Thatched roofs, ambling ponies, ice cream, fudge and cider…. you’ll find them all in the small New Forest village of Burley – but we went there for some more mystical reasons. Witches, ghosts and dragons… oh my.
At first glance, you wouldn’t suspect that there’s anything different about Burley from the other cute villages in The New Forest.
It consists, pretty much, of one long High Street, lined with shops selling ice cream or nick nacks and a couple of pubs. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot some ponies and donkeys (and perhaps some pigs) wandering about as they do in the Forest.
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But look closer and you’ll notice the names of at least two of the shops have the word witch in them – and rather than, say, trinkets of cute cats on pillows, you’ll find black cats, dreamcatchers, wands and rather a lot of things your average goth would kill for.
No wonder, Burley is known locally as the Village of Witches.
Why Is Burley Famous for Witches?
Now, admittedly, the name makes it sound a bit like the UK version of Salem with covens on every corner, but in fact, its reputation comes from just one woman, Sybil Leek, who lived in the village in the 1950s.
At the time, witchcraft and all things pagan were pretty much frowned upon and Leek’s habit of wandering around the village in a cloak with a jackdaw on her shoulder, the rather fabulously named Mr Hotfoot Jackson, did not let her go under the radar.
And frankly, freaked a few people out.
However, while her attire might have scared some people, Leek was actually a white witch meaning she was more likely to worship trees and flowers than the Dark Lord (sorry slipped into Hogwarts mode there), and she soon became incredibly popular.
People would seek her out at home to help them and eventually, after visiting the US on a book tour, Leek decided to move there instead for some privacy.
In the US, she worked as an astrologer, wrote a heap of books and presented some paranormal TV shows becoming incredibly successful. She sadly died in 1982 aged 65.
She didn’t leave Burley without a legacy though. Before emigrating, Leek named one of Burley’s spooky shops A Coven of Witches and it can still be found in the main road in and out of town.
It’s the place to pick up spooky supplies like wands, pentacles, tarot decks etc. There are at least two other witchy shops in town, but this is the most authentic.
It’s also, apparently, home to a ghost cat who appears now and again.
Which brings us nicely to Burley’s other spooky tales … the Burley Witches may be the legend the village is famous for, but there are also a few other spooky types making Burley their home.
The Ghosts of Burley, New Forest.
The Queens Head, the pub I’m currently sitting in as I type this, went through a stage of hearing strange moaning sounds coming from underneath the floor of their Stable Bar.
In 1950, a cellar and tunnel were found underneath containing the remnants of past smuggling exploits.
Once this was opened up, the spooky noises stopped.
A ghost also reportedly haunts the nearby Burley Manor hotel. This time it’s the ghost of a lady…. what, who how, I haven’t worked out.
The town roads Tyrell’s Lane and Burley Lawn both have ghostly horsemen riding up and down them.
And, if that wasn’t enough things that go bump in the night for such a small village, a strange plume smoke has also been spotted in the middle of the road.
Do da do doo, do da, doo do….
If you’re interested in more ghosts in the region, you’ll probably want to read Haunted Hampshire by Rupert Matthews.
And There (also) be Dragons…
Sadly, Burley’s other mystical resident no longer makes its presence felt; I’m talking here about the Burley Dragon.
Legend has it that this guy lived on a hill known as the Burley Beacon and every morning flew off to the nearby village of Bisterne for a drink of milk.
Unfortunately, being a creature of habit was also his downfall, as the dragon was killed by a local knight (possibly trying to impress a fair maiden or two) while on one of his morning pinta hunting missions.
So there you have it, the spooky stories of Burley in the New Forest, but, as interesting as all the spooky stuff in Burley is, about 15 minutes drive away is another sight for those into witchcraft. One that’s far less well known.
The Father of Modern Witchcraft
In the nearby town of Highcliffe, on a red brick house, you otherwise wouldn’t look twice at, is a Blue Plaque installed by The Centre for Pagan Studies.
It states ‘Gerald Brosseau Gardener, the Father of Modern Witchcraft lived here, 1938-1945’
Hang on; the head witch of wiccadom lives a short walk from my mother’s house and no-one has bothered mentioning this before now? You just can’t get the staff!
Like Sybil Leek, Gardner was an intriguing character. Well travelled he was fascinated by native medicine in countries like Malaysia and Ceylon, but it was when he arrived in Highcliffe that his interest was sparked in British witchcraft and he found a local coven.
One of their most famous rituals was carried out during WW2 and was said to have cast a spell which aimed to keep Hitler away from UK shores.
Well, he never arrived so whose to say it didn’t work?
Non-Witchy Things to do in Burley
I’ve visited Burley many times as my mother lives near The Forest and it really is a cute little town to wander for an afternoon – I haven’t yet spotted a ghost but I have, however, done some other cool things, so if you want to make a day of it down there, here are some other fun things to do in Burley…
Spot Ponies – and Pigs
One of the most unique things about The New Forest is that fact that animals just wander about the place. You should always leave at least ten minutes before you need to be somewhere in case you have to stop and wait for a stubborn pony to shift its butt from the middle of the road.
You’ll normally spot some ponies and maybe some donkeys in or around Burley.
But, around the end of September and October, you might also spot pigs running about. It’s called Pannage (and you can read a longer post about it here if you want to know why they are there).
Or Actually, Get on a Horse
Burley Villa Riding School offers lessons to beginners and rides for more experienced horse folk.
Check their website for full details of all the different lessons and rides on offer.
Taste Some Intriguing Wine
The Burley Coach House at the end of the High Street is home to shelves full of intriguing wines – they’ve got nettle, they’ve got cherry, they’ve got sloe.
And they aren’t half bad.
Ask for a sample at the counter if you want to try before you buy.
Go Visit Some Deer
You find wild deer in the forest – and, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot them for free at nearby Boulderwood Deer Sanctuary.
But, if your trip is not going to be complete with spotting Bambi, check out the Deer Safari in Burley Park which will take you to find some on a tractor.
The safaris run during school holidays – check out the New Forest Deer Safari websitefor details.
Drink the Local Cider
The New Forest Cider Shop is housed in a pretty red brick building a short walk from the centre.
Where to Stay in Burley
If you’re looking to stay in Burley for the weekend, there’s a heap of places in and around town to try.
Swishest, and potentially spookiest, is Burley Manor which overlooks the deer sanctuary and has that ghost I mentioned
Book in overnight for maximum chance to try and spot them.
What to Read Next
If you’re staying in the Forest for a while, you might also want to take a trip to the Isle of Wight as the ferry as pretty nearby – and if you do, why not walk an alpaca. We tried it and it was brilliant. See the pictures here.
Who Writes Differentville?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.
My travel articles have been published in titles include The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.
I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.