Over the past month, newspaper and website This is Tamworth has run a series of articles about alleged intrigue, witchcraft and occult activity in Hopwas Woods, Staffordshire. The features have not been particularly pagan friendly - and the latest one is, frankly, a sensationalist rehashing of some very old news.
The first couple of news articles were about supposedly occult artefacts that were discovered in the woodlands, including an Egyptian-style statuette and an engraved copper tablet. Local residents were keen to find out why they were there and what they meant. Those stories were not too offensive, and I even blogged about the first one, back in December. I guess a little curiosity is natural, and one shouldn't leave stuff lying around in public places - particularly when it might have magical significance.
This is Tamworth's latest story is far more sensationalist. It states: "Hopwas Woods has been the centre of tales of naked witches, occult artefact discoveries and spooky goings-on for decades."
Then it dug an old copper out of retirement to tell a tale about an incident in 1984 when he was called to investigate a report of naked witches dancing in the woods.
This is Tamworth reports the ex-policeman as saying: "It was quite an eerie experience, believe me! There were signs of a burnt out fire, and a number of small bones, which, at the time, were thought to have possibly been sacrificial and later identified as bird bones, possibly chicken bones. There were also signs of a roughly drawn out pentagram scratched on the ground nearby. A number of items were taken for later forensic examination if required."
A group of people were arrested, thrown into police cells overnight and interrogated. Extra police were drafted in to guard the woods. The only charges made, however, related to a bit of cannabis possessed by a few members of the group - hardly the crime of the century in my opinion. Was it really worth all that police time and effort, even that long ago?
The group also denied being witches, instead claiming to be members of an occult group called The Order of the Silver Star. It makes sense to me that they weren't witches. Witches, in my experience, are generally far more circumspect about their outdoor rituals than that bunch seemed to be.
Witchcraft was not illegal in the 1980s, but now paganism and witchcraft are far more acceptable in the public eye than they were back then. These days the police are taught to treat pagan rituals with sensitivity and understanding.
So, This is Tamworth, please take your Gene Hunt lookalike back to his retirement home and ask some modern policemen if they would throw people into prison for being pagans.
And, so long as people using Hopwas Woods aren't breaking the law, causing a nuisance or damaging the environment, I don't really care if they are fluffy Wiccans celebrating the solstice, wannabe Cthulhu cultists attempting to summon That Which Does Not Exist from beyond the void - or the local Girl Guides having a chicken barbecue and singing late night songs around the campfire.
In this country people of all beliefs are perfectly entitled to enjoy our lovely public woodlands - and if they want to dance, sing and say words in honour of ancient gods, stars or planets, that is their choice.
But, fellow pagans, when you are outside celebrating the seasons, do make sure you take your ritual artefacts - and your litter - home with you afterwards. If you don't, you could find some Scooby gang trying to investigate what you've been doing and selling their story to This is Tamworth.
I hope we see more responsible journalistic reporting in Tamworth in future.
The photo shows Hopwas Hays Wood