Six-toed footprints, imprinted in the ordinary dust of Meadow Cottage, Ken Webster's 18th-century brick cottage in Dodleston, England, seemed to walk up the walls between the bathroom and kitchen. It was a prank to be sure Ken, his girlfriend Debbie and their visiting guest, Nic, decided. It was 1985 and Webster was slowly and unenthusiastically renovating the old cottage, which had kicked up some unusual activity. Nic took a paintbrush and a gallon of paint to the footprints, covering them for good ... or so he thought. Until the prints returned the next day. The prank was suddenly much less amusing.
Towers of Cat Food
Over the new few days, cold gusts of wind, shadows and the eerie presence of an invisible entity haunted the residents of the Cheshire cottage. "They find strange footprints in the dust on the floor, and tins of cat food neatly stacked in a pyramid," says Nick Poyntz, who holds a master's degree in early modern history from Birkbeck, University of London, in an email interview. Poyntz is particularly passionate about the history of books and popular English politics during the 16th and 17th centuries. The series of events that popularly became known as the "Dodleston Messages" have always fascinated Poyntz and, in 2011, he decided to write a blog post about them. "As someone who grew up using the BBC Micro at school in the 1980s, I love the way the story brings together early computers with a period of history I know well," says Poyntz.
Between 2011 and 2016, Poyntz's blog became a lot more active after he wrote the post, which he titled, "The Ghost in the Machine," telling the story of Webster's deeply puzzling encounters with someone writing messages to him through a borrowed BBC computer in 1984.
The messages were cryptic, misspelled, grammatically odd and impossible to ignore. Most notably, however, the man writing the messages claimed to be from the year 1546.
When History Comes to Life
When Webster moved into his 18th-century cottage, he knew that he was stepping into a piece of history. However, Debbie and Ken were shocked to find that history seemed to want to talk to them, too.
"Webster was teaching at a local school and brought home a computer borrowed from the school," explains Poyntz. "The messages start out by asking about who Ken and Debbie are — the writer appears to be able to see them — and accuses them of stealing his house," Poyntz adds.
Webster detailed the events in his book, "The Vertical Plane." He transcribed the first message ever received through the computer, a poem that was as beautiful as it was ominous:
Safe are the bodies of the silent world.
Turn pretty flower, turn towards the sun for you shall grow and sow.
But the flower reaches too high and withers in the burning light.
Get out your bricks —
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat went to London to seek fame and fortune.
Faith must not be lost for this shall be your redeemer.
A few days later, a second message came through, equally mysterious, but this time is written in some archaic version of British English.
An astute student of 16th- and 17th-century writing, Poyntz details the unique nature of L.W.'s (later revealed as "Lukas") messages. "Lukas's messages are written in archaic English, with old-fashioned spellings and vocabulary and dialect from the time and region," he says.
Over 18 months in 1985 and 1986, messages continued to appear on the computer and Webster commited himself to figuring out who — or what — was behind them. He asked the person, ghost or presence a series of questions about where, and when, he was from. He asked what college he went to and who was the reigning king of the time.
Poyntz describes an exchange that answered some questions, and yet left many more in the wake of Lukas' cryptic reply. "Lukas is suspicious about Ken and Debbie's motives. He deliberately lays traps for them to see if they are really from the future — in his time, there was no Jesus College in Oxford — it was founded in 1571 — so he thinks that anyone from the future would know he has given, what from his perspective, is obviously false information ... his real name emerges later, as Thomas Harden or Hawarden. Someone of this name did exist and was vicar of a church in Gloucestershire in the 1550s."
The messages continued and it became clear that Thomas could see and hear some of the goings-on in Meadow Cottage, as he would comment on photos left around the computer by Webster, like a picture of a Jaguar car that Thomas mentioned later in a message:
The Year 2109 Further Muddies the Story
Things really got weird when Lukas, now known to be Thomas, writes that he is confused when Webster says he's living in the year 1985. He says:
A friend from 2109? The box of lights — the computer? Webster writes in his book, "Even if Lukas was sometimes hard to follow, this section was impossible to misinterpret.... he must be hallucinating."
Still, Webster wrote to 2109 on the computer, curious to see what would happen. They — 2109 referred to themselves in third-person singular pronoun — responded.
Unbelievably, the story now spans three seemingly active timelines.
"2109 then starts leaving messages for Ken and Debbie, claiming they are involved in an experiment or similar project with a higher purpose," says Poyntz. "2109 communicate in a very different tone and language, using scientific terms but also giving little detail away about their agenda other than annoyance at Ken and Debbie when, for example, they find out Lukas's real name and 2109 worry that this will disrupt their plans."
A Paranormal Team Leaves Empty-handed
What experiment? What plans? The questions continued to mount until, finally, Webster invited a paranormal investigation team called the Society for Psychical Research to the cottage to investigate. Three times they came, and each time left with no answers, having experienced no activity at all.
Eventually, Thomas said that he was being forced from his land and was never heard from again, but said that he would leave something for his friends in the future.
"Thomas says that he is writing the story of events from his perspective, and that he will leave the book where it can be discovered in the future," Poyntz says. "2109 later says that the book will be found at some point. If such a book does exist and is ever found, it would obviously be a compelling piece of evidence."
No such book has ever been found.
"The blog post has become a bit of a discussion forum for "believers" in the story, with Gary Rowe (the UFO researcher who investigated the events and features heavily in the book) and Debbie herself both posting periodically," Poyntz says. "It's clear that many people, including Gary, believe that the story is true and that proving this is unfinished business for them."