UK X-Files: Five Unsolved Mysteries From the British Isles

By James O Malley on at

For the first time in 14 years, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are back on our screens. The X-Files has returned for a six-episode mini-series starting tonight on Channel 5, kicking off with the series debut at 9pm. And this got us the truth really out there? It isn’t just Roswell in New Mexico that's well known for its supposed alien encounters: Britain is a veritable treasure trove of extra-terrestrial stories too. So here’s a selection of UFO mysteries from closer to home.

Rendlesham Forest

What has become known as the “Rendlesham Forest Incident” is arguably the best known British UFO tale. In 1980, US Air Force personnel who were stationed at RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk claimed that they saw lights descending into the Rendlesham Forest. And this is where the tale gets murky.

Supposedly they saw a glowing, metallic object with coloured lights. Sergeant Jim Penniston even goes as far as saying that he saw a “craft of unknown origin”, though this isn’t corroborated by anyone else who was there.

Was it an alien craft coming into land? Or just a downed aircraft? In the morning, on returning to the spot where it happened, they found three triangles burned into the ground, with branches knocked from nearby trees. A couple of days later, when taking a radiation reading, more flashing lights were seen.

So was it ET finally paying Earth a visit? Ufologists have uncovered official memos regarding the incident, as well as an audio tape made by Lt Col Charles Halt, who was deputy base commander. But this seems far from a smoking gun. Though to this day, it has never been fully explained.

The Thetford Triangle

In Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, Rob Brotherton tells the story of Steve Regan. Steve was an RAF Flight Sergeant who was on guard duty one at the RAF’s Barnham Camp (not a million miles away from Rendlesham Forest, oddly) in the mid-90s when suddenly a flurry of police officers turned up, demanding to be let in. RAF Barnham was in the middle of the so-called “Thetford Triangle”, a supposed hotbed of paranormal activity, and there had been reports of a UFO taking off from the camp and flying over Thetford.

Apparently the police insisted that Regan take them out on to the training area so they could investigate. Lucky for Steve then, who was being viewed suspiciously, that they conveniently bumped into a group of recruits who were training with flares – and they were able to explain away the “UFO” by firing another and demonstrating how the air currents may affect them. Despite this though, the officers remained suspicious that Steve was covering something up.

Author Rob explained that this story is a good demonstration of how people are so willing to believe extraordinary things – even when there are seemingly reasonable explanations. He told me:

“The story Steve Reagan told me about the Thetford Triangle is definitely one of my favourites – mainly because he was at the centre of it, and so he experienced what it's like when someone thinks you're covering something like that up. He described the realisation that when you're up against someone who thinks you're lying, there's absolutely nothing you can do to change their mind. The more you say you're not hiding something, the more it sounds like you are hiding something. Luckily for Steve, he stumbled upon a possible explanation for the UFO sightings that had been reported that night. But even that didn't convince one of the police officers [as] it looked a little too convenient. Heads I win, tails you lose.”

An alien's-eye view of RAF Barnham. Image credit: Historic England

So why UFOs? Why is it always alien conspiracies seem particularly persistent? Why do people still talk about the likes of the Roswell incident?

“There are undoubtedly a lot of interacting reasons for the persistence of the UFO/alien conspiracy theories – some cultural/sociological/political, some psychological. For example, you can see the interaction of culture and psychology in the way reports of ‘flying saucers’ began pouring in shortly after Kenneth Arnold's story [which coined ‘flying saucer’] got widespread coverage in 1947. We often see what we expect to see, and so if you spot something weird in the sky just after you've been reading about flying saucers, your brain might connect the dots.”

Could this persistence be because discovering alien life would be really big news? Perhaps arguably the most important discovery in human history?

“The discovery of alien visitation would be huge, and the discovery that it was being covered up would be even bigger. So it's an appealing narrative – a classic underdog story, where we get to play the role of the scrappy underdog hero by imagining ourselves putting together this secret that They don't want us to have.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a show like The X-Files was so successful?

“I think the X-Files' motto, ‘I want to believe’, really does capture the mindset behind believing an alien visitation cover-up, and a lot of other unorthodox beliefs. Like I write about in the book, the sociologist Colin Campbell came up with the idea of the ‘cultic milieu’ – any time you've got some kind of mainstream consensus (e.g. aliens probably aren't visiting Earth), you'll find people who embrace the idea that the mainstream wisdom is wrong. Which is why so many unusual beliefs can be found in the same circles - at UFO conventions you'll often find not just people who think aliens are flying around above us, but conspiracy people, New Age people, alternative medicine people, etc. They're all united in swimming against the tide when it comes to mainstream thinking. Like the other X-Files motto, ‘The truth is out there’, according to this way of thinking - it's just not where. They are telling you to look.”

