Interview: Philip Heselton

Philip Heselton, English Wiccan Researcher and Author
An interview with Philip John Heselton

By Christopher Blackwell

Philip Heselton (Ashley Mortimer)

Another English Witch and Wiccan group I keep up with is Children of Artemis. I asked some of my friends there whom I should interview and I had one member suggest that I interview English Wiccan researcher and author, Philip John Heselton. He is known in England for his books on Gerald Gardner. When I researched, I found that he had written nine books and three of them on Gerald Gardner.

Christopher: Could you give us a bit of background of yourself?

Philip: Born on 29th March 1946, I have had an affinity with paganism for as long as I can remember, seeking out the wild woods and
desolate moors for my spiritual refreshment. The two themes of the landscape and the inner world have dominated my life, and it is in paganism that they have come together.

Stimulated by a well-stocked local library, I became interested in UFOs and thereby met Tony Wedd, my first mentor, who introduced me to Alfred Watkins’ great discovery – leys.  Jimmy Goddard and I started The Ley Hunters Club and founded The Ley Hunter magazine in 1965. The subject of Earth Mysteries emerged out of this and I subsequently wrote several books, including The Elements of Earth Mysteries and Leylines – A Beginner’s Guide. My interest in landscape led to a degree in Geography and a career in Town and Country Planning, eventually becoming a Conservation Officer before my retirement in 1997.

In a sense I’ve always been Pagan. I just didn’t know there was a name for it or that there were other people who felt as I did. When I was probably about 10 or 11, I invented my own religion! Looking back on it, I realize that it had all the essentials of Paganism. I had 18 months off school when I was 12-13. I used to go on bike rides into the Surrey hills and woods, communing with Nature. I always feel that I learned more in that time than I would have done had I been in school.

I have always been aware of the existence of realms other than the physical and this has led to a continuing interest in psychic phenomena and techniques, including astrology.

I first read Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in 1960 and discovered strange echoes in my being which have stayed with me for the rest of my life, although it was much more recently that I was initiated into the Craft (Gardnerian Whitecroft Line). I had previously, however, been initiated into a very secret traditional branch of the Craft with its roots in Lincolnshire. My parents had borrowed it from the local library. I always feel grateful to that library for having books on a variety of subjects in which I have remained interested. I felt excited by Witchcraft Today, not just by what it said but by the atmosphere which it had. I was able to “read between the lines” to the echoes of something very deep. That has always remained with me. I thereafter read any book on witchcraft which I could get my hands on! It was, however, much, much later before I met any real live Pagans.

For me, paganism is about our own experience of the deeper side of the landscape around us, and I tried to express this in a series of books published by Capall Bann, Secret Places of the GoddessMirrors of Magic and Magical Guardians – Exploring the Spirit and Nature of Trees.

I have recently tried to go back to my roots in researching the sources of Gerald Gardner’s writings. This has resulted in my two latest books – Wiccan Roots and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration. My new full-scale biography of Gerald Gardner is to be published by Thoth Publications in June 2010. (2012: Since published.  See review elsewhere in Wiccan Rede Online.)

Christopher: When did you first start writing?

Philip: I suppose I’ve always liked writing. I started by editing small magazines, such as The Ley Hunter and later Northern Earth Mysteries, typing them out on stencils and duplicating them, a messy process! Later, I cooperated with Jimmy Goddard and  Brian Larkman to produce small booklets about Earth Mysteries topics and, in 1986, wrote, printed and had bound my biography of Tony Wedd, someone who had influenced me a lot in earlier years. It was only in 1990 that I had my first book accepted by a “proper publisher”. This was The Elements of Earth Mysteries.

Christopher: What drives you to writing on these particular subjects?

Philip: I’ve always said that I write books so that I can read them myself! People often find it funny to see me sitting down reading my own books! “Don’t you know what’s in them?” they ask! The impetus is to want a book on a particular topic, to find that there isn’t one, to find out all the information the hard way and then set about writing the book myself. I really enjoy writing, getting lots of little bits of information from a wide variety of sources and then bringing them together.

Christopher: You have written three books on Gerald Gardner. Have you done more research on Gerald Gardner than most authors? Why the fascination with him? Do you have any more books planned on him?

