The quiet country village of Clapham lies just a few miles north of the seaside town of Worthing, nestled snugly in the rolling Downs of West Sussex. Almost the archetypal English village, Clapham consists of a single street (named, appropriately enough, ‘The Street’), a few dozen homes, a post office and a village shop. Its only significant landmark is its 13th-century church, located on a hill to the north of the village, behind which lies Clapham Wood – a stretch of woodland criss-crossed by public footpaths and popular with dog-walkers and ramblers.
Historically, the village would appear to have existed in some form or another since at least Saxon times, although its exact site has probably moved on more than one occasion. For some 300 years, the manor of Clapham was held by the Shelleys – the family of Percy Bysshe Shelley, in fact – and the church contains a number of impressive brass renderings of the family. Other than this, there would appear to be precious little here to halt the passing fortean for more than a moment.
But, due to the events that have occurred in the area over the last four decades, this quaint little village has acquired a sinister reputation entirely at odds with its otherwise idyllic appearance.
During the 1960s, the area around Clapham became a hotspot for UFO activity, attracting dozens of ufologists and associated researchers. Much to the chagrin of the locals, these enthusiasts proceeded to carry out sky-watching vigils and other amateur investigations, usually at unsociable hours of the day and night.
Sightings were reported most frequently around the wood and the village itself, as well as at nearby Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings, two well-known local landmarks and the sites of two Iron Age hill forts. Some speculated that Clapham itself was the connecting point for two leys emanating from Chanctonbury and Cissbury, forming in effect a triangle of energy. This provided a handy explanation for the abundance of sightings in the area, as well as tying in with fringe beliefs then current about the connection between UFOs and leys. It wasn’t long, however, before the UFO-spotters began to notice other unusual phenomena as well.
Some claimed to have experienced feelings of nausea and discomfort while walking in the woods; others reported being jostled suddenly by an unseen force. Ramblers reported encountering localised patches of grey mist on the footpaths that run through the woods. In one case, the mist resolved itself into the shape of a bear, in another, into a fox-like animal.
When interest in the UFO sightings inevitably began to wane, a new mystery soon emerged. In 1975, a number of dogs went missing in the area of the wood known as ‘the Chestnuts’. In the first two reported cases, the dogs vanished completely, while a third was found partially paralysed and later had to be put down. The disappearances received the attention of the Worthing press, and several local dog owners came forward to say that their own pets had been affected strangely by the woods, often becoming inexplicably aggressive or highly agitated.
More sinister were the four mysterious deaths that occurred in the vicinity of the wood over a 10-year period. In only one instance was the cause of death established as murder, the coroner having been forced to return open verdicts on the other three due to the advanced state of decomposition of the bodies.
The first such case was that of Police Constable Peter Goldsmith in 1972. Goldsmith, 46, was a former Royal Marine Commando and an experienced rambler who was in excellent physical condition. He was last seen in June that year, walking across the Downs and carrying a large holdall. His body was found six months later, hidden in a patch of thick bramble.
In August 1975, pensioner Leon Foster was found in the woods, by a couple searching for a lost horse, three weeks after his wife had reported him missing. And then the Reverend Harry Neil Snelling – the retired vicar of Clapham Parish – disappeared on All Hallow’s Eve in 1978 while returning home across the Downs from a dental appointment in Goring; his body was eventually found three years later by a Canadian tourist, who only informed the police of his discovery after he had left the country.
The murdered woman was Miss Jillian Matthews – a 37-year-old divorcee and a homeless schizophrenic, who went missing in September 1981. Her body was discovered six weeks later in a state of partial undress, having been raped and strangled. No one was ever charged with her murder.
It wasn’t until 1987, however, that anyone offered an explanation that attempted to tie these disparate events together. In their book The Demonic Connection, Toyne Newton, Charles Walker and Alan Brown alleged that the woods were being used for rituals by a Satanic cult calling itself the ‘Friends of Hecate’. Hecate is the triple-headed Goddess of the Greek underworld, and a central figure in modern Wicca.
Charles Walker, a council worker from Worthing, had been investigating the woods for nearly two decades, and had written a number of letters over the years to the local Worthing papers asking readers to come forward and contact him with any information they might have regarding the strange occurrences. Walker maintains that in November 1978, as a result of his enquiries, he was contacted by an anonymous individual who claimed to be an initiate of the Friends of Hecate.
This occult ‘deep throat’ arranged to meet Walker alone at night in the Chestnuts. Concealed behind a bush, he claimed the cult was responsible for the abduction of the dogs, which had been used in ritual sacrifices. He told Walker the Friends of Hecate had been using the wood for the last 10 years, and intended to use it for another 10 before moving their operations elsewhere. The initiate warned Walker that the cult counted many influential figures in government and law-enforcement among its members – and that if he continued to investigate the cult’s activities they would be forced to take action against him. Having delivered his threat, the mysterious informant disappeared into the night.
Unsure of quite how to take these revelations, and understandably sceptical, Walker attempted to pursue his hobby in a more discreet fashion for a while. Despite this, he claims to have been threatened on several occasions. In one incident, a man pulled a pistol on him in Worthing High Street. Eventually, after a hit-and-run incident in which he was knocked off his bicycle by a speeding car, he elected to back off. It was only later that he met researcher Toyne Newton, who had already written several articles on Clapham Wood for The Unexplained magazine, and the two decided to collaborate on the book.
Around the same time, in October 1987, ‘the great storm’ swept across the south of England, devastating the countryside and changing the landscape of the area forever. Clapham Wood was not spared, suffering extensive damage. Walker later reported that the damage caused by the storm, combined with the media interest stirred up by The Demonic Connection, seemed to have disrupted the cult’s activities and driven them out of the area.
The local press, of course, had been following events in Clapham with interest for some time, but the book’s sensationalistic tone – it was subtitled ‘an investigation into Satanism in England and the international black magic conspiracy’ – meant that the woods now received the – albeit fleeting – attention of the nationals as well. The bemused residents of Clapham no doubt hoped that the sudden interest in their quiet little corner of rural England would quickly die down, just as it had done in the past. Once the story became firmly entrenched in popular folklore, however, this became a forlorn hope.
A few years later, the woods were subject to a number of visits by the Mythbusters team, probably best known for their appearances on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast. The results of their investigations, including their alleged encounter with the ‘Clapparition’, served as the basis for the Mythbusters series of children’s books, released in the early 1990s. More recently, the first episode of Living TV’s short-lived paranormal investigation/reality TV show Scream Team was filmed there. The show’s cast spent a night camped out in the woods, where their all-night vigil passed without incident. In addition to the television crews, the wood remains a popular destination for any number of amateur psychic investigation groups as well.
So is Clapham Wood a hotbed of Satanic activity? The final word goes to Charles Walker. Despite giving the wood a clean bill of health in the late 1980s, Walker found himself returning to Clapham some 10 years later to investigate eerily familiar reports of missing pets. Discovering evidence of altars, fires and a concealed hide, Walker concluded that the Friends of Hecate had once again returned to the area. Brimming with newfound determination, he resumed his investigations.
He and his friend Toyne Newton can often be found patrolling the woods late into the night, dressed in combat fatigues and equipped with cameras and IR lenses, hoping to catch the cultists in the act. As he told a local newspaper in 2002: “I want to find them, get photographic evidence and bring them to justice. They have to be stopped. I’ll keep doing this until the day I die.”