May 1st 2022 is the 21st Anniversary of the Fairyland Trust. We have a lot of new Supporters and Crew and every Fairy Fair and Real Halloween brings new visitors. So rather than the usual ‘review’ of what has changed in the wider world – good things like the emergence of rewilding and all the bad things we don’t need to mention – we thought you might be interested in this reminder of how we do what we do, and why, and how the Fairyland Trust came to be.
In 2001 our launch coincided with an epidemic of Foot and Mouth disease so the countryside was ‘closed’. The only bluebell wood we could visit was at Kew Gardens! This photo was destined to appear on the front page of a national newspaper but got lost under others on the electronic photo-desk.
Back in 2001 we started the Fairyland Trust to give conservation a wider appeal, by creating enjoyable ways for children to learn about nature. In those days, although the environment and conservation groups we had worked with always wanted to attract more younger and mainstream audiences, conventional nature outreach rarely got any more engaging than school-lesson-style pond-dipping and science-heavy environmental ‘interpretation’. Great for geeks like some of us but not much fun.
We were inspired by our own daughters to focus on young families, and fairies and magic, when one of them said “I want to go and look for fairies … in places like wildflower meadows with knobbly old trees”. What a great motivation for parents and carers to get out into real nature with their children! Or so we thought. Yet when we tried to share this idea with existing organisations which cared for so many wonderful places just like that, the reception was mixed at best. One replied “it gave us a good laugh in the office”.
Our original idea was to create a nature-rich ‘Fairyland’ that families could visit but lacking any land ourselves, we set out to adapt the old tradition of country fairs, and bring nature and magic together, if only for a day or so at a time. Our first such ‘magical fete’, the first Fairy Fair, was held at Bayfield Hall in Norfolk in 2002. More followed and within a year, our Workshops were appearing at public events from Lewisham People’s Festival to Glastonbury.
From a 2002 – 4 ‘annual report’
To create magical days-out and nature workshops we combined folklore and natural history, drawing on techniques from the arts, theatre, crafts and performance as well as outdoor learning. To date some 250,000 people have taken part in our events and activities, although we’ve never had our own office, or any salaried staff, and we have to pay our own way as a charity by people buying tickets for our events.
The ultimate aim of every event and activity we run is to give children positive memories of discovering nature, and the ability to know wild plants and animals in the same way as their great, great-grandparents did when people came across nature in the course of everyday life, and ‘common’ wildflowers, birds and butterflies really were still common. As David Attenborough said, if people do not know what something is, they can’t want to protect it.
We’ve always tried to follow the dictum ‘start from where your audience’ is and so we have tried to encourage families to grow wildflowers at home, whether in gardens, pots or window-boxes. Few of us own farms, heathlands or woods but we can all make a difference at home. For this reason we’ve run the Golden Dandelion Competition and made the video ‘Lawnageddon’ to encourage families to let dandelions bloom, and promoted Hedgehog Houses but if one Workshop sums this up, it’s probably Fairy Gardens.
‘Learning outcomes’ of Fairy Gardens summarised in a 2008 report
In Fairy Gardens, children plant up their own carry-away coir tubs with real wildflowers, to care for at home. Fairy Gardens has featured in every one of the 23 Fairy Fairs we have run since, and many families have sent us photos of the wildflowers spreading from those few ‘plug plants’ (all donated by British Wildflower Plants), successfully bringing some wild-flowers back to gardens all over the country.
The great thing is that since then, many others have followed our example and wildflower gardening is becoming mainstream. It’s rewilding in miniature but it can make a big impact as there are over 16 million gardens in the UK. A recent study found that small domestic gardens can add up to a significant boost for bees and other wildlife if they contain enough nectar producing plants.
The Fairy Fair is designed around May, traditionally a time to celebrate spring and the power of nature, going back thousands of years. Maypoles were topped off with wildflowers chosen for their magical powers but for most people attending the spring fairs of old, the entertainment: dancing, eating, drinking, storytelling and performance were probably just as important. Which is still true today, and it’s why we have games, shopping, a pub, walkabouts and shows at the Fairy Fair, as well as nature workshops.
