A new publication by Simon Young, The Wollaton Gnomes: A Nottingham Fairy Mystery maps out the peculiar incident from 1979 when a group of children experienced gnome-like entities in a park in Nottingham. The book includes all the known sources, with a discussion of the data. It also has ten new essays that expound upon the incident and introduce a range of perspectives upon what may have happened. My own essay (adapted to include an introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the incident) is republished below. The discussion is curtailed somewhat, due to the word count for the publication, but there will be more lengthy articles here concerning the faeries and altered states of consciousness in the near future. Thanks to Simon for permission to share the text here at deadbutdreaming.
The Wollaton Park Incident
One of the more bizarre modern faerie encounters happened at Wollaton Park in Nottingham on 23 September 1979. It includes various traditional folkloric faerie motifs, but is overlain with some strange and anomalous features, which give it an edge of authenticity, especially as it was reported by a group of seven children between 8-10 years, who stuck rigorously to their story even when separated and questioned by their headmaster. The consistency of their testimonies is particularly impressive, despite some of the aberrant qualities of the account. Their testimonies were recorded on tape by the headmaster a few days after the event, and the transcriptions can be found here, recorded for posterity by Simon Young.
The incident happened during the early evening, at twilight. The children were playing close to a fenced-off marshy area of the park with ponds. Without warning, there appeared about thirty small cars, each containing two gnome-like creatures, that is, with ‘bobbled nightcaps’, beards, wrinkly skin, and dressed in coloured jerkins. One of the older children described them as: ‘about half the size of me and they had long white beards with red at the bottom and they had little white and red cars and they were chasing us.’ The cars were silent and seemed able to defy the laws of physics by floating over logs on the ground. Although the gnomic cars chased the children they were consistently described as being friendly and the whole encounter seemed like a game with the gnomes laughing, although when the two youngest children fell over in the marsh they became frightened. One of the only discrepancies in the testimonies is that five of the children said the gnomes were, apart from laughing, consistently silent throughout, whereas two children described them as talking in some type of foreign language. The cars were described as having triangular lights and some sort of button instead of a steering wheel. After about fifteen minutes, soon after the two youngsters fell in the marsh, the children ran off and the gnomes disappeared back into the trees.
The Wollaton Park incident is certainly one of the most intriguing modern encounter reports of faerie-type entities. If we consider the gnomes the children reported as part of a taxonomy of faeries, then the testimony joins the ranks of thousands from both folklore and modern experiences. Many experience reports are from childhood, usually (unlike with the Wollaton children) recalled in adulthood. When this is the case, we need to take into account the vagaries of memory, and how any incident is recalled. 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.
So, with these caveats in mind, It is worth exploring how such non-human entity encounters may occur, and why there seems to be a relative prevalence of childhood experiences involving faeries. The gnomes in the Wollaton encounter seem to adhere to a fairly traditional folkloric appearance, but, of course, their levitating cars give them some modern cultural coding. If the incident is taken at face-value it could be seen as an updated version of many folklore anecdotes and stories that involve wizened gnomic faeries, behaving in a slightly irrational manner. Their manifestation in woodland and at dusk also locks in with the usual habitat and aphotic preferences of folkloric gnomes. Their materialisation to children is also important. The transcripts clearly demonstrate that the children, whilst startled by the encounter, were able to accept it without the rationalisation that might be expected of an adult. They viewed it as weird, but not unnatural. Perhaps this was simply a case of the children tuning into to the gloaming, woodland atmosphere and experiencing a non-material reality, acculturated for them by their watching (the very hallucinogenic) Big Ears and Noddy on the television. This state of mind of the children, coupled with their relative lack of (adult) cultural coding, is important. It may be contended that children are more easily able to enter an altered state of consciousness and participate in a non-local reality, which may possibly include supranatural entities such as the Wollaton gnomes.
