The wind is howling on Pendle Hill on Halloween. It lies in Northern England, and has been described to me as a seductive hill with a macabre, dark past. My friend Rachel and I are climbing the hill – it’s only 4pm, but the sun sets in less than hour. We can see the small villages of Sabden, Colne and Roughlee below us, but we’re far above them now and the hill is deserted except for a pair of silhouettes in the far distance at the hill’s peak.
The North of England is untamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed. These are words from Jeanette Winterson’s latest book The Daylight Gate, a novel about the infamous Pendle Witches who inhabited this land 400 years ago. Visitors on the hill have reported feeling invisible hands strangling them or smelling the scent of strong perfume. As another gale rolls across the hill and my shoes slip in the mud, Winterson’s words again echo in my ears.
This was Lancashire. This was Pendle. This was Witch Country.
In the sixteenth century, the common belief was that witches made a pact with the devil and that a witch never works alone. When one witch is found, others are hunted out.
The persecution of witches began in 1590 when King James VI of Scotland was on the throne. It’s said that he had an extreme fear of dying a violent death and was convinced that witches were after him. He believed that he’d had several experiences with them, including a violent storm at sea (witches trying to drown him) and discovering that some witches melted wax effigies of him to cause him harm. In 1597, he wrote Daemonologie, a book detailing how to find a witch, how to try a witch and how to eradicate a witch. When he became the King of England in 1603, the book was distributed to every magistrate in Britain, contributing to the obsession with witchcraft and heresy.
Meanwhile, over in a rural region in the northwest of his new country, the wild countryside of Lancashire was regarded as a suspicious, unruly region known for theft and violence. And at the center of Lancashire lay Pendle Hill.
The story goes that a group of destitute women lived at the base of the hill and whenever they saw travellers passing through, they would come down from over the hill and accost them, begging for various goods. If a traveller refused, they would cry, “I’ll curse you! I’ll curse you if you don’t give me something!” For those who dismissed them, the women allegedly created clay effigies, or small dolls, to resemble the targeted person. The dolls were made out of clay, human hair, and human teeth stolen from the graveyard. The “witches” would then crumble the clay dolls with their hands and death would soon come to that person. Using their supposed powers, the women of Pendle Hill earned their keep by bribing, healing and extortion.
The main witchy players in the story come from two families: The Devices and the Chaddox. These included Anne Whittle (alias Old Chaddox) and her daughter Ann Redferne, and The Device Family:
Elizabeth Southern, better known as Old Demdike (80 years old)
/ /\ \
James Device Alizon Device Jennet Device
One particular incident led to their demise.
According to legend, on March 18, 1612 14-year-old Alizon Device (granddaughter of Demdike and daughter of Elizabeth) accosted a peddler named John Law, who was passing through the Forest of Pendle. She approached him, begging for some pins (useful for making clothes) and when he refused and kicked her away, she shouted, “I’ll curse you! I’ll curse you!” A big black dog appeared and spoke to Alison, telling her, “I shall lame him for you if you wish!” Suddenly John Law’s left arm, left leg and the left side of his face became paralyzed. He lay on the slopes of the hill in agony until someone took him to an ale house in nearby Colne, where he recuperated. Alizon herself was convinced she had hurt him, but she begged his forgiveness. He gave it – but the local magistrate caught wind of the activities and the witch hunt began.
In April 1612, one month later, Alizon’s grandmother Demdike (who was 80 at a time when the average life expectancy in England was 35) and Old Chaddox and her daughter were dragged from their homes, taken to Lancaster Castle and thrown into prison.
On the Good Friday following their arrest, legend has it that the other Devices, Elizabeth, James, and Jennet, led a group who gathered at Malkin Tower on Pendle Hill. They slaughtered sheep and dined on mutton. More sinisterly, they boiled human teeth, scalps and clay effigies in a cauldron to concoct a potion so powerful it would blow open the gates of Lancaster Castle.
It didn’t work.
