When you think of a witch, you probably think of one of the clichés: an old crone in a pointy hat, or sexy Melisandre from Game of Thrones. But one sunny afternoon in Hackney Wick I find myself being given a ‘spiritual MOT’ by a cheery middle-aged man who has been practising witchcraft for two decades, and is now an elder statesman of the Wiccan community. His name is Gareth.
‘Okay, my love, your chakras aren’t too bad,’ he murmurs. ‘But you could do with visiting some masculine sacred sites like Stonehenge, or anywhere really high up, ideally with a monument or obelisk. That will bring things into balance a bit more.’ This spiritual day-trip prescription from a shamanic witch is just one nugget of mystical lifestyle advice that I find on my supernatural odyssey around east London. And if the findings of a new study by the University of Kent are anything to go by, this wealth of spiritual offerings isn’t surprising. As a connection to organised religion continues to dip, it seems we’re seeking cosmic reassurance elsewhere, with 71 per cent of atheists and 92 per cent of agnostics holding at least one supernatural belief (‘forces of good and evil’, for example).
Every fortnight, Gareth Hughes teaches an ‘Introduction to Shamanism and the Medicine Wheel’ workshop at Aho Studio on Prince Edward Road, which — from the outside — looks like just another shopfront, with urban microbreweries and vegan cafés for neighbours. But inside, the scent of ‘energy cleansing’ white sage lingers in the air, a ritualistic Amazonian drumbeat emanates from the speakers and an altar assembled from bird feathers and geodes sits in the middle of the room. As well as the now-mandatory classes in sound healing and breathwork (to some east London millennials, a gong bath is now as common as going to yoga), Aho is used for decidedly witchier ceremonies, working with ‘sacred medicines such as shamanic snuff [a type of healing tobacco] and Kambo’, which is a poison extracted from giant frogs to purge — yes, by puking into a bucket — body and soul.
Aho has only occupied this Hackney spot for a few years, but it has rapidly become a hub for the area’s longstanding community of urban Wiccans (those practising witchcraft), as well as tarot readers and reiki healers. ‘Hackney Wick has always been considered on the outskirts, and this makes it a place of freedom and expression,’ says Aho’s owner, Daren Ellis. Hughes agrees that there’s something special about the area that lends itself to the left field and the metaphysical. ‘Hackney is really the only place in London I ever wanted to teach,’ he says. ‘I get every sort of student in my workshop: old-school Wiccans in their 60s to thirty-something curious bankers and 21-year-old musicians.’
This area is riding a wave of renewed interest in the mystic realm, and catering to a new generation of New-New-Agers. ‘Our age suffers from a crisis of spiritual authenticity, although many people still yearn for a connection with the spiritual or divine,’ says Mark Vernon, author of How to be an Agnostic. ‘Many also seek mystical or even supernatural experiences, which the official scientific culture dismisses and many religious organisations have grown sniffy about.’
Of course, it’s very easy to be sceptical about much of this new mysticism. After all, this could be construed as simply another way to take money from vulnerable people who are looking for answers. Aho Studio recently offered a workshop by Ladamira, a ‘ninth generation Slavic healer’, which was a £20-per-person shamanic ritual dedicated to ‘removing financial debts and release of loans’. One might think a person who is in debt would be better off not spending £20 on a shamanic workshop. And I wonder how the old-school Wiccans feel about the new generation of well-groomed, Lululemon-clad hipster witches.
Just a few streets away from Aho sits She’s Lost Control, London’s chicest boutique for modern witchcraft. I’m ushered inside, past piles of colourful crystals, stacks of tarot cards and shelves stocked with pre-made spells labelled ‘Protection’ and ‘Love’, through to a candlelit den at the back, where astrologer Francesca Oddie gives readings. She’s Lost Control has been occupying this Narnia-like space on Valentine Road, just on from Well Street, for four years, and has amassed 12,500 Instagram followers. Founded by energy healers Jill Urwin and Cheryl Eltringham, She’s Lost Control functions both online and offline as a hub for the burgeoning community of shamanic healers, crystal workers, tarot readers, astrologers and witchcraft practitioners. Today it’s hosting an open day, with free reiki sessions, CBD palm massages and tarot readings.
‘Alternative wellness is no longer a niche interest, certainly not in this part of London,’ says Urwin. ‘People who live in Hackney Wick tend to be a bit alternative and open-minded anyway, and happy to talk about what they’re searching for spiritually, or what’s missing in their life.’
Urwin spent her 20s working as a fashion buyer for major high-street labels, but with SLC, she has united her experience as a healer and, well, a hipster. Today, She’s Lost Control is a rapidly growing ‘conscious lifestyle’ brand, with celebrity fans including Cara Delevingne. As well as hosting gong baths, goddess energy sessions and spellcasting workshops, it curates wellness areas at aspirational boutique festivals such as Obonjan and Lululemon’s SweatLife. A few days before visiting the store, I took my seat at a candlelit table in a private area at The Hoxton Hotel for an SLC Full Moon Supper Club, where I and an eclectic bunch of twenty- to thirty-something professional east Londoners pulled tarot cards, bemoaned the havoc wreaked by Mercury being in retrograde and nibbled Graces London CBD-infused chocolate as we celebrated the dawn of a new moon.
If all of this has you rolling your eyes, let me assure you there is nothing airy-fairy about the numbers. Last year, Americans alone spent $2.2 billion (£1.75bn) on ‘mystical services’ including tarot readings, psychics, aura photography, astrology, spells and energy healing such as reiki. Even logic-focused Silicon Valley is seeing the potential in the metaphysical; this month saw the launch of Sanctuary, an astrology app offering detailed readings plus real-time consultations with a team of international astrologers.
Meanwhile, Hughes is philosophical about hipster witches, and welcomes all who are open to the idea of a mystical way of life. I ask him why he thinks there’s such a renewed interest in the spiritual realm, in Hackney, and beyond. ‘Well, the short answer is that we’re entering a new Age of Aquarius,’ he says, referring to the astrological age associated with freedom, idealism, astrology, rebellion and nonconformity. Right. But he also accepts that Hackney’s metaphysical healing scene is thriving because it’s a new brand of New-Agery. ‘People used to think that shamans were crazy, smelly old men surrounded by animal parts,’ says Hughes. ‘But shamanism and spiritual healing has evolved. Yes, we all do that stuff where we pull demons out and practise black magic, but it’s also about giving people practical ways to stay sane in the world.’
He smiles, clearly aware that this is more needed than ever. ‘That’s what we’re teaching, and that’s why they come.’