Best of British: History of witches

Anna Walker

With the spooky season upon us, we’re taking a road trip around the parts of Britain once allegedly touched by magic…

Pendle, Lancashire

Perhaps no witchcraft trial in British history is as well-known as the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612, where eight women and two men were hung on the accusations of murder, cannibalism, the death of a horse and inducing sickness. The tragic events have been immortalised in several books, including Jeanette Winterson’s 2012 novella, The Daylight Gate. The accused all lived in the area surrounding Pendle Hill, giving the summit a lasting reputation for witchcraft and the other worldly. Many visitors climb the hill each Halloween and ghost hunters frequent the area.

Today you can pay your respects to the wrongfully convicted by retracing their steps on the Pendle Witches Walking Trail starting at the Pendle Heritage Centre, taking a trip to Lancaster Castle where the accused were imprisoned or by sampling the local beer, known as Pendle Witches Brew.

visitpendle.com

 

The Witch’s Grave, Perthshire

In the unassuming Scottish village of Dunning locals and experts alike are baffled by an apparently occult monument hidden at the end of a country road. It would be easy to miss the pile of stones, with their cross-topped column, but pause to read the lettering regularly refreshed on the stones and you’ll discover that this crude memorial marks the final resting spot of local woman, Maggie Wall.

Burning witches, with others held in Stocks medievalMedieval witch trials

Nobody knows who tends to her grave, but the words “Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a witch” are regularly repainted on the relic in bold white lettering, and various trinkets, wreaths and flowers can usually be seen at the foot of the cenotaph. Only adding to the local mystery is the fact that despite extensive documentation of witch trials held at the time, there is no evidence of any “Maggie Wall” being tried in Scotland.

 

Wickedness and Witchcraft Tours, Cambridge

Cambridge witches tour

The only tour in the UK specifically dedicated to exploring witchcraft and the occult, Wickedness and Witchcraft Tours describe Cambridge as “the home of English witchcraft”.

Intrigued guests are invited to tour both the city and the surrounding countryside, discovering the surprisingly occult history of this famous city. From the most elite members of high society through to the poor and common folk, prepare to discover how the intrigue of the mystic permeated every echelon of medieval Britain. The insights into Cambridge University are particularly interesting, as it’s revealed how what’s now considered one of the world’s capitals of scientific prestige was once the place to investigate the darker arts, alchemy, occultism and magic.

The tour includes a visit to the spot where the notorious Aleister Crowley—once dubbed “the wickedest man in the world”—first picked up a tome on magic.

cambridgeghosttours.com

 

Fye Bridge, Norwich

The pretty candy-coloured houses of Norwich’s Quayside hide a surprisingly dark past. Running alongside the River Wensum and punctuated by the ancient Fye Bridge, this was once the spot where the “witches” of Norwich met a cruel end. First built in 1153, Fye Bridge is thought to be where the city’s medieval ducking stool was situated, and today a plaque has been erected to commemorate the innocents who lost their lives here.

Ducking stools were chairs used to “test” those suspected of witchcraft. The accused (usually women) were tied to the chair and dunked into the river below. If they floated and survived the dunking, they were confirmed as witches who had renounced their baptism, and so were unaffected by the Wensum’s depths. If they drowned, they were innocent. And also, dead. The “guilty” parties were hung outside the nearby Norwich castle. Today the Quayside is a picturesque spot for a crisp autumn walk. Follow the route up to the Adam and Eve pub to continue the creepy theme—it’s supposedly one of the most haunted pubs in Britain.

visitnorwich.co.uk

 

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Cornwall

Nestled away in the Cornish village of Boscastle resides the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic—the world’s oldest and largest collection of items related to magic, witchcraft and the occult. If you want to learn more about Britain’s connection to witchcraft, both past and present, this is the place. With over 3,000 objects displayed over two floors, it would be easy to while away hours in this unique museum.

Says the museum director, Simon Costin, “As a museum of social history, we aim to explore British magical practice, making comparisons with other systems of belief, from ancient times to the present day.

We aim to represent the diversity and vigour of magical practice respectfully, accurately and impartially through unique, entertaining and educational exhibitions, drawing upon cutting-edge scholarship along with the insights of magical practitioners.”

museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk

 

Carrickfergus Castle, Northern Ireland

The imposing brick and moat of Carrickfergus Castle is hugely significant in the story of Britain’s witch trials. In 1711, eight women stood trial at the castle, accused of bewitching another young girl. Despite heavy suggestion from the judge that they should be acquitted, the assembled women were charged with witchcraft and sentenced to jail time, and several sessions in the pillory. It was to be the last witch trial in Britain.

The town of Carrickfergus is one of the oldest in Northern Ireland, with the castle first built in 1177. Says castle manager, Nyree Mayne, "A trip to Northern Ireland wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the best preserved medieval castles in Ireland. Guided tours bring to life the castle’s 800-year history and its tales of ancient kings, invasions, betrayals and the Siege of Carrickfergus."

discovernorthernireland.com

 

Bonington Gallery, Nottingham

Running until November 16, Nottingham’s Bonington Gallery plays host to a remarkable touring exhibition, "Waking the Witch: Old Ways, New Rites". The exhibition, which is supported by Arts Council England, explores the importance of craft, ritual and land to the “ever-shifting figure of the witch.”

The show examines the traditional connection between witchcraft and nature, examining their intimate knowledge of herbs, plants, the elements and the human body, through contemporary art works, contextualised with archive material and periodicals. Material has been loaned from the Glastonbury Goddess Temple, Museum of Witchcraft and Bristol University’s Feminist Archive, giving it grounding in the academia of sorcery.

Be sure to keep an eye out for the accompanying events programme, including musical workshops and public performances of modern-day rituals.

boningtongallery.co.uk


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