Last August Gill and I, along with our friends Liz and Robin Puttick, drove down to the ancient stone circle of Avebury in order to view some of the crop circles, which in 2009 had yielded a bumper harvest of around seventy magnificent crop designs in this part of Wiltshire. But a long pub lunch and torrential downpours of rain had prevented us from exploring as much of this area as we had hoped, so our main experience was confined to a large Aztec or Mayan hummingbird design, which looked wonderful in an aerial photograph, but quite abstract at ground level. However, the 'croppies' or crop circle enthusiasts we met walking to and from this wheat-sculpted hummingbird were all enthusiastically informative about what other mystifying patterns were accessible in the area. So after being completely drenched on our final attempt to walk towards another circle, we resolved that we should return next year and hire a helicopter to see these patterns from above. Be warned, crop circle hunting can be addictive.

So at midday on Monday August 16th the four of us squeezed into a small helicopter that Liz and Robin had kindly hired and arranged. The pilot was somewhat non-relational during our forty-minute flight over the Avebury landscape: with its great temple of standing stones, ancient burial mounds, the enigmatic flat pyramid known at Silbury Hill, and the primitive white horses that are carved into the chalk face of its rolling hills.

From an altitude of 1300 feet the six crops circles we saw that day were extremely impressive, as they revealed their symmetrical beauty amidst the patchwork of Wiltshire's arable wheat fields, the remainder of which were soon to be harvested. From the air the scale of these circles dwarfed all of the sacred sites around Avebury, with several of the most elaborate designs appearing within the tranquil Vale of Pewsey. The most astonishing of these was a series of twelve increasingly larger circles that extended along a linear axis, with various concentric and interlocking rings around many of these circles and a wide horn-like crescent protruding above its topmost circle. This intricate crop pattern probably measured over 500 feet in length and first appeared in the East Field at Alton Barnes on August 3rd. In a nearby field at Alton Priors was a complex interlocking double circular design that had evidently appeared a week earlier, which we later wandered around in and again found to be abstract in its maze-like complexity.

In an elevated parking area that overlooked these two big crop circles was an encampment where about twenty croppies had pitched their tents and camper vans for the culmination of this year's crop circle season. One of these travelers told us how disappointed they were to have seen a group of all too human 'circle-makers' creating this design during the night before the recorded date of its appearance. From his point of view this was not a 'real' circle formed from intelligent supernatural or extraterrestrial energies, but a 'fake' circle made with the worldly tools of ropes, planks, plastic piping and innovative measuring devices. A common belief amongst the croppies or 'cerealogists' is that 80% of crop circles are fake circles made by human ingenuity, and 20% are real circles made by mysterious sonic energies or aerial balls of light that imprint these complex patterns from searing blueprints of intense microwave energy. The belief systems that support these 'genuine circles' is based on their supporters' scientific evidence of changes in the cell structure of the cereal plants themselves, and on the experiential evidence of the sensations produced from these bursts of energy, such as elation, dizziness, nausea, and the reported failure of some electronic and magnetic devices. The mysterious balls of light have also been reported and filmed by several crop circle hunters, whose videos can be viewed on youtube and various crop circle websites.

Either way the methods of their creation are hotly debated, with the rationalists basing their certainty on the legacy of Dave Chorley and Doug Bower, popularly known as 'Dave and Doug', who made news headlines in 1991 after revealing how they had been surreptitiously making crop circles at night for the past fifteen years. Since then the new generations of circle-makers have become far more sophisticated in their complex use of geometry, mathematics and symbolic imagery, much of which does indeed seem to border on an almost sublime level of transcendental intelligence. Since Dave and Doug first went public a whole crop circle industry has now sprung up in Wiltshire, boosted by the number of tourists to the increasingly popular ancient sites of Stonehenge and Avebury. There are now annual crop circle conventions, occasional competitions and commissions, and the inevitable merchandise of crop circle books, calendars, photographs and t-shirts.

There is even a brand of Crop Circle beer, which is regularly served at the Barge Inn near Alton Barnes, which has now become the Mecca for all enthusiastic crop circle hunters, often with the shadowy figures of the circle-makers themselves sitting quietly in a corner absorbing praise for their most recent creations. For it is hard to believe that human hands could ever have created a crop circle such as the 'Milk Hill Galaxy', which manifested during a single night at Alton Barnes in August 2001. Especially as it was extremely wet and windy that night, and the circle was evidently first noticed at daybreak by a local farmer. The Milk Hill Galaxy measured 780 feet in diameter and consisted of 409 separate circles that were meticulously arranged within a complex assembly of six spiraling arms. This formation was so big that it was not possible to see its full extent from any of the circles at ground level, but when viewed from the sky it was completely perfect in its mathematical symmetry. However, the credit for making this circle was later claimed by the English artist John Lundberg and his group of assistants, known as the 'circlemakers'.

Perhaps because of the recession only about fifty crop circles have appeared in Wiltshire this year, manifesting in fields of borage, rape seed, barley and wheat as the summer season progresses, and their average size is about 200 feet. Circles now commonly appear in many other countries across the world, and may manifest in rice or maize field crops, snow and ice, and reputedly even sometimes in the canopies of dense forests. I first became aware of the crop circle phenomena in 1963, when the astronomer Patrick Moore was asked to investigate some circles in an English wheat field, which were thought to have been created by a flying saucers. UFO's have also been linked to other circles that appeared in Australia and Canada during the 60's and 70's: and the earliest record of a crop circle is the famous 'mowing devil' that is depicted in a news pamphlet from August 22nd 1678, which must have been an end of season wheat circle like the ones we so recently saw. All of this year's crop of circles will have been harvested by now, some on the very day of their appearance by irate farmer's who no longer appreciate these 'temporary temples' as modern masterpieces of landscape art and the intruding cerealogists who come to investigate them. Yet the enchanting memory of their mystery will remain with us, and we look forward to returning to Wiltshire again next summer, for a sense of wonder is always such a precious thing.

East Field, Alton Barnes, appeared August 3rd

East Field, Alton Priors, appeared July 26th

Northdowns, Beckhampton, appeared August 13th

Stanton Bridge, appeared August 8th

Windmill Hill, appeared July 27th

Lurkeley Hill, Woodsend, appeared August 3rd

Alton Priors wheat field, appeared July 26th