Children and Faeries
Tales about children interacting with faeries in the historic folklore are relatively rare. The 19th- and early 20th-century collectors, such as Hunt, Campbell, Carmichael and Evans-Wentz did not record testimonies or stories from children, and only occasionally recounted remembered anecdotes from adults. But artwork depicting faeries from the same period often showed children interacting with the entities, and JM Barrie’s stage plays and novels in the first decades of the 20th century suggest an intrinsic understanding that there was an immutable link between children and faeries. This was demonstrated most famously in the story of the Cottingley faeries. In 1917, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths took photographs of what they claimed to be faeries, located in the grounds of Elsie’s family home in Cottingley, Yorkshire. Four of the five photographs were subsequently shown to be faked by the girls, who used cut-outs from illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, although the fifth photograph is more ambiguous, and Elsie always claimed it was not manufactured. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Cottingley story is that the girls, while later admitting to faking the images, claimed that they were only attempting to represent what they really saw in the gardens. When the theosophist and proclaimed clairvoyant, Geoffrey Hodson, visited the girls in 1921 he claimed that ‘both he and the girls regularly observed gnomes, fairies, elves, nymphs, and goblins.’ To the end of their lives in the 1980s, both Elsie and Frances insisted they had interacted with faerie entities at Cottingley over the course of five years.
By the mid 20th century, anecdotal experience reports similar to the Cottingley testimony (although without the photographs) were beginning to be collected by organisations such as the Fairy Investigation Society, which had been founded in 1927 (disbanded in 1932 but re-founded after the Second World War). These differed from the folkloric testimonies of earlier periods in that they were rarely overlain with any type of narrative story, but instead consisted of simple encounter reports. One of the most complete collections is that of Marjorie Johnson (secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society from 1950), which was finally published as Seeing Fairies. This included accounts of several hundred faerie encounters, mostly from Britain, and many of them were from children, albeit recalled at a later date. Johnson was a believer in the faerie phenomenon and had many personal experiences, but in Seeing Fairies she mostly recounted the testimonies of people who had written to her with minimal editorial input or interpretation. It is noticeable that many of the childhood recollections referenced gnome-like entities, such as the testimony recounted (in the third-person by Johnson) from Kent, England by Felicity Royds recalling an experience from when she was nine years old:
“Felicity found she had left some object – her coat or a toy – in the rose garden, and was sent back alone to fetch it. The rose garden was surrounded by thick yew hedges, and at the end of it was a cast-iron gate leading into a thicket of rhododendrons. The object, which she had gone to fetch, was on the grass near this gate, and she had just retrieved it and was turning away, fearful of what may come out of the bushes, when she saw coming through the gate a small man leading a light brown horse. The man was shorter than Felicity and appeared to be wearing a blue tunic with something white at the neck. His skin was very brown, browner than his hair. The pony was about the size of a Shetland but very slender. Although she did not feel frightened, Felicity did not look at the man directly, only out of the corner of her eye. He put his hand on her wrist, and his touch was cool, not cool like a fish or a lizard, but much cooler than a human touch. He led her out of the rose garden and onwards until they were within sight of the house, and then stood still while she went in. She said that she was not musical, but while he held her hand she seemed to be aware of a strain of music that was sweet and high but sounded rather unfinished.”
The tactility of this encounter is rare; most experiences are visual and audial only (as per the Wollaton gnomes). But (as elaborated on in the next section) some of Johnson’s correspondents suggest their encounters involved extra-sensory numinous perception, such as Clara Clayton, who recounted experiences throughout her life in Nottinghamshire, including as a child, when one day:
“I found myself in the presence of a little green gnome on a hill. His face was serious, and he looked anxiously from side to side. Then he beckoned to me, and as he went suddenly through the ground like a fish swimming through water, he changed to the colour of earth and he moved easily through soil, rock etc. I followed him with my inner vision until he ceased his downward journey and showed to me his particular place of work.”
The faerie gnome showed her how he fashioned earth and minerals before the experience ended in a sudden blackout.
