Last year I published British Pixies with Green Magic Publishing. I’ve recently been undertaking media interviews to promote the book and, in discussion with journalists and radio hosts, the question of contemporary sightings came up several times. This made me think about our more recent sources of information, the Fairy Census 2014-17 and Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies (plus a few cases mentioned by Janet Bord in Fairies) so I decided to have a look what the reports from the English ‘pixie counties’- Cornwall, Somerset and Devon- have to tell us about encounters in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
First of all, some parameters. The witness evidence stretches from the Mendips and Minehead on Exmoor in the east as far west as the Penwith peninsula and St Ives. One case (at least) dates back to before the Second World War, but most come from the 1990s and subsequent decades. We might also exclude, quickly, what we’re not going to say very much about. There are, for example, five experiences of faery music, which has been heard both inside and out; there are four ‘faery beasts‘ reported- a tiny cat, a small blue horse the size of a dog, a reptilian tree spirit and an ent-like animated tree seen in an urban street. In four cases, moving lights were observed- of which, one group resolved into winged fairies; another group were associated with some ‘gnomes’ whilst a pixie being was seen to actually glow or have a halo.
I’ve had to be a bit rough and ready with my classification of the beings seen and other people could well sort out the evidence quite differently to me. As I’m trying to track down the modern pixie, I’ve (perhaps arbitrarily) lumped together all small, brown humanoids, whether their observers called them gnomes, goblins or (indeed) pixies. In eight cases people actually labelled what they’d seen explicitly as pixies; one Cornish man also saw what he called a bucca in his garden though, as I discuss at the start of British Pixies, it’s not entirely clear that there is any strict taxonomic separation between the ‘pixies,’ ‘spriggans,’ ‘knockers,’ pobel vean (little people) or buccas of the South West.
A line may be drawn rather arbitrarily, too, between pixies and other fairies and elves. Overall, I found 58 reports of faery beings in the widest sense. Of these, I think 22 (38%) could be classed as pixies. Another 26 (45%) we might call faeries or elves. Amongst these there were 15 (25% of the overall total) that were recorded by witnesses as having wings. I won’t go on about this aspect again here, other than to remark that wings are (as you know!) not part of British faery tradition. Nuff said.
As for them there piskies, many entirely meet our preconceptions of the type or species. They were small (typically between one foot and three feet tall), looked weathered, had long hair and bushy beards and were dressed in brown (some green and red garments are also reported). One figure seen in Somerset looked to be covered in leaves and branches; a pair of pixies spotted in a wood near Minehead had little conical hats made of wood.
There were some quite aberrant sightings though. Up on the Penwith moors near Men an Tol, a couple saw a young man, of normal human height, but running barefoot at considerable speed. He seemed friendly, but was encountered only at a distance, his clothes appearing ‘unusual’ or home-made so far as they could tell. I’ve lumped him with the pixies, tho’ perhaps I shouldn’t. Weirder still were two beings met by a woman on the coast somewhere near St Austell in the 1930s. The male was two feet tall, lithe and brown she said; the female seemed to be covered in hair like a horse and was striped yellow and brown. They were very chatty. Having lived in St Austell and close by, it’s frustrating indeed not to have any better guide as to location. Equally vague- and just marginally weirder- was a small man in black seen on the coast on the Cornwall/ Devon border- up north of Bude, somewhere, we must suppose. This character turned into a furry rolling cylinder as the witness watched.
Shapeshifting isn’t entirely unheard of, needless to say. A gnome met in a lane near Polperro transformed into a tree stump before the little girl’s parents caught up with her and saw him; a small man about 1′ 6″ tall seen swinging on a fence on the Mendips changed into some wisps of straw. Several of the beings simply vanished, as is the faery way.
What’s the pixie habitat, these days? In eighteen cases we have a clear statement of location. Two were sighted inside- the rest were outdoors. Six were seen in woods, three on the coast and the same number in gardens, lanes and fields. Some of them were busy. Six little men, about 8″ tall, stopped a car in a Cornish lane because they were carrying a ladder across the road. Two cars, each containing several passengers, watched a strange shuffling figure about 2′ 6″ tall slowly cross a lane somewhere on the moors between St Ives and Land’s End. Some ‘gnomes’ seen in a Cornish wood were tidying up the leaves and twigs. Back on the north coast, two pixie men were seen apparently sawing down a gorse bush.
There were interactions with people too. The Polperro pixie seemed cheery and the St Austell ‘husband and wife’ were very talkative, but an ugly little man somewhat resembling a frog or an artichoke (one assumes, he was green, therefore) was very cross when his hiding place in a pile of logs was disturbed. A pixie seen in the hedge by a road in Cornwall pointed accusingly at a man as he drove past at speed; the man was so stunned by this that he slowed down- and therefore probably avoided an nasty accident just around the next sharp corner. Finally, a woman sitting quietly on a log in the woods at Berry Pomeroy castle near Totnes in Devon must have unwittingly trespassed on a pixie’s privacy, because he ran along the log and slapped her in the face without provocation.
So- what can we conclude from this curious catalogue? Well, the pixies are still there, getting on with their business, it appears. Many look exactly like the pixies of folk tradition, although other beings that don’t are still labelled pixies by the witnesses, perhaps because they were seen in the South West and therefore ‘had’ to be pixies. There have, though, been some very strange experiences indeed and- we must recognise- more people came across what they saw as brightly coloured winged faeries. As I’ve remarked before about the Fairy Census, it can present us with results that challenge fundamentally our preconceptions about the nature of ‘faery.’ This has always tended to persuade me that these witnesses were being entirely honest about what they saw: if they wanted to pretend to have seen a faery, you might expect them to describe it in the current conventional terms- like Tinker Bell or a flower faery. As reader Eternal Anglo Seax remarked in a comment on one of my recent postings “Would it be passé to do the Shakespeare quote about books and philosophies?” Clearly, we shouldn’t be too didactic about these things…