I think it’s about time more attention was paid to the extraordinary fairy folk and pixies of Exmoor! These wonderful little characters are often sadly overlooked and overshadowed by their more famous relatives, the Piskies of Cornwall and Pixies of Dartmoor. Below you will find a beginners guide to the fairies and pixies of Exmoor, including their habits and habitations, and an insight into their curious behaviour.
Although not strictly inside the Exmoor National Park, I’ve also included a couple of stories from nearby locations too including Washford and Minehead. All of the below photos were taken by myself on my trip to Exmoor, I didn't spot any pixies but I'd love to hear of any Exmoor sightings from readers!
What is a Pixy?
Tongue (1965) describes pixies as ”red-headed, with pointed ears, short faces and turned up noses, often cross-eyed”. She describes pixies as wearing green, while the fairies of Somerset wear red. Katharine Briggs (1967) describes the fairies of Somerset as seen in “the twinkling of an eye, they were smaller, about the size of a partridge and of a reddish brown colour”.
Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (1865) advises that “the Piscy or Pixy of East Devon and Somersetshire is a different creature from his cousin of a similar name in Cornwall. The former is a mischievous, but in all respects a very harmless creature, who appears to live a rollicking life amidst the luxuriant scenes of those beautiful counties”. Don’t let this quote lull you into a false sense of security though, the pixies of Exmoor aren’t entirely harmless and do seem rather fond of punishing those they consider deserving.
The West Somerset Word Book (1886) describes the belief in pixies as still prevalent, but admits there is great confusion between the ideas of pixies, fairies, witches, bogies, goblins, hags, and other uncanny things. This account in The Parish of Selworthy, Hancock (1897) could be describing either pixies or perhaps ghosts. A lady was driving home from dinner in an old fashioned gig one clear summer night and as the carriage approached an open part of the road the lady saw a group of children, prettily dressed, dancing across the road. She cried to her driver to take care, fearing he would drive into them, and he saw them too and slackened his speed, but the figures became indistinct and disappeared as the gig drew near.
Johnson’s Seeing Fairies includes a sighting by a Miss Voss-Bark who saw two pixies whilst exercising her dogs in the woods near Minehead. She saw the pixies rushing away at her approach, and they ran into a hole leading to a hollow oak. “They are really very human. They forgot to duck their heads, and so off flew their hats and went rolling in the pathway.” She was lucky and managed to find the two small hats, which she described as being perfect little cones of wood.
Page’s An Exploration of Exmoor (1895) describes the pixies as once dwelling in Pixy Rocks, a wild combe near Challacombe, and Snell (1903) mentions a Pixy copse not far from Dulverton Station, and near an old British camp.
If HW Kille is to be believed, then the fairies of Exmoor are no more, and only the pixies live there now. Kille told Ruth Tongue in 1961 that the fairies of Somerset were last seen in Buckland St Mary, and they no longer inhabit Somerset. They were defeated in a pitched battle with the Pixies, and now everywhere west of the River Parrett is Pixyland.
Snell suggests in his Book of Exmoor (1903) that the tales of fairies and pixies on Exmoor may be linked to smuggling: “It has been suggested to the writer that in the days when “fair trade” was carried on over Exmoor, smugglers, for their own ends, deliberately fostered, if they did not originate, such stories.”
So what do we know about the habits and interests of pixies? Tongue (1965) tells of pixies riding colts round and round fields, leaving circles in the grass known as Gallitraps. If you put both feet inside a Gallitrap you are in the power of the pixies, but if you place only one foot inside then you can see the pixies but still escape. Elworthy (1886) warns that if a person guilty of a crime steps into one of these circles then he is sure to be delivered up to justice and the gallows, possibly hence the name of Gallitraps.
Snell’s Book of Exmoor (1903) warns that pixies are said to content themselves with practical jokes and love frolic more than mischief and “will merely make sport by blowing out the candles on a sudden, or kissing the maids with a smack as they shriek out ‘who’s this?’”. Snell gives further tales of their exploits, taken from Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire, commenting that “essentially the same ideas obtain about the little people on Exmoor as in the country around Tavistock”.
Snell also mentions that Pixies used to sit on Comer’s Gate, at the north extremity of Winsford Hill. “Some of the country people ‘tis said, fear to pass this spot after dark, having no desire to make the acquaintance of a race noted for its caprice, and wielding, as they suppose, supernatural power.”
Comer’s Gate as it appears today
The Parish of Selworthy, Hancock (1897) gives an unusual account of pixies showing haunting behaviour: “the pixies light fires and dress their children; and in the same meadow there is a post, which none can pass at night, because a shapeless thing with rattling chains springs out against the passer-by. “
Many tales of pixies also suggest them to be moral creatures, punishing those who behave badly and teaching them a lesson. In 1941 John Ash told Ruth Tongue a pixy tale as they drove home to Lucott from Porlock: “There was a old farmer, a terrible near old toad as lived over Ley Hill, and he cheated at market something fearful. So the pixies took him and led’n home round by Horner Valley and Pool Bridge and left him up to the knees in the middle of the girt mudzog by Bucket Hole Gate”.
