In 2013, the English Heritage Trust bestowed, for the first time, one of its historic markers on the home of a witch. It honored a person who made witchcraft accessible to a curious public during the paganism revival of the 20th century: Doreen Valiente, who lived in a Brighton apartment block. Thanks to the trust, it’s now adorned with a blue plaque stating: “Poet, Author and Mother of Modern Witchcraft Lived Here.”
Valiente passed away in 1999, and on April 1 her personal collection of items relating to witchcraft and folklore will go on its inaugural public view. Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain at Brighton’s Preston Manor, part of the Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton and Hove, will feature both contemporary and historical ritual objects, ceremonial artifacts, a rotating altar, Valiente’s personal writings, as well as, on certain days, the rare 1940s Book of Shadows containing rituals handwritten by Gerald Gardner, an equally influential figure in modern witchcraft, or Wicca.
“[Valiente’s] collection is seen as the most important of its kind in the world, and as such it represents a unique snapshot of the life and practices of a witch active in Britain in the second half of the 20th century,” Paula Wrightson, venue officer for Preston Manor, told Hyperallergic.
The 17th-century manor has its own supernatural history: its site notes a slew of specters, including phantom ladies clad in white and grey, “disembodied hands on the bedposts,” “weird and uncanny noises,” and a “ghost playing with a toy tractor in the nursery in the 1960s.” The exhibition organizers emphasize, however, that Valiente’s practices were distinct from the paranormal.
“We don’t aim to make a direct link between the Doreen Valiente collection and Preston Manor’s ghostly reputation, although of course both the subjects may appear equally esoteric to the casual visitor,” Wrightson explained. “The collection represents items sacred to the belief system of modern-day Pagans and as such it should be regarded as a display of religious artifacts, and accorded the same respect.”
Valiente’s most widespread influence came through her books, like Natural Magic, which emphasize personal connections to nature. She was also an advocate of religious respect for pagans, including as a founder of the Pagan Federation. Philip Heselton, the author of a forthcoming biography of Valiente, told Culture24, that she “was happier going out at night under a full moon and communing, if you like, with the spirits that are there, rather than elaborate rituals.”
Valiente bequeathed her collection to her last high priest, John Belham-Payne, who went on to serve as the chair of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, which continues her legacy. Before he died this past February, Belham-Payne told Catherine Chapman at the Creators Project that “we want someone to walk in the front door thinking it could be a bit spooky but walk out with the idea that it wasn’t what they thought it would be.”
So, while the cloven-hoof candlesticks, swords, and knotted curses in jars might be a bit startling, the intent of the Preston Manor exhibition is to celebrate a woman who both practiced spiritual divination and strove to answer questions like, “How can I find a witches’ coven?” And beyond the ghosts, the historic house is a good fit for the show: its last private owner, Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford, was a historian of folklore and superstitions in the area and wished for his home to become a Museum of Sussex Life, focused on this pagan past.
“Bringing Doreen’s story to Preston Manor honors Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford’s wishes in a small respect, by devoting a room of his former home to a Brighton personality who was devoted to early-British and Sussex folklore, customs, and beliefs,” Wrightson said.