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Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Wednesday, 11 August 2010 13:32 UK
The truth is not out there

Evan Davis
By Evan Davis
Today programme

Computer illustration of UFOs

Let me be completely honest. I do not believe in alien UFOs. Nothing could persuade me that extra-terrestrials are hovering above us or getting ready to drop in for tea.

It is an issue, in fact, on which I am uncharacteristically closed-minded. There is no evidence you could cite that would make me change my mind.

I would always regard it as far more likely that the evidence was planted by earthlings trying to convince of us of UFOs, rather than by Martians themselves.

But am I interested in UFO sightings? You bet.

Evan Davis with author Mark Pilkington and astronomer Ian Ridpath

I love them in the films and documentaries that you find on the channels in the lower reaches of your television's electronic programme guide.

Until this week, that was the only place I had heard of the Rendlesham Forest incident of 26 December 1980.

I have never felt any need to read up about "Britain's Roswell", completely sure as I was that an alien craft had not been seen in the skies over Suffolk.

But nonetheless, this week I went out to the woods to investigate.

Mysterious lights

On Boxing Day 30 years ago, US military personnel stationed near the forest claimed to have witnessed some strange happenings.

They saw a light fall from the sky and, thinking a plane might have crashed, ventured into the woods. There, they saw a flashing light in the trees and lights in the sky. Vintage UFO stuff.

But should we believe that there is any mystery to the episode?

Rendlesham Forest
Rendlesham forest may be the best place to see UFOs in the UK

On Monday night, after dark, I ventured into Rendlesham Forest with the astronomy writer, Ian Ridpath, a scientist who has almost made a career of explaining the incident.

He took me to the place where the airmen reported seeing flashing lights in the sky. There, we were greeted by the sight of the Orford Ness lighthouse a few miles away.

Mr Ridpath was certain that this was what the witnesses to the mysterious lights in the forest were looking at. It is still there now - its light rotating every five seconds.

"It's too good a story to allow to die. It's a combination of events which, when put together, sound inexplicable," he told me.

"But when you look at them individually, the bright light flashing away across the field was the Orford Ness lighthouse; the bright lights that hovered in the sky for several hours were in fact bright stars."

Mystery explained. It was an easy mistake for young Americans a long way from home to make.

Suspicious minds

What I found in the forest on Monday night was not evidence of a UFO, but evidence of how easy it is for the imagination to play tricks.

RENDLESHAM FOREST INCIDENT
On the nights of December 26 and 27 1980, a team of US airmen stationed in Rendlesham Forest reported chasing a "weird phenomena" of lights around the woods
They claimed to have encountered an alien craft and to have located its landing site.
In 2003 a USAF security policeman admitted to fooling the airmen but many still believe there was a cover-up

I am used to forests and I frequently go out after dark, but rarely do I combine the two.

It was unfamiliar terrain and one in which the imagination combines with the indistinct to create odd stories in the head.

For example, at one point a light appeared in the distance. I could hear no noise - something seemed strange. For a moment my pulse rate rose.

It turned out to be a car, but a rather quiet one.

And looking up I found the sky remarkably busy, clear as it was of light pollution.

Mr Ridpath pointed out what looked like an Iridium satellite passing overhead, with its solar panels catching in the sun and given a momentary bright glint above us. On the ground, a glow worm shone out.

All in all, if one was not sceptical, one could conjure up UFO sightings quite easily.

Real conspiracy

Also on the hunt for aliens that night was Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men, a new book on UFO belief, conspiracies and disinformation.

Undated photo purporting to show a UFO
Grainy photos of flying saucers do nothing to assuage conspiracy theories

While we walked back from our view of the alien lighthouse, he explained to me his own version of the UFO conspiracy.

"Everything that the UFO community believe about the UFO cover-up is actually the inverse of what has quite clearly been going on," he told me.

"Various intelligence agencies have actually been encouraging beliefs in flying saucers and extra-terrestrial visitation as a convenient cover for all sorts of operations of their own."

Both Mr Ridpath and Mr Pilkington are both sceptical that aliens have visited earth, but the latter was not always - he has mixed in "ufology" circles.

And his book is not the usual dismissive attack on believers. He accords them the respect that would normally be granted to a foreign religion.

The interesting thing, he says, is not what the Martians are saying to us, but what we are saying about ourselves in believing in them.

It had been a revealing night's walk. But only recommended with a good torch and a spare set of batteries.


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