The Flixton Woodpecker

The Skeptic, 7.5

THERE ARE MANY TALES of extraordinary noises heard simultaneously by lots of reliable witnesses. Quite apart from the Eurovision Song Contest, Nature herself is capable of making quite an extraordinary racket: all over the world can be heard mysterious booms, shrieks, buzzes, hums, and crackles. Some are famous, such as the `Barisal Guns' of the Ganges Delta which so intrigued William Corliss (see his article, page 6). Then there are mistpouffers, or `fog guns', dull, explosive sounds heard all over the world especially near coastlines; `lake guns' which boom around lakes, such as Lake Seneca in New York state; bangs in the sky; strange sounds thought to be of seismic origin, such as the `Moodus noises' of Connecticut; unidentified hums; the alleged `rustling' of the Aurora Borealis; the Yellowstone Lake whispers; musical sands; and so on, and on. I've never heard any of these myself, but I've often wondered if the reports may be somewhat exaggerated, especially if one thinks one is hearing something which is known to be `mysterious'. But one day last week, I did hear something strange, and for a few hours I thought that there was one new mysterious phenomenon to be added to the list: the Flixton Woodpecker.

Flixton, unlike Yellowstone or the Ganges, is not a name to prompt instant recognition. I should say that Flixton, where I live, is about 4 miles west of Manchester, and is a small, fairly quiet, suburban area near the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. I'd like to tell you something that Flixton is famous for, such as a Megalithic Tomb, a haunted castle, UFO sightings or dinosaur tracks, but try as I might to unearth something interesting about the place, I've found nothing. Until now, that is.

On the day in question, I was woken by a knocking sound. It was in a rhythm of six, BA-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, BA-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, and sounded like knuckles rapping on wood. I lay in bed, listening on and off to the rapping, and how it syncopated with the ticking of the clock. The alarm went off, and I shouted something unprintable at it to shut it up. (I love these voice-controlled clocks; you can vent most of your day's spleen before you even get up.) It began to dawn on me that this tapping was something rather odd. My first thought was the gas central heating - our system often makes Fox Sisters - style knocking sounds for reasons best known to itself. But the sound today was different. The steadiness of the rhythm was the extraordinary thing. I opened the front door to see if anything was going on in the street. Nothing - it was dead quiet. Once back inside, the sound was there again, still rigidly in rhythm. I went round the house from room to room, looking for something which might be causing it. Again nothing: it wasn't the contral heating, the gas, the plumbing -  the sound was coming from the house itself. This was getting spooky. If the noise had been in the street, as well as the house, it would make some sense, but there was none. I just couldn't believe this, so I went out again, and walked round the house listening for anything which might give me a clue as to what was going on. Stalking around, occasionally pressing my hcad against the bricks, I must have looked vcry suspicious, and quite mad. But I was scared - my house was throbbing with a mysterious noise! What was going on?

It was then that I noticed I had company. Up and down the street, there were people doing exactly the same as me, complete with bewildered expressions. I felt very relieved. Just then my neighbour drove up, and I went over to him. He'd been up early for work that day and had been through this paranoid activity several hours earlier than the rest of us. And on his way out he'd solved the mystery.

It turned out that in a nearby street, workers were underpinning the foundations of two houses, which had been undermined by the roots of two huge trees. They were hammer-drilling into the rock under the foundations of the houses, and it was this hammering which was travelling through the strata, and resonating in our houses. Apparently, the workers had sunk an 8" diameter tube 2 metres into the ground, and were now inserting into this tube a 6" diameter tube, to a depth of 9 metres. This tube was being driven down by a hammer at a rate of 10mm a minute. The work had been going on for days, but we had not heard anything because until now, the strata it had bcen passing through was relatively soft. But now they had hit a layer of very hard strata known as `Fox Bench', which was 2-3" thick. It was the hammering on this hard layer that was resonating under the other houses in the vicinity.

So this was the explanation. Many of my neighbours, I subsequently learned, had bcen even more concerned than me. People had been very scared, and had called the Gas Board, the Police, and the local Council.

The next time I hear stories about people hearing strange noises, I don't think I'll be quite so skeptical. And that includes the Eurovision Song contest.


©Toby Howard 1995

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