Eventually, they were also arrested. The outlier in the group taken to Lancaster Castle (and consequently, the most famed person connected with the Lancaster witch trials) is Alice Nutter. Alice was a widow in the area who owned a house and farmland. Other farmers kept trying to encroach upon her land and she often had to argue her own case at the magistrate.
The general consensus is that the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, didn’t like Alice Nutter “making trouble” and when the incident with Alizon Device occurred, he saw it as a perfect opportunity to also get rid of Alice Nutter. Her offense was supposedly using witchcraft to kill a man named Henry Mitton who died a few days after an encounter with her. In the days long before public sanitation and vaccinations, sudden death was far from uncommon. However, the rudimentary understanding of the human body led to a great deal of superstition.
For four months, the Pendle “witches” languished in a dark cell rumored to be too small for them all to lie down at the same time. During this time, 80-year-old Demdike died while imprisoned. Meanwhile, the youngest granddaughter of Demdike, eight-year-old Jennet Device, was taken in by the magistrate Roger Nowell. It’s said she was given three warm meals a day, clean clothes and a bed to sleep on. Rumors also abound that Nowell did so in order to win her over and convince her to testify against her family.
On August 18, the Pendle witches were tried. In court, Jennet Device testified against her entire family and the other defendants, declaring, “My mother’s a witch! My grandmother’s a witch! My sister’s a witch! My brother’s a witch!”
And on August 19, they were convicted of the deaths of 17 people around the Forest of Pendle, as well as general witchcraft (including bewitching horses, creating clay effigies and charming milk into butter). On August 20, 1612 they were publicly hanged on Gallows Hill – now known as the more tourist-friendly Williamson’s Park.
All the information we have about these women and their witch trial comes from documentation by the lawyer Thomas Potts, whose eyewitness account, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire, became a bestseller at the time. It’s also said that Potts was most likely trying to curry favor with the king. For some perspective, these trials occurred 80 years before the Salem Witch trials.
It is said that right before Alice Nutter was hanged, she looked at Roger Nowell and said, “I will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
That night, Roger Nowell celebrated. He was later was promoted to High Sheriff of Lancashire. The senior judges on the trial were eventually knighted by King James.
Getting to witch country is not easy. A two-hour train ride from London gets you to Preston, where you transfer to another train and get off at Blackburn before transferring to another train to the town of Clitheroe (population 15,000).
According to A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke, the English are more likely to believe in ghosts than almost any other nationality. However, Halloween in the UK tends to occur with little fanfare. It’s viewed almost exclusively as a kiddie holiday. Locals tell us that trick-or-treating is sometimes viewed as a form of begging.
As overexcited Americans in a country of reserved people, we decided to see if any trace of the witches and their tragedy would be visible to us. Ghosts? Ghost witches? We didn’t know exactly what we were looking for – but we were willing to go in search of it.
From Clitheroe train station, I had planned to have a taxi drive us the 45 minutes to drop my friend Rachel and me off at the foot of Pendle Hill, where we could climb it on Halloween, seek out the spirits, learn more about the area’s dark history, and – more generally – wander around. The night before All Hallows Eve, I called a local heritage center to inquire about the best way to get to the hill.
The woman who answered the phone warned me about my plan. “There are no lights in the area. The sun’ll set around 4.30 and the last bus is at 7pm. If you find yourself there after sunset, it’ll be pitch black and treacherous. And when the mist comes down, you can hardly see,” she said. She used the word ‘treacherous’ three times during the conversation.
So I called up local ghost tour guide and famous local Simon Entwistle, expert on the Pendle witches, who runs his own tour company leading ghost tours and treks around Pendle Hill for more advice on how not to die on the hill.
I told him about our plan to arrive on the hill in late afternoon to hike it and that we were planning to leave the hill around 6pm. He asked if it will just be the two of us. I told him yes. Then he asked if I’ve ever seen An American Werewolf in London. “Do you remember the beginning scene? It’s when the two hitchhikers are walking on a hill when they are attacked by a werewolf. That was filmed on Pendle Hill. And weren’t they Americans, too?”
A few minutes later he mentioned that he’ll be in the area during the late afternoon and maybe, possibly, he could pick us up and take us to Pendle Hill with him. I accepted immediately.