In the 2014-17 survey by Simon Young of the Fairy Investigation Society there were thirty-four testimonies from adults recounting faerie experiences from when they were under ten, and seventeen from teenage recollections (all anonymised). There is a great divergence of faerie entity types, although several described the entities as gnomes, such as this experience (#18) from a thirteen year-old girl in Cornwall:
“We’d been on holiday in Cornwall before, and had joked about the ‘Little People’ who lived in the tin mines etc… The first proper day of our holiday we went for a walk on a clear sunny day. It was very rural; I remember we were walking down a grassy track with large banks of wild hedges running alongside. It could’ve been somewhere near Polperro. I was walking a few steps ahead of my mum and sisters, excited about having a whole week off, when I saw a gnome sitting by the side of the path. It was so unexpected; I think I remember feeling scared – or wondering if I was seeing things or going mad? I took another couple of steps and I saw his nut brown wizened face in detail. He was cheekily grinning at me. He had a mossy brown beard and dark brown shining eyes; he was wearing a peaked hat (brown) and a shiny jacket and trousers in shades of brown and ochre. I’d say he was about twelve- to fourteen-inches tall. I could not believe my eyes. I was even too amazed to turn around and tell my family to ‘look at the gnome’ by the path. Then the gnome cocked his head (again, cheekily), turned his back on me and kind of changed/melted (transmogrified?) into an old tree stump. This must’ve all happened in a second, just as I found the breath to say ‘Mum! Look…!’ But, of course, there was nothing to see but a tree stump. I felt really stupid then, so I muttered something non-consequential as we walked past. I was almost panicking, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. I was quite shaken. It was a breathtaking experience.”
And this testimony (#10) from an undisclosed location in England:
“[I was] walking home in woodland after building den with friends. [I] was nine at the time. I came around a tree and saw two small creatures two-feet high sitting on a stump. [They] appeared to be carrying small canes and dressed in brown cloaks. Watched them for short time, they saw me then vanished. [They were] thin, two-foot tall, longish arms and legs [with] pale faces.”
While the previous caveats of distorted memories must be taken into account, it is important to note that the correspondents not only took the time to reply to the survey, but that many of them described the events as cardinal points in their lives. The survey also asked respondents to report their state of mind at the time of the encounter. In a majority of cases (both adult encounters and adults recalling childhood memory) the experiencers appears to have been in some form of changed mood from their usual, everyday disposition. They seem, in effect, to have been in an altered state of consciousness.
Altered States of Consciousness and Experiencing Faeries
Faerie encounters reported by adults in adulthood, may seem to be potentially more authentic than something recalled from childhood. While the same issues of memory refraction apply, the time depth is not as great, and the anecdotal episodes will perhaps be given more credence. It is also noticeable that many faerie experiences, both in the historic folklore and in modern testimony, suggest the participants have, in some way, altered their states of consciousness and thereby allowed in the entity encounter. The extreme end of consciousness alteration might be seen as using psychedelics. There are thousands of experience reports across a range of platforms and publications, as well a several clinical studies, which describe radically altered states of consciousness brought on by a variety of psychedelic compounds, many of which involve encounters with non-human intelligent entities, which fall within a faerie taxonomy. These reports are fascinating testimony and suggest that whatever the encountered entities are, a fundamental change in consciousness may increase our chances of interacting with them. One of the most dramatic psychedelic experiences can be induced by injecting or smoking N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Probably the most famous promulgator of the DMT experience was the late Terence McKenna, who coined the term self-transforming machine elves for the entities he often encountered during his many DMT trips: “Trying to describe them isn’t easy. On one level I call them self-transforming machine elves; half machine, half elf. They are also like self-dribbling jewelled basketballs, about half that volume, and they move very quickly and change. And they are, somehow, awaiting. When you burst into this space, there’s a cheer!” Since McKenna was experimenting with DMT there have been several experience surveys, which suggest that faerie-type entities (whether hallucinations, part of a transpersonal reality, or from a standalone reality outside our own), are regular characters within a DMT trip.
