This Side of the Pond – July 28

By Sarah Pridgeon

As I begin to write this story, I am not sure whether to categorize it as a sermon on the importance of never giving up your dreams or a warning against unrealistic expectations. This week, my home county celebrates a son who has dedicated a quarter of a century to the hunt for one of the most famous cryptozoological creatures of them all.

I speak, of course, of the Loch Ness Monster. I also speak of a Dorset man who has proudly entered his name into the Guinness Book of Records for having stood the longest ever vigil for the elusive beast.

“Fair enough,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m world champion of sitting on a beach and seeing nothing.”

This fine gentleman goes by the name of Steve Feltham. I’m assuming I’ve never met him, as by all accounts he left for Scotland when I was 12 years old and hasn’t returned since. He’s spent that quarter-decade sitting by the lake, presumably with a pair of binoculars and a flask of tea on hand at all times.

The honorable Mr. Feltham has been preoccupied with Nessie since he was a child, when he encountered fellow beast hunters during a family vacation to Inverness. To keep him occupied on the long drive back to the south coast, his father bought him an information packet from the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau (as an aside, may I just say that it’s a truly wonderful thing to know such an organization exists).

According to Feltham, he started out his career in the graphic arts but then helped his father set up a company that installed burglar alarms. While working in the homes of older folks, he often heard them talk about the things they wished they’d done when they were young.

He thought about what he might say when he was one day in the same position and realized that the answer was simple: he would regret never having found the Loch Ness Monster. The same, of course, can be said of every other adventurer who has looked for Nessie over the years, because we still have yet to confirm she exists.

Feltham left his home, work and girlfriend behind and moved to the shores of the loch in 1991, setting up shop in a former mobile library that was already two decades old. The BBC caught wind of his determination and sent him equipment to film the first year of his hunt, which was later released as a show called “Desperately Seeking Nessie”.

As you might imagine, he found some measure of fame and was soon a tourist destination himself. In those early days, he found all sorts of methods to hunt for the beast, ranging from echo sounders on boats to microlights. Nevertheless, he saw neither scale nor neck loop of the legendary creature.

For ten years, he travelled around the edge of the water in his rickety old van, until the day it failed its yearly maintenance check and was no longer allowed on the roads. He made a permanent camp in the parking lot of the Dores Inn – today, his van has its own postcode and gets tax bills from the council.

Mr. Feltham even has a website, on which he peddles a lovely range of Nessie Hunter coffee mugs. I assume this must be how he is funding the operation, although apparently he does make some cash by whittling small models of Nessie and selling them to tourists.

Still no proof of the underwater beast, though they did find a prop from an old movie not long ago that gave everyone momentary pause. On the other hand, the Keeper of the Register of Official Loch Ness Monster Sightings (seriously, whoever is coming up with these things deserves a medal) is adamant she’s been seen all manner of times.

The register itself marked a momentous occasion this year when it turned 20 years old. In May, the Keeper of the Register confirmed that 1077 sightings have been logged in that time – only one this year, however, from a Texas tourist who said her boat was being followed.

“When I started the register I never expected to be doing it this long but after 20 years nobody has solved it – so I expect I will be doing this to the day I die,” the Keeper, Gary Campbell, told the BBC. I don’t know about you, but I sense something of a tone in his words.

Feltham, however, has seen neither hide nor hair of Nessie. He still lives in his van on the shore, with no running water or electricity but one of the best views on the continent to sustain him, watching for signs across 27 square miles of water. He’s made enough money from his Nessie models and carved driftwood boats to retire, he says, but he’s not sure how you retire from a life of monster hunting.

So here we are at the end of a story about a man who has spent half his life sitting by a lake, waiting for a monster to appear. A man who, like me, upped sticks to follow a dream. A man who, unlike me, still hasn’t found what he was looking for.

But despite what for many would be a crushing disappointment, Mr. Feltham is as determined as ever. Though a couple of reports last year suggested he was leaving in disgust, having decided Nessie is just a giant catfish, he remains at his post to this day.

He will not leave, he says, until he solves what he believes to be the world’s greatest mystery. Living on the loch, he says, is his idea of utopia. He left everything he knew, everything that kept him secure, to chase a wild hare and dedicate his life to the hunt. He has never had a single regret.

So is Mr. Feltham’s a cautionary tale or an inspirational example? I suppose, if we’re honest, it’s both. The lesson I take from his 25 years of hope and vigilance is that following your dreams is always the right path – just as long as you can be content along the journey.