The next day, Simon met us at the train station as promised. He’s 58 and has lived in the area most of his life. He’s full of different ghost stories, many of which he regaled us with as we drove through the windy, hilly lanes past green countryside and empty roads. He has a theatrical, booming voice when he tells stories and often slipped into characters and accents during his impromptu reenactments.
Simon told us that nothing grows on the hill because the soil is too acidic. “If you plant a tree here, it will die,” he said. The hill loomed in the distance as we traveled along the narrow, winding roads. He glanced up at the hill, saying, “It’s not very pleasant. It doesn’t give a good vibe to me. It’s very seductive but I would not to be up there alone or at night.”
We drove through several villages, some 500 years old, as we headed towards Pendle. Two years ago, engineers unearthed a house in this area from the 17th century which had the skeleton of a cat cemented in the walls – bricking in a live cat was said to ward off evil spirits.
On the drive, Simon told us that the Pendle witches were rumored to have three dogs: Tib, Ball and Fancy – their Familiars, or animals given to them by the devil, who helped the witches and gave them powers. “Most familiars are thought to be black cats, but these were dogs,” he said.
Ten minutes later, he pulled over to the side of the road and we’ve finally arrived. Pendle Hill. He led us up a path to show us where the Good Friday gathering took place some 401 years ago. The temperature had dropped, but the mist had not yet appeared. It was still sunny – but the wind was biting. I pulled up my hood and then, as we made our way up the hill, encountered an older woman coming down the hill. She had long white hair, carried a walking stick, and had with her three dogs.
She was dressed in expensive wellies and her dogs were the wet, sad-looking type of dog, instead of the black menacing kind, but still. Rachel and Simon stopped to pet them. I did not.
After a while, I asked Simon to wait in the car while Rachel and I wandered around alone. I didn’t know what we were trying to experience, but we wanted to at least give it a shot. Rachel and I heard nothing but distant sheep and the rustle of wind.
Eventually, we tried to break the spooky atmosphere by agreeing that surely a witch (or a ghost, or a witch’s ghost) wouldn’t strike an American wearing tennis shoes. Too prosaic, we agreed. We laughed and then Rachel looked at me. “Your eye!” she said, pointing at my right eye. “What?” I asked. “It’s swelling up. It’s covered in hives.” I touched it and discovered that it was. It was cold on the hill, getting late, and we scurried down the slopes and back to Simon’s car.
Back on the road, I took a Benadryl and as the swelling on my eye slowly subsided, the three of us discussed the Pendle Witches. The more we learned about the witches and what happened to them, the more it seems like these women (except for Alice Nutter), probably did believe they were witches. They had few legal rights, no steady means of making money, and were generally socially helpless. But Alice Nutter’s misfortune, being imprisoned and implicated in witchcraft, when she was just trying to maintain ownership of her land – that’s truly frightening. There isn’t even evidence that before the arrest, Alice knew Demdike and her family.
It turns out that to this day, many locals in Lancashire claim to be descendants of Alice Nutter. None claim to be related to Demdike. Simon dropped us off at Clitheroe station, where we were going to take a train to Lancaster to spend the night across the street from Lancaster Castle, where the women were imprisoned, tried and convicted.
We arrived at Lancaster train station at nightfall. Just as we began our walk from the station towards our hotel, the skies opened up and it began pouring rain. Not the normal English drizzle that we’ve come to expect, but thickets of rain. We begin to walk along the cobbled streets under the street lamps. As we crossed the street into town, suddenly a bolt of lightning lit up the sky in front of us and there’s a loud clap of thunder. Rachel and I jumped and looked at each other.
Thunder and lightning is rare in this part of England and the timing, just as we are approaching Lancaster Castle, is eerie. We nervously laughed and resumed walking until we finally arrived at our hotel, the Royal Kings Arms (reputed to be haunted).
Almost every building in England is reputed to be haunted. Everywhere we go, people direct us to other places that are more haunted, have a darker history, host more ghosts.
