Story and Photos by David A. Laws
For most of us, dragons, ghosts, and witches raise goosebumps but once a year. For the citizens of Burley, deep in the woods of England’s New Forest National Park, every night must feel like Halloween. The hamlet of Burley is far from an undiscovered tourist gem. Quaint tearooms and souvenir stores straddling its winding, one-block main street bustle by day. But visit late on a fall afternoon, when shadows from towering beech and chestnut trees hasten early dusk, and you’ll sense the chill as spirits of the Dark Arts seek to reclaim their realm.
New Forest National Park, one of Britain’s largest tracts of unfenced land, is steeped in history, legend, and tradition. Located 90 miles southwest of London and 20 miles from the popular south coast resort town of Bournemouth, the New Forest was named for King William the Conqueror’s proclamation of the land as a “new” royal hunting preserve more than 900 years ago. Native New Forest ponies roaming freely across this 90,000-acre expanse of hardwood forest and rolling, gorse-heath countryside uphold an ancient tradition of commoners rights that allow local land owners to graze stock in the open forest. Eager to see these diminutive creatures, I took a break in my drive from London to Bournemouth and turned off the main highway towards Burley.
Almost immediately, I slammed on my brakes to avoid a mare and colt savoring an herbaceous afternoon snack alongside the road. At the village entrance, traffic slowed to a standstill as panhandling ponies jockeyed for handouts against a backdrop of mellow half-timbered shops and cottages.
I parked and eased my way through the herd to reach tiny, thatch-roofed Old Farmhouse Tearoom. I sat at a table beside a family-size inglenook fireplace surmounted by blackened beams and polished horse brasses. Enjoying a traditional cream tea, I listened as our server regaled her customers with the legend of the scaly, fire-breathing Bisterne dragon. Dwelling atop nearby Burley Beacon, unless fed by the villagers with milk, mutton, or a maiden, it terrorized the area and devoured their cattle. In 1406, brave knight Sir Maurice de Berkeley defeated the beast but died from his wounds.
When I walked back outside, the tourist stores were closing. The darkening street emptied quickly.as raucous rooks squawked from somber leafless trees. Two boys ran up the hill past a stone memorial cross at the village center and stopped to peer inside “The Coven of Witches” gallery and gift shop. Above the white and black-trimmed storefront, a hanging sign of a witch riding a broomstick creaked eerily in the breeze.
“What’s this place?” I asked. “It’s the witch’s house,” the boys giggled nervously and ran off into the darkness.
Welcoming lights beckoned from the 16th century Queen’s Head public house opposite. I stepped inside and ordered a beer. “What’s the Coven of Witches?” I asked the barman. “It’s old Sybil Leek’s place.” “Who’s she?” “You’re from America, aren’t you? I’m surprised you don’t know.” She was one of Ronald Reagan’s astrologers. George over there, old chap with the beard and cap, he knows the story.” In his measured West Country drawl, George described Sybil Leek as a familiar figure in the 1950’s Burley. From a wealthy but eccentric family, she learned the ways of magic and the Old Religion from her grandmother, who read astrology charts for Thomas Hardy and Lawrence of Arabia. Sybil watched her first eclipse of the moon with H. G. Wells and discovered healing herbs and potions among New Forest gypsies.
Deep in its secret glades, the New Forest has long harbored opposing covens of witches practicing magic for good (white witches) and for evil (black witches). Elected High Priestess of the Horsa (the sign of the Horse) Coven of white witches, Sybil Leek strolled the village in a long black cloak with her raven, Mr. Hotfoot Jackson, perched on her head.
Running an antique business in a cottage across from the pub, she also wrote books on witchcraft and reported on Black Magic for local TV stations. “I see little difference in magic and science, except to have the opinion that magic is one step ahead of science,” she asserted. Described by the BBC as “Britain’s most famous witch,” she claimed that the government recruited her during the war to produce phony horoscopes to scare superstitious Germans.
On a book promotion trip to the US, Harvard students voted her the “grooviest witch in the world.” On her return, Burley was overrun with curious tourists and reporters and, alarmed by her new notoriety, her landlord refused to renew her lease. Feeling more welcome abroad, Leek emigrated to America, where she lectured, investigated psychic phenomena, and provided astrological services to the rich and famous. She advised her most celebrated clients, the Reagans, on election strategy. “He really believes in astrology,” she said. “It guides his life.” Her numerous books include The Complete Art of Witchcraft and an autobiography, Diary of a Witch. But even her most potent potions could not cure cancer. She died at age 59 in 1982.
“You’re interested in the supernatural, eh?” asked the barman after George left. “This pub’s haunted by a smuggler’s ghost, you know.” “Dragons, witches, and now ghosts?” I exclaimed. “Sounds like it’s Halloween every night in Burley!”
Smuggling was an important source of income for local families drained by taxes raised to finance foreign wars. According to the barman, through the late 1800s, much of the community was involved in smuggling French contraband, from fashionable straw hats to barrels of cognac, via nearby lonely beaches. Even womenfolk participated in the trade. They’d ride astride hardy New Forest ponies with cow or pig bladders filled with spirits hidden under their skirts. Stories of moonlight chases and battles with zealous excise men still circulate in town. During pub remodeling, builders uncovered a secret room with a smuggler’s stash of pistols, coins, and bottles. Its ghostly owner now haunts the bar.
Warned that since England’s witchcraft laws were repealed in 1951, black covens meet more boldly in the nearby forest, I walked warily in the dark back to my car. Leaves scuffled in a thicket. Dragon, witch, or ghost? I stood still, goosebumps rising as the sound moved towards me. Clouds cleared the moon and, eager for a handout, a pint-sized pony stepped into its silver light.
Anxious to leave town before witching hour tolled in thrice-cursed Burley, I jumped into my car and headed for Bournemouth where I planned to explore more earthly connections to Winston Churchill and Robert Louis Stevenson.
IF YOU GO: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, check possible tourist travel restrictions and 14-day quarantine requirements.
GETTING THERE: Burley is located 3 miles south of the Picket Post exit off highway A31 between Southampton and Bournemouth in the county of Hampshire, 90 miles southwest of London. The New Forest speed limit is 40 mph on all unfenced roads. Ponies, cattle, donkeys, sheep and pigs have the right of way, and however appealing they may look, for your own safety, NEVER be tempted to feed them.
WHERE TO STAY: Formerly the village manor, Burley Manor Hotel, rebuilt in 1852, was General Montgomery’s wartime HQ, and has been refurbished as an antique-packed hotel set in rolling parkland. For other accommodations and things to do in the area see the New Forest information website at: www.thenewforest.co.uk.