I’d like to start by dedicating this essay to my father, who now in his 84th year, can still remember swimming with both the protagonists of this talk, at a nudist resort in Hertfordshire – probably Five Acres, part-owned by Gardner and the site of the first shrine of Wicca, the witches’ cottage where his coven meetings were held, or possibly Spielplatz, just nearby and the site of Britain’s oldest Naturist Utopian community. He can’t remember what the three of them talked about as they lay in the sun afterwards, but perhaps one day I’ll ask him to be hypnotically regressed to recall the conversation.
There they were in the pale English sun: the editor of a history magazine and two of the key figures in the 20th century revival of European Paganism.
It was around 1954 or 1955 that this happened: a key time for the emergence of this phenomenon. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in Britain in 1951, and in 1954 Gardner’s book ‘Witchcraft Today’, edited by Nichols, was published which began the process of popularization of witchcraft and the promotion of Wicca specifically as a religion or magical path.
The following year – 1955 – was destined to be the year in which the worlds of opera and the inner mysteries of Paganism and specifically Druidry collided to produce a triad of unique and powerful manifestations: it was the year two of the greatest opera singers the world has ever known began their careers thanks in differing ways to the Druids.
Pavarotti’s singing career was launched at the Llangollen eisteddfod in 1955 when he sung in a male choir from his town in Italy that won a prize. He returned to sing at Llangollen 40 years later in 1995. And Maria Callas’ career was launched when she played the Druid priestess Norma in Bellini’s opera that same year. And in the same year that these two stars began their extraordinary trajectories across the firmament of world opera, an opera – Michael Tippet’s ‘The Midsummer Marriage’ – was performed for the first time in London that also owed its existence in a certain way to one of the inner mysteries of both Wicca and Druidism.
What on earth was going on? What were the stars doing in 1955? Let’s home in on the details to look at the unfolding of this phenomenon more closely.
Let’s go back to 1951 – the year the Witchcraft Act was repealed. Where were Nichols and Gardner that year? In Italy – and specifically at Pompeii. We do not know whether they were there together or independently.
Philip Heselton, biographer of Gardner, wrote to me saying: “they probably didn’t go together. Gerald was always in the habit of “wintering abroad” for about two months each year, mostly January and February, to avoid the severity of the English winter, which did not suit him and brought on his asthma. In none of his letters does he mention Ross being with him. The most likely thing would perhaps be that Ross went to Pompeii some time during the summer of 1951 and told Gerald about what he had seen, which made Gerald curious to go and see it, perhaps even to choose Italy as the destination of his annual ‘wintering abroad’ trip.”
Let me read you now an excerpt from Nichols’ account of his visit, published in my father’s history magazine Past and Future August 1960 and titled Extract from ‘An English View of Italy – Pages from a Travel Diary in Holy Year 1951’