A farmer near Hangley Cleave did not escape so lightly. Described as a drunken old toad who gave his poor wife and children a shocking life, he never returned home from market until his pockets were empty and his belly full of cider. He’d sit on his pony singing and swearing, until he rolled into a ditch and slept the night there. But the pixies minded and decided to mend his terrible ways. One foggy night as the drunken farmer was coming home on his horse he saw a light in the mist, which he thought to be his home. But the pony wouldn’t stop, he could see the pixy holding the light, and he could see the light was right over the blackest deepest bog. The farmer tried to force the pony straight towards it but the pony dug his feet in so off the farmer hopped and in he walked, straight into the bog, which swallowed him up. The old pony trotted home, and how the wife and children danced! After that the wife left a pail of clean water out every night for the pixy babies to wash in, and she swept the hearth for the pixies to dance on, and she prospered greatly and the old pony grew as fat as a pig. This version comes from Tongue’s Somerset Folklore (1965) but she comments that there are many various versions of this tale.
Pixies also take great delight in confusing travellers and misleading them until lost, known as being ‘Pixy-led’. Tongue (1965) tells a story from Halloween 1943: “I was sent by an old farmer’s wife on Exmoor to fetch her husband from the sheep lawn close to the house. She gave me a wicken cross to carry. I found him quite bewildered in the middle of his own field, though the gate was plain to see in the moonshine. I heard nothing, but he was plagued by the sound of pixy laughter. After I had given him the cross he recovered himself and came back quite readily.”
At Great Gate one luckless person saw twenty four pixies. They discovered her watching them and in revenge they led her about the moor all night, and about the woods, until the break of day when they left her. Another time a farmer returning from Minehead market was led about the fields and moors until morning.
What should you do if you find yourself Pixy-led on Exmoor? Hancock’s Parish of Selworthy (1897) advises of the sure remedy in such cases, to take off your coat and turn it. Turning your gloves inside out is also said to break the enchantment.
Pixy face spotted in a tree
Some pixies who lead travellers astray are known as Will-o’-the-wisp, or Spunkies, though their origins are debateable and some believe them to be a separate race entirely, or the souls of unbaptised children. Snell’s Book of Exmoor (1903) describes the false lights the pixies carry as being will-o’-the-wisp, used to guide poor travellers in a fine dance through bogs and quagmires.
Elworthy’s West Somerset Word-Book (1886) instead uses the name Jack-a-lantern to describe this phenomenon, and tells of a farmer who whilst crossing Dunkery from Porlock to Cutcombe with a leg of mutton was benighted. He saw a Jack-a-lantern and cried out whilst following the light “Man a lost! Man a lost! Half-a-crown and a leg o mutton to show un the way to Cutcombe!”. He doesn’t mention what the Jack-a-lantern thought of this strange behaviour!
Palmer’s Oral Folk-Tales of Wessex (1973) advises that Stoke Pero Church in Exmoor is a place where the Spunkies are supposed to come, showing a watcher there on Hallowe’en who this year’s ghosts will be.
The pixies in The Parish of Selworthy, by Hancock (1897) were helpful creatures, and quite similar to Brownies in their behaviour: “The pixies were active in our district in days gone by. If some favoured houses were left ever so dirty, they were found cleaned up in the morning. Even the unfinished operations of brewing have been found completed. The little people came through the keyhole, and expected to be paid by a basin of bread and milk being set for them in a corner. In some houses it was the custom to put a pail of clean water, towels, and soap ready for the use of the pixies.”
The pixies of Withypool in Tongue’s Somerset Folklore (1965) also show similarities to Brownies, vanishing when presented with new clothing: “The farmer of Knighton was very friendly with the pixies. He used to leave a floorful of corn when he was short-handed, and the pixies would thresh it for him. They did an immense amount of work for him until one night his wife peeped through the keyhole and saw them hard at it. She wasn’t afraid of their squinny eyes and hairy bodies but she thought it a crying shame they should go naked and cold. She set to work and made some warm clothes for them and left them on the threshing floor, and after that there was no more help from the pixies.
They did not forget the farmer, however, for one day, after Withypool church bells were hung, the pixy father met him on an upland field. ‘Wilt gie us the lend of thy plough and tackle?’ he said. The farmer was cautious – he’d heard now the pixies used horses. ‘What vor do ‘ee want ‘n?’ he asked. ‘I d’want to take my good wife and littlings out of the noise of they ding-dongs’. The farmer trusted the pixies and they moved lock, stock and barrel over to Winsford Hill, and when the old pack horses trotted home they looked like beautiful two-year olds.”
Winsford Hill, where the pixies live now
Snell’s Book of Exmoor (1903) describes the pixies as being helpful to farmers too. “It was a common saying amongst the farmers that if you wanted a field of corn reaped properly, it was best to get it done by the pixies. Accordingly, a bounteous supper both of meat and drink was taken out to the field, and left there. The next morning it would be found, sure enough, that the work had been done, and done thoroughly. A day or so later, however, a deputation would call at the farmhouse, and a local labourer, touching his cap, would explain that he was the chief of the pixy-men who had partaken of the supper and reaped the field of corn. The farmer thereupon bestowed a gratuity on the party, who were, generally speaking, well rewarded for their pains.” Whether this really was the work of the pixies, or of a group of enterprising local farm lads, I do wonder.
