Sandy’s Garden ... Absent Friends

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

On 6 March 1877, John Feilmann’s wife Emilie gave birth to her third child, who was – happily as it turned out – named Rose.

Her early ambition was to become a classroom teacher but, failing at her chosen teaching college, she turned to her second choice of career … music … and, after studying in Berlin and at the Royal College of Music, returned to her home city of Nottingham to become a singing teacher. She had an interest in writing, too, and contributed occasional articles to a number of publications. Then, at the age of forty, and having anglicised the spelling of her surname to Fyleman at the outbreak of the First World War, she sent a poem to the humorous magazine Punch in 1917. The first verse of that poem reads: “There are fairies at the bottom of our garden! / It’s not so very, very far away; / You pass the gardener’s shed and you just keep straight ahead -- / I do so hope they’ve really come to stay. / There’s a little wood, with moss in it and beetles, / And a little stream that quietly runs through; / You wouldn’t think they’d dare to come merrymaking there -- / Well, they do.”

It was presumably no coincidence that, in that very same year of 1917, the one-time celebrated photographs of the Cottingley Fairies were published. The five black-and-white photographs, taken by young cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in Cottingley, near Bradford, apparently show small, winged, human-like figures dancing in front of a fascinated young girl. To the contemporary eye, the photographs look like fakes: but the cousins insisted that all five images were genuine until shortly before their deaths in the 1980s, when they conceded that four were, indeed, photographs of cardboard cut-outs posed in an outdoor setting, although they died insisting that the final photograph of the five was genuine.

Interest in the millennia-old belief that there are secretive, miniature, humanoid inhabitants who share our planet with us … fairies … was at a periodically high level when, in 1923, Cicely Mary Barker’s first book about Flower Fairies™ was published. These are described by the authoress’s publishers as, “Tiny creatures (the biggest is only 20cm tall) that live in the tree tops, marshes, forest floor, wayside and gardens. … Each and every Flower Fairy is in charge of looking after their flower or plant; keeping it strong and healthy by making sure it has plenty of sunshine and water to drink, sweeping away dead leaves, and polishing flowers and stems.”

Cicely Mary Barker’s own illustrations of the subjects of her books have enchanted young girls for almost a century since their launch and have introduced her readers to the world of flowers in their appropriate seasons. Flower Fairies of the Winter, for example, celebrates the end of the natural cycle and introduces children to the season’s flowers by making them magical. Winter favourites to be found in Flower Fairies of the Winter include the Christmas Tree Fairy, the Holly Fairy and the Winter Jasmine Fairy. And it is the allegation that the fairies are still active during the winter months which prompts the title of these musings. Where are the fairies that should be at the bottom of my garden? … for I have holly and I have a fine pine tree but I have seen neither hide nor hair of a fairy so far this winter nor, for that matter, in any other season this year. Brer Fox does his (unappreciated) bit to help fertilise my drying green: but the fairies are absent whenever there is work to be done, although there is a little wood with a stream running through just the other side of the garden wall. I offer them the setting they prefer; I offer them the plants they like; and what do I get in return? Zilch. Diddly-squat. Zero. Nowt. It’s enough to strain one’s belief in fairies!