On 11 November 2008, the Walthamstow Guardian reported that a young man, fishing with his father and brother at Hollow Ponds saw a “strange dark figure. It was hunched over and I could see it had a really hairy back… It definitely looked like a bear.” A local park keeper, however, remained sure that it wasn’t: “The biggest animals we’ve got in the woods are foxes.” The newspaper maintained the expected degree of scepticism, with a headline reading “Is Bigfoot on the loose in the woods?” and comments along the lines of “keep taking the tablets”. Following the initial report, another witness came forward (Wanstead & Woodford Guardian, 17 Nov 2008; see FT246:25). What the newspapers failed to point out was that these were not the first ‘bear’ sightings in the area.
According to the website Beastwatch UK, there have been reports of a “bear-like animal” on nearby Hackney Marshes dating back to the 1970s, though its best-documented appearance was on 27 December 1981, when four young boys reported seeing “a giant great growling hairy thing” while they were out playing [see FT37:45–46; 200:30]. Further details turn up on the Saturday Strangeness section of the Londonist website (Part 49, The Horror of Hackney Marshes), according to which the boys had found large, unidentifiable animal tracks in the snow. The police took them seriously and searched the Marshes, finding more tracks, one “on an island which had a perimeter fence and a locked gate”. The same article says that two headless bear carcases had been found in the River Lea the previous year.
A variant version of this account turns up on the Freaky Trigger blogsite, where it was the police investigation into the (now three) children’s report that uncovered the big paw prints, as well as finding “the headless bodies of three skinned bears in the canal”. The circumstances of this spectacular discovery aren’t detailed, so we don’t know why the police, looking for a live bear that had scared the children, dragged the canal for a dead one. Perhaps the ursine corpses were floating and bobbed up naturally during the search.
This item produced a response from someone claiming that in 1975 he had been one of three youths who came across a large number of skinned big cats (tigers, lions and pumas). This grisly find might be related to a startling suggestion made about the skinned bears – that their fate resulted from “a feud between rival circuses”. If there were two feuding circuses in the area busy abducting and skinning one another’s animals, I’m surprised we haven’t heard more about them. Such large predators as bears, lions and tigers would anyway constitute an unlikely target of choice – I doubt the animals would have been the only fatalities involved.
Move to another website: in its entry for Bear, the Politically Incorrect Alphabet includes the story, apparently from the 1980s, of a “giant corpse” (by implication, human) found on Hackney Marshes minus head, hands and feet. The autopsy proved it to be a skinned bear. Would a skinned bear be sufficiently large to pass for a “giant” cadaver? (Are we talking polar or grizzly here?) Indeed, even without paws and head, could it ever have looked enough like a human corpse to have made it as far as the autopsy room? This tempting account raises the score to two skinned bears in the River Lea, three in a canal, and one (presumably) on land, all decapitated, and one minus its paws. Added to this are the two sightings of what were perceived to be live bears, plus an unspecified number of skinned big cats. Oh, and a sitcom: in 1997, The Detectives (starring Jasper Carrott and Robert Powell) included an episode called The Beast of Hackney Marshes, suggesting that someone, at least, was picking up on the earlier stories.
But what does it all mean? There have, inevitably, been claims of hoaxing; that in 1981 the boys were frightened by a joker in a bear (or gorilla) suit, haunting the Marshes simply to scare people. This half-hearted rationalisation raises more questions than it answers. Are realistic bear-suits so easy to acquire and amusing to prance about in? Even allowing for the shock of an unexpected appearance, would a man in a bear-suit really convince a group of boys that he was a “giant great growling” creature? He also left tracks, readily found because the Marshes were covered in snow. It takes a really determined joker to lurk about in the snow in the hope of startling someone. Were the tracks incidental or part of the game, and was he still out there making them while the police began their search (accompanied, we are ominously told, by “marksmen”)? Of course, the boys could simply have been lying, although the police were convinced they seemed genuinely scared. Assuming human intervention, whether the lads made up their story or reported their genuine sighting of a costumed prankster, we’re left with the question: why a bear? Even if a hoax, does the incident reflect awareness of those reports going back to the 1970s or of the alleged discovery of skinned bears in the Lea, and thus, by ostension, reinforce a bizarre local motif?
Assembling this tangled tale of attested sightings and unexplained cadavers, I looked up “fossil bears” and “Walthamstow”. And, yes indeed, the fossilised bones of bears have been found in the Lea Valley. Are there still memory traces of those prehistoric giant bears lumbering around Walthamstow?