Neil Arnold Talks London Beasts

Neil Arnold’s unique 400-page guide Monster! The A-Z of Zooform Phenomena is a handbook to creatures ‘which aren’t flesh and blood but which have been sighted, believed in, feared throughout the world’.

‘It’s an alphabetical listing of hundreds,’ Arnold says, ‘if not thousands of campfire creatures. Zooforms are entities which could be demons, spirits, but which have animal traits, i.e. red-eyed humanoids, winged monsters, phantom hellhounds, sky serpents. The book is full of bogeymen-type stories, all real, but arcane listings which have never been covered before.’

In March this year he published Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Kent, a chronicle of strange creature sightings across the south-east and the result of 20 years of research. He is currently writing Mystery Animals…of London, and next year will be releasing Paranormal London and Paranormal Kent: short stories of weird monsters and phenomena.

When did your fascination with mythological creatures begin, and what was the story that first triggered your interest?

‘When I was a kid, about eight or nine years old, I heard a story from my Dad and Granddad about a Kentish ghost from an area known as Blue Bell Hill, a reputedly haunted and historic village where numerous weird creatures have been seen over the years.

‘The story concerned a phantom hitchhiker, and this used to terrify and intrigue me. However, I began hearing stories of strange animals too around Kent and London, such as the Surrey ‘puma’, and I watched a movie called The Legend of Boggy Creek, about a swamp-dwelling hairy man-beast in the US. I was also given a book called Monsters & Mysterious Beasts by Carey Miller which was pretty influential on my innocent mind!’

Where do you source your stories from now?

‘I try to follow up anything that hits the London press, especially as most stories are written inaccurately. London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex are my patches of research, so it’s important to be on the ball and follow reports up. Of course, it’s always good to solve some cases also, even if they turn out to be quite normal.’

What is the most bizarre beast tale you’ve heard to date?

‘Well, my research covers the whole world. I’m fascinated by sinister folklore and monster tales that not many people have heard about. I like to keep my ‘big cat’ research away from the mythological stuff, as there’s no real mystery as to why large, exotic cats roam the UK.

‘The most well known monsters being Mothman, Jersey Devil, and I’m also interested in Bigfoot and cryptozoology which is the study of hidden animals – creatures extinct which are still seen, and newly discovered species.

‘In 1996 I investigated the Loch Ness Monster but I don’t think there’s anything in the loch except a large eel, or a catfish.’

What is your favourite beast of London?

‘There are more monster mysteries in London than people realise. The Brentford Griffin from 1984 was an interesting case. But the most fascinating of all is the tale of the Highgate ‘vampire’ which during the 1960s was a sinister and atmospheric case which unfortunately got blown out of proportion due to press frenzy, hoaxes, and petty squabbles. Some ‘thing’ still lurks in the cemetery, probably a malevolent spirit of some kind.’

You’ve discovered many big cats in Kent, but have you come across any in the capital?

‘Strangely, there are many tales of large exotic cats being seen around the capital. The most legendary was the Surrey puma which was seen in the leafy suburbs in the 1960s. In the modern era, we’ve had the ‘Edgware tiger’, ‘Shooters Hill cheetah’ and ‘Winchmore Hill lioness’ but I’ve solved all of these as either hoaxes or misinterpretation however, there are, without doubt, large cats seen around London.

‘There have been numerous sightings of a black leopard around Sydenham, Bexley, Bromley. This year a domestic cat was found eaten in Sydenham Park. Large cats tend to stick to more wooded areas.’

Which area of London do you find most inspiring?

‘When it comes to writing then naturally the most historical aspects of the capital come into consideration. I enjoy researching in areas which have great atmosphere: Highgate cemetery, Tower of London, but anywhere from Hampstead Heath to Soho can be inspiring in different ways. They are all places which harbour strange tales despite the amount of people who congregate there.’

Which area of London is best for beast-spotting?

‘Large cats stick to more overgrown areas so sightings in the centre of towns are rather scarce. The recent Sydenham panic has gathered a lot of interest but these cats have vast territories.

‘As for more supernatural ‘monsters’, again, these are more connected to the human psyche, but any place that has a lot of strange history or weird activity is ideal, so again, Highgate Cemetery (although only guided tours allow access) and those kinds of places.

‘However, in the past strange creatures have been seen on Clapham Common (a wolf was caught there in 1961), Hampstead Heath (seals were caught in the ponds, and large spiders also nested there), Wimbledon Common (a Sugar Glider was seen there a few years back). But again, when it comes to the weirder stuff, it depends on the witness more than the place I guess. Hackney Marshes had a bear scare in 1981, the Tower of London is haunted by a spectral bear, and in 1838 the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack plagued much of south London, areas such as Barnes Common and Blackheath.’

Where in London would you recommend everyone visit at least once?

‘It depends what you are looking for and what your interest is. A lot of places are not as cool as they used to be, Whitechapel where Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror took place has changed a lot since 1888. As has Carnaby Street which is a pale shadow of it’s former self.

‘Anyone interested in atmosphere should stick to the more Gothic areas, and a tour of Highgate Cemetery is certainly recommended…just don’t mention the vampire!’


2 Responses

  1. Having heard Neil talk at a lecture and on radio, I would highly recommend people get his books or along to one of his lectures. An amazing intelligence and wit with some truly disturbing tales of monsters!!!

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