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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Witchfest and the Great Coven Question

Yesterday I journeyed to Croydon to my first ever Witchfest, held at Fairfield Halls every November. It was a big adventure starting with a funny story.

I had to change trains twice to get there - Watford Junction, then Clapham Junction to East Croydon. At Clapham Junction, I went hurtling down the platform to leap onto a train to East Grimstead, and said to another lady getting on board, as you do, 'Is this to East Croydon?' And she says, 'Yes, East Croydon,' and we get on the train. She turns to me and says, 'Are you going to the Craft thing?' and I said, 'Why yes!' We sit down together and she talks a bit about how she's worked with the organiser and how many years she's been going to it and how she's on her way there to work it. I am impressed. She's got beautiful long white hair and we get to chatting about how she was a nanny in Canada in the 70s. I say I'm very impressed with the programme on offer and am really looking forward to it, mentioning that the main attraction for me is the talk by Ron Hutton. She nods.

We get off the train at East Croydon and she is met by a friend and off we trot toward the venue. We're going in the right direction, but she turns off toward the Universalist Church. Fairfield Halls is across the street. 'But, Fairfield Halls is over there,' I say. She says, 'No here's the venue, see what it says in the window?' I say, 'I'm going to Witchfest, what are you going to?' She says, 'I'm going here to the craft fair!' So we laugh and I shoot off across the street. Thank goodness she was going to a venue near mine, or I'd have followed her to the wrong side of Croydon. (Never at any time did she contradict me when I said the event would carry on to 2 the next morning, or show any surprise when I mentioned going to hear Ron Hutton speak at the Pagan Federation Convention in 2011. Either she was slightly mad or thought I was.)

With great relief I spotted purple velvet capes and hats with feathers across the way and sped over to my tribe. (Even though I clearly looked more like a church lady off to make tea cozies at a craft fair than a witch ready to spend a day immersed in the Craft, despite my sizeable pentacle pendant and earrings -- I discovered how conservatively dressed I was as the day wore on!)

I bought stuff

In addition to the Sacred Sites Oracle, I also got a new handmade chalice and representations of the God and Goddess. I like them. :)

I heard stuff
The only reason I went to this event was because Ronald Hutton was speaking and believe me, it was worth the trouble and expense of going there just hear him talk for an hour. I would have traveled there and back again even if that were the only thing happening, so for me all the other stuff was just extra. I may have made some unfortunate choices on some of the workshops I attended...but others were good, and walking around looking and gawking was also great fun.

The Templars: Keepers of a Shocking Secret by Lynn Picknett
I have no idea why I selected this one, but I walked out after about 20 minutes. It was about something called Johannite heresy, how the Templars were accused of worshiping a severed head of a bearded man and spitting and stomping on the cross, and how it turns out that they actually did do that because they believed that John the Baptist was the real Messiah. Or some such. It wasn't the content of the talk that I disliked so much as Picknett's hostile tone toward Christians. That's uncalled for. Plus I guess I have enough positive feeling  for Jesus that I don't want to hear someone talk about him as if he were nothing but a scheming former student waiting for his teacher to die so he could usurp his teacher's place. I wish I had gone to Wiccan Myths, because I gather Margaret Murray was discussed. If I had realised that was what the talk was about, I would have gone, but I wasn't sure what 'Wiccan Myths' meant and didn't want to hear a talk on how 'It's a myth that you have to be initiated in a coven'  (or vice versa, that you can't self-initiate) or some such. Shame.

Doreen Valiente -- Life and Legacy by John Belham-Payne and Ashley Mortimer
Once again the title misled me, as I was expecting to learn something about the life and legacy of Doreen Valiente. What I got was an update from John Belham-Payne about the work of the Centre for Pagan Studies and the Doreen Valiente Foundation. This information was not unwelcome! I was hugely pleased to learn that 1) a Doreen Valiente Museum is opening in Brighton in April 2016, where her collection of magical items and books can finally be exhibited and 2) Philip Heselton has completed his biography of Valiente, to be launched in February 2016. It was also dead exciting to see so many pagan luminaries on the stage at once -- everyone came up -- Heselton, Payne, Mortimer, of course, joined by Rufus Harrington, Neil Geddes-Ward, Ronald Hutton, Tam Campbell and I don't know who all! There were so many I can't remember them but Ashley said, 'My entire book case is standing here on the stage right now!' Then the huge treat came when John handed out little slips with the Witch's Rune printed on them and taught us to chant it the way Doreen Valiente had taught him. 'You have to get angry at the verse,' she said, and she refused to allow any of her verse to be set to music, because she said the meter must be observed, must be chanted. If you get a beat going and make sure each of the marked syllables falls on the beat, you will have it here as I learned it at this event (I marked it as soon as we finished to make sure I didn't forget it):

You can see that even chanting, it is done double-time to what you would expect. I have always chanted it


but it is actually DARKsome night and SHINing moon, EAST and South, WEST and North. (You slow the beat down, but the words actually end up coming out faster...)

The double time version is far more like a drum beat than the every-other-syllable style. Try it!

