It’s a drizzly Tuesday evening and at a city centre café, a steady trickle of people are pouring through the door as the time inches towards 7pm.
On cue, a lady in a long skirt and a mop of brown hair enters in a swirl of fabric. She starts unloading the contents of a bag on to a table. This is Salix Tate, the bookish head of Leicester Pagan Moot, a monthly meeting for pentacle-wearers who venerate the earth, give props to the god and the goddess and, on occasion, wear robes and cast spells.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” beams Salix, “I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing.”
Paganism, the oldest of belief systems, is, if you didn’t know, alive and well in Leicestershire. Exact numbers are unknown, but between 50,000 and 200,000 pagans live in the UK and moots in Leicester and the county are flourishing.
The growing number of moots coincides with a relaxing in attitudes towards the religion, says Lesley Vann, a city pagan and retired residential social worker.
“Leicester’s quite a nice place now – the attitude compared to 30 years ago is incredibly welcoming.
“I think there’s an awful lot of private groups, too. I got involved in the ’80s and none of those people have gone away.”
Pagans may not be represented on the city’s Council of Faiths yet, says Lesley, but give it time.
While times may be a-changing, for many the word pagan is still tangled with late night ’70s Brit flicks – the ones where flaxen-haired maidens crouch on altars beneath some bloke with a ram’s head.
After 60 seconds at the Dark Side Café, you’ll see there’s no nudity and no dead ovine. Well, not tonight, anyway.
In fact, it’s such a modern set-up, my visit is arranged via Sally’s BlackBerry via Leicester Pagan Moot’s Facebook page.
As for the clientele of nine women and five men, there’s a lad in his 20s with an Iron Maiden ring tone and dyed black hair; a bird-like man in his 50s with a wooden walking stick and a Shakespearean voice and a woman in black in her 20s with a pentacle around her neck, tucking into a thick wedge of carrot cake.
Tonight’s moot is all about ritual – what’s needed to perform one, why, and so on.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, they go through a shopping list. Goddess: check. Wand: check. Herbs: check.
“Why do we ritual?” Sally asks, getting things going.
“The turning of the wheel,” says a woman with a wolf on her jumper.
“To honour the relevant gods and goddesses at each turn,” responds another.
“To create a change in the physical realm,” adds one.
“Okay, do we need robes?”
A male teenager in a leather trench coat, pipes up.
“Robes interfere with the energy needed to perform rituals,” he says in a thick Slavic accent. This admission prompts a few smiles.
The chap in his 50s says robes are practical.
“The last Beltane, I was down at Avebury with a whole lot of druids,’’ he says.
“It was blowing a gale and lashing it down. We’re so glad we had our robes on.”
Next month the moot will put what they learn into practice. It’s pretty important, because pagans celebrate eight annual festivals, including Samhain, better known as Hallowe’en, and Beltane, which celebrates the arrival of summer. Really, though, they need little excuse for a party.
When Sally asks whether rituals require wine or a fruity drink there’s an enthusiastic: “Yes!”
Lesley leans over. “You’ve no idea how hard it is to get them to stock fruit juice.”
Lesley, a slight lady who’s into meditation, grounding and ritual magic, found paganism after habitual violence from her first husband.
“There was no way I could worship a patriarchal god, not after that experience.”
Once Sally finishes the list, the moot mingles.
Sylvan is from Oadby and did “outdoor work and gardens” before retiring.
“I’ve never been interested in C of E or the Catholic church, I find it a bit bland. This is excellent for me because of the Earth connection.”
Angela is a prison chaplain and spends her life spiritually nourishing Her Majesty’s lost souls. “Airbrush me slim,” she laughs as the photographer takes a picture.
Sally, the group’s charismatic figurehead, is actually a scientist by day.
“There are one or two scientists, engineers. We come from very different backgrounds. I was brought up as a Christian and went through a period of searching and doing all different things – Taoism, Buddhism, Hare Krishna.”
In 2004, an ex suggested paganism. Her first moot was at The Globe, in Silver Street.
“Paganism is about free-thinking, spiritual development, being a bit of a reactionary, honouring nature – but not necessarily, because some don’t. But a lot think about things in a different away.
“Basically, I’m a witch – a Westernised Hindu. Paganism is very similar to Hinduism, but with a Western focus. It’s a lot to do with nature and science.”
Sally also casts spells.
“Spells are about how to manipulate an outcome. You use lots of laws and lots of the laws are the same as the laws of physics. Science came out of magic and it’s gone back in again. My spells work… I’m not going to dismantle what I do… other people will say my spells work.”
“Her spells work,” says a member of the moot, “they’re much better than mine.”
How would you like this article to come across?
“To show that we are thoughtful people, that we have a passion for life, really, and that we’re no different from anyone else.”
As a polytheistic, non-mainstream religion which worships the Earth and its seasons, paganism does attract a number of misconceptions, she says.
“People believe that we’re always going around in the nude. Do you go into the woods in the nude? That’s the one we get asked most.”
And, er, do you?
“Not in a ritual, no,” she smiles. “The only time we take our clothes off in a particular group is to wash, when it’s Imbolc – a cleansing ritual.”