Whatever the word itself might actually mean, there is doubtless something magical about Britain above all other nations. One useful definition of magic in a modern context might be that magic is the perpetual haunting of the present by the distant past; the sense that the distant past never quite goes away, but rather maintains a mysterious but palpable presence and influence over the contemporary world. A central kernel of all modern magickal thinking is a sort of antithesis to the narrative of progress: the idea that the superior wisdom, the superior worldview, existed in the pagan era, or perhaps long before it. It was driven underground and all but into extinction by the emergence of the monotheistic religions, and after them the Enlightenment ideology of empirical materialism, but it nevertheless remains, encoded somewhere deep in our genetic memory, awaiting a Gnostic reactivation.
This is one reason for the peculiarly magical aura of Britain. It was Christianized, and after that industrialized, but always maintained a romantic continuity with its mysterious pagan past, and a strong sense that that mythic past, immortalized in gnomic stone monuments and neo-pagan legends of warlocks and grail quests, could be restored and renewed in the time of its greatest need, like the myth of the once and future king returning from the mists of Avalon. In the 18th century, John Aubrey and William Stukeley, mistakenly believing that the Neolithic monuments at Avebury and Stonehenge were the work of druids, had been instrumental in establishing a revival of the druidic religion which was to a large extent a romantic reimagining of druidry. A similar romantic reinvention of witchcraft occurred in twentieth century Britain, largely the brainchild of a colourful and larger than life ex-civil servant named Gerald Gardner.
Gardner was born in Blundell Sands near Liverpool to a well-to-do middle-class family. From a young age, he suffered from asthma, a condition which has sometimes been labelled the “magician’s disease” owning to the large number of significant figures in the occult who have been sufferers. In order to alleviate this condition, Gardner was taken by the family’s Irish nanny on a variety of trips to warmer foreign countries, and wound up spending much of his early life in the East, in Ceylon, Malaya and Borneo. Gardner became an expert in weaponry, and an eager amateur dabbler in anthropology and archaeology. He returned to Britain with his wife in the late thirties, eventually moving to an area of Hampshire called the New Forest, which had formed the backdrop for the evocatively titled children’s novel The Children of the New Forest. It was here that Gardner claimed he was first initiated into the mysteries of an ancient witch cult in the house of a local woman called Dorothy Clutterbuck. Nothing, however, in the world of the occult is ever clear-cut, and Gardner is a typically controversial and tricksterish figure. The existence of the New Forest Coven has never been supported by much evidence beyond Gardner’s personal testimony, and the idea of an organised Pre-Christian witch cult surviving into the modern period, popularised by Margaret Murray’s 1921 study The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, remains a highly controversial thesis. However, in the occult, the archetypal power of an idea is often far more significant than its actual veracity. In his most entertaining tale regarding the New Forest Coven, Gardner claimed that on Lamas Night, August 1, 1940, a group of witches gathered in New Forest. The nude witches lit a fire, traced pentagrams in the air with ritual daggers, and eventually converged on the fire, shouting at the top of their voices: “You cannot cross the sea! You cannot cross the sea! You cannot come!” The purpose of the ritual was to prevent Adolf Hitler from making good on his threat to invade Britain.
In 1946, Gardner established himself as the High Priest of his own coven in Bricket Wood. The activities of the group were focused on a nudist resort, the Five Acres country club, which he had purchased the previous year. (He had been a keen naturist since a doctor recommended nude-sunbathing for his asthma.) Gardnerian Wicca, as his practice came to be known, was a typically eclectic melange of elements from the Western Mystery tradition, incorporating ceremonial magic, Freemasonic initiatory grades, and a strong echo of the writings of the ubiquitous Aleister Crowley, whom Gardner had met shortly before his death. Gardner relished publicity, and the Bricket Wood Coven, with its mixture of nudism and the occult, was almost tailor-made for a certain aspect of the British mentality that was equally disposed to prudery and prurience. Over the years that followed, the Elizabethan “witch’s” cottage on the grounds of the Five Acres would open its doors to a variety of witches, druids, and the occasional Sufi, and in the late sixties, when Gardner’s sensual pagan movement began appear somewhat prescient, Pink Floyd even wound up there after a gig. Gardner can be seen briefly in this clip; his rather florid reaction when questioned about the nudity of the coven is amusing:
Sanders seemed to court publicity with an even greater vigour than Gardner ever had, and he and Maxine appeared frequently in tabloid newspapers, television interviews, and in a series of campy, salacious “documentaries” The Legend of the Witches (1970), Witchcraft ’70 (1970), and Secret Rites (1971.) I assume the following footage comes from some or other of those films:
The soundtrack music featured on those clips eventually found its way into this wonderful song/video by Broadcast and the Focus Group, featuring the vocals of the late Trish Keenan:
That’s enough witchery for now.