“You must go to Samlesbury Hall, the most haunted hall in all of England.”
“You must go to Whitby, that’s where Dracula was written.”
“You must head to Morecomb Winter Gardens theatre because it’s infamous for its ghosts!”
“Try the Three Mariners pub, where prisoners who took their final drinks before being sent to the gallows haunt the cellar.” And on and on and on. It’s been said many times that England has more ghosts per square mile than any other country in the world (although who knows how to conduct a ghost census?).
The English treat their ghosts the way the Australians treat their poisonous snakes and spiders: no big deal. I’d heard that the Royal Arms Hotel was haunted, so when I called up the hotel to make a reservation, I asked if they had any ghosts.
The receptionists sighed and said, “Yeah, we’ve got some ghosts.”
“Oh!” I said. “What…what are their names?”
The receptionist sighed again. “I don’t know their names,” he said.
We dropped off our bags and arrived at Lancaster Castle just in time to catch a night tour of the castle. The castle has its own very long, very sordid history as the UK’s oldest prison, dating back to 1196. It only closed in March 2011. More prisoners were sentenced to death here than any other court, and Lancaster became known as The Hanging Town.
The actual castle is imposing and ominous in the moonlight, but inside it’s dark, dank and smells awful. We wandered through holding cells and courtrooms and up and down dark staircases. At one point during the tour, I heard bells, and remember that I once read that a sign of a ghost is hearing something that only you can hear. I turned to Rachel and she assured me that she can hear them, too. So could everyone on our tour.
The tour guide showed us holding cells said to be haunted by long-dead prisoners, as well as chains used on adults and children. But the most chilling thing I see is the Scold’s Bridle, used on women accused of gossiping. It looks remarkably similar to a horse’s bridle, with a metal casing to hold the skull in place and a metal bit for the tongue – sometimes with a spike that could pierce through the tongue if the woman tried to speak. I look at the Scold’s Bridle and shudder.
And it is at that moment, looking at the torture instrument used in the 16th and 17th centuries, that I feel the most scared and frightened I have all day. The woman was then paraded around town as a form of humiliation and punishment for gossiping, for nagging, for being rude.
The tour guide makes another joke about gossiping. “My, how things have changed,” remarks one man on the tour, smiling wryly at his girlfriend.
We leave the Scold’s Bridle behind and visit some other haunted corners. Every room in the castle is unsettling.
Back at our ‘haunted hotel,’ Rachel and I feel exhausted from the witch tour, but not so tired that we aren’t a little bit creeped out by the hotel, which was originally built in 1625 and used by Dickens as a setting for a ghost story. A few times, as we’re talking in our respective beds, our curtains rustle and in mid-conversation, Rachel and I freeze and look at each other. At 1am, the whine of an ambulance startles us. And when we turn out the lights, we hear the persistent ping of tapping glass. It’s unsettling, but finally, around 2am, we fall asleep.
The next morning, we decide it was a drafty window and our imagination playing tricks on us. The curtains moving must have been from the draft from the window and the strange tapping we heard must be rain. At that moment, the fire alarm goes off in our room and a voice on the intercom booms, “Please exit immediately.” Point taken.
The alarm still blaring and flashing in our room, we run downstairs and quickly check out of the hotel. We stopped by a café for coffee before heading to the train station. At the counter, the barista asks us what we’re doing all the way up in Lancaster.
I tell him we came to find some witches and ghosts. He pours the foam on our drinks and says, “That must’ve been pretty hard since they don’t exist.”
Not on this trip, at least, except for maybe the hives and the swaying curtains and the tapping glass. No signs of the witches, though. Maybe we were too American, maybe there were too many other tourists around. Maybe the witches are simply sick of being asked to put on a show. In any case, witches and ghosts and witchy ghosts all gave us the cold shoulder.
Three hours later, we’re out of Witch Country and back in London. It feels like the twenty-first century again and while we don’t own any property yet, haven’t bewitched anyone in the last year or so, we were definitely keen to buy the new issue of the gossip magazine Tatler. Because we wanted to, but also, because we could.