Saturday, 8 November 2014

Samhain In Ytene

Ytene was, before the Norman Conquest, a large area of what is now Southern Hampshire. It means 'of the Jutes', and describes land colonised by the early Anglo-Saxon tribe of that name; the Jutes were also active in Kent and the Isle of Wight, their territories being split by the South Saxons modern Sussex).

In 1079, William I turned the area into a Royal Forest for his hunting interests, particularly of deer. Chroniclers of the time describe the destruction of hamlets and farmsteads, the native people dispossessed of their homes to allow the new aristocracy a place for their sport. Had the King been blessed with hindsight, he would have perhaps not been so eager - two of his sons, Prince Richard and King William II, died in hunting accidents in the Forest, in 1081 and 1100 respectively.

Domesday Book provides the first record of the area's name, 'Nova Foresta', and its English translation endures as the New Forest. Now a popular National Park, it occupies a large swathe of South-west Hampshire and extends its reach into Wiltshire and Dorset. It is famous for its roaming cattle, its ponies, and its deer.

It is where I decided to spend Halloween, accompanied by my Eldest and his girlfriend, eschewing trick-or-treat for the ambience of a sylvan Samhain.


This attractive hamlet was our first point of interest, a little west of the Lyndhurst road as we headed south from the motorway. The village car park lies just across the road from the small, triangular village green. Facing it, we see a tea shop on its left, a bench under a small tree in its centre and a pub on its right. A group of New Forest Ponies graze on the green, and my companions are delighted to make the acquaintance of the renowned equines so early in our visit.

Ponies of the New Forest

Between the green and the pub, a short track climbs up to the village church. It is the oldest structure in the village, having a nave and chancel that date to the 13th Century, although its baptismal font is even older than the building - dating to the 12th Century. The churchyard contains weathered, lichen-encrusted gravestones around the building's entrance, and a large expanse behind the church which contains burials up to the present day. Among these, under a prominent tree, stands a stone carved in the shape of a cross, marking the resting place of the ground's most prominent resident: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, here with his second wife Jean, under the epitaph 'STEEL TRUE, BLADE STRAIGHT'.

Grave of the Conan Doyles. Behind is the grave of the poet Christopher Tower, whose name is attached to a poetry competition in Oxford, and a reference library in Lyndhurst.

A tobacco pipe, representing the author's most famous creation Sherlock Holmes, is a constant fixture on the grave.

Back down to the village green, as we head back to the car we pass the pub The Trusty Servant, which has a most unusual sign.

At the sign of The Trusty Servant

The figure is known as a hircocervus in Latin, a tragelaph in Greek and, in plain old English, a goat-stag. It was mentioned by Aristotle and Plato, and it can be found on a wall-painting by John Hoskins at Winchester College, where its features represent virtues promoted by the students:

'A trusty servant's picture would you see,
This figure well survey, who'ever you be,
The porker's snout not nice in diet shows;
The padlock shut, no secret he'll disclose;
Patient, to angry lords the ass gives ear;
Swiftness on errand, the stag's feet declare;
Laden his left hand, apt to labour saith;
The coat his neatness; the open hand his faith;
Girt with his sword, his shield upon his arm,
Himself and master he'll protect from harm.'


As we drive south into the village of Lyndhurst, the heart of the Forest, we pass a pub called the White Rabbit. There is a reason for this.

Lyndhurst is, to be honest, a traffic nightmare. It lies on a crossroads, a crux of the cardinal compass points, and the presence of the New Forest Visitor Centre ensures its bustle. Despite the traffic it is a pleasant place with interesting shops and some architecturally attractive buildings. After a brief visit to the Centre, we stroll west, round the back of Lyndhurst Church. It was built in brick by the Gothic Revival architect William White from 1858 to 1867, and he later designed the church in Langdon Hills, Essex, where my daughter was christened.

To the rear of the church lies another grave with literary connections, which explains why a local pub is called White Rabbit. The ashes buried in this plot are those of a woman who, in her youthful years, inspired a family friend to create and publish stories that are now famous the world over.

Literature Meets Mortality

We pass around the front of the church, walk down to the road, and after a few steps we enter a cafe-restaurant where we have our lunch. The restaurant is called Mad Hatter's, and is adorned with Wonderland paraphernalia and illustrations.


Our next stop, deep in the Forest NW of Lyndhurst, and no better place to visit on Halloween. This popular village is famous for witches, thanks to a woman called Sybil Leek.

Sybil Leek (1917-1982) was once described by the BBC as 'Britain's most famous witch'. After the 1951 repeal of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, the many books she wrote on witchcraft and occult subjects played a major part in the revival of Wicca in the country. An antique dealer with an IQ of 164, she lived in Burley and was a familiar sight in the village, with the eccentric habit of walking around with her pet jackdaw (and, presumably, her familiar) perched on her shoulder. The jackdaw's name was Mr. Hotfoot Jackson. In her younger years Sibyl was an acquaintance of both Aleister Crowley and HG Wells.

