Pete Jennings Story

I was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, in 1953. My Dad was a bus cleaner, and I was the youngest of four children living in a council house on a rough council estate. This became a problem when I passed the 11+ to attend Northgate Grammar School. Kids who had known me on the estate at Junior school now threw stones at me when I ventured out. I was the only lad in the area not to go to the Secondary Modern.

Meanwhile, some of the more snobby Grammar school boys bullied me for being from a rough neighbourhood. It is no wonder that I learnt to fight, choose a few friends wisely and become an individual square peg in whatever hole I found myself. I have never followed the crowd or tried to ‘fit in’, so I have frequently been described as ‘alternative,’ ‘eccentric,’ ‘different’, or plain awkward.

I struggled to keep up with schoolwork and sought escape as a mobile disco DJ at 12 years old. I was obsessed with pop and rock music and pirate radio, but I also loved folk songs and traditions. All this developed throughout my life: As well as being a very successful DJ and compere, I sang with local rock and folk bands, presented a folk programme on local radio for twenty years and wrote music columns for newspapers. I acted as Green Man for East Suffolk Morris for many years on Mayday morning and was Wren Bearer for the Old Glory Molly Cutty Wren ritual every Boxing Day. I also created the Magic Mummers from members of the Chelmsford Pagan Moot, which I also formed. The dividing line between enacting traditional customs and being a Pagan is very nebulous to me.

On leaving school at 16, I got an apprenticeship as a telephone engineer and studied at college. Although I did OK as a qualified planning engineer, after eight years, I got bored doing the same thing until retirement and quit for a series of sales jobs, including manager with KP Foods and Coca-Cola.

As a lad, I joined the Boys Brigade, which involved attending church. My parents were nominally Church of England but inactive. I became involved with the church and its youth club until I was about 14-15. I had many questions as a stroppy teenager, but the vicar was very understanding and helpful. We had many long, deep conversations, but I eventually left, dissatisfied with issues such as infant baptism and the role of women. I sampled other Christian denominations and read about religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism.

As a teenage fan of horror films and books, I found the lurid novels of Dennis Wheatley. I got the feeling that there had to be more to Paganism and Witchcraft than naked virgins on altars, and I sought out more reliable sources of literature. That was not easy in the 1970s: you had more chance of buying porn magazines than serious books by witches, but through the underground/alternative scene, I found some sold from ‘under the counter.’

Meanwhile, I had met Val, who was to become my first wife and mother to a daughter and son. We stayed together for 14 years. Unfortunately, she was uncomfortable with my esoteric interests, so all I could do was read intensively during that period. A few more books were being openly sold by then, although most were of American origin. When we divorced in the late 1980s, I had plenty of theoretical knowledge but no experience and a thousand questions about the occult.

However, I knew the organisations I wanted to join: The Pagan Federation and Odinshof. The former was the best bet for networking with other like-minded souls, and the latter was a small organisation devoted to what at that time was termed Odinism. (Later Northern Tradition, Asatru, Heathenism etc.) One must understand that there was still a lot of secrecy in the Pagan scene. Most people operated under pseudonyms and British Monomark forwarding addresses. The fear of exposure by tabloid newspapers, loss of employment or child custody was a real threat then.

Still based in Ipswich at the time, I formed two groups. One was an Odinshof Ipswich Hearth, and the other a Pathworking group. Due to a demand from members, I wrote a Pathworking book with the co-organiser, Pete Sawyer. This led me to start an early pub moot with a couple of other Pagans and then a small regional conference called Leaping Hare that survives until this day under a series of subsequent organisers. There was also the Gippeswic magazine that I created and ran for three years. There were lots of small regional Pagan fanzines at the time. Most were produced without computers and cut-and-pasted and photocopied. We all advertised each other’s magazines for free, and I still have many acquaintances dating back to those pre-internet days. The internet has completely transformed the experience of Paganism in my lifetime.

All this local Pagan activism was mainly restricted to my beloved Suffolk. After fourteen years as a successful salesman, I was disillusioned with what I had become: money-orientated, manipulative, aggressive, cynical and not a person I could like at all. I didn’t want to take that into national organisations, so I resisted invitations to become more involved.

I was then made redundant. I could have sought another sales job, but I decided to make the break. I took on menial work as a cleaner, van driver, charity fundraiser, warehouseman, etc., while trying to sort myself out. I also started Original Gemini Ghost Tours in Ipswich with Ed Nichols, which lasted for 20 years and brought together my love of history, storytelling and the occult.

