2017 is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Cottingley fairies story, a hoax which entrances the UK to this day. Cousins Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright faked photos of fairies at the bottom of the garden, intended to be a practical joke on their grown-ups. When Elsie’s mother showed the photos to the local Theosophical Society, she set in motion a chain of events that led Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to declare the photographs to be authentic. He wrote an article on fairy life for The Strand magazine in November 1920, and fairy fever gripped the nation. Conan Doyle later wrote a book on the subject, The Coming of the Fairies – The Cottingley Incident.
In 1923, Cicely Mary Barker published The Flower Fairies, a book of 170 botanically-accurate drawings with enchanting fairy images based on real children, which has remained a part of British culture ever since. The Flower Fairies have even joined us in the modern world, on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram! I imagine there are plenty of readers who could say that the Flower Fairies introduced them to the natural world.
Beyond the garden, the environmental movement is coming to the conclusion that we need to tell better stories if we are to convince a wider audience that we can and should be working towards a better world. There’s also a resurgence of interest in British folklore, and the two can come together – we can learn as much from our own historic culture as we can from the indigenous cultures that survive across the world.
A new book, Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies – 500 AD to the Present, gathers together the latest research on the topic from leading folklorists and historians. A tidal wave of new fairy sightings has been uncovered by the digitisation of British and Irish newspapers and other ephemera. As part of this research, the first-ever scholarly Fairy Census was conducted, and the results are somewhat surprising.
Firstly, Britain’s belief in fairies is increasing, correlating with the rise in popularity in films about the supernatural, such as Lord of the Rings. The sheer number of people who say that they have seen fairies suggests that you don’t need any supernatural powers to do so. Neither is education any indicator of whether or not you see a fairy: professors, scientists, doctoral students, engineers and psychologists have all responded with their own experiences. Apparently, you don’t need to have been drinking, either, but it does help to be female.
When most people think about fairies, they probably think about the Flower Fairies, or Tinkerbell. However, more than a quarter of respondents reported fairies being unfriendly, or downright hostile. In one case, the respondent saw a fairy hunt for children by the side of a river; in another, a respondent saw a fairy stalk a young couple in a car.
22% of sightings took place in five counties – Oxfordshire (yay!), Devon, Lancashire, Essex, and Yorkshire. However, it seems as though fairy populations are no longer confined to rural areas, with sightings in London, Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bath. One was even spotted at Heathrow airport….
Having said that, fairies are most frequently spotted in woods (27%), and in 19% of cases they were spotted in gardens. 74% of sightings took place in full daylight. I don’t think the book contains information on how to see fairies in the garden, but never fear – you can Google it. Gardenfairy.com tells us that their favourite flowers are sunflower, honeysuckle, fernleaf yarrow, summer lilac, red valerian, daisies, cosmos, rosemary, thyme, purple coneflower, pincushion scabiosa, French lavender and heliotrope. And according to Exemplore, you are most likely to find fairies perched in trees, hiding in long grass, dangling their toes in your pond, or riding on the backs of insects under rotting log piles. In other words, it pays to have a wildlife-friendly garden.
Perhaps fairies are like any other wildlife, and it’s easiest to see them from a hide? You can add one to the garden (pretend it’s for birdwatching). If you’re handy, you could easily throw something together from folding doors and cheap windows. And don’t worry that you should have gone to Specsavers first – not all fairies are the size of a butterfly. In fact, one Scotsman reported seeing one of 15 feet!
Readers from other parts of the world who are now deeply regretting not having an English garden to go fairy hunting in should not despair. One of the ground-breaking new findings reported in the book is that British fairies travelled to former colonies in New England, Canada and Irish America. The fairy census of modern sightings confirms this migration.
So I guess the only question now is… have you seen fairies in your garden?
Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies – 500 AD to the Present is by by Dr Simon Young and Dr Ceri Houlbrook, available now in hardback with an RRP of £16.99. This post was a collaboration, but I hope it was as fun for you to read as it was for me to write 🙂
This blog post was written by Emma Cooper and was published on The Unconventional Gardener website. If you're reading it elsewhere you may want to navigate away from plagiarised content.