7 mins

Great British Escape: witchcraft in Pendle

400 years ago ten people from this Lancashire borough were executed for witchcraft. Spellbound, Wanderlust editor Phoebe Smith headed north to find out more…

Hunt centuries-old legends in Pendle, Lancashire (Neil S Price)

Being eyeballed by a witch is always going to be an unnerving experience – especially under a full moon in the inky black of night. Even before I saw her, I knew I was being watched. I could feel an icy stare bearing down on me. She peered from under her hood with big, wide eyes, her skin an odd shade of malachite green. On 20 August 1612, high on the moors and in front of a braying crowd, Alice Nutter of Roughlee, Lancashire, was hung with ten others for the crime of witchcraft. But now here she was, staring right at me.

My reaction to this sighting was less than eloquent – in fact I nearly crashed the car. I was arriving late on a Friday night to this pretty hamlet for a weekend on the trail of witches. But I was not expecting to find one this easily.

“What the hell was that?” asked photographer Neil as we raced past her and I fought to regain control of the wheel. It was, it turns out, the newest installation in Roughlee village – a statue of its most famous resident placed beside Blacko Bar Road to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials.

The statue is just one of several new attractions established for this momentous year, along with special ales from the local Moorhouse’s Brewery, a big festival and a new walking route – the 12km Witches Trail – which takes you on foot through the key sites involved in the hysteria.

It was this that we’d journeyed to Lancashire to tread, eager to see if any of these places held clues to why the biggest witch hunt in England – predating those in Salem by 80 years – happened here.

Casting a spell

We left Dam Head Farm in Roughlee the next morning, the grass still covered in a frosty sheen. The trail is a figure of eight, so you can pick it up at any point; we began right from our B&B, tracing the edge of Pendle Water, which steamed like smoke in the early haze as though a magician had just disappeared at the end of a trick.

Continuing under the trees we emerged into a street seemingly lifted right out of the 19th century. Cobblestones led to chocolate-box cottages and plant pots perched on doorsteps beneath wood-beamed windowframes. The old Narrowgates Mill (now apartments) poked out above a ramshackle wall, on top of which sat a large black cat. On seeing us the feline gave a high-pitched ‘meow’ and jumped off into the bushes.

“You did see that didn’t you?” I asked Neil. He paused for a few seconds – long enough to get me worried – then nodded.

The far end of the street lead into Barley, another village boasting a hub of old stone houses, a pub with a roaring fire and a pretty babbling stream. This sleepy spot made the headlines last year when the ruins of an old house – containing mummified cat remains – were discovered near Lower Black Moss Reservoir. They were thought to be the remains of Malkin Tower, home to the witch Old Demdike, and location of the fateful meeting on Good Friday 1612 where she and her fellow accused allegedly plotted to blow up Lancaster Castle – a gathering that would secure a guilty conviction for them all. Though you can’t see it today (it was covered over after being excavated), the locals are more than happy to tell you all about it if you ask.

Resting places

Little black witches on fingerposts mark the route from here; we followed them up through steepening fields, the grass turning gradually from green to antiquated sepia transforming the landscape into an old photograph. All the while, Pendle Hill rose to our right, a peat and gritstone mass that played an important role in the witches’ story. It was here, in March 1612, that a local girl called Alizon Device was out begging; when a passing peddler refused to help she muttered a curse, at which point – in a case of really bad timing – he collapsed (likely from a stroke) and was temporarily paralysed. Alizon was accused of witchcraft and, in her confession, implicated members of her family and other locals too.

One of them was the aforementioned Alice Nutter, whose statue had startled me on the way into Roughlee. It’s said she is buried in the church of St Mary’s in Newchurch-in-Pendle, where the path was now leading. We followed the muddy track as it wound down into the hamlet and found ourselves face to face with another witch. This one was sat on a rocking chair outside the Witches Galore shop and tea room, sneering at us as we eyed the collection of pentagrams, spellbooks and ‘witches do it on broomsticks’ stickers.

“Bet they’ll cook up a good potion,” grinned Neil. “Tea leaves, milk and sugar in a mug-shaped cauldron I reckon!”

I didn’t take much convincing, and we sat near the entrance so we could watch the curious visitors gawping at the memorabilia while we enjoyed some Pendle Witch Fudge.

We left for the church, which was bathed in a pool of sunlight – it looked more serene than spooky. To the right of the door was a headstone bearing the name ‘Nutter’, the so-called ‘witch’s grave’ – though its date is too late to be poor Alice’s resting place.

Local historian and ghost-walk leader Simon Entwistle told me that she is the most fascinating piece of the Pendle Witch puzzle. “Unlike the others accused, who were all from poor families, she was wealthy. She had no reason to beg or even to know the others,” he explained. “But she was fighting over land ownership with the magistrate leading the witch trial – at a time when women weren’t supposed to fight for anything. It’s fair to say that she was well and truly stitched up.”

Like any legend worth its salt, the 1612 witch trial is a web of contradictions and theories – though every one of them is conjecture. The only surviving document comes from Tom Potts, the clerk of the court who, being directed to write it by the judges, was less than neutral in his account.

A date with the devil

Leaving the graveyard behind, we followed the trail to Faugh’s Quarry, where Old Demdike claimed to have met the devil. There were no demons around now though – just hawks circling above the rocky slabs; in fact, we didn’t see another soul until we reached the Upper Ogden Reservoir above Barley, which was perfectly mirroring Pendle Hill.

