Professor Hutton makes the point that there are in fact scant historical associations between the New Forest and witchcraft prior to the early twentieth century… which is a rarity for pretty much any corner of England.
But sitting in the middle of it you can very easily leap to witchy conclusions. It is a place of secrets.
Quietly drinking the afternoon away by the fire at the Snake Catcher in Brockenhurst, in the back of your mind you are constantly aware that it is forest for miles in every direction… spooky, misty, fairytale forest. This awareness wraps around the whole town like a cloak. There is a distinct feeling of separation with the outside world.
And at night it’s dark. Dark like the world used to be. Dark so that each and every star is crisply defined in the cold January sky.
If you were going to conceal a coven dating back to pre-industrial England you would do it here.
I loved it. So much so that I almost bought this shop. (Proceed with caution. I crunched the numbers and I said ‘almost’.) It was the second last destination on our road trip that took in Oxford, Wayland’s Smithy and Stonehenge and naturally, my long-suffered partner got dragged around the county for some occult nerdery he had precisely zero interest in. (Made it up to him with dinner here. If you’re in the neighbourhood, go there. If you’re not, consider getting married/a job there.)
After a morning coffee on one of Brockenhurst’s buzzing, arterial roads we headed south for some Garnderian rubbernecking. Like with a few of Crowley’s Parisian haunts, I derive a lot of value from locating the spaces where events that have emotional resonance took place. It deflates them down to life size and thus somehow makes them more real.
Let me tell you, Highcliffe is real. And by real I mean utterly, utterly banal. Old people living in quiet suburbs of interwar bungalows. Most of the places were too boring to even photograph.
It delighted me.
You see, Professor Hutton’s version of Yali’s Question is why is it that “a nation so often associated in stereotype with phlegmatic and restrained qualities should have produced such a spectacularly counter-cultural religion.” For better or for worse, modern day Wicca was built by a few old Tories somewhere in these bland streets. But there is something about the unassuming nature of the area that just makes the whole thing fit. It appeals to my sense of humour that the bloodthirsty, tumultuous gods of our distant ancestors would acquire new followers with names like ‘Edith’ and ‘Rosetta Fudge’ or who lived on ‘Chewton Common.’
And -since it will otherwise come up in the comments- as for the existence of the New Forest Coven I’m more Heseltonian than Huttonian. Seems to me we’re actually talking about two things here:
- Was Gardner initiated into a group calling itself the New Forest Coven who considered themselves witches? Yes.
- Were they a survival of a medieval witch cult? No they were not.
Having just finished Heselton’s Witchfather, (hence the delay in this report) he makes a fairly compelling argument that… ultimately… you have to take a little bit on faith… which Hutton as a salaried academic can’t do. Not that it means he disagrees:
Last November, for example, I was privileged to stand in Dorothy Clutterbuck’s former home in Highcliffe and act as questioner in a filmed debate between the two current world experts on her life, Philip Heselton and the local historian, Ian Stevenson, who had helped both Philip and me so much in our research. Neither of them believed any longer that Dorothy herself had been a witch, but Philip suggested that she had lent her house to the New Forest Coven for its activities, even if she herself may not always have been quite sure what those were. Ian was by now convinced that she had never had anything to do with witchcraft or Gerald, and that the latter misrepresented her as one to conceal the true background to Wicca. I listened to both and pronounced that, in the present state of the evidence, either could be correct, and that I hoped that one of them would uncover the solution to the problem. I don’t myself, however, see a way in which this can be done.
It seems to me that Gardner didn’t so much lie, as ‘narrativised’ the situation somewhat.
At the time and in the area, there were people and groups around with sympathetic worldviews. They would have been witches by Hopkin’s definition but not by Valiente’s: He joined the Folklore Society down there, for instance. He met Edith Woodford-Grimes, a woman after my own heart, at the Rosicrucian Theatre/Order Crotona Fellowship, as well as Ernie and Susie Mason and Rosetta Fudge. They all followed Annie Besant’s kid up the hill. From Witchfather:
When Edith mentioned the Mason family, Gerald realised that he had already met Ernie and Susie Mason and their sister, Rosetta Fudge, as they were all members of the Crotona Fellowship and visited the Ashrama and theatre regularly. He was to get to know them a lot better before long. The various members of the Mason family seem to have been involved in quite a few different esoteric movements, including anthroposophy, theosophy, Co-Masonry and Rosicrucianism. I do not know how Edith got to know them, perhaps through one of her classes, through a meeting of one of the organisations that they belonged to or merely because they only lived a few hundred yards from each other.
Dafo (Edith), at least, and probably the Masons, believed they had been witches in previous lives. Hence where he can legitimately get ‘ancient’ from. (And who is to say they weren’t?)
