Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Beasts, bugs and Bracken Tor…


It seems like an age since I last scribbled a blog, so without further ado…

Beasts - The Mysterious Beasts Research Group (based on Bodmin Moor!), invited some of us disbelievers and sceptics along to a 'tracking night', two evenings ago. The idea was to camp out, in the woods near Golitha Falls, to experience what the group get up to in an evening. The woods flank one edge, the wilder side, of the famous Bodmin Moor (Jamaica Inn, 'Beast of Bodmin Moor' and of course, Matilda Fly's very own 'Two Faced-Bride of Bodmin Moor'). For more pics, try this Google search: Bodmin Moor.

The ancient and mysterious Bodmin Moor.

The Moor - It's an ancient place, of whispering reeds and weather beaten trees, all shaped by the weather, history and personality of the place. But, it wasn't always like that. The moor is actually a man-made environment, shaped over thousands of years; there was once a wild, dense and dark forest, where old mine buildings now stand, naked to the elements. Think 'Fangorn Forest' from The Lord of the Rings, and you'll get a decent picture of what it must have looked like. The ancient people cut down the trees, to build the many villages and towns which still haunt the moorland world, as ghosts on aerial photography.

The Bronze Age people were late arrivals to the moor.

Their way of life, and knowledge of the ancient natural world, is as mysterious as the moor itself. Those unknown times were a turning point, in history, when man decided to utilise the forest, rather than revere it. Obviously, this is one of the themes explored in Barrow Hill, and it's sequel 'Bracken Tor', so the 'Beast Night' would prove to be great research for that particular project.

A massive Ent of a tree, with creeping vines and several canopies.

The Experiment - As most of you know, I am more of a 'ghosts' person myself, so haven't really delved into the legends of mysterious beasts, crypto-zoology and unexplained animal sightings. For every 'Black Dog of the Moor', there's a Nessie (Loch Ness Monster) sighting. I'll be honest, they never seem to impress me, or prove anything, apart from our desire to believe in such wonders. So, a chance to hang out, in the landscape, with those that state, without doubt, that such creatures exist was a chance not to be missed. Matt Clark, writer and creator of Barrow Hill provided my invite, so I expected to be set-up, and hoaxed…just a little. But, fact is, it was spooky enough, without the pranks and teasing. The ancient forest may be gone, but the earth itself is still rich with the rotting matter, roots and fossilised remains of that once leafy world. I found it strange, to think that I would be sleeping on the graves of such natural antiquity; basically, could the moor be haunted by a landscape long since gone? Could the animals, that once roamed that forest (lions, tigers, bears…oh my!), still enter our world, like spirit animals, unaware that their habitat is no more. A spooky, and melancholy, notion.

Notice this map is dotted with Hut Circles, Stone monoliths, ancient stone rings, etc's a Lord of the Rings world all of its own.

The Night - Steve, leader of the pack, is a huge beast of a man himself, and knows pretty much all there is to know about animal tracks, fur, gnawed bones and…of course, everyone's favourite…poo! He is one of those experts, like you see on natural history shows, that tracks animals by scent, snapped twigs and the occasional bit of disturbed leafage. It's a very impressive talent, which reminded me of that uncanny sense the aboriginal tribes of Australia share, where they seem spititually attached to the world they inhabit. I am envious of that kind of skill, to be honest. Spending time with those folks, in the wild, reminds you how domesticated and uninvolved you are, in the natural world. (Note: But, I also love my PS3 and microwave oven, so I'm not going native anytime soon!). But, tonight was the night to get back to nature, stare into the darkness, and see if anything was staring back. Would those eyes be physical or supernatural?

As well as Steve, we were joined by Cath and three members of the MBRG. Cath is a woman after my own heart - a technical whiz, with a love of gadgets, a brave heart and some seriously impressive walking boots (ex-Army clompers). She came armed with laser trip wires, camera traps, night-vision and all sorts of monitoring equipment. Both she and I would be based in the lower woods, well away from the moorland edge, so our human smells would not disturb any wild beasts prowling the open landscape. Exciting! Steve, Matt, and the other members, were taking the upper ridge, closer to the moor, and closer to the action. There are reports of animal carcasses, stripped trees and dung heaps in that area. So, if these beasts really exist, THIS area is likely to be the feeding ground.

One of many bones, scattered throughout the woodland - someone's dinner, perhaps? Something big, wild and exotic?

