Yesterday afternoon, I conducted an interview with Mark North, co-author with Robert J. Newland of the book Dark Dorset: Tales of Mystery, Wonder and Terror, which is published by CFZ Press. The new edition of the book is an excellent study of all-things-weird from the ancient English county of Dorset and covers a whole range of mysteries, including ghosts, UFOs, witchcraft, magic, mythology, restless spirits and much more.
And Dark Dorset contains a wealth of material that will be of deep interest to the student of cryptozoology, too; hence the reason for my interview with Mark (who in the photo that accompanies this article can be seen standing outside of the famous Black Dog pub at Uplyme, Dorset, which takes its name from the spectral black devil dogs of British folklore that are said to haunt much of the Dorset countryside).
NR: "Mark, how did you get interested in Forteana and weird phenomena?"
MN: "One of the main reasons was because of my grandfather. He used to tell me stories of strange things that happened in the local area. Also, my grandfather knew a famous science-fiction author named Eric Frank Russell, and who later became one of the main people on the British Forteana scene. So, I picked up on all this and that got me interested."
NR: "And for people interested in cryptozoology, what can they find in Dark Dorset?"
MN: "There are a lot of stories in there about the phantom black dogs. I've done a lot of investigations into the stories and myths around black dog tales. There are some odd ones; the most recent I can think of was in the 90s. But if you go back to the older tradition of black dogs, I think a lot of it could have been invented. On the Dorset coast, for example, there was a very big smuggling trade going on centuries ago. I think a lot of the stories of these animals were invented to frighten people and keep them away from the smuggling areas. What was also happening around this time is that Dorset had a lot of connections with Newfoundland and they used to do a lot of trading with the fishermen there. It was around this time that the Newfoundland dogs were brought over here, to this country. So, you have a new type of dog being brought over here, which was very large and that no-one had ever seen before, and then you have these tales of large black dogs roaming around, and smugglers inventing these black dog tales. So, I think it could be that part of the story at least is that the Black Dog legends have their origins in these large, working black dogs brought over from Newfoundland."
NR: "What are your views on sightings of so-called Big Cats in Dorset?"
MN: "There are a lot of reports in Dorset; and the thing about the Dorset countryside is that it's quite wild, particularly in the West Dorset area. It would be easy for a large animal to hide there. There's a piece of woodland there called Powerstock Common, which is very dense and where we get reports; it's an old ancient woodland which used to be the hunting ground for King John. It hasn't really changed for hundreds of years; so anything could hide there. And there are definitely some good quality cases of Big Cat sightings in Dorset. I took part in an investigation of a lynx-type species in Portland, Dorset, and found some good evidence: old animal carcasses, cat scats, footprints, and even what looked like a recent kill."
NR: "How about sea-serpents off the coast? Anything like that?"
MN: "Yeah, we get a few. There have been some odd cases from the 1700s, where an unusual creature resembling a mermaid was washed up on the Chesil Beach. I think some of these could be explained, perhaps, as a manatee. There was also a very odd story of another story of a sea-serpent found on Chesil Beach which turned out to be a camel! Where the camel came from, no-one knows! But there was a very interesting and unusual case from 1995 by a chap named Martin Ball, who was walking along the coast and saw a type of large sea-horse creature."
MN: "We also get some old reports - in the past - of wild-man-of-the-woods stories. One of which happened just outside of Dorchester, where there were reports of wild-men haunting the woods. There's a lot of stories of lycanthropy and shape-shifting: witches transforming into hares and things like that. I think some of this can be explained by the fact that back in the 1700s, when many of these stories started, people were very superstitious. Back then, it was a completely different world. And that's what I like about it: it was very innocent in some ways back then; but you've got this superstition there that turns everything around and makes it a completely different world. Almost like a fantasy world. Dorset is a strange place, and you can go into some of the old woods and it's like being in a different world, where anything might happen."
Those wanting to learn more about Mark, his Dark Dorset book and his research can do so by visiting his Dark Dorset website.