We were getting reflective ourselves, discussing how hard it must have been to beg in such a harsh and sparsely populated area, and how taking on the persona of a wise woman who could offer spells and curses would have been an obvious avenue for income. This would explain why some of those accused exaggerated their powers rather than denied them – it would have been good for business.

Leaving Barley again, we headed through the woodland above Whitehough. In the forest, the temperature plummeted. The branches stretched to the dim sunlight like aged fingers, brown and liver-spotted with fungi. It felt like a scene from The Blair Witch Project, and I understood the ease with which hysteria could be manufactured amid this ancient landscape.

Descending back to the start, we passed Roughlee Hall – where some say the ill-fated Alice Nutter lived – then walked back along the road towards her statue. Seeing it again in daylight, now knowing more of her story, it seemed less scary, more sad: her hands are in shackles as she steps up to the hangman’s noose – her back to Lancaster, the city where her days were ended.

That evening we headed out to climb Pendle Hill for sunset. After the witches were accused they were taken by horse and cart and on foot from here to Lancaster – a fair distance on which to contemplate the fate that awaited them. Despite my warm jacket, I shivered.

Just then the sky exploded in an array of Halloween-esque colours, bathing the surrounding villages and fells in orange light. There was no creepy feeling, no eerie atmosphere and definitely no witches – just a poignantly spectacular vista that stretched out to the city where the unfortunate few met their ends.

A deathly drive

The following morning we packed away our walking boots to try another new route – the 73km Witches Driving Trail. Leaving the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford, it heads to Lancaster via the same route as the witches.

We followed the tarmac trail through Roughlee and Barley, before leaving Pendle and entering the market town of Clitheroe. It was here that the only ‘witch’ of the 12 not sentenced to death faced pillory (the stocks).

After stopping to take in the views from Clitheroe Keep – back over to Pendle Hill, where the story began – we continued on. The road cleaves through the Forest of Bowland, a wild expanse of gouged-out valleys, gritstone peaks and peaty moorland. This would have offered the accused one last look at open scenery before they were taken into the heart of Lancaster to languish for four months in a dark, damp dungeon.

Until April 2012 Lancaster Castle was a working prison, and is still home to crown and civil courts. We walked up to its black, stone walls; the cells where the Pendle 12 were held can only be viewed from the outside but it’s reported that they were so unsanitary that the infamous Old Demdike died while awaiting trial. A tour of the public parts of the castle visits the former court where the witches were paraded – it’s now a room where jurors play boardgames.

As I looked down towards the city, above all the old houses, pubs and shops, I could make out the ornate Ashton Memorial, which sits on the mound where the witches were hung 400 years ago.

The end of their story marked the end of mine. Like Alice Nutter’s statue, I now turned my back on Lancaster, to head home. No trial awaited me – but if it had I would have failed miserably. When it came to Pendle and the villages surrounding its eponymous hill, I was most definitely bewitched.

Top 5 places to eat and drink

1. The Pendle Inn (Barley) is perfectly placed for a pre- or post-walk pint. There’s a witch-themed menu including Demdike’s Grills and Nutter’s Nibbles as well as real ales such as Pendle Witches Brew.

2. For a snack with a spell on the side try the Witches Galore shop and tearoom (Newchurch-in-Pendle).

3. For pie, chips, a cup of tea and some tourist information head to The Cabin (Barley; 01282 696937).

4. Looking for an antidote to witches? Visit Turners (117A Gisburn Rd, Barrowford), which offers coffee, wine and cheese – from the stinky to the sublime.

5. Raise a glass to the witches at the Golden Lion (33 Moor Lane, Lancaster), reputedly the last place the condemned would stop for a drink on their way to execution.

Top 5 things to see and do

1. Grab your witches hat and climb 557m Pendle Hill – completely free with the best views around for miles.

2. Take a ghost tour with award-winning, top-hat-wearing storyteller extraordinaire Simon Entwistle (from £5) who brings each character to life – not to be missed!

3. Discover the history of this corner of Lancashire at the Pendle Heritage Centre (Barrowford).

4. Drive or hike through the Forest of Bowland, a patchwork of fells and moorland once partly off-limits to walkers, but opened up by the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000).

5. Be guided through the courtrooms and dungeons of Lancaster Castle (£5), where the witches were sentenced to death. 

Top 5 places to stay

1. The Grade II listed Dam Head Farm (Roughlee) offers B&B and self-catering options, and is right on the Witches Trail. From £30 pppn.

2. The 18th century Old Earth House (Newchurch-in-Pendle) is ideally placed for all things witch-related. B&B from £30 pppn.

3. The Old Post House Hotel (Clitheroe) is a good choice for walkers, cyclists and homemade-food lovers. Doubles from £65.

4. To escape it all, stay at Boothman Park (Barley), a clutch of self-catering log cabins made from sustainable local timber; from £50/300 a night/week. There’s a campsite too.

5. Samlesbury Hall has a museum on site where you can learn about the Samlesbury witches, who were tried alongside the Pendle 12. From £60 pppn.

Wanderlust’s editor Phoebe Smith loves seeking out the UK’s wildest landscapes whenever she gets a chance, follow her latest escapades on Twitter @PhoebeRSmith

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