One of the most comprehensive surveys is from 2006, collated by the computational physicist Peter Meyer. ‘340 DMT Trip Reports’ documents what Meyer describes as, “reports which attest to contact with apparently independently existing intelligent entities within what seems to be an alternate reality.” The 340 (anonymous) reports certainly contain many encounters with faerie-type entities, most often described as elves. Forty-six of the reports describe encountering faeries/elves. One of the most interesting brings us to an important link between an adult altered state of consciousness and a child’s perspective. Respondent no. 65 had taken an unknown dose of DMT:
“This time I saw the ‘elves’ as multidimensional creatures formed by strands of visible language; they were more creaturely than I had ever seen them before. The message was changing from the initial ‘OK, OK, safe, safe… The elves were dancing in and out of the multidimensional visible language matrix, ‘waving’ their ‘arms’ and limbs/hands/fingers? and smiling or laughing, although I saw no faces as such. The elves were telling me (or I was understanding them to say) that I had seen them before, in early childhood. Memories were flooding back of seeing the elves: they looked just like they do now: evershifting, folding, multidimensional, multicolored (what colors!), always laughing, weaving/waving, showing me things, showing me the visible language they are created/creatures of, teaching me to speak and read.”
The statement that the elves were reminding the experiencer of childhood is interesting. The idea that children are less indoctrinated with a materialistic value system, and are therefore more able to experience a supernal reality is a commonplace motif. In this testimony the encounter may be integrating the memory of a suppressed childhood reality, and bringing it into the present via DMT.
But altered states of consciousness come in many forms, most less dramatic than DMT episodes. In the Fairy Investigation Society’s survey respondents were asked about their mood before and during the experience. In those who answered a majority reported a particular consciousness state, such as: content, anxious, carefree, pensive etc. This suggests they deemed their consciousness state during the experience as in some sense different from their usual everyday state. These mild altered states can be akin to daydream states or even hypnagogic episodes, when consciousness begins to let in what is usually filtered out, sometimes involving non-human intelligent entities. Whether these modes of consciousness may be in a hallucinatory state, conducting transpersonal information, or letting in ulterior entities from their own standalone reality, there seems to be a consistency in the experiences of faerie-type entities being witnessed by people in non-ordinary states of consciousness, however that state has been achieved, and however it is defined.
Were the children at Wollaton Park in an altered state of consciousness? It seems possible; the experience took place at dusk in a place that was fenced and off-limits. The twilight effect on consciousness and the sense of subversiveness in their actions might have skewed their usual take on the electro-magnetic spectrum. The cartoon ambience of the episode may have been the children’s cultural overlay on the true nature of the phenomenon. Perhaps children are more prone to slipping into altered states of consciousness and witnessing entities while there, but it is quite clear that most modern reports of faerie encounters are by adults. This might be due to most children’s testimonies being dismissed and unrecorded, and childhood recollections from later in life being written off as false memories. This makes the testimonies from the children who experienced the gnomes in Wollaton Park so important, as they were transcribed shortly after the incident, and seem to be honest reports. This modern folklore from the mouths of children is quite a rarity. Whether the children of Wollaton had their experience because their consciousness had been altered, cannot be conjectured. But many modern testimonies of faerie encounters stress a changed state of mind during the experience important enough to remember and to mention in a survey. An altered state of consciousness may not be the primary cause for all modern faerie encounters, but it may be the reason for the majority of experiences.
The cover image is by Brian Froud from his classic 1978 illustrated collection with Alan Lee, Faeries.
Simon Young’s The Wollaton Gnomes: A Nottingham Fairy Mystery is available now. It is the most comprehensive source for the incident and contains many references to follow up. The ten new essays are written by folklorists, Forteans and fairyists, and provide new insights into how such experiences may help us to understand the faerie phenomenon.
Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now.