Inside the small Welsh town with a history of UFO sightings
Photographs by Roo Lewis
Story by Zoe Whitfield, CNN
Published September 16, 2023
In 1988, American broadcaster and author Art Bell launched Coast to Coast AM, a late-night radio talk show examining conspiracy theories and the paranormal.
“He’d broadcast from Nevada at about 2 a.m. and anyone could call up and tell him about their experiences with UFOs,” explains British photographer Roo Lewis, who listened to the show some years later via MP3s. “There was a nice pace to it. He wouldn’t judge, just listen.”
Bell presented the show from its inception up until his semi-retirement in 2003. Today it continues with a string of other hosts. However, it’s the iteration under Bell’s direction that most shaped Lewis’ interest, and subsequently his new book, “Port Talbot: UFO Investigation Club.”
“I really wanted the book to reflect the pace (of the show),” he told CNN. “It was like a poem; it had a rhythm to it.”
Published by GOST Books, the monograph’s clothbound blue cover was also informed by Lewis’ early interest in the extraterrestrial. “It’s a nod to ‘Project Blue Book,’ a US government classified data gathering project on UFOs,” he said (which lasted from 1952 to 1969).
Initially the photographer had intended to make a book about Area 51, the highly classified US Air Force test and training range beloved by conspiracy theorists, but for financial reasons and fear of becoming a cliché (given the many people who’ve covered that ground), he decided to approach a subject closer to home. Port Talbot, a Welsh industrial town that accommodates one of the biggest steelworks in the world (locally rumored to have inspired the opening scene of “Blade Runner”), became Lewis’ protagonist instead.
“My granddad was a proud Welshman, so growing up our holiday was always to south Wales,” he said.
Wales has a long-established relationship with heavy industrial practices: Coal mining was a core trade throughout the previous two centuries, often employing men across familial generations. Port Talbot in particular, Lewis found, is a place of multiple identities.
“It is just wild. Whole rooms light up orange from the steelworks at 2 a.m. … Parts of it are a scar on the landscape and it is very polluted. But there’s another side (to the area),” he noted, alluding to the rolling hills and coastal environment that invites blue plankton to local bays each summer. “That part is incredibly otherworldly and human, surrounded by outstanding natural beauty.”
Port Talbot is also an unlikely celebrity hotspot: actors Michael Sheen, Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins all hail from the town.
In the case of UFOs, the earliest sighting in Port Talbot was recorded in 1964. However, a number of people Lewis spoke to had a personal story from 1988. Though the people were strangers to one another, the photographer found the details of their stories all matched: a low-flying, triangle-shaped aircraft moving fast toward the coast.
“You look it up on the internet and it’s not there, so I can’t explain it,” Lewis said. “But five different people told the same story.”
While word of sightings is largely reserved for local folklore, Sheen has become an incidental mouthpiece for the town’s supposed higher than average number of sightings, recalling such incidents in interviews.
“He’s talked, slightly tongue-in-cheek perhaps, about Port Talbot being an intergalactic Little Chef,” Lewis said, referring to the roadside chain that landed in Britain in the late 20th century, inspired by the diners that adorn American highways.
Speaking on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre podcast in 2019, Sheen went as far as recalling his own experience of UFOs in the town, spying a strange formation of lights as a schoolboy.
After putting up posters requesting people call him if they’ve seen a UFO, Lewis traveled to Port Talbot 20 times in the two years between February 2021 and April 2023. He met would-be subjects in the pub and, with UFOs as a convenient vehicle for conversation, found himself becoming invested in the community.
“When someone talks about a concept, UFOs or whatever, they project their own view on the universe,” he explained. “Politics is quite loaded, but a conspiracy theory like UFOs doesn't really harm anyone.”
“I've always liked folklore as a way of ensuring history gets passed down,” Lewis said. “The Welsh are great for that; you sit in the pub and hear these stories. Lots aren't true, but I'm just interested in the story anyway.”
Shot on a large film camera — “a good talking point, it creates this sense of theatre and engagement” — “Port Talbot: UFO Investigation Club” is comprised of warm, intimate portraits and majestic landscape shots that bridge the town’s multiple personalities.
Meyrick Sheen, a Jack Nicholson lookalike (and Michael Sheen’s father), appears early on in its pages, while elsewhere is Gabriella Jukes (a former Miss Wales beauty queen), interspersed with images of local beaches and mountains.
“I think there's something really interesting about the human psyche and the generations of myths and tales, religion and all these things we subscribe to,” posited Lewis. “It's about believing wonderful and weird things. Less about truth, and more about the romance.”
“Port Talbot: UFO Investigation Club,” published by GOST Books, is now available for pre-order.