I had taught myself to read Runes and Tarot as part of embracing Paganism. Whilst I felt that I had a reasonable talent for this, what worried me was clients unloading their lives onto me afterwards. This was coupled with the ‘parish priest’ role expected by members of my Pagan group. I investigated counselling courses, concerned that I should say the wrong thing and wreck someone’s life. I enrolled in a part-time 3-year Diploma in Humanistic, Person Centred Counselling at Colchester Institute, validated with a Diploma in Professional Studies by Anglian Polytechnic. It was hard work, and one had to expect to have your life taken apart and reassembled, as well as classes in Psychology, Sociology etc.

I was able to use some of those skills when I became a Home Office approved Prison Chaplain at three prisons. Around this time also, I was asked to write an article about ‘The Northern Tradition’ for the Pagan Federation’s Wiccan magazine (later renamed Pagan Dawn.) This, in turn, led me to be asked to stand for election to the national committee. The organisation was keen to widen its appeal to all Pagans, not just witches, and felt they needed someone from my path. I was going to turn it down when my Pathworking friend Pete asked, ‘don’t you think it is about time you faced your issues about leadership instead of avoiding them?’ I also thought that if I refuted the offer, it may be seen as a rejection by all Heathens, something I did not want to happen.

I ended up on the committee as the Media Officer, mainly handling requests for interviews from the press, radio and tv. They often wanted interviewees local to an area, so I set about running media courses with my excellent assistant Di Firmin. These aimed to enable Pagans to learn the skills needed and gain confidence in accepting interview requests. We built a team of about 200 members and started creating proactive campaigns to beat fundamentalist scare tactics by providing solid factual press releases. (This was just after the Satanic Ritual Abuse scam.) Thanks to that team effort, the tide started to turn slowly, so radio programmes now seek out Pagan opinions to balance other material.

Eventually, after meeting Sue (and moving to her home in Essex and later marrying her), I worked as a carer, mainly for Adult Learning Disabilities, which I really took to. Essex County Council sponsored me for a three-year BA (Hons) in Social Work at Anglia Ruskin University. I kept working as a social worker until retirement four years ago, more latterly as a Safeguarding specialist. Sue and I had become involved with the Suffolk Interfaith Resource and enjoyed many activities with people of different spiritual paths. I can understand some Pagans’ reluctance to engage with Interfaith, but I always thought talking and making friends was better.

After three years as PF Media Officer, I was ready to step down but was persuaded to become the President, a role I worked at for another three years. It was an exciting experience with many highs and lows, but I am glad I did it. As a result, I was often asked to talk at conferences and camps, something that I enjoy to this day. It keeps me in genuine contact with other Pagans, and they often ask questions that cause me to pause and think, sparking off the writing of books and articles. I have written over 25 books on Paganism, mythology, folklore, and fiction.

I have also continued as an Anglo-Saxon re-enactor, have taken up painting and am the owner of a German Shepherd Dog called Sasha. Dogs have been essential in my life, especially through the bouts of depression and other illnesses I have experienced. I have survived several serious car crashes, three episodes of cancer, diabetes and arthritis.

Some still regard me as a bit of a maverick: some Heathens did not agree with being classed as Pagans. Going back to the similar roots of both terms, I feel they are wrong but entitled to their opinions. The great thing about Paganism is that it has no overall leader, set text or rules. That is a joy to me but means it is unsuitable for those who want their spiritual path served up on a plate.

Some Pagans of other paths are suspicious of all Heathens because the symbols were seized and used by neo-Nazis. That makes no more sense than Christians rejecting the cross because the Klu Klux Klan use it. We Heathens have some very different principles from most other Pagans. There is no ‘An it harm none’, no threefold law of return, only two elements and rectangular sacred spaces. We recognise no hierarchy or initiations. That is just for starters!

So as I approach my 70th birthday, I remain the same grumpy, argumentative square peg I started out as. I am fiercely proud of my Suffolk and East Anglian origins and have traced all four branches of my family back to the 1600s in Suffolk. My DNA is mainly British with some Scandinavian, Irish and European.

Somehow, despite not proselytising, according to the UK Census, we Pagans keep growing in numbers and are far more public in our attitude to the world. Here is to the next decades!

Pete Jennings – March 2023