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 skepticism, 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. What the newspapers failed to point out was that these were not the first ‘bear’ sightings in the area.
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.
Thirteen-year old Tommy Murray was scared stiff by the beast, which allegedly raised up on its hind legs and growled. The boys scattered in horror, all slipping upon the white blanket. This shocking encounter came just hours after the friends had stumbled across a mysterious set of impressions in the snow that seemed to have been made by a large animal they couldn't identify. Soon after the incident more than fifty police with dogs, marksmen and a helicopter scoured the area, but despite the set of tracks being discovered there was no sign of the animal.
The chief inspector at the time commented that, "Although I didn't see the boys myself, I'm reliably informed that they were very frightened by what they saw. They were not hoaxers, although, of course, they may have been hoaxed."
Rumors quickly began to circulate that a prankster was prowling the snow-covered marshes in some kind of ape or bear suit, despite the lack of human tracks. Three sets of bear-like prints were found, one batch on an island which had a perimeter fence and a locked gate. However, despite the watered-down theories of the police, something weird was definitely going on. A year previous at the River Lea, two bear carcasses were discovered. The animals had been decapitated, and no-one found out how they got there.
Did an escaped bear terrify the youngsters? If it was a hoax, why would someone wait in the freezing weather? It would take a very 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? Is this incident related to those reports going back to the 1970s or of the alleged discovery of skinned bears in the Lea? The boys could simply have been lying, although the police were convinced they seemed genuinely scared. This case remains one of London's most intriguing mysteries.
NOTE: Hackney Marshes is an area of grassland on the western bank of the River Lea in the London Borough of Hackney. It was originally a true marsh, but was extensively drained since the Middle Ages. Rubble was dumped here from buildings damaged by air raids during World War II.
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