If Rob’s analysis is right, it suggests that UFO stories tend to have rather more down to earth explanations. But then.. we would say that, wouldn’t we?

The “Welsh Roswell”

On January 23rd 1974, residents in villages around the Berwyn mountains in Wales reported seeing lights streaking across the sky for several hours. According to UFO Encounters, this was likely a meteor shower.

Berwyn Mountains. Image credit Wikimedia Commons

To make things even weirder, at around 8:30pm there was a huge explosion and the tremors rippled through the area. Apparently on looking out to the mountains, nurse Pat Evans saw a spherical glowing orange light in the mountains. Thinking that this might have been a plane crash (spotting a theme?), she went to see if she could help – but turned back when she realised just how far away the lights were. What was weird though was that no wreckage was ever found.

And so the obvious explanation is… umm… aliens? Because who wouldn’t trust the word of a woman who has already admitted she isn’t great at perceiving distance about an object that is a long way in the distance?

The Falkirk Triangle

Falkirk in Scotland is another hub of extraterrestrial activity, it appears. In 2002, farmer Craig Malcolm told the BBC how he had seen about 180 UFOs in the area – and how he had apparently 13 hours of footage. He spotted his first UFO in 1991, saying:

“We went outside and this thing was above our house. The only way I can describe it is a figure of eight rotating through the sky.

“There was no sound; just pulsating lights coming off it. We videoed it, and when we played it back, we noticed smaller objects coming off it and flying off in opposite directions”

And Craig is far from the only believer – as this rather melodramatic clip from a US documentary shows:

In 1992, the village of Bonnybridge got so worried about UFOs that it elected independent councillor Billy Buchanan, who pledged to investigate. As part of Falkirk council, he held a number of conferences on the UFOs. Sadly though, in 1996 he quit politics citing stress (or perhaps the aliens got to him?).

(And in a curious coda to his story, it appears that he has since got back into politics and is a councillor again… but appears to be concerning himself with more terrestrial matters, like upgrading the canal towpath.)

The Cosford Incident

The man who has been called “The British Fox Mulder”, Nick Pope, who used to run the Ministry of Defence’s UFO Project (yes, that was actually his job – he’s now an author of books on UFOs), reckons the so-called Cosford Incident is perhaps the UK’s most under-appreciated UFO event.

“The Cosford Incident is a name applied to several hundred sightings that occurred over a period of around six hours on 30 and 31 March 1993”, he explained via email. “Two military bases - RAF Cosford and RAF Shawbury - were directly overflown, and military witnesses described a vast triangular-shaped craft several hundred feet in diameter flying slowly over the bases before accelerating away at high Mach speed. I interviewed some of these RAF personnel the following day and their voices were still shaking with emotion.”

Yep – another military story – and searching for details reveals lots of dramatic artists impressions. But was it aliens? One popular theory is that it was test flights of a new type of plane that can hover and fly at supersonic speeds, perhaps a replacement for the SR-71 Blackbird. But obviously, this has never been confirmed.

The Triangle by Simon Hart (1998)

On his website, Nick says that this is the closest the Ministry of Defence have ever got to admitting that a UFO sighting is more than just a hoax or misidentification as the official briefing document prepared for RAF top brass said dryly “there would seem to be some evidence on this occasion that an unidentified object (or objects) of unknown origin was operating over the UK.”

I asked Nick that given how sceptical the British establishment is, what would it actually take for the government to take a UFO claim seriously:

“Having researched and investigated the UFO phenomenon for the government I can testify that the evidence bar is set very high. Sightings from police officers, military personnel and pilots don't constitute proof, however impressive they are. Neither do photos, videos or radar tapes, even when they've been analysed by experts. Definitive proof of extraterrestrial intelligence will necessitate either a signal picked up via a radio telescope (as seen in the movie Contact) or some sort of artefact that can be analysed by scientists. To be flippant, we'd not only need something stamped ‘Made in Alpha Centauri’, but we'd need to be able to validate – e.g. through isotopic analysis – that it hadn't originated on Earth.”

So don’t expect the government to be launching a judge-led inquiry into the Cosford Incident any time soon.