Review: The Wollaton Gnomes: A Nottingham Fairy Mystery – Simon Young (ed.)

Pwca Press, Nottingham, 2022; ISBN: 978-1-8380-9698-4. Paperback. 183 pp.

On the evening of Sunday 23rd September 1979, between approximately 8.15 and 8.30, a group of primary school-aged children had an extremely odd experience in the grounds of a sixteenth century Elizabethan mansion at Wollaton Park, West Nottingham. The precise location within the park is contested, but during these hours of evening darkness the trespassing children – or some of them – claim to have been chased by a group of sixty ‘gnomes’ riding two abreast in thirty little cars. Whilst frightening, the alleged encounter appears to have done the children no real harm. Rather, the gnomes appear to have displayed a degree of jollity, pursuing the children, laughing, as far as the park gates before returning to the trees and bushes from whence they had originally emerged.

In appearance, the car-driving figures appear to have been classically gnome-like; small, with beards, old crinkly faces, and pointed hats. The cars themselves would not have been out of place at a fairground or in a children’s comic: compact two-seater vehicles which the gnomes steered by leaning one way or the other. Despite the relative mundanity of the location, the strange, shared, pursuit appears to have been more than a little otherworldly. Indeed, ‘barriers’ such as fallen logs seem to have been no obstacle to these tiny carts and their drivers. As one of the children put it: “They could kind of jump them.”

Such cartoonish caricatures might have been put down to nothing other than the fevered imaginations of a group of eight and ten-year-olds out for a lark in a spooky place, save for the fact that the recollections of three of them were tape-recorded soon after the event by the headteacher of their school. “I remain sceptical as to the explanation of what they saw,” he would say later, “but I am also convinced that the children were describing a real occurrence.” The story was picked up by the local and national press shortly after the interviews with the headmaster and the mystery of the Wollaton Park gnomes was born.

Simon Young, the editor of this quirky and absorbing (if somewhat uneven) anthology, is widely regarded as the authority on this strange Fortean event, and The Wollaton Gnomes is clearly the product of much research and reflection: both on his part, and on the part of others who contribute their own insights and expertise via a series of thoughtful pieces. The transcripts of the interviews conducted by the head teacher are particularly valuable, revealing a mixture of consistency and discrepancy in the answers to his questions provided by the three children whom he interviewed. Of additional and particular interest is a chapter – ‘Source 4 ‘ – detailing other gnomic ‘encounters’ from the Nottingham area including the years immediately before and after the children’s experience at Wollaton Park. Did the park already have a reputation for such spooky events and were the children aware of it from playground talk and the like? More than four decades on it’s impossible to answer this, but the intriguing possibility remains that the children might have been ‘primed’ to experience something unusual that night by things they’d heard.

The pieces in the ‘Essays’ section of the book are more of a mixed bag. Insights derived from various visits to the park contribute to a wider understanding of the context and setting of the children’s experiences, although I’m never really convinced by anything purportedly derived from photograph dowsing or alleged conversations with trees. Elsewhere, there is much that sheds light on the wider lore surrounding fairies, boggarts, and gnomes, but some of this offers little by way of direct insight into what the children actually experienced on that dark September night. I would have cast the net a bit further afield in search of potentially revealing parallels from other, possibly related, children’s shared experiences of odd and anomalous figures such as the 1997 Broadhaven UFO ‘landing’ reported by numerous primary school children and the 1994 UFO and alien ‘encounter’ reported by no fewer than 60 children at Ariel school in Ruwa, Zimbabwe. A comparison of these and similar shared episodes – all involving groups of children – with the claims of the Wollaton Park witnesses might have revealed much but it’s an area that none of the contributors explores.

The last word should probably be left to Young himself, who in a closing series of ‘afterthoughts’ shares his own conclusions. In particular, he draws attention to the ‘awkward facts’ surrounding the amount of detail included in the children’s descriptions of the cars and creatures when the lack of light at the claimed location would have made this level of observation nigh-on impossible. Perhaps, he muses, the fact that two of the children had fallen into a swamp and had become extremely dirty made some sort of ‘cover story’ desirable and the whole thing grew from there. Perhaps an animal was the stimulus for an initial ‘encounter’ of some kind which became shaped and elaborated by the children’s knowledge of the area’s reputation for odd, gnome-like, encounters. Perhaps it was simply group hysteria. In the end, he avers, ‘[t]he mystery remains.’ Of course, it is likely that some or all of the children who were present that night are still around to tell their tales all these years on. Perhaps the publication of The Wollaton Gnomes will prompt them to come forward with some much-needed clarification. If they’d like to talk, Young’s e-mail address is on page nine of his book and this website has a contact page…

A version of this review first appeared in The Christian Parapsychologist, New Series Vol 2 No 8, March 2023, pp. 40 – 2