Jem Bartholomew, a freelance journalist in London, and Chris Dorley-Brown, a photographer in London, tell this story in a way that may make you want to visit and see for yourself. The fever is catchy.
Frank Tunbridge has spent three decades trying to prove that big cats are prowling England’s green and pleasant land
In autumn 2014, John Bilney was cycling to work at around 6am along a tree-shaded footpath in Dursley, Gloucestershire, when a small cat leapt into his way. “Poor moggy,” he thought, “I’ve scared it.” Then he looked up – and froze.
Up ahead, he saw two huge leopards, sleek and muscular, arcing across the path. Each looked to be at least four-foot long. They mounted a grass bank and rested just below the tree line. “What are you?” Bilney shouted at the top of his voice. The creatures didn’t flinch. Then, as if trying to shoo away a fox, he yelled, “Get out of it!” The leopards eyed him. Dread choked Bilney and he quickly cycled away.
Bilney’s work colleagues thought he was crazy. (Even today, they still mock him. Once, when he was reading a paper, someone asked, “Is that Big Cat Weekly?”) When he got home, he looked up local newspaper reports of similar sightings, which was how he found Frank Tunbridge, who lived nearby and was often quoted in the press as a “big-cat expert” (a term he hates). Tunbridge said they should immediately return to the scene of the encounter.
When they reached the spot, Tunbridge scrabbled around looking for traces of the creature: stray hairs, paw prints in the mud or scratched bark on trees. Tunbridge has a busted left knee and ankle, causing him to throw his weight rightwards when walking. He says this improves his tracking, forcing him to move slowly and observe carefully. “Frank found a lovely bit of poo, bit of scat, and he was pulling it apart in front of me with his hands,” Bilney remembered. Rabbit or deer bones would indicate that the scat came from a carnivore. “He shook my hands when he left later,” he laughed.
Tunbridge has spent 30 years searching for evidence of Britain’s big cats. Not a day goes by when they don’t prowl through his mind. He’s convinced they’re living in the countryside and his commitment to proving this has made him Britain’s go-to man for sightings of exotic predators. He records the details of each report in his notebooks, some of which feature biro sketches scratched in thick black lines. A retired carpenter and car-boot-sale organiser now in his 70s, he has wiry hair, sharp eyes and jowls weathered by long hours spent outdoors. Over the years Tunbridge has put cameras in scores of locations across the British countryside to obtain confirmatory footage. Every holiday offers the opportunity to collect more evidence from a new place. He usually has a handful of camcorders in position at any one time and spends hours sifting through video.
Thousands of people in Britain populate big-cat Facebook groups but only a few dozen are committed to tracking the beasts. “There’s an inner circle to the cat world. You sort of need to amble your way in,” one tracker put it to me. Tunbridge has strolled right to its centre.
Believers engage in acrimonious spats over the phenomenon’s origins. Most theories point to the passage of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 as the crucial moment. According to this narrative, carnivorous beasts were a must-have accessory of the Swinging Sixties, when yuppies apparently walked savannah cats down the King’s Road in Chelsea. There’s a story that two men bought a lion cub in Harrods and raised it in their Chelsea apartment…
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