Meet the Witches Panel Questions - or 'The Great Coven Question' 
The panel consisted of Tam, Damh the Bard, Tylluan Penry and John Belham-Payne, and much wisdom was shared, but the most poignant moment came when a woman stood up and said 'I have been looking for a coven for 25 years and cannot find one. How do you find a coven?' She was clearly distressed and frustrated. This made me think of the Pagan Federation Convention I went to in 2011, when the same question was raised.

There are people out there who have devoted their lives to pagan witchcraft, and still can't seem to find a coven.When the question was asked at this event, the faces of everyone on the panel looked sympathetic and weary. You could see this was a question that they could not answer, for whatever reason. Advice was offered. Attend open events. Go to a Wicca for beginners class, take a correspondence course. It was mentioned that Children of Artemis was formed to try to help people find covens, but eventually it was realised that this task was 'impossible'. A member of the panel explained that the balance and energy in a coven is delicate and a new member will change all that, and so many/most covens are not very interested in taking in new people. Another panel member mentioned that 'it is called a mystery religion for a reason,' then explained that his journey had involved doing everything, taking every course, going to everything he heard of, trying it all.

Persistence and intention are the two key messages that I got from both the Witchfest panel and the Pagan Federation panel back in 2011. Those speakers in 2011 urged seekers to send out their intentions to find a coven to the universe. It was said the intention will act as a beacon that will be heard. There was also, however obliquely expressed, the suggestion that some people's beacons might not be heard. Maybe some people just don't have the right stuff, that's the message I got back then and it ruffled my feathers greatly. But maybe being in a coven is like making it to the big time in life -- you have to have the drive, the passion, the ambition, the tenacity, the unwavering belief that you will achieve this goal. And if you don't have it, you don't get it. It may be as simple as that. No kindly wise old witch with sparkling eyes and a giant pentacle pendant is going to walk up to you in a witchy shop one day and say, 'I can see you would make a fine witch, would you like to join our coven?' It's not going to happen.

21st Century Witchcraft by Diane Narraway
It was during this time that I went and bought my deck, chalice and totems. The direction the talk was going in didn't seem on topic at all, so my friend and I slipped out after about 10 minutes. We slipped round and chatted briefly to the three readers from TABI who were tucked away in a corner by the bar, and Carmella, a friend who I met at the UK Tarot Conference, had a reading while I went and secured us spots in the Concert Hall for the main event, Big Ron!

Dangers of Witchcraft by Kate West
Another misleading title -- I thought I was going to hear cautionary tales, and I did, but of the funny kind. Kate told stories about backing into the fire, falling down the stairs, and having Ryvita for cakes and wine. All very amusing. I laughed a lot. Especially the bit about how for some unknown reason, witches use three times as much toilet paper as normal people. It was a great warm up for Professor Hutton.

Modern Pagan Festivals by Ronald Hutton 
Best talk of the day, of course, thoroughly engrossing and I felt completely nourished and well taught by the end of it. Hutton explained in his usual precise, incisive and engaging way about the history of the development of the so-called Wheel of the Year. I wish I had a transcript of it.

Sigils by Kevin Grove
A very funny and engaging talk about how to use sigils in magic. But by this time I was getting tired...

So I toddled off to the train station...and caught another train...and then the Tube...and then another train...and then when I got to Coventry, a 20 minute drive from home, I found my connection was an hour and 40 minutes wait...so I called my hero hubby and he drove over and picked me up.

And that's the story of my first Witchfest. A fun day!!


  1. It was my first witchfest international and I was left somewhat underwhelmed. I think a brief overview of talk content would of been helpful, some of the talks were not what I imagined they would have been. There also seemed to be a lack of traders which was disappointing. This maybe down to people buying cheaper online but it was a shame none the less.

    1. You're right, better descriptions of talks would be useful, and I too was disappointed in the stock on offer -- mostly the same stuff I can get online, which is why I bought things that were handmade. I was hoping to see nothing BUT handmade or unique items, and was surprised at the mass produced gear on offer.

    2. As one of the speakers at Witchfest (I did two talks, a workshop, meet the witches and the opening blessing so I was fairly busy) I did explain what my talks were about on the CoA website. It's always difficult to know exactly what to say because usually we only get a brief blurb. However, I do my best and I know it's impossible to please everyone.
      Lovely though to meet up with old friends and to make new ones!

    3. There were blurbs on all the talks on offer at the website and there were available, just had to click on them on the schedule at the bottom or the speaker you you interested, as soon as we got it, a few talks evolved on the day and changed a bit but they always do.

    4. Fair enough, but that hardly helps the person who's just turned up and is armed only with a flyer. And a few of the talks turned out to be not at all what they seemed to be. Never mind, eh!

    5. Keep an eye on our social media for next year's event then you won't miss a bit :D

    6. I know it must be frustrating for anyone who just turns up and hasn't seen the blurb on the website... I don't know whether I'm considered one of the culprits, but I'll definitely bear it in mind and maybe state exactly what I'm going to talk about in a sentence or two at the start. I always have notes so that I keep on track - apart from the Writing and Publishing workshop which is very much audience driven.

  2. Great write-up. Yes, Melissa's talk on Wiccan Myths was very good - she always gives good talks and I try to get to them.

  3. Lovely, funny, thoughtful write-up! Maybe next year... :)

    1. P.S. Thanks for the pics. Really like the chalice and totems - simple and lovely natural feel to them all! :)