Of all the myriad of English idiosyncrasies, the phenomenon of crop circles is among the best.
Although such formations have appeared worldwide, from California to the rice paddies of Indonesia, south-west England is the world capital of crop circles. They are particularly concentrated in the county of Wiltshire, where a treasure trove of ancient history includes the Neolithic sites of Stonehenge and Avebury – both crop circle hotspots – Wilshire is home to 80% of the U.K.’s crop circles.
Carving artwork into the landscape is an age-old tradition in these parts; chalk horses adorn eight hillsides in Wiltshire; while the U.K.’s oldest geoglyph, the stunning Bronze Age Uffington White Horse, sits just across the border in Oxfordshire. Reports of mysterious patterns appearing in wheat, barley and corn fields in the area began to circulate in the 1970s, but it was in the late ’80s that the phenomenon exploded. Circles began to appear more frequently, and became far more ornate: some resembled trippy fractals; others rune-like hieroglyphs; others, stylised animals, recalling those of the Nazca Lines in Peru.
The intricacy and size of the formations, coupled with the fact that they would appear overnight, seemingly out of nowhere, have baffled locals and farmers alike. In 1996, a crop circle appeared opposite Stonehenge depicting a mathematical fractal called a Julia set; a similar formation that emerged on Milk Hill in 2001 was one of the largest ever, stretching 900ft. A 2008 formation near the Iron Age hill fort of Barbury Castle required decoding by an astrophysicist, who concluded that it was a geometric representation of the first 10 digits of pi. English idiosyncracies is hardly an adequate description for these quirks.
The phenomenon peaked in the 1990s and the early 2000s, but continues today; an average of 30 crop circles appear each year in the U.K. Formations reported in 2021 have included a hexagonal pattern overlaid with spirals in Avebury, and a pattern of concentric “bubbles” in Tidworth Down. Crop circle season usually begins at the end of May, with the first ripening of the barley, and ends by September when the harvesting of the crops cuts away the circle canvasses.
As the number of crop circles has grown, so has the mythology surrounding them. Some invoke the theory of ley lines: mystical seams of spiritual energy that intersect at sacred sites like Avebury and Stonehenge. Others claim that the circles are created by an extra-terrestrial intelligence attempting to warn humanity about climate change, nuclear war and similar existential threats. One, in May 2020, even appeared in the shape of a coronavirus, leading to feverish speculation that crop circles are trying to give us clues about immunology and Covid-19.
Ears of wheat prickled my shins and the sun beat down on my neck as I trudged through the tractor lines of a golden field on Wiltshire’s Hackpen Hill. It was August – the height of crop circle season – and I’d been directed here by frenzied online reports of a new formation, which had appeared, as they are wont to do, overnight; apparently unseen by observers. From the ground, I could make out nothing but intersecting lines of trampled wheat – but photographed from above the pattern resembled a crosshair. Was this the nexus for some kind of potent Earth energy? Or, terrifyingly, a target for extra-terrestrial weaponry? In this instance, something more mundane. “That’s the logo of the Barge Inn down in Honeystreet,” chuckled a fellow visitor, a potbellied man in a Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt. “Probably man-made, this one.” A tribute, perhaps, to English idiosyncrasies.
Then there are the sceptics. As long ago as the 19th Century, scientist John Rand Capron described basic flattened circles in crops and suggested they could be caused by “cyclonic wind”, a theory later echoed by Stephen Hawking, but this does not explain the complex formations more common today.
There is much that remains enigmatic about crop circles, even to local farmers, many of whom have tired of the whole thing, and now deter their crop-trampling visitors by cutting out any formations as soon as they appear.
One farmer spoke of watches stopping inside circles and recording equipment inexplicably failing during a visit from the BBC’s Newsround in 1991. He has allowed companies, including Nissan, to build corporate crop circles in his fields for use in advertising, but claims that just a basic design took professionals 12 hours of daylight to produce, in contrast to the circles that appear quickly in the dead of night. “Some of the circles are mysterious, without doubt,” he said. “Sometimes the crops appear woven, lying one way and another on top of each other. That would take hours and hours to do by hand.”
The mystery, and the intrigue, remain and long may they do so. I think we all crave something that cannot be explained. Why else would religion exist!