Spring Travel Issue: Stories of witches haunt England’s enchanted New Forest

March 21, 2013

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The big black bird swoops by me as I’m huffing my hired bike up a long slope on the forest’s edge. Ho-ho, a raven! I think to myself. Witches have a thing for ravens! I’ve come here to England’s New Forest looking for witches.

Sweaty and parched, I pedal after the raven. It perches on a stump and waits while I draw up; waits while I pull out my camera; waits while I raise it to my face. Then he spreads his wings and — blink — vanishes from the viewfinder.

Overhead, a cackle. There he is, eyeing me from atop a small tree. Again I raise the camera. His wings spread, and this time my lens follows him up, the digital shutter clicks — Got him! — and he’s gone. Excited, I call up the photo.

Nothing but empty, leaden sky. For a woman on a witch hunt, this is a bad omen. A faint cackle taunts me in the distance.

By and by, down a narrow lane between hedgerows and around a corner, I come upon a pub called the Trusty Servant. From a painting mounted above the front door, a jackass in a livery coat beckons me with a monstrously large human hand. Inside, a crackling fire in the hearth merrily beats back a chill that doesn’t exist.

The barkeep pours me a pint. “You sound like you’re a long way from home,” he says.

“Washington, D.C.,” I say.

“I quite like America.” He’s been to Las Vegas. “Out for a ride?”

“From Burley village,” I say.

“Not much in Burley.”

“I hear there’s a coven or two.”

“They’ve got James Bond’s car at the National Motor Museum over in Beaulieu,” he advises me eagerly — perhaps a bit too eagerly.

I sweat by the fire and gulp my pint. This “witch hunt” is the latest leg of what you could call my spiritual journey. Currently, I’m a Quaker by choice —it runs in my family. During my religious wanderings, I’ve also chosen to be an atheist, a devotee of the Paramhansa Yogananda, a born-again Christian and a Lutheran. I’ve considered being a Buddhist. I can understand why people choose to be all those things.

What I can’t understand, sweating there by the fire, is why anyone in their right mind would choose to be a witch. What am I missing? Maybe I just can’t get past all the cultural baggage piled on top of it: cartoonish Hollywood witches who dispense poisoned fruit and have sex with Satan; real witches in the headlines, who are always either creepy desecrators of churches or overly earnest flakes prancing around in goofy costumes on the solstices. The Christian church has been giving witches bad press for centuries. The Church of England didn’t have much nice to say about us Quakers either, when our odd little pacifist sect first got its start here in England a few centuries ago.

While I personally don’t believe human beings will ever achieve a world without war, I can at least work on removing some of the causes of war from my own life — such as believing certain people are bad just because someone says they are, without examining the evidence for myself. That sort of thing has gotten witches, and a few Quakers, tortured, hanged and burned alive, their property confiscated by their accusers. For anyone to choose to be a witch, there must be more to it than I’ve seen in pop culture.

I do know witchcraft has something to do with nature — eye of newt and toe of frog and so forth. I’m partial to nature myself. I garden, I hike, I have a dog. If nature can help me understand witches, I’m hoping the New Forest, which is known for its natural beauty as well as its witches, can provide the common ground.

I drain the last of my beer. Outside the deep-set windows, the gray day grows grayer. Soon it will be twilight, and I have a long ride back through the forest. Thirst quenched, I hop on the bike and follow the lane between the hedgerows back into the trees.

The sandy path crunches beneath my tires. Wind sighs in the branches. I recall that the moon is new; once the last of the daylight is gone, it will be impossible to see the way. I pedal faster.

Just then, at the edge of my peripheral vision, something moves — something ghostly pale, far off the path among the black trees. The bike swerves as my head snaps around to look, and, through the screen of mossy trunks, a pair of dark eyes looks back. The dark eyes of a white pony.

I coast to a stop. It’s one of the thousands of wild ponies that roam the New Forest. I’ve seen brown and black ones in twos and threes all day, but not a white one, and not all alone.

The pony watches me as I slowly dismount. She doesn’t move as I leave the path and pick my way closer over the leaf-shrouded ground. She lets me take her picture. We regard one another, she with her soft, brown eyes. Then she lowers her white lashes and her white head to nibble at something in the moldering leaves. I pick my way back to the bike and pedal hard to beat the night.