So, as you can imagine, I was feeling a bit weirded out by the idea of attending a 'Beast Hunt'. As a fearful fan of The Blair Witch Project, I couldn't help feel the night was going to be quite an experience. It was! Here's the event, as it happened…

21:00 - Just enough light to set up my tent. I've been 'told off' for not having a cammo-fabric version, army style. So, I have to set up in the bracken. It's itchy and full of bugs. I have a signal, yay, so have sent off a few messages to Facebook. I thought it would be reassuring, but instead, my so-called 'freinds' laughed about how they'll find my 'shredded body, and piece it back together' as some sort of gory adventure slider puzzle. Thanks!

21:30 - Mozzies. Damn critters. The woods are really buzzing with insects, and the heat is intense. A Cornish woodland can take on a really tropical feel, in these conditions. It's not exactly Borneo, I know!, but I'm finding the place very dark, hot and alive.

Hurrah! My home for the night. Bit bright, I am told.

22:00 - I got to see some (blurry or distant) images of beast sightings, from the MBRG scrapbook. Some may have seen this kind of thing, in your local press, where dog walkers, ramblers and other everyday folk, have seen large predators stalking through their neighbourhood. It's pointed out, that many of these sightings are made by those with no previous interest in the phenomena. Interesting.

22:45 - Monitors! I love a bit of surveillance activity, and this is great. I'm used to staring at domestic interiors, on screens throughout the night, as part of the ghost-hunting activities, so this natural world makes a lovely change. Plus, there's loads to see. The woods are alive with mice, rabbits, foxes and badgers, all using the well trodden animal paths. These paths look like nothing during the day (a muddy patch here, a few bits of fur on a bramble there), but operate as a wildlife superhighway by night.

A camera trap, and image feed. The 4 LEDs on the cam give off infared light, picked up by the cam, and sent to us, watching far away on a monitor. Cool.

23:00 - I've heard from Matt and Steve, who say that conditions were good for a sighting. The night is gloomy, with the moon hidden behind cloud, but the weather is good (hot!), and very still. The woods, too, are very still. The last of the birds have settled in, for the night, and the trees watch us silently, barely a branch moving. The sound, though, is bizarre; crickets, weevils, mosquitoes and marshflies fill the air. I've stopped thinking about the Blair Witch, and started thinking about Predator instead! Perhaps I am not as good a 'nature' person as I previously thought.

There are noises all around, but nothing to see. The forest creatures are good at playing 'hide and seek'.

00:30 - Crying! There is a baby crying, somewhere in the woods! A frightening, and bizarre experience. "Who, or why, would anyone have a baby out here, in the witching hour?"…damn, she's back! The Blair Witch is back in my head. Babies, witches, woodlands, druids, blood sacrifice…argh! Stop, stop, stop! Thankfully, Cath is on hand to give me a good slap a reassuring perspective. Young deer, I am told, make such noises. It's the right time of year for fawns to be calling to their parents, and 'yes', it does sound very human. I am not convinced, so my anxiety is increasing. What if Cath is wrong?! I still wonder if some of the 'beast sightings' are supernatural?

My mate, Mr.Antenna. Bless 'im.

00:35 - Matt and Steve have reported in. They can also hear the sounds, which they describe as 'mewing'. Hmm, sorry but 'mewing' does not sound like a baby crying. Hmmpff. But, the MBRG do this kind of thing, "all of the time", all over the country (weirdos!). I still regret leaving the ghost-hunting gadgets at home. Steve also thinks the deer may bring the 'beast' closer to our corner of the moor. Oh goody.

00:40 - The group have gathered together, away from the moorland edge. Everything is set up, and we're ready to go. Hopefully, one of our cams will capture something amazing. Atmosphere in the camp is brilliant. I've felt this sort of buzz, before, on the larger ghost-hunts, but the woodland setting feels really intense, and new. The owls are calling, across the landscape, and it really feels like something was about to happen…

01:00 - I hear about Matt's trip to the top, and what they saw on the ridge. There are a lot of deer mingling with the moorland ponies. It sounds like a lovely scene, but I can't help think it sounds like a safari. The wild plains of Cornwall, waiting for a bloody natural drama to begin. The hunt! Many farmers, in these parts, are insisting that a beast does indeed stalk the moors, killing many young lambs, for their dinner. Seriously! It dents their profits to such an extent that huge government offices, like DEFRA, have called upon folks like the MBRG, to investigate areas like the moor, to prove, one way or the other, whether this is a real, and serious, issue. Hmm, that could account for the MBRG's budget!

02:30 - Definitely deer! They are gorgeous. I've seen these lovelies many times, while I've been in Cornwall, but it's always a fleeting glimpse, caught in the car headlights…and then GONE. But, there they are, hopping over the woodland boundaries (a good metre and a half of bracken and gorse bushes), and into the woods…with us. They are so agile, and graceful, and…SPOOKED.

