Lancashire: Follow the witches

By Mark Rowe

Mark Rowe explores the landscape which once played host to Britain's largest and most sensational witch hunt.

In an episode that preceded the Salem witch trials by 80 years, 10 women and men from the Pendle area of Lancashire were hanged for witchcraft in 1612. Photo / Thinkstock
In an episode that preceded the Salem witch trials by 80 years, 10 women and men from the Pendle area of Lancashire were hanged for witchcraft in 1612. Photo / Thinkstock

"Places like the Lake District are a supermarket for walking," says Mike Williams, the enthusiastic tourism officer for Pendle in Lancashire. "

"But what we've got here in Pendle is more of a corner-shop version, something that appeals to people who don't want to follow the crowds."

Mike has a point, and you can see why the herd mentality can tug walkers towards the Lakes. Pendle is tucked away, providing an unexpectedly rural hinterland to the industrial belt of towns - Burnley, Colne, Nelson - that runs east-west below the fells.

And Pendle isn't really a place as such - no village bears the name - but it does lend its name to the picturesque Lancashire villages and countryside that cluster around Pendle Hill.

As well as that hill, which is a landmark for hikers, Pendle has a history steeped in witchcraft, and this year marks the 400th anniversary of Britain's largest and most sensational witch hunt.

I could have done with a broomstick as I plodded up the final stretch of Pendle Hill. At 577 metres, it is just 33m shy of being able to lay claim to being a mountain, but my climb had begun from deep in the dip of a valley.

Also, the hill just looks like a formidable obstacle: my first sighting of it was from the start of the walk in Downham, from where the hill loomed like a vast isolated wave out of the moors.

Downham's olde-worlde prettiness belied the climb to come. The village has a fine church, St Leonard's, with striking views from its graveyard. And thanks to the Assheton estate, which owns the village, you won't spot a satellite dish, television aerial, or any markings on the road - a route so ancient it is said to pre-date the Romans.

My walk kicked off following a small brook along field edges where late-born lambs were finding their legs. Yet no matter how far I walked, Pendle Hill didn't seem to get any nearer.

Finally, I plodded my way along old peat-cutters' tracks up onto Downham Moor, a huge, lonely plateau at the foot of the hill.

A little more plodding, a switch back or two to ease the climb, then the long diagonal ascent and I was on top.

Across a stile stood the summit of Pendle Hill, also known as Big End and marked by a white trig point plonked on a Bronze Age cairn.

The weather was fine and to the northwest I could pick out the hills around Whitendale Hanging Stones, officially, according to the Ordnance Survey, the centre of Britain and its 401 outlying islands.

Closer by, squeezed between woodland and reservoirs, was my destination, the village of Barley. A slight haze closed off the distant views, which for the sharp-eyed include Blackpool Tower and both the North and Irish seas.

Swifts ducked and dived overhead, almost close enough to touch. A waif-like fell runner trundled silently past. Another walker lifted her arms in exultation upon reaching the summit. It's that kind of place.

And it's not just witchcraft that is entangled in local history. Struck by a vision on the summit a few years after the witches saga, George Fox was compelled to found the Quakers.

"I was moved of the Lord to go to the top of it, which I did with much ado, as it was very steep and high," he recalled.

There must be something in the air.

Hills and moors have many moods, though. I dropped down a steep track on the far side of Pendle Hill, the ridge precipitous enough to close out the afternoon sun.

Soon I was walking in a darkening gloom, as if a melancholic curtain had been draped across the landscape. The change in atmosphere turned my thoughts to the witches.

In an episode that preceded the Salem witch trials by 80 years, 10 women and men from the Pendle area were hanged for witchcraft in 1612.

At the centre of the scandal were two widowed matriarchs with suitably medieval nicknames, Demdike and Chattox, who eked a living from charms and exaggerating their powers of healing.

Tales surfaced of slippery curses and spiteful murders; the grandchild of the accused spilled the beans; others even confessed.

Against a prevailing establishment mood that bundled up witchcraft, superstition and a hint of anti-Catholicism, they were hanged on the moors above Lancaster.

At the foot of Pendle Hill, I stepped back into the 21st century, past a smattering of attractive and busy farms before a narrow lane delivered me into Barley.

Visitors hoping for women in pointy hats and broomsticks placed on porches will be disappointed: Barley proudly displays a clutch of best-kept village awards, while an overgrown stream, Pendle Water, trundles scenically through its woodland heart.

Conveniently, the river passes the door of the Pendle Inn, which has an admirable collection of witch-themed real ales.

Witches' brew anyone?


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