely different mountain to the one everyone had searched. He said the nurse couldn’t possibly have been looking at the hunting party or the policemen, as Andy Roberts claimed, and shared his own theory.
“It wasn’t a crash,” he told the researcher. “It was a landing.” Something came down onto the mountain that night, he said.
The day the documentary was due to air, Scott received a phone call from the director.
“The good news is that the program is on tonight. The bad news is that you’re not in it.”
Scott watched the film with rising anger. Roberts was the star of the show. He explained how a meteor shower and an earthquake had morphed over the years into an alien craft crash-landing on the mountain. “Fantastic stories, wonderful mythology, but there’s no evidence,” Roberts said.
“It’s the bloody Andy Roberts show!” Scott roared.
Soon after this, Margaret suffered a stinging defeat. A different television producer was interested in her work, and she shared what she knew about the five “professionals” who claimed to have seen aliens landing. This television producer was able to verify they had invented the story as an amusing ruse over copious pints of ale. She thought about the old map that had convinced her so easily to believe in them, and how they must have faked it. It was difficult to face the fact that she had spent years as the butt of a mean-spirited prank. The principle that guided her, to believe those she had reason to trust, had failed her.
Margaret was in her late-eighties by now — the case had dragged her from the precipice of old age into its challenging center — but still returned periodically to the Berwyn Mountains area to tease out new witnesses. Nevertheless, her energy was waning. She had recently lost her eldest son to a heart attack, followed by her husband, followed closely by her sister and eldest daughter. She blocked out the deaths of her children, filing them away in the same dark recesses of her mind where she kept the memories of India and civil war. After she lost her husband, she was struck with the knowledge that she would never again be the most important person in someone’s life. Scott would still call often, but the Berwyn story had gone quiet. Margaret drafted a lonely-hearts advert for the local paper: “Artist/writer seeks 80’s car driving good-natured, non religious man. Interests: History, Art, Politics, UFOs and Travel.” No suitors came of it. She lost interest in finding a publisher for the two books she had written and self-published about her lifetime of UFO research, Link to the Stars and Who are They?, and accepted that her glory days were past. Not owning a computer shielded her from the increasingly outlandish, unprofessional and back-stabbing world of ufology.
Scott did not have that luxury. It felt as if Roberts the denier was always at his heels, galling him by continuing to roll out the same claims that Scott had refuted. Taking one last pass through Margaret’s notes, he spotted a record of a phone call with Mike Saville back in 1996, shortly after Margaret had interviewed the nurse. Margaret remembered the interview and the fact that Saville had been living in the South of England at the time. Could they try again to contact him, Scott asked? If genuine, he could be a very significant witness, and one that she had overlooked at the time. Margaret no longer considered herself an active investigator. She was in excellent shape for someone approaching their nineties, but she’d given away many of her books, she tired more easily, and her memories were becoming softer with time. Where she found the strength to say, yes, let’s do it, I’ll help you, she doesn’t know — perhaps her parents’ work ethic, her own enduring curiosity, or her desire to give Scott what he wanted. Margaret thought Saville had been living with his mother in Bournemouth back in the nineties so, with no telephone number or address for him, Scott looked up every Saville in the Bournemouth area and handed Margaret a list. By chance, the first person she called was Saville’s mother, who said her son had moved back to Wales. In the summer of 2014, Margaret and Scott met Saville at the farm where he’d been living back in 1974, and he told the story in person.
Their white-washed slate cottage was perched on a steep incline above the village of Llandderfel, where the nurse lived, and it had a clear view of the mountaintops. Saville and his wife were reading when the slate-walled house had started to tremble and shake. Saville stepped out of the front door, where he spotted a bright, circular light in front of him. It was orange and had a defined edge, like the falling sun. The couple, whose baby was asleep upstairs, were terrified. They bundled the baby into a carrier and rushed to their neighbor’s farm, which had a telephone line, to hear reports of mayhem in the village. They then walked back up to Saville’s house and, at 9.10pm, they stood gazing at this curious ball of light as it hung on the horizon. The thing had been so huge they thought the world was coming to an end. At 9.20pm, the object sunk down below the horizon and disappeared.
