Recently, I came across a post on the excellent Facebook page Ridgeways and Ancient Tracks of Britain by an acquaintance of mine, Steve Halton (Steve has agreed for his real name being used here). It is a fascinating experience, which might be construed as a faerie encounter, although, as you will see, there are other interpretations for what may have happened. Steve’s experience joins a growing number of reports of possible interactions with faerie-type entities in recent years, exemplified in The Fairy Investigation Society’s recent survey, as well as in many other sources. Testimonies of faerie encounters may have been common in folkloric motifs, but since the late 20th century they have been among the most taboo of paranormal experiences, garnering ridicule and derision, in a way that, for example, encounters with UFOs or ghosts do not. In the last decade or so this has begun to change, as more people become aligned with the possibility that the faeries (in whatever guise) may represent a coded manifestation of human consciousness made available in certain states of consciousness, or that they are even incorporeal non-human intelligent entities, interacting with our own physical reality when certain conditions are met. However, there is still a strong reductionist instinct to write off such experiences, and many people coming forward with their testimonies wish to remain anonymous (all the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s survey were guaranteed anonymity) for fear of negative reaction. It still takes an amount of fortitude to admit to a belief that a genuine faerie encounter has happened. So, while the following description may or may not be a faerie experience, Steve’s testimony is brave. There were many comments on his Facebook post, most positive and apparently freeing the commentators to recount their own similar stories. But in a small minority there were the inevitable detractors, mocking in tone and sanctimonious in their perceived superiority of knowledge about how our consensus reality works. It made me think that perhaps there is an exponentially larger number of faerie-type encounters than reported in the literature and online, but that many people will simply not want to put their head above the parapet for fear of socio-cultural castigation. Again, I think this attitude is modifying, and if the plural of anecdote is data, then the collation of these experiences may lead to a greater understanding of what the faeries are, and are not. Below is Steve’s testimony, with a commentary afterword.
I am going to talk about an experience I had about twenty years ago (when I was thirty), on the Icknield Way, which is as clear today as it was then. I have only told a couple of close friends and I am genuinely convinced that what I saw was real. I have spent most of my life on the Bedfordshire chalk downlands. I am an ecologist, wildlife artist and writer on wildlife and landscapes. I am also very sensitive and intuitive to nature and landscapes, and I believe that there is still a lot more around us than can be explained by science.
One evening I was walking my dog among a stretch of the Icknield Way between Hitchin (Pirton) and along the crest of Deacon and Pegsdon Hills, following the Bedfordshire/Hertfordshire boundary. I know the area very well and was a volunteer warden on Pegsdon Hills Nature Reserve. It was mid May, warm, still and sunny. Part of the stretch forms a ‘green lane’ about 20ft wide with with thick hedges each side and, one on side was a ditch about 10-12ft feet wide and about 4-5ft deep, overhung with tangled hawthorn, blackthorn, wild clematis and with mature ash trees overhead.
There were no other people around but as I climbed up the hill I could smell and see smoke. I came across several people who were camping in the ditch. I then realised with absolute astonishment that they looked really ‘odd’. They were small in height and size and most appeared very old and wrinkled – as if they had lived outside all their lives. They were weathered looking with dark or grey hair, tied back. There were about ten or twelve of them in total; men and women. At least two of the women were nursing babies, well wrapped up. I did not notice any children. The tents were very small, brown, very old looking and appeared to be of leather. Most of the tents had small fires outside with cooking utensils hanging over the fires.
They all looked really ancient; looks, clothes, apparel, utensils etc. Like someone out of a Robert Holdstock novel such as ‘Myathgo Wood’ or ‘Lavondyss’, if you know his incredible writings. No-one talked but I do remember smiling at a couple of the women and they smiled back to me with gappy grins. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. They were obviously planning to spend the night and, first thing next morning, I went straight back to have a look and there was not a sign; no fires, no signs whatsoever, although the soil under the trees and scrub had been kind of ‘swept’ clear. They were obviously very used to living close to nature.