At some stage [Gardner] confided in her that he was writing, indeed had substantially written, a novel about a life which he remembered having lived in ancient Cyprus. Edith was, for some reason, particularly interested in the fact that Gerald could remember a previous lifetime in such great detail, and told him that she, too, could remember a previous lifetime as a witch, where she was burned at the stake. She even gave him a poem which he understood that she had written. It was entitled “Hymn to Fire” and was, in fact, written by the Russian poet, Konstantin Balmont (1867- 1942). She had obviously been attracted by the subject matter and had copied it into what was probably a commonplace book. This was the first indication to Gerald that Edith believed that she had had an earlier lifetime as a witch. It is perhaps significant that Gerald publishes a slightly amended version in Witchcraft Today, where he entitles it “The Witch Remembers her Last Incarnation”. Whenever he referred to Edith latterly, he usually called her “the witch”.
Their daily practices, however, were an amalgam of early twentieth century spiritual ideas and some tech pulled from a Golden Dawn offshoot (according to Heselton, probably by Rosamund Sabine).
Heselton makes the point that they didn’t even need to necessarily have spent much time together.
Rather, all it had to be was a group of people with some shared interests in occulture, a loosely held belief that they spent previous lives together and participation in an initiation ritual in a borrowed house.
Oddly enough, it entertains me that the ‘father of Wicca’ was involved in a coven of witches as we’re more likely to know them today (or in the pre-modern age)… a group of people with varying occult interests bound together by fewer shared beliefs than you might initially think. Everyone was more or less on their own when it came to developing cosmologies.
Operation Cone of Power
If I’m being honest, this is the bit that interested me most about spending a few days in the New Forest.
Again, as a magical practitioner, the absence of evidence that impedes ‘proper’ academic research doesn’t need to bother us. Of course they got together and used magic to fight Hitler. Wouldn’t you? The New Forest Coven lived on the south coast… an imminent invasion would have landed somewhere near them. (The area has been of naval significance for centuries. In fact, a lot of the large clearings in the forest are due to the need for shipbuilding timber dating back to Elizabethan times.) That would have made it profoundly personal.
If there were magical folk in the Southampton area who knew each other during the War -and there certainly was- then they simply would have got together to get their hex on.
As for the location, this is where it gets interesting. Heselton seems to think the exact location is unclear. But Philip Carr-Gomm in The Book of English Magic gives the impression the location can be confidently known:
Near the site of the Rufus Stone in New Forest, where some say King William II was offered as a pagan sacrifice, stands a clearing surrounded by tall trees.
Heselton thinks it was somewhere near the Naked Man:
They seem to have assembled there and then probably walked to the ritual site. In the height of summer, it did not begin to get dark until late in the evening. They would, however, have been equipped with lanterns and electric torches, quietly assembling at the Naked Man, having parked cars or bikes in the bushes some distance away so as not to alert suspicion. Katherine would have led them, seventeen in total, in single file, along the footpath that led away from the Naked Man and the road, along a ridge and then down into a valley, across a stream, which would not be very deep at that time of year, over another ridge, across another stream and up to the place where they were to hold the ritual. Of course, we can’t be sure that this was where the anti-invasion rituals took place, but the clues we have point to this area.
My concern with this theory is twofold. Firstly, we are taking about pensioners here… pensioners clambering in the dark along ridges and across streams. Try and find a likely location on this aerial map of the area. (The marker is the Naked Man.)
The second reason is a degree of personal experience in clandestine outdoor rituals. Have a look at this. (Zoom out a bit.)
View Operation Cone Of Power? in a larger map
- The nearby inn -far enough away to be out of earshot- provides a legitimate excuse for the parked cars. (Gardner says there were seventeen people over four separate ‘cone raisings’. That’s a lot of cars.)
- It’s a straight, clear line from several of the possible locations back to the car park. Whilst it may have been light when they got there, it would not have been when they were done. Also apparently several of them collapsed. Old, naked people collapsing in the woods in the dark. Do you want them to be crossing streams and climbing ridges?
- Option 1 was particularly interesting. From above it doesn’t look like a clearing but when you stand in it, the space is unmistakably circular. And the other entrances into the space ‘descend’ like… well they kinda look like landing ramps. Also, there was a sense of ‘big sky’ in the middle which I have always found essential in outdoor rituals. If this isn’t where they conducted operation cone of power then it would still be a great location for a clandestine public ritual.
As my mind alights on that final point it occurs to me that this is the true appeal of the forest. Here are its enchantments and mysteries and hidden byways. You can get lost in speculation, in possibilities, just as easily as you can fairyland. It almost dares you to crack out some kit and get casting.
But inevitably the New Forest keeps her secrets. There may not be Wicca in this clearing, but there certainly is magic.
And I’ve never been a super-fan of labels anyway.