Sybil Leek and Mr Hotfoot Jackson

Burley became a popular destination thanks to Sybil's high profile, but eventually she tired of the attention and emigrated to the USA in the early '60s. Her legacy remains, in the plethora of occult shops in the village, and the Halloween events that the village holds to this day. The village frequently demonstrates the ancient laws of the Forest that prioritise its animals - ponies and cattle freely wander its streets, and a herd of red deer can often be seen in the grounds of the Burley Manor Hotel.

The visit to Burley proved productive for all three of us. I came away with a new bottle of mead, my son with a mounted fallow deer antler and his girlfriend with some New Forest fudge. We also enjoyed dinner at the Queen's Head pub, served by staff members dressed as zombies and ghouls

The Queen's Head has a couple of points of historic interest. It was built in 1685 as a blacksmith's shop, and later when it became an inn it was known as a haunt of smugglers. During a renovation, a secret cellar was discovered, containing pistols, coins and alcohol - relics of the building's smuggling past. More recently, in 1963, a gentleman named Craven Walker found himself mesmerised by the curious shadows being emitted by a light in the bar, and it inspired him to invent the lava lamp!

Picket's Post

Dusk approaches, and with the last of the light we decide to enjoy an atmospheric stroll across the Forest. We choose Picket Post, an area of the Forest two miles out of Burley, just south of the A31.
Leaving the car in one of the area's plethora of car parks, we strike into the heathland. Gorse and heather proliferates, occasionally punctuated by gnarled and twisted trees, and a half moon rises into the clear Autumnal sky.

 In the half-light, ponies shuffle through the furze and Horseshoe bats whirl and dance around us. Tawny owls hoot from unseen arbours.. The ambience of Samhain infuses and enthuses us as we walk a ragged circle, an hour's journey across rutted and leaf-kissed ground, feeling the closeness and the intimacy of the Forest -  even in areas of open emptiness. Dark has fallen by the time we return to the car, the headlights of passing cars cutting through the lightly-misted atmosphere and giving us a dance of dazzling beams. My son sees the silhouette of a deer, skittishly dashing across the road, unseen by me as I was inspecting a milestone. Refreshed and revitalised by our bracing exploration, we prepare ourselves for the final event of the evening.

Wilverley Plain

On the A35, a few miles west of Lyndhurst and south of Burley, two laybys sit opposite each other. The road is unlit, and the layby looms suddenly; I have to brake sharply and swerve in order not to miss it. We vacate the car, leaving it with a cluster of vehicles already parked, and join a loose group of about two dozen complete strangers.

We head south, along a track that was once the Burley-Lymington road in the days of horse and carriage, some members of the group holding lanterns to softly illuminate our path. This part of the Forest is called Wilverley Plain, and after a few minutes of walking we step from the path to the site of what was once a tree called the Naked Man.

Surrounded by fern, capped with ivy, sits the stump of a vanished oak. Legend tells dark stories of smugglers and highwaymen hanged from its branches, one victim apparently struck by lightning which tore off his clothes - hence the tree's name. The truth, perhaps, is a little more prosaic - the tree probably had two outstretched arms which resembled a naked man.

Our group forms a circle of protection, and seasoned wiccans and druids take position at the cardinal compass points. Each of the four directions receives its own blessing.

The North is a place of cold, and the earth is silent and dark.
Spirits of the earth, we welcome you, knowing you will envelope us in death.

The East is a land of new beginnings, the place where breath begins.
Spirit of air, we call upon you, knowing you will be with us as we depart life.

The South is a land of sunlight and fire, and your flames guide us through the cycles of life.
Spirits of fire, we welcome you, knowing you will transform us in death.

The West is a place of underground rivers, and the sea is a never-ending, rolling tide.
Spirits of water, we welcome you, knowing you will carry us through the ebbs and flows of our life.

A loaf of bread and a horn of wine passes around the circle, each of us tasting and imbibing before passing on to our clockwise neighbour.  It takes almost three circuits before the offerings are gone.

The Wheel of the Year turns once more, and we cycle into darkness.

Two members of the group, using a wooden phallus and a chalice, re-enact the marriage between the Morrigan and the Great Dagda, pouring the contents of the chalice onto the soil to represent the hope of rebirth after the coming Winter.

At the end of that darkness comes light. And when it arrives, we will celebrate once more.

We remember those we have lost, we bless those who need succour, and we close the Circle in harmony. The four elements suffuse us. The breath of the breeze, the dewy dampness of the grass, the mud beneath our feet, the muffled thud of distant fireworks from the direction of Christchurch. In an intimate cluster on the dark open mass of Wilverley Plain, the traditions of the Old Craft continue. Behind us as we depart, the Forest lives, breathes and watches... as it has done for close to a thousand years, as it will for a thousand more. The wheel turns, the cycle continues. As above, so below.

So must it be.

I see across the veil to the pathways of my future
The pathways laid out for me by my ancestors, who walk
Them with my gods.
These pathways I will walk in company with them,
When I have finished my work here, until that time
I will live my life with honour and courage
With them forever in my mind.

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