Philip: Whilst I never met Gerald, and there are individuals who know more about particular aspects of his life, I think I am the world expert on Gerald Gardner and his life! I suppose I really wanted to find out what actually happened. Gerald’s own writings are vague, to say the least, and there was an absence of detailed information on the history of how he got involved and was initiated, etc. So I did quite a lot of research and my two books, Wiccan Roots (2000) and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration (2003) were
the result. It seemed the logical next step was to write a full- length biography of Gardner, and this will appear in 2010 under the  title of Witchfather, published by Thoth Publications.

Philip – at the ‘Day for Gerald 2010’ (Centre for Pagan Studies) 

Christopher:  Could you give us a brief description of your books?

Philip: I think the wording on the back covers would probably do, so here goes:

Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration. An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft

From the author of the highly acclaimed “Wiccan Roots”, this book tells the story of how retired civil servant, Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) discovered a witch coven in the New Forest in the late 1930s. It contains much genuinely new material in its attempt to chronicle the origins of the modern witchcraft revival. It tells of newly-discovered members of the coven who practised herbal magic, including the author of girls’ school stories crammed full of pagan imagery, and the true matriarch of the coven – a ritual magician whose sword is still used in witch rituals.

The crucial and intimate role played by Gardner’s first High Priestess, Edith Woodford-Grimes (Dafo) is revealed. The tale is unearthed of how Gardner’s enthusiasm for naturism (nudism) brought him into contact with such influential figures in the occult world as Harry ‘Dion’ Byngham, Ross Nichols, Cottie Burland and Dion Fortune.

Gardner’s discovery and re-erection of the half-timbered witch’s cottage is recounted, and how he became an ordained minister of the Ancient British Church in the process.

For the first time, the true story is revealed of Gardner’s friendship with one of the most controversial magical figures of the last century, Aleister Crowley.

There is a full account of the setting up of the world’s first Museum of Magic and Witchcraft, including Gardner’s co-operation and subsequent split with Cecil Williamson, film producer and wartime intelligence officer. The sources from which the secret Book of Shadows was compiled are identified, including an older core of material.

The author’s frank conclusion suggests how the original coven in the New Forest may actually have started less than 80 years ago.

As well as being a major step forward in chronicling the history of modern witchcraft, this book provides a fascinating insight for all who would like to learn more about the origins of what Professor Ronald Hutton has described as “the only religion that England has ever given the world”.

(Published by Capall Bann Publishing, Auton Farm, Milverton, Somerset TA4 1NE 2003. Over 100,000 words and 50 illustrations. ISBN 186163 1642. £16.95. 423 pp.)

Wiccan Roots, Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival


This book reveals a remarkable picture of the revival of witchcraft in England during the 1930s and 40s.

Through years of research, the author has pieced together the story of how retired civil servant, Gerald Gardner, became involved in the worlds of naturism and folklore, which led him to discover a strange theatre run by an esoteric magical group known as the Crotona Fellowship. Here he made contact with a family of hereditary witches, whom the author has been able to identify, whose lineage dates back to Napoleonic times. The personalities of two key figures in the story, ‘Old Dorothy’ Clutterbuck, in whose house Gardner was initiated, and Dafo, his HighPriestess, are brought to life, and photographs of them appear for the first time. Whatever the truth about Dorothy’s involvement with witchcraft, extracts from her diaries, never before made public, reveal her as a pagan at heart.

New light is shed on the momentous ritual the witches carried out in 1940 when invasion threatened, including the probable identity of those who gave their lives in the cause.

Few witches, pagans or other students of modern religious movements will fail to be fascinated by the carefully researched revelations in this important book.

(Published by Capall Bann Publishing. Over 90,000 words and 54 illustrations ISBN 186163 110 3. £14.95  338 pp.)

Leylines – A Beginner’s Guide

Would you like to make a real contribution to understanding our mystical relationship with the landscape? This down-to-earth guide provides clues to those mysterious features known as leylines which cross the land in many parts of the world. It sets out the theories about their origins and gives a practical step- by-step approach to finding them. It also reveals their mystical side – a hidden nature of energy and spirit which acts as a gateway to the realm of faery – the Otherworld of mythology – and to shamanic visions. This book takes you on a genuine voyage of exploration – from the hidden corners of the land to the experience of the energy field of the Living Earth.

(Published by Hodder and Stoughton, 338 Euston Road, LONDON NW1 3BH 1999. ISBN 0 340 74316 6. £6.99  90 pp.)

