Which Shakespearean play did you have to decipher in school? For me it was ‘the Scottish play’ and apart from the “Out, damned spot!” soliloquy uttered by Lady M herself – it was the witches crouched over their cauldron that stuck out. Witches with their hooked noses and barnacled faces have endured, making modern-day appearances in everything from the Harry Potter series to Shrek. Of course, that is all they are. Images, caricatures, baddies in films. They don’t really exist… or do they?
If you visit the Forest of Bowland AONB, you can go on a real life witch-hunt in Pendle, which thrives on a very real 17th-century story. A nobleman claimed he was attacked on Pendle Hill and he blamed local witches. This accusation and the prejudice of magistrates resulted in 10 people being convicted of witchcraft and hung at Lancaster Castle.
Whether the accused actually conducted witchcraft is debated. At the time, protestant King James I had just survived the Gunpowder Plot and was paranoid about all sorts, including people using magic. Perhaps these women dabbled in herbal medicine, which was misinterpreted as evil deeds.
Pendle Hill is said to haunted by the doomed witches to this day – and many locals refuse to climb the hill after dark. When looking at it from a distance, Pendle Hill does have a sinister air; its brooding slopes are often enveloped in melancholic mist.
I started my witch-hunt on the hill, which is popular at Halloween, especially in the dead of night. I went mid-morning and apart from it being incredibly windy, I didn’t find it scary. There were no cackling ghosts – just stellar views over Lancashire. Those in the mood for an atmospheric ramble can walk the Pendle Witch Trail, which starts in the pretty village of Barley and takes in Faugh’s Quarry, where one of the witches, Demdike, is said to have sold her soul to the Devil, and Saddlers Farm, a possible site for the home of Demdike.
I continued on my spooky trail in the shadow of Pendle Hill to the village of Newchurch, where fear of witchcraft was rife. The village was named after the ‘new’ church of St Mary’s, which was consecrated in 1544, and has a mysterious eye painted on its tower to ward off evil. One of the witches was thought to have stolen teeth from graves here. Visitors claim to feel anger and sinister waves of emotion. I don’t remember anything like that, just a little frustration because the man we were interviewing couldn’t get his words out on camera. Was he under a spell?
In the centre of the village is Witches Galore, a souvenir shop where the owner claims to have felt the presence of a young woman wandering through the building. She told me the house goes cold for no reason, and a sweet, sickly smell hangs in the air. The ghost is reputed to be that of a woman waiting for her lover to return from war.
My next appointment with spooky-ville was on the banks of a stream near Barley, to meet a man who could conjure me up a potion to cure the cold I caught up Pendle Hill. Tim Moorhouse is a herbalist based in Manchester, who uses the countryside to make remedies. He used elderberries to brew me a syrup to ward off evil winter colds. Once all the berries are in the cauldron (saucepan), water is added with cloves and cinnamon – no frogs or bats’ wings, sadly.
Twenty minutes later, we sieved the potion through muslin, and added lots of sugar. Had we been crouched by the stream several centuries earlier boiling berries, things could have ended badly for Tim and I. As it happened, I guzzled my magic cough mixture, popped on my broomstick and headed home in complete safety.
HOW TO GET THERE
Access via the A59 to arrive in Downham, or M65 for Nelson/Newchurch and Colne. The Pendle Witch Trail starts in Barley car park.
FIND OUT MORE
Langroyd Road, Colne
Enjoy delicious grub in an old hall that’s now a pub.
The Anchor Inn
Barnoldswick BB18 5TT
This pub is next to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
Cobden Farm B&B
Working family farm overlooking Pendle Hill.
The Lancashire Moors are surrounded by a number of villages that could be hiding ghost stories. JRR Tolkien found inspiration here for his tales from Middle Earth.