Once upon a time in a Yorkshire village, two little girls were out exploring the woods when they inadvertently created a myth that has so far lasted 100 years.
The Cottingley Fairies have held onto our imaginations for a century, ever since photographs emerged showing 9-year-old Frances and 16-year-old Elsie playing among the trees with a series of small, winged figures.
Whether they really were fairies or simply cardboard cutouts didn’t ultimately matter. They transformed the bare natural landscape into a magical place, where suspending disbelief added a new dimension to this otherwise overlooked location.
Public interest in the photos was so persistent that the plates were still being analysed decades later—that’s how badly we wanted to find out whether we were allowed to see the magic too.
Right up until her death, Frances insisted that the fifth photograph was not faked, and her denial leaves a ringing in our ears no matter how rational we consider ourselves to be.
If the photos are fakes—the widely accepted diagnosis—that only makes the girls’ achievement more impressive. They performed a legendary feat of guerilla artwork with, allegedly, nothing more than a camera, some cardboard, and some bits of string.
Take a seemingly unremarkable natural setting, add some DIY art, and then invite an audience to leave their logical minds behind. It’s a formula that has as much power today as it did 100 years ago, particularly here in Yorkshire where we’re spoiled with space, creativity, and a pace of life that allows us to put some serious effort into our play.
This coming Saturday, artists will pay homage to the centenary of the Cottingley Fairies in wholly appropriate fashion. A cavernous building in Bradford City Centre has been transformed into an indoor woodland, with trees, a pond, a wishing well, a bar, a bandstand, lots of foliage, and a giant golden boar.
Here, in this room full of branches, decorative lights, and synthetic flowers, fairies will be hidden for visitors to photograph, without the need to question whether those fairies are real or not (because of course they are).
The overarching event is called The Wild Woods In Bloom, and it’s a collaboration between The Brick Box and East Street Arts. After a successful run of autumn evenings last year, it’s back for two final spring-themed events on April 1st and 15th, before being dismantled for good.
Programming for each Wild Woods event has been a team effort between a huge number of artists, musicians, volunteers, museums, and organisations from Bradford and elsewhere. The Cottingley Fairies contribution, for example, comes courtesy of Impressions Gallery, but the Wild Woods has seen live bands, DJs, projections, dancers, coloured powder fights, skaters and space hoppers—and that was just in one night.
Like the legend of the Cottingley Fairies, the Wild Woods asks just one thing of its audience: forget what you know about this place (in this case, a former department store), look past all the props and pretending that holds it together, and see what happens next.
Thousands of visitors have passed through the Wild Woods, kids and adults alike, and without exception they’ve thrown themselves into whatever is on offer, no matter how strange or silly. The feedback has been relentlessly positive, because people have been willing to believe in the world that’s been created. It’s nature, with a twist.
A permanent example of this potent combination of natural environment and DIY magic can be found at Forbidden Corner, where everyone who goes through the gates has the ‘spell of spouting about it afterwards at any opportunity’ cast on them (I’m a case in point).
This North Yorkshire tourist attraction began as a pet project, a folly made by one man for his friends and family in the 1980s, which got completely out of control in more ways than one.
The folly grew in size, and quickly became so popular with the public that visitor numbers became a logistical problem. Authorities moved for closure, but a 10,000-strong petition helped to overturn the decision.
But what exactly were they trying to save? Arguably not much, but—like the Wild Woods—Forbidden Corner is so much more than the sum of its parts. For a relatively small plot of Yorkshire parkland containing little more than statues, woodland, and stonework, the fairy dust count at Forbidden Corner impressively high.
Living sculptures, underground caves, labyrinthian pathways, singing mice, and trees with eyes are just a few of the seemingly naturally-occurring sights you’ll find in this borderline terrifying place. Just another weird and wonderful example of what can happen when creators and audiences choose to see fairies.
The Wild Woods in Bloom is open from 4pm on 1st April and 15th April on Darley Street, Bradford. Entry is free and everyone is welcome. More details at wildwoodsbradford.co.uk.