Nobody seems to know who started the fairy door craze, or when it began, exactly. But it was after the Somerset fairy evictions of 2015 that the movement made international headlines.
For years, people had left carefully crafted little doors at the bases of trees in Wayford Woods in Crewkerne, Somerset. There are references and pictures online dating back to 2012 and, reportedly, the activity had been going on long before that.
Some of the doors had children’s names on them, many had tiny hinges, doorknobs and sometimes little windows. Nestled against the roots of a tree and edged by moss or leaves, such adornments can be quite hard to spot on a woodland walk. That’s sort of the idea. For those lucky enough to catch them at a glance, the doors suggest a world beyond – a world of magic and possibility.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that so many of these tiny doors had appeared in Wayford Woods – 200 miniature thresholds, at their peak – that by 2015 the locals felt they had no option but to remove some of them.
"It's a very complex situation and nobody's admitting that they're evicting the fairies," Steven Acreman, a trustee of the woods, told BBC News in March 2015. "It's just that fairy control is required otherwise we'd be covered in fairy doors.”
Fairy control wasn't enough, however. By August, all of the doors were gone. To find out more about what happened, I contacted local councillor Sue Osborne. She says the media reports resulted in large numbers of visitors coming to the woods, which overwhelmed the local community.
"Some adjoining roads had to be shut to enable the traffic chaos to be sorted and villagers found themselves stranded in their own homes," she explains.
It was this that prompted the wholesale removal of the doors, which were taken to an alternative location. "There are no fairy doors now and the trustees have a local policy of no fairy doors," adds Osborne. The fairies of Wayford Woods became victims of their own success.
But following their banishment from this quiet corner of England, the fairy diaspora went global.
It was in woods near to where I live, in Northern Ireland, that I first stumbled on fairy doors myself. My wife and I have spent a lot of time on woodland walks during the pandemic. We've often noticed fairy doors hidden away in secluded places, nestled in the ivy at the foot of proud old trees. All of the photos in this article were taken on our recent walks, the fairy doors crafted by unidentified artists.
It’s not surprising to me that fairy doors have caught on in Ireland, a part of the world with a long tradition of folk stories and beliefs regarding fairies.
At the time of the Wayford Woods furore, British writer Sara Maitland made a plea for tolerance in The Guardian. The doors could help us value woods, she argued:
If we do not populate the woods with imagination, with stories, with wonders, we will destroy them, or limit our own flourishing – or both.
The business of making fairy doors and placing them on a particular tree lets children layer meaning over forested places. The doors spark enigma and excitement. It’s easy to scoff at this – but how different is it to the birdwatcher who makes a special effort to get to the woods early in the morning in the hope of seeing a cuckoo; or the forager who, with delight, chances upon a rare mushroom.
These interactions represent our human (Western) relationship with the woods. Far from being an infantile distraction, like most play, the installation of fairy doors prepares children for activities in adulthood. In this case, engaging with the natural environment in different ways as they age.
I’d guess that this early seeding of excitement, this establishment of memories, might eventually bring about greater appreciation of the woods. Fairy doors could act as a sort of gateway drug to ecological awareness.
Some may object when home-made fairy doors are nailed or screwed into trees – though the Arboricultural Association suggests that a single nail, for example, would not necessarily cause much harm to an established tree in good condition. I asked the Woodland Trust about this issue and a spokesman replied:
When creating magical spaces for fairies to live in our woods, it’s best if the doors are leant against the tree or wedged in a nook or something, fairies prefer that to nails, as putting nails in the tree can open the tree up to disease or pests.
In 2019, the Trust published a guide for children explaining how to make a fairy door using old ice lolly sticks. The resulting door is simply placed at the base of a tree.
Whatever method people choose, fairy doors clearly ought to be installed sensitively and in moderation, in order to protect trees and avoid any upset to local communities.
Should they become established, there remains the question of how to look after them. Woods with fairy doors have occasionally become the subject of vandalism, in which unscrupulous types have kicked the tiny entrances off their hinges.
But respect for fairies could have broader benefits for the woods overall. One of the most well-known superstitions you'll hear about in Ireland is that of the "fairy tree" – a lone tree standing on a hillside or in a field is often considered the property of fairies. It’s very, very bad luck to cut such a tree down, apparently. I wonder how many hundreds or thousands of trees in Ireland have escaped the saw thanks to this old tradition.
Fairy doors could end up playing a similar role – but for entire woodlands, not just isolated trees. In the UK and Ireland, native woodlands have dwindled to tiny fragments of their former extent and are often vulnerable thanks to a lack of legal protections in some areas. Cultural protections could end up being just as robust, if not more so.
A harsh media spotlight may have spelled the end for the fairies of Wayford Woods but fairy doors might continue to thrive, so long as they don't overwhelm, elsewhere.
It would seem appropriate to me if that were to happen. When I started working on this article, I tried to find out where the concept of fairy doors or dwellings came from. I didn’t gather much of substance, though I did discover a poem published in 1932 called “Fairy Gold”, by the Canadian poet Virna Sheard.
In it, she describes the “fairy gold of youth” (dreams and “bright memories that do not die”, and so on). It’s this gold that unlocks fairy doors. But time marches on. Sheard seems to hope that the myth-making of childhood will yield rewards in adulthood. An investment in the future, leading, perhaps, to a better world:
In some safe little wallet—buckled fast,
Dear fairy people, give us of your gold,
That we may keep it till all youth is past
And hold it close—to spend when we are old.
Some links for you
I spied several stories this week that discussed the role the arts have to play in fostering our sense of connectedness to nature. In that vein, you might want to check out the World Environment Day virtual concert that will be broadcast online tomorrow (5 June) at 8pm BST / 3pm EDT. The theme of the event is “Ecosystem Restoration”, as Olivia Rosane reports for EcoWatch. The performers seek to use the event to draw attention to issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss.
Nature has long influenced art. The online magazine Psyche released a lovely film last month, an animated version of the myth that explains why India’s Bhil people adopted their colourful style of painting. Legend tells that a long period of drought came to an end when they began painting their homes. There are lots of animals in the story and my favourite line describes what happened as the rains began to fall:
“Then the snakes and turtles turned around and made holes in the ground. The holes filled up with water.”
Such scenes make great material for Bhil painters, who contributed to the film.
Finally, there’s a most excellent article by Anelise Chen in The Atlantic about the late Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain. The book is to be published in the US for the first time, 22 years after its initial publication in the UK. In her review, Chen discusses the Deakin’s various insights – including the fact that many once-pristine waterways in the UK are now polluted or culverted and paved over.
But the most interesting thing for me was Chen’s consideration of the book from an American perspective – specifically with regard to racial inequalities. As she notes:
“Historically, swimming in unsanctioned places in the US has proved deadly for people of colour.”
In this light, the discussion around wild swimming may seem more complex – but it is even more worth having.
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