Early on, one dad came up to us and said “this is great – you’ve created an Organic Disneyland”. We were delighted, as Disney said if you you want to ‘educate’ people you must “first entertain”. But of course for us, it’s not just an entertainment: we want to make a difference by rekindling the nature ability of each new generation, so they can recognize the variety and meaning of wildflowers, plants and animals, making natural diversity real, familiar and not just a concept.
As was once said, this ability “illuminates” a landscape or any walk outdoors, as once you can read it, nature is like a book that enriches your life, always familiar but with something new to discover every time you look at it. Just playing outdoors is not the same as being able to play with nature if you can’t recognize it. And once you can read nature, put a name to plants, flowers, birds, bees and other creatures, you can get ‘good at it’, giving a new source of satisfaction and deeper fascination for children and adults alike.
Discussing wildflowers with the Fairy Queen
Most of our Workshops have been invented by watching and listening to how young children play and use their imaginations. At one of the very early Fairy Fairs we had a “wise lady” in an old gipsy caravan, talking to children about why butterflies, bees and fairies preferred wild flowers. The children said “you are the Fairy Queen” and although she at first replied that she wasn’t, they insisted. Which is why the Fairy Queen and then the Fairy King, have been appearing at the Fairy Fairs, and at The Real Halloween, ever since.
We also noticed a long time ago that young children don’t use terms like ‘habitats’ for where creatures live but ‘homes’. We pointed this out to a friend who worked for the RSPB which is perhaps why they adopted the term ‘nature’s home’.
A card with a packet of wildflower seeds attached to the reverse, used in the Fairy Crowns Workshop
Over time, we’ve learnt how to make nature-learning really stick by combining genuine natural history and authentic folklore with arts and crafts, at events that entertain as well as inform. We remain the only organisation specifically reaching out to young families to engage them in discovering the magic of nature.
Along the way we’ve constantly tried to improve. We were one of the first, if not the first event organisation to go plastic free, a process that took years and even involved setting aside that ‘fairy’ staple of glitter. Our popular No-New Plastic Fancy Dress Competition started at The Real Halloween, and news of it reached over a million people on social media.
From 2018 – taking on the menace of plastic and encouraging visitors to create their own costumes without new plastic
The grown ups section of the non-new plastic fancy dress competition at Halloween
Almost all the crew you meet at our events are volunteers. Often they are recruited from people who first come as visitors, with their own children. For many, the training and experiences they get have quite literally changed their lives, as they too become able to see the living detail of nature, and understand how to care for it in practical ways. For example Philippa, our current Head Fairy Gardener, was an artist, involved in some theatrical fundraising for the Trust right at the start. She now runs her own wildflower-growing business. Ayla came as a child, and is now embarking on a career in sustainable set-building for movies and TV, aiming far beyond just being plastic-free.
Without their efforts and those of hundreds of other volunteers, there would have been no Fairy Fairs, no autumnal magic of The Real Halloween, and no travelling workshops at festivals and many other events. They are our community and we say to them a big “thank-you”.
The reluctance of Norfolk (and other) landowners to sell land means we are still thwarted in our ambition to have a year–round Fairyland site of our own, although if we get enough Supporters, maybe one day that dream can come true.
Our mission remains to give children the magical gift of knowing nature, of being able to relate to real British wildlife and plants, just as they can to friends and pets. Because that way they can grow up wanting to protect it and able to do so, from their gardens and window boxes, to towns, cities and countryside.
If you share our vision, do visit the Fairy Fair, where this year you can inspect the Fairy Queen’s own Fairy Garden, grown by the Head Fairy Gardener. The Fair is our showcase event for all our work, and also helps us raise money. So if you haven’t already done so, please do buy a ticket.
With best wishes
Chris Rose and Sarah Wise
Elf training at Bradmoor Woods