Magical Guardians, Exploring the Nature and Spirit of Trees

This is a book about trees, but a book with a difference, for it acknowledges trees to be wise beings who can teach us much if we approach them in the right way. This book shows how to go about it, revealing the origins of our awakening interest in – and love for – trees.

Trees have a spiritual nature, and opening up to this spirit has been a constant feature in human society. Through practical guidance, this book gives hints on how we can make that contact for ourselves.  The personalities of the ancient trees – our Magical Guardians – are explored, and the book reveals how we can start to acquire some of their deeper meanings.

(Published by Capall Bann Publishing, 1998. ISBN 186163 057 3. £11.95  262 pp.)

Mirrors of Magic, Evoking the Spirit of the Dewponds

The image of the pond lies deep within our psyche. The abundant legend and folklore which surrounds ponds and pools, interpreted
rightly, reveals the relationship which country people still had with the spirit of the landscape within living memory. This book shows that these “mirrors of magic” are locations where consciousness can be changed to experience the earth spirit and to perform acts of divination and magic. It also explores the powerful and recurring image of the Moon reflected in the still water of the pool and reveals how this has traditionally been used in magical ritual.

(Published by Capall Bann Publishing) 1997 ISBN 1 898307 84 9 Price £9.95  158pp.

Earth Mysteries, (Element Library Series)

A Beautiful Exploration of the Unseen Mysteries of the World Around Us. The role of earth energy, Dowsing and geomancy, Ritual routes and sacred sites, Holy wells, labyrinths, stone circles and Poetic geography

As more and more of us recognise the importance of our planet’s ancient rhythms, Earth Mysteries is beginning to take its proper place in our spiritual quest. This beautifully illustrated book takes us on a fascinating journey of discovery to explore the unseen energies of our mysterious planet.

(Published by Element Books, Shaftesbury, Dorset, SP7 8BP 1995. ISBN 1-85230-714-5. £9.99.  112 pp.)

Secret Places of the Goddess

This book is a practical and evocative encouragement to seek the Earth Spirit in those special places where it dwells, embracing a wide definition of Paganism to include all those inner yearnings towards a closer contact with the land. It will appeal to all who are drawn to visit such natural and archetypal locations in the landscape as tree groves, sacred springs, special rock outcrops, the seashore and the Wild Wood. All these are …Secret Places of the Goddess.

The author shows why certain locations have been considered numinous and magical and how we can each go about finding these  special places. in the landscape. He provides a vision of the variety of ways in which we might respond to the spirit present at such sites and thereby enter into a closer relationship with the Old Ones.

(Published by Capall Bann Publishing. 1995. ISBN 1 898307 40 7. £10.95. 207 pp.)

The Elements of Earth Mysteries

The term Earth Mysteries covers a wide range of topics including: the use of both analytical and intuitive methods to investigate the existence of energy running through the earth; leys, dowsing, folklore and visiting ancient sites. The book explains: The role of earth energy and how we can perceive it;
How the folklore and legends attached to the ancient sites can be interpreted;
The purpose of structures such as stone circles, underground ‘burial chambers’, holy wells and labyrinths; How we can approach these sites in the best way.

(Published by Element Books, Shaftesbury, Dorset, SP7 8BP 1991. ISBN 1-85230-228-3.£5.99. 139 pp.)

Christopher: Have you ever done a book tour here in the States? Are you available for giving talks on Gardner and other things that you write about? What would be necessary to make such a tour happen?

Philip: I’ve spoken at the Pantheacon conference in San Jose, California in 2006, but I haven’t done a tour. I’d very much like to do one over the winter of 2010/2011 to coincide with the publication of my new Gardner biography. I would certainly be willing to give talks on Gardner, illustrated with quite a few new photographs that people won’t have seen. I suppose it needs people in different places to organize a venue and for a local occult bookstore to have copies of my book available for people to buy at the talks. Several people have expressed some interest.

Christopher: How can people find out more about you and your books? Where can they buy them?

Philip: I do now have an entry in Wikipedia, thanks to my friend, Kim Dent-Brown. There is also a site organized by George Knowles, who interviewed me this summer.

My books are available via Amazon and other online retailers. Capall Bann, who publish quite a few of my books, have a website, from which books can be ordered.

There will be quite a lot of publicity to coincide with the publication of Witchfather in June next year, and the book will be widely available on both sides of the Atlantic.

Christopher: Anything else you would like our readers to know?

Philip: I can’t think of anything at the moment, but do feel free to ask me more questions!

Philip on Facebook


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