Hearing Saville describe this for the first time, Scott could scarcely believe his ears and hurriedly unfolded his Ordinance Survey maps of the area. He bracketed Saville’s and Pat’s possible sight-lines on the map, and then checked the elevation of the hills where they intersected. Sure enough, in between Saville and Cadair Berwyn, there was a smaller hill. The mountainside behind it would have been visible to Pat, but not to Saville. He could therefore say with some certainty that the object must have dipped down out of Saville’s view, but remained on the mountainside at least until 10pm when Pat saw it. The timelines and sightlines dovetailed perfectly.
They drove to the spot where the nurse and her daughters had stopped, a spot Scott now knew well. It was overcast, but the peaks were clearly visible. Scott peered through the telescopic sights of his rifle then studied his Ordinance Survey map again.
“Within a couple of hundred square yards, that is the point where the UFO sat,” he said, looking up and tapping the map with satisfaction.
Simple geometry suggested that, based on the light cast by the object, it was spherical, and huge by human standards, as much as 22 meters in diameter. Scott later went on foot to inspect the location and search for signs of disturbed land. Some forty years had gone by, he reminded himself, trying to quell the foolish hope that these visitors had left behind some clue. Sure enough, he found nothing but grass, gorse, and sheep and fox poo.
He was nevertheless eminently pleased. Saville’s interview represented a major breakthrough in the case. Independently corroborated reports of simultaneous sightings like this were unusual and something the debunkers would struggle to ignore. At the end of their interview with Saville, Scott looked fondly at Margaret, his partner, friend, and mentor. “This is in the bag,” he said to her with a wry smile. Margaret maintained her composure. She had become sage in her old age and was so comfortable with her beliefs that she no longer sought the validation of major breakthroughs. What Saville had told them was just more of what she had already known.
Old age was starting to rob her of memories, but it would never take away her passion or convictions. She realized just then that her fear of heights had subsided for the first time since her youth in the Himalayas. Neither she nor Scott had considered it as they drove up the narrow mountain road that day.
Having compiled all of the available evidence, Scott believes today that a UFO had been landing and taking off repeatedly in the days and weeks leading up to the night of January 1974. Not wishing to generate widespread panic, government intelligence operatives chose the night of the meteor shower to conduct a covert operation to shoo it off, using the meteorites as cover. “I know it sounds daft,” he concedes with a smile, cradling a cup of tea in a quaint tourist’s tearoom in his hometown of Llangollen. He recognizes that the jigsaw puzzle will likely never be complete.
Margaret has spent over sixty years trying to make the public see that the universe is more fantastical than we could ever imagine. Her desire to spread the truth about UFOs has not wavered once, despite the fact that public opinion has swung against her in her lifetime. In the UK, belief in UFOs is declining, but history shows that humans have long since projected their hopes and fears onto species from other planets; from the 1940s space brothers who could deliver us from the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation, to the evil aliens of the 1970s whom our leaders conspired to conceal from us. Today, the future of humanity is becoming ever less certain. Not a day goes by without a large-scale cyber-attack, devastating news of widespread ecosystem collapse, extreme weather, or the ongoing threat of nuclear warfare. If UFOs are an expression of cultural mass hysteria, what place is there for them today?
The great-grandmother of British ufology, Margaret doesn’t mind that UFO sightings are routinely derided. She believes they pose a threat to our anthropocentric global order. The world of ufology has changed vastly during her time; researchers who were once part of her fellowship have moved on or died, and the discipline has been transformed by digital technology. Ufology no longer provides the regular sense of meaning and community that Margaret needs; what matters to her most is family. For four generations, no blood relative had shown the slightest interest in her UFO work, dismissing it as harmless bunk. To her surprise, her teenage great-grandson, an electro-funk DJ, recently started asking questions about ufology and expressed a genuine interest in her work. It was the first time anyone in her family had wanted to understand it. Now, when he visits her in Wales, they speak at length about UFOs and other strange phenomena. A sense of ease has settled over her.
No one has managed to adequately explain what Pat saw that night. Pat herself, now in her eighties, remains mystified by it. As science continues to unpack the universe’s blueprints, Margaret’s half-century of research may become a valuable resource, a window onto one of the planet’s most enduring mysteries and one of the greatest sagas of our age.
Jessica Hatcher-Moore is a British journalist and author living on a hillside in North Wales, where she writes about improbable things.