Who were they? I thought that they were maybe some kind of ‘underground movement’ of people walking and living the old trackways in more modern times but have found no indication that this happens. Did I go through some kind of ‘time slip’ into another time period? Did my sensitive mind ‘pick up’ on some lingering memories of ancient times? I have carried this incredible experience all my life; I now live in north Pembrokeshire and still work both in science and the arts (with degrees in both subjects) but can never, ever forget that astonishing dusk when I saw people from another age right in front of me (and my dog) using a major ancient trackway in a way that it has probably always been used. I know it was real – of that I have no doubt. I swear that I saw and experienced this incident and wanted to genuinely share this because I have no one satisfactory explanation for what I saw that evening. Maybe I should just leave it as a very special experience meant for me alone…?
This encounter is fascinating at many levels. Steve does not relate it as a distinctive faerie encounter, and makes the conjecture of it perhaps being a time-slip. This is a possibility, but even then, the characters have a somewhat non-human element to them, bringing up the mind-bending idea that they were faeries from the past, being witnessed in the present. There is also the issue of memory, and how a recollection of a past event can become malleable. Even the most scrupulously honest recall of an event is still subject to the vagaries of memory. The plasticity of memory appertaining to any eye-witness event is a well-studied psychological trait. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an in-depth study of how people remembered automobile accidents at various times after the event, concluding that: “findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible. If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall. The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.” This is, of course, unavoidable in any testimony of a past incident. In some ways, a non-ordinary supernatural event may be less prone to plasticity as it is likely to be a special event, detached from the everyday. Its unconventionality may burn it into memory in a more exacting way and its recall be more reliable than for that of a more commonplace occurrence. But potentially numinous incidents, such as encounters with supernatural entities, may also be subject to increased amounts of reconstitution, where the experiencer attempts to make subsequent rationalisations of the event and even suppress aspects of what has happened in order to codify it to accepted social and cultural belief systems. This is (and always has been) an unavoidable component of folklore. It does not, however, discredit the experience.
Knowing the author of this encounter, I am convinced he is accurately recalling a numinous experience, made more convincing by his return the next day to check out the site. The ‘swept’ nature of the camp appears to have been manufactured just for him. But how did the experience happen and what was Steve really witnessing? While not deliberately altering his state of consciousness, it seems reasonable that walking a dog at evening time in a relatively isolated part of the countryside may have been enough to produce a meditative, even trance-like state of mind, which can induce an alteration to everyday waking consciousness. Many folkloric and modern faerie encounters are preempted by the participant entering a focussed state of mind different from their usual disposition. Once this is achieved, the ability to tune in to non-normal levels of reality may be allowed. It is noticeable in the Fairy Investigation Society’s survey that in the majority of reports, the respondents described emotional perturbance prior to an experience. This was sometimes negative, as in grief, sadness, depression etc. and at other times more positive feelings of contentment, calmness or relaxation. It might also be noted that many descriptions of alien abductions occur when the witness is either in a sleepy, hypnagogic state or driving along a monotonous highway, possibly inducing a hypnotic state. Steve’s state of mind may not have been altered in such an extreme way, but it may have been tweaked just enough to allow him to witness something beyond the bounds of consensus reality.
What he actually witnessed must remain a mystery. As is usually the case in modern faerie encounters, the experience was visual. There was no tactility and, in this case, no audial interaction. This suggests a fragile communication that is only operating within a limited frame. For instance, while all senses may operate within a dream, it is clear that the dreaming mind is predominantly based on vision and audio (always infused with intangible feeling). This is not to suggest that Steve’s experience was a dream, but rather that it was akin to a dream state, whereby entities not usually allowed into consensus reality can manifest, and make themselves apparent within an individual’s consciousness. His consciousness was altered, however slightly, and it experienced entities that were either removed in time or dimensional locality, or maybe both. Whatever the interpretation, the experience is important and helps lead us down the road to a deeper understanding of consciousness and the potential ways it can interact with ulterior forms of being.
The cover image is The Gnomes’ Soup by Heinrich Schlitt (1849-1923).
Dead but Dreaming, the novel, is available now.