***

Burley is one of a dozen or so villages nestled in an ancient woodland interrupted by rolling heath and meandering streams bordered by open “lawns” of lush green grass. The woodland covers 218 square miles rising up from England’s southern coast. William the Conqueror declared it his “new hunting forest” in 1079, and the name stuck, though by now it’s very old. London bureaucrats declared it a national park in 2004.

Downtown Burley used to have a butcher, a cobbler, an ironmonger, a dentist, a purveyor of hardware. Then, about the time England’s anti-witchcraft laws were finally repealed in the early 1950s, a witch, her husband and two sons moved into what had been the small brick sorting house behind the post office.

Her name was Sybil Leek, and in addition to running an antiques shop and working as an astrologer and spellcaster, she also worked for the BBC. By the time her landlord refused to renew her lease in the late 1960s (the up-to-date way of running a witch out of town), she was famous and so was Burley.

Now the post office, the general store and a couple of pubs and tearooms are the only work-aday businesses left, outnumbered by a long string of gift and souvenir shops with names such as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. After leaving Burley, Sybil moved to America, where she wrote books, went on the lecture circuit and died of cancer in 1982.

All her life she advocated for white witchcraft. White witches, she said, seek knowledge beyond the range of ordinary perceptions, believing there is magic all around us. “The trouble comes,” she wrote, “from the confusion between witchcraft (the Old Religion) and Black Magic, which is certainly not a religion but a debased art.”

She should know. Sybil came from a long line of witches. She was born in 1917 or 1923, depending on which day you asked her. She looked like the roly-poly Disney version of Cinderella’s fairy godmother. She had a fondness for capes. Her pet jackdaw, Mr. Hotfoot Jackson, rode around on her shoulder. She was ecologically ahead of her time. About witches’ reputation for dancing naked in the woods, she wrote: “I have no feelings one way or the other about running around naked,” but, “it would take a tougher character than I to run around naked among all those gorse bushes.”

She seemed as though she would have been good company over a pint in a pub.

***

Over breakfast in the Wayside Cottage Bed and Breakfast, I put the witch question to the couple who run the B&B, the Wests. Neither will admit to knowing any personally, though John West says a crusty old local farmer friend told him once that he’d had a whole coven over for a cookout.

Janet West says when a police officer from Bournemouth heard that she’d retired and bought a guesthouse in Burley, he’d exclaimed, “She’s a brave one!” And Janet had wondered to herself, Crime? What sort of crime is in Burley? But it wasn’t crime that made him say that. It was witchcraft.

“The police find signs that they’ve been in the woods,” Janet says. “Silvery threads hanging from trees, that sort of thing. But I’ve had no regrets about coming here. They don’t bother you if you don’t bother them.”

John pops his head back into the breakfast room and says: “You know, there was one thing. Last November, after the fall festival, I was walking the dogs in the woods, and I saw two deer skulls by the side of the path. I thought, That’s odd. So I walked into the trees. Further in, about 10 yards off the path, I found more animal skulls and bones. Made me a bit uneasy. A little scared, to tell the truth.”

My fork has stopped halfway to my mouth. This sounds more like the Black Magic that Sybil the white witch had warned about. “What’d you do?”

“I got out of there! Very weird.”

“What were the dogs doing?”

“Nothing. Just sniffing around.”

***

Legend has it that the New Forest’s wild ponies are descended from the horses that swam ashore when most of the Spanish Armada ships sank. Smugglers hid out in this wilderness, too, alongside Gypsies and witches and common folk living less worrisome lives.

In the Middle Ages when the area was decreed a royal hunting forest, those folk faced ferocious penalties if they poached the king’s deer. But they did have small plots called holdings that came with certain rights, such as turning out livestock to graze in the forest and gathering wood for fuel. These rights were held in common, so the owners of holdings were called commoners. Verderers were the officials who enforced the rules, ensured the welfare of the ponies and managed the forest for the common good.

This system still exists. However, since the New Forest became a national park, the verderers are now subordinate to the national park bureaucracy. Choosing how to go about imposing one’s will on nature has generated tension between the commoners’ time-honored practices of good stewardship and the outsiders’ modern-day concepts of environmental protection.

Witch hunting being thirsty work, I make my way toward a weather vane — it’s forged in the shape of a keg and a pitcher and the words NEW FOREST CIDER. A hand-painted sign by the locked cider shop door directs me, like Alice, to PLEASE RING THE BELL. Presently, a man in a utility vest comes stumping around the corner and unlocks the door.