02:50 - The deer have legged it. They entered the woods, to get off the moor. We are now totally convinced that something is tracking their scent. I am still wondering what we'll see. Obviously, a massive black panther would be cool, but it would be so, damn physical! What if the deer were spooked by something unknown to us, but visible to these nocturnal creatures? Ghosts of the wild?

03:00 - Badgers! Awww, bless 'em. They really know how to make you feel more comfortable. Bumbling, daft things. They are digging in amongst the roots and trees stumps, eating worms and bugs. They don't seem particularly spooked, so I am also feeling much more relaxed. A bit of fatigue is also creeping in, so I'm taking my weary self off to the tent, to have a nap.

05:00 - Damp, tired and aching. Boo hoo. The plan is to be on the ridge for the dawn, (now!), as it's a favourite hunting time, supposedly. The early morning light is enough to see by, so I'm shocked at the mess inside my tent. I live like a pig, in the dark!

What a mess - never invite me round for tea.

05:30 - I have been shown some of the oddments and weird things that Steve and Matt found last night. The bones are a bit creepy, and the poo pile is just wrong! Badgers have been marking their territory, against rival badger clans…and maybe something more. Hmm. Also, there's loads of evidence; scratched trees, claw marked earth and animal tracks. These are the best! Really big paw prints, in the mud. There's also some copperish coloured fur on the barbwire. I wonder if it's a fox, but the strands are very short, and thick. More like bristles...

Some badger poo. Nice. I went to bed after seeing this...I'd had enough!

06:00 - It's a lovely morning. Any thought's and fears about Blair Witches, Wererabbits and Predators have gone. Gone back to the dark corners of the imagination. I've survived the night, seen some brilliant things, and got a real buzz from the experience. But…any beasts? Not as yet. The MBRG have several hours worth of recordings to get through, so we will have to wait. For now, this is Jonathan Boakes, one of the last remaining crew of Alpha Camp, signing off…and going to sleep.



Afterthoughts - Certainly an interesting night, that really inspires some good adventure game scenes. Matt Clark and I are now busy putting finishing touches to Barrow Hill 2 (Bracken Tor), with gusto. It feels like the game has taken an age to reach this stage, but this is what happens when one has to spend half the year tracking down misbehaving publishers, and take them to court. It can really put you off making games altogether. Which is the sad thing. But, with the right attitude, and hope for the future, it is still possible to make adventures and not have a miserable time. It is the game itself that is important, and the experience you have making it.

One of the long abandoned Tin Mine shafts...spooky places.

That bizarre night on the moors was just the ticket to get that good attitude flowing again. Things feel positive. It's a blast making games, and entertaining people with our mad little stories, so no-one, no matter how bent or deluded, can dent that. Games may be late, and mine will be later yet again!, but we DO get there eventually. I'm now working on Barrow Hill 2 - Bracken Tor with Shadow Tor Studios (thanks Matt!), so expect to spot some of my usual bits and bobs, here and there. It's really cool to work on a non-ghost game, and focus on archaeology and the ancient landscape. It's a creepy interest, shared by all involved, which is bound to create a good ol'yarn and enjoyable puzzle-driven adventure game.

Dark rites and pagan offerings in Bracken Tor - Time of Tooth and Claw.

Bracken Tor & The Moor - The landscape of Bodmin really is a spooky place, deep in legend and rich with folklore. The idea of combining the ancient people, stone circles, druidism and our modern times is a delicious one. The game, like the first one, explores how we (the modern folk) approach these dark places and rituals, and how the sites appear to us today. Those eerie monoliths, out on the moor, weren't always jutting from the naked peat, like Stoneage gravestones…no, they were once surrounded by deep forests of rowan, oak and pine. The Bronze Age people conducted ceremonies and rites, at these locations, which Matt can only hint at in his screenplay.

What Bracken Tor provides, and this really is exciting, is time travel! Both you and I can travel back and forth between the two time lines. Ancient and modern, then and now. We will discover what the ancient stones signified; we will learn their real purpose, and the role they played in those olden times. What bizarre acts took place, amongst the stones and trees?

In a way, I am glad that I didn't dwell on these matters, too much, while camped out 'there' on the Tor. Big, fierce wild cats are one thing, but the habits and ceremonies of those early civilisations really chill me to the bone. TV archaeology likes to paint a rosy image of those times, to educate and inform, but there WAS blood, sacrifice and devout pagan belief. It was a period of fear, and reverence, and horror...

...It was the time of Tooth and Claw.