The Pixy Market
Although not strictly in Exmoor, I think the infamous pixy market of Minehead deserves a mention, and it serves as a good warning never to look at pixies unless they want you to see them. Versions vary, but the story generally goes that a Minehead woman was one day at market when she sees a pixy-child, or a relative she recognises who she knows to have dealings with the pixies, thieving from the market. She confronts him and asks what he’s doing, and he asks her which eye she can see him with. She tells him and he blows into her eye, leaving her blind. Similar stories of pixy markets can be found all over Somerset including Taunton, Chard, and Pitminster.
Pixies at War
Ever so long ago, according to The North-Devon Scenery Book by Tugwell (1863), the pixies were at war with the mine-spirits who live underground, all about the forest and wild hill-country. The mine-spirits forged all kinds of fearful weapons in their underground armouries and used unfair tactics, and the good natured pixies weren’t at all a fair match for them. The Pixie Queen was a resourceful woman, and how she longed to escape the tyranny of the evil earth-demons, so she came up with a plan. Running water, the numbers three and seven, and the mysteries of the circle, she knew to be sure protection against evil, and so she applied them. She assembled her subjects and bade them to build on the summit of a central Exmoor peak the strange circle that can still be seen today at Cow Castle, Simonsbath. It was no common building they erected, every stone and turf was buried with the memory of some kindly dead which the good pixies had done to the race of men, and so when the magic ring was completed, the baffled demons could not enter the sacred enclosure.
When morning broke on the summit of the fairy ring, ring after ring of amber-tinted vapour rose up and floated away in the brightening sky, each on a mission of safety and peace. They wandered hither and thither over Exmoor, leaving rings of the greenest grass where these magical rings sunk down softly on the ground. Here the pixies dance on moonlit nights, unharmed by the mine demons, who were never seen above ground again.
The Green Lady
There are mentions made of a Green Lady in Exmoor, perhaps ghost or perhaps fairy in origin. Oral Folk-Tales of Wessex, Palmer (1971) tells that the Green Lady of Crowcombe warns of coming illness, and she is considered a very unlucky ghost to see. The author describes her as an “other world fairy creature that has passed into oral tradition as a ghost”. Tongue also mentions three white ladies in other areas of Somerset who seem to be more fairy than ghost, including the white lady of St Julian’s Well and the White Rider of Corfe.
The Woman of the Mist
Tongue (1965 & 1967) mentions the Woman of the Mist, seen in the autumn and winter on Bicknoller Hill near Watchet. She describes her as herding the red deer, like the Scottish Blue Hag, and as being sometimes reported as an old trail crone gathering sticks, and sometimes as a great misty figure who becomes part of the mist. She was seen face to face in 1920, and again in the 1950s. A darker more sinister mist like creature has been reported by Hancock (1897) in the Parish of Selworthy, described as an indefinable black object that grows larger and larger until it shuts out the moonlight.
Protection from Pixies
In Somerset Folklore (1965), Ruth Tongue includes many hints and tips on how to protect yourself and your property from the pixies and fairies. A piece of advice from Exmoor in 1907 advises to tie a piece of wicken (quicken or quick beam) to the tails of your cows with a red thread to protect cattle from fairies and pixies. On St Thomas Day (December 21st) hang up wicken crosses in all the stables and cowsheds (1903).
Old Billy of Washford met a hurd-yed (red haired) someone in a lane, and then he spotted another and another as he continued his journey. “So old Billy he did do what he should ha’ done fust go. Hed’ shut his eyes, n’ cross his two fingers, ‘n go on sebem steps.”
Other pixy protection methods from Somerset but not specific to Exmoor include turning your coat inside out, a rusty horseshoe on the inside of the lintel to keep out pixies, a flint with a natural hole through it, making the figure of two hearts and a criss cross on the malt when brewing to keep the pixies off, never picnicking under an oak tree on a Thursday, stirring jam with a hazel or rowan twig so the fae folk can’t steal it, leaving a pin in a baby’s frock until it’s christened, never wearing green in May, and burning Christmas evergreens to prevent them turning into pixies else they’ll plague you for a year.
Sources and Further Information
The North-Devon Scenery Book, Tugwell (1863)
Popular Romances of the West of England, Robert Hunt (1865)
West Somerset Word-Book, Elworthy (1886)
An Exploration of Exmoor, Paige (1895)
The Parish of Selworthy, Hancock (1897)
Book of Exmoor, Snell (1903)
Somerset Folklore, Tongue (1965)
Folktales of England, Katharine Briggs & Ruth Tongue (1965)
The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, Katharine Briggs (1967)
Palmer’s Oral Folk-Tales of Wessex (1973)
“They’ll tell ‘ee three things ‘bout an Exmoor Pony ‘can climb a cleeve, carry a drunky, and zee a pixy.”
– Briggs (1965)