He’s built like a bear with the head of a hawk, black hair, sharp blue eyes. His name is Barry Topp. He’s 63, and for 25 years he has been making hard ciders, apple juices and apple cider vinegars, and jellies made from plums and port.

“Cider making is nature at work!” he proclaims. He’s on his way to becoming a certified eco-friendly business. I suck down the cider samples he hands out in cups he can compost because they’re made from cornstarch. He sends the apple pulp to a local farmer with free-range pigs. “The pigs go crackers for it!” he says.

“I come from a commoner family,” he says. “We’ve been here for generations; we’re old-school. We’re anti-park, anti-authority. The verderers ran the forest for a thousand years. They did a good job. Now, with the urbanization of the country, there’s more people want to put their fingers in the pie and have control over it.”

Everyone wants to be eco-friendly, he says, New Forest commoners included. He burns wood for heat, and commoners such as he have long had the right to collect wood in the forest. That’s being limited, though, by new rules from the authorities he calls The Fellows in White Shirts With Pie-Eyed Ideas. Now a certain amount of wood must be left. “It’s being left to rot down for the beetles,” he says. “But when it rots, it’s releasing greenhouse gases. So what’s more eco-friendly?”

***

I climb over a stile with a clinking bag of Topp’s jellies, and set off along a footpath through stands of hollies and beeches. After a time I notice a pony behind me. I stop. The pony stops. I walk on. The pony walks on, too. Soon another pony falls in, then another. Whenever I stop, they stop. Whenever I walk, they walk, their hooves thumping softly on the ground, thunking occasionally against a root or a stone. I feel like the Pied Piper of Ponies.

I leave them munching scattered turnips near a cottage and wander out onto the heath. Yesterday, along with a friend and a guide, I was horseback riding out here through the gorse and heather. For two hours we rode single-file, me at the rear, upon what turned out to be the dominant male. He hated being last. Every time we cantered, he fought to turn it into a flat-out gallop. The physical exertion of imposing my 125-pound will on a thousand pounds of animal left me both exhausted and giddy at the small miracle of it.

It’s the same giddy feeling I have when I’m gardening, imposing my will on nature to get what I want, coaxing the first green shoots to emerge sweetly from the earth so I can sink my teeth into them. A garden, especially an herb garden, is a magical place. Brush your fingertips across the lavender, rosemary, mint and thyme to fill the air with their mood-altering scents. Tuck a few leaves of rue into your outer ear to chase off an earache. Pick some valerian leaves and steep them before bed for a nice cup of tea that will help you sleep.

Sybil Leek claimed coltsfoot and horehound were good for wheezy chests, that a poultice of boiled nettles would stop bleeding. In the days before doctors, witches’ knowledge of medicinal herbs and other elements of the natural world made them the village wise women — wicca in Anglo-Saxon. With knowledge comes power and, sometimes, wealth. People went to witches for healing and guidance. That made these women a threat to the men who led the early church. In Burley, and later in America, people went to Sybil for the same thing, including, reportedly, Nancy Reagan.

Along the footpath that passes by Sybil’s old back garden gate, I notice a row of flowerpots filled with herbs. They’re lined up behind a gift shop called A Coven of Witches.

By now I’ve been through all the other witchy-gifty shops with their pentagram key chains and “My other car is a broom” bumper stickers. This is the only one where the air is filled with what sounds like a Native American chant set to a sugary New Age score.

At first it seems out of place in this very English village. But as I look around, the sweetened chanting starts to work with the mirror framed by a napping dragon, the ceramic mugs featuring fairy babes in flattering pagan-wear, the crooked walking sticks, the baskets of stuffed ponies, bunnies and unicorns. A rack of books ranges from “An Ye Harm None: Magical Morality and Modern Ethics” to “Green and Easy: The Organic Garden.” The place has a definite nature-worshiping Girl Power vibe.

Behind the till, there’s a picture of Sybil Leek.

I’m told that Sybil gave this gift shop its name. When I ask if there’s anyone here who can talk to me about witchcraft in Burley, I’m pointed toward a fair-skinned woman cradling a cup of tea in her hands. She’s tall and slender. Her pale bangs stop just above her glasses. The rest of her hair is pulled back in clips, like a fairy librarian.

