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Bingley, England

Cottingley Beck

The photographs of "fairies" that fooled much of the world (including the creator of Sherlock Homes) were taken at this English stream.  

There are fairies in the stream that runs through the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire. It’s true; there are pictures to prove it.

The now-famous Cottingley Fairies refers to five photographs taken by two schoolgirls between 1917 and 1920 near Cottingley Beck, a narrow stream. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, cousins living at Elsie’s house in the village, liked to play by the stream at the bottom of the garden, claiming they went there to see the fairies. One day, they came back with photographic “proof”: a picture showing Frances behind what appeared to be four small dancing fairies.

The first snapshot was followed by four others, taken with a camera given to the girls by Edward Gardner, head of the Theosophical Society, who believed the photographs were real when Elsie’s mother brought them to the society’s attention. He wasn’t the only one.

Ironically enough, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritual man despite being famous for creating the highly rational detective Sherlock Holmes, also believed the fairies were real. He even went on the record declaring the photo authentic in an issue of The Strand Magazine in 1920. 

Others, including Elsie’s father, were less convinced of the pictures’ authenticity, claiming the image was manipulated or faked with cardboard cutouts. Representatives of the Eastman Kodak Company said that the pictures at once “showed no signs of being faked” but were not necessarily “authentic photographs of fairies.”

There were no more fairy photos after 1920, but in 1921 Geoffrey Hodson, a clairvoyant visiting the girls, claimed that he saw fairies everywhere around the beck. Frances Griffiths always maintained that some of the fairies in the pictures were real, but in 1983 Elsie Wright told the BBC that the pictures had been staged with using cutouts, hatpins, and twigs. And yet, some still believe.

The photographs and two of the cameras are on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford, not far from Cottingley Beck. Bus conductors have been known to welcome passengers to “Fairyland” when letting them off the bus at Cottingley Bar. The story inspired the 1997 movie Fairy Tale: A True Story.

Know Before You Go

Take a bus from nearby Bradford to the Cottingley Bar, and you may be welcomed to "Fairyland" when you arrive. The beck runs behind private homes, so it is important to respect the privacy of the people who now live there when visiting.

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