Over the October half-term, I visited Burley in the New Forest in order to gain some idea of the consumerist culture that witchcraft invites in modern society. Burley was home to the New Forest coven of the 20th century, home to notorious Wiccan, Gerald Gardner. The village is more typically known, however, for its association with Sybil Leek, an English witch and occult author who wrote more than 60 books on esoteric subjects. Dubbed “Britain’s most famous witch” by the BBC, she was a colourful character who walked through Burley village wearing her trademark cape, gown, and with her pet jackdaw named Mr. Hotfoot Jackson perched on her shoulders. The village was suspicious of her alternative lifestyle and experience, and she left England in the 1980s in order to make a living in America. When in Burley, I visited a shop called ‘A Coven of Witches’ that was owned by Sybil Leek and is still open today.
The shop staff were more than happy to help me, guiding me around the shop and informing me about the still active coven that met in the New Forest today. I was surprised to hear that that wasn’t the only tradition kept alive in Burley: many religious people and vicars still refuse to enter the shop due to its apparent connection with the devil and satanist acts, despite Satan being a Christian creation.
The shop stocked many traditional books and herbal remedies used for spells and meditation but also had Harry Potter memorabilia and Halloween gifts that would appease the many children in the shop. It was popular, brimming with people who were fascinated by witchcraft, no matter whether they thought it a Halloween craze or believed in the ideology.
I was lucky enough to speak to the shop owner about her experience with witchcraft, and I listened to her explain about witchcraft’s healing benefits that have been passed down from Pagan times. For her, it was all about connecting with and respecting the Earth that we live upon. I also collected postcards, leaflets and books that will undoubtedly help me with my research to come.