She gives me a v-shaped, elfin smile. Her name is Jenny Tucker.

“White witchcraft is purely working with nature,” she murmurs, sounding like a gentle echo of Barry Topp talking about cider.

Turns out Jenny, 57, New Forest commoner, herb gardener, wild pony breeder, fireman’s wife and onetime owner of this gift shop, is a white witch. “White witches were always custodians of the forest,” she says. “The forest is precious to us.”

Her mother used to say, “You were a very strange child.”

Jenny explains. “I’ve always been different. I was born with an inner knowing. I was always out with nature. To me, it was just the way you lived. If dogs, cats, birds, anything needed help, you just put your hands on them and healed them. The witch label didn’t come on me until I came here to Burley.”

One of Jenny’s co-workers laughs, saying that computers and electronics go haywire when she’s around. At home, her husband tells her to stay away from the computer. At her favorite department store, the workers know her now. The alarm goes off whenever she walks in, and they say, “Oh, it’s just Jenny.”

Jenny tells me witches like to wear loose cloaks and go barefoot during ceremonies in the woods because it makes them feel closer to the earth. She tells me the deer skulls my B&B host found in the woods were probably used for white magic. But then again, it could have been black magic. “There are some in every crowd,” she says with a sigh.

“For white witches,” she says, “bones would have been used because they still contain the essence of that animal; the energy is still there.”

I’m having trouble relating. My Quaker ancestors didn’t do bones, not without barbecue sauce.

“Anything that’s part of nature, it all has an energy,” Jenny’s saying. “The natural items used in spell work are used for their energy, to enhance the spell work you’re doing.”

I light up: I’ve always equated casting spells with putting a curse on somebody, but her description reminds me of Buddhists fingering prayer beads. “Oh!” I exclaim, as if she’d told a joke and I just got it. “Is spell work like … prayer?”

“Yes. …”

“Okay!”

“But it’s not just words.”

“Oh?”

“We use tangible items.”

I am undeterred — okay, so it’s prayer with props.

In the summer, Jenny puts up a tepee on her small holding.

“Uh, a tepee?”

“The circular environment.” She loves all things Native American, has learned the drumming, the flute playing, that are part of the spiritual practice.

And suddenly I understand. Native American religions are nature religions, which, as I comprehend them, aim to harmoniously impose your will on nature to get what you want. Get past the bloody-minded fairy tales, and white witchcraft is just another nature religion.

In her summertime tepee, Jenny hosts groups that come out to learn about witchcraft. “I believe everybody has special powers,” she says. “But I think white witches just tap into that nature source that we all have and don’t ignore it.”

I show her my map of the area; there’s an ancient fort up Castle Hill Lane that I want to check out. “Oh, yes,” she breathes, “there’s a lovely energy up there. A lovely view.”

I hike up the muddy, rutted lane. A flock of black birds bursts from the trees and circles overhead. I pass by a black pony grazing near a brackish, green pond. Supposedly there’s an earthwork up here at the top of the hill somewhere, but though I poke around, I can’t find it. I look out over the heathland below. If there’s a special energy in this spot, I don’t feel it.

From my backpack, I pull out a book I bought at the gift shop: “The Wicca Bible.” “Visualization is a crucial part of a witch’s spiritual and magical tool-kit,” it says. It advises finding a quiet place to practice visualization, which involves a lot of counted breathing. It reminds me of all the other forms of meditation I’ve tried. There’s a picture of someone sitting under a tree. I sit down on a rock. I count my breaths. I picture my chakras lighting up. The wind blows. The sun peeks out of the clouds. Not much else happens.

But it is a lovely view.

***

It’s a foggy morning. I’m at the back of a London-bound bus that’s humming along the motorway out of the New Forest, my face pressed to the glass. By and by, the bus passes a deer off in the forest. It’s coursing through the misty trees with great, weightless leaps. There’s something ahead of the deer that it seems to be following, something white and fluttering. It’s a bird — a white bird. As the bus rolls onward, I watch the bird and deer race through the trees until the fog swallows them up.

Kristin Henderson, a longtime contributor to the Magazine, is the author of “The Zargari Incident.”

Photo credits, from top: JLIMAGES/ALMANY; ISTOCKPHOTO; ISTOCKPHOTO; HISTORY/ALMANY;KRISTIN HENDERSON; KRISTIN HENDERSON

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For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit    WP Magazine.

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