IF Hello magazine were around in the 1950s, then Sybil Leek would have been splashed across their pages on more than one occasion.

She may not have been an obvious choice by today’s standards with her ‘comfortably plump’ frame, penchant for garish eye make-up and long billowing cloaks.

But Britain’s most famous witch in that decade was something of a celebrity.

Sybil lived in Burley and claimed that her family had been engaged in witchcraft since 1134. She held quite a reputation in the New Forest village for her non-conformist antics - always wearing a black cape and having a jackdaw perched about her person.

Anyone familiar with Burley will be aware of its shops selling witch paraphernalia, but it’s Sybil who gave the village its connection with sorcery and spells.

Yet rather than being an eccentric outcast - as many witches have been portrayed over the years – Sybil was intelligent, sensitive, articulate and fun.

Her incredible life story is now to be celebrated at an exhibition at Moorhill House Hotel in Burley.

Darren Canning, deputy manager of the hotel said: “I thought it would be interesting to locals and visitors alike to find out more about the character whose legacy lives on here.

“We will cover everything from her early years, through to her life with the gypsies, her antique business in the village (where Lawfords gift shop now stands) - onto her move to the United States in the 1960s and her death in 1982 of cancer.”

With a special focus on her time in the New Forest, the displays will concentrate on different periods of her life with a timeline illustrating significant events, quotes from her diary, a recording of an interview with her as well as photographs.

Younger visitors will also be able to take part in some light-hearted games.

Sybil wrote more than 60 books, including an autobiography.

“It’s quite chatty in style,” said Darren, “so we are hoping to tell her tale ‘in her own words’. By the end, you should get a really good feel for who she was.”

Born in 1923, Sybil lived in Burley in the late 1950s, after moving down with her parents from Staffordshire. She was mainly schooled at home, and her parents would allow her to sit in on conversation when visited by such figures as Aleister Crowley and HG Wells.

On the one hand she would hear of Victorian high occult, and on the other, parallel dimensions. But it was her grandmother who was the greatest influence on her life, teaching Sybil about astrology by baking cookies and piping the signs of the zodiac on top.

It’s little wonder the young woman followed the same path, and when witchcraft laws were repealed in 1951 Sybil came out of the woodwork as a white witch, together with countless others.

The world’s media flocked to her, and she had curious people beating on her door day and night, partly because she was such a colourful character and partly because, as a journalist, she would give comment on various radio and television shows.

“It’s underestimated how big she was on the world stage,” said Darren.

Indeed, her notoriety became such that in the early 1960s, a pack of news hounds and university students were determined to track down Sybil and her fellow witches at their midnight Hallowe’en Sabbat, but she shook them off by sending her son out in a long black cloak as a decoy.

Yet despite all the apparent histrionics, and being High Priestess of the Horsa coven in the New Forest, she didn’t condone the dark arts.

Her version of witchcraft was a lot simpler, focusing on the ‘old religion’ and how to live life in the balance rather than putting curses on people.

“My religion, witchcraft, is not a dramatic thing,” she once said.

“It’s meditation instead of prayer. It’s listening instead of talking. It’s waiting for someone to say something to you. It’s quiet, natural and easy.

“I am a good witch. Certainly I studied black magic which is vicious and vile, but I have no desire to conjure harm. I have no capability for harm.”

Such was her healing ability, Sybil had people coming to Burley from all over the world – and long after her death – looking for her to thank her for her cures.

“Her intelligence was mirrored in her IQ of 164, and her books are less about witchcraft than her views of the world and how people fit into it. Her thinking mirrored the philosophical movement Stoicism, and she was out in front for her time in ecological issues.”

Or as Sybil herself writes in her book Diary of a Witch: “I am a witch. This is a statement of fact which in this second half of the sophisticated twentieth century still seems to generate mixed emotions throughout the world.

“I have been called ‘the most evil woman in the world.’ “But evil, like beauty, is often in the mind and the eye of the beholder. Yet many people see me as something of a fairy godmother, a woman who has a secret remedy for all aches and pains of body and spirit as well as for complex emotional problems.

“I have been called ‘a legend’, which seems a rather delightful thing to be.”

• Admission is free to the Sybil Leek exhibition which will take place at the Moorhill House Hotel, Burley on Saturday 29 October from 9am – 9pm.