On a cold morning in 2019, Judy Rudd took a walk around the periphery of the ancient woodland known today as The New Forest. Making her way towards St Peter’s Church in the village of Bramshaw, she spotted a number of sheep lying very still on the frost-laden grass. The woodlands here have been common land since the 13th century, so Rudd would have been used to seeing sheep grazing on the open pastures that break up the oak and birch woods in these parts. What she was less familiar with, however, was finding them with their throats slit – their coats and heads decorated with crudely spray-painted pentagrams. St Peter’s itself was also graffitied with satanic symbols, much to the disquiet of Bramshaw’s parishioners. These killings, while almost certainly unrelated to practising members witchcraft, acted as a reminder of the New Forest’s long and frequently bizzare history of occultism. Because it was in this still largely undisturbed area of ancient woodland that one Gerald Gardner allegedly discovered a secret society, the ritualistic practices of which would go on to form the bedrock of modern British witchcraft: the New Forest Coven.
Despite popularising what is often regarded as a uniquely English form of occultism, Gardner spent much of his young life abroad. A quiet boy with wild eyes and a sickly disposition, he was born into a wealthy, upper-middle-class family in Lancashire, but was sent to live in colonial Madeira in the hope that the warm climate would cure his asthma. He spent much of his adult life travelling around Asia learning about local religious practices and pursuing his fascination what archaeology and spiritualism. Then, in 1936, he returned to England and immediately fell ill again. His doctor, Edward A. Gregg, suggested that he try nudism. Although a little hesitant at first, Gardner eventually joined Fouracres, an outdoor nudist club, where he would meet a number of other members of the English intelligentsia interested in spritiualism.
The start of the 20th century saw individuals like Gardner and his friends at the Fouracres nudist club retreat into an alternative version of England. Fearing violent rebellion from below and corruption from above, an entire generation of authors, musicians and artists went about inventing an imaginary English past in which pagan people were in connection with the spirit world, where society revolved around the cycle of the year, and where witches walked feely. At the heart of this vision was the idea that modern society had wandered astray and that its salvation lay in the countryside, in places like the New Forest, where the roots of druidism and sacred ritual lay in slumber.
It was ideas such as this that, in 1939, led Gardner to make an astonishing claim. He revealed that, on walking near his home in the New Forest one night, he’d stumbled across a circle of naked women standing in a clearing. Having failed to conceal himself, one of the women dragged Gardner from his hiding place and took him to a large timber-framed house belonging to wealthy women called ‘Old Dorothy’ Clutterbuck. There, the women stripped him of his clothes, blindfolded him, and pushed him into the centre of a ceremonial circle. There was a moment when all Gardner could hear was the sound of his own heart racing and the screeches of owls in the trees outside. Then the chanting started, and all around him, Gardner heard the same word uttered over and over again in the same shallow tone: Wicca.
Gardner alleged that the group of women he’d happened across that night were members surviving witch-cult, one that had existed in the New Forest since pre-Christian times. He told his friends at Fouracres nudist club that the witches had initiated him into the coven that night, bestowing on him the power of the ancient organisation. Gardner revealed few details about the actual practices of the New Forest Coven but did claim that, in August of 1940, with the threat of German invasion looming on the horizon, they performed a magical ritual known as ‘Operation Cone of Power’. This involved Gardner and the rest of the witches erecting a giant wooden cone in the New Forest, which was then pointed towards Germany and used to transmit messages from their minds into those of the German leaders. “You cannot cross the sea, you cannot cross the sea, you cannot come, you cannot come” they chanted, with some of the frailer witches putting so much energy into the ritual that they dropped down dead on the fallen leaves. Considering the coven decided to perform the ritual naked, without goose grease on their skin to keep them warm, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some truth in this.
Gardner was by no means the first occultist to find inspiration in the sheltered gloom of the New Forest. The area is one of the few tracts of ancient woodland left in the UK, having been proclaimed as a royal forest by William The Conquerer in the 11th century. But, even before the Norman invasion, the forest was a place of immense significance, with over 250 Iron age barrows (burial mounds) located within its expansive borders. Perhaps it is this sense of history that attracted a number of notable spiritualists to the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, moved to the New Forest while in the midst of researching the idea that spirits could communicate with the world of the living through the power of a medium; a concept he once described as “the most important thing in the world.” Indeed, following the death of his son at The Battle of The Somme, Doyle became one of the country’s most outspoken spiritualists, sharing his “vital message” wherever he went, and could occasionally be found wandering the woods near his home looking for fairy folk.
Despite Gardner’s lack of evidence, his stories about the New Forest Coven reignited an interest in occultism that had been simmering under the surface since the 19th century. Over the next twenty years or so, Gardner became one of the most prominent advocates of modern witchcraft, mixing with the likes of Aleister Crowley and publishing books such as High Magics Aid, which formed the bedrock of modern Wicca – the neopagan religion that, in the 1960s, became popular mong British hippies seeking more eco-centric modes of living. In Britain today, however, Wicca is becoming more popular in urban areas, where organisations such as Children of Artemis, an organisation that hosts workshops on the new forest coven, moon magic, and wands, are becoming more and more common. For many UK radicals, witchcraft is regarded as an extension of eco-activism, feminism, and anti-capitalism. But its roots, however twisted, remain firmly buried in the New Forest.