Friday, November 03, 2006

The Good Witch Guide

Pendle boasts of Old Mother Demdyke and Alice Nutter (amongst others) whose tragic ends have all been covered by better writers than ourselves and one of whose descendants, or so we’ve been informed, once lived above the cheese shop on Victoria Road in Cleveleys giving rise to nearby Nutter and Rough Lea roads.
However, the only known witch to have ever resided in the Wyre herself was a certain Meg Shelton, sometimes referred to as Mag although her real name was Margery Hilton. She was born in the seventeenth century at Singleton, later moved to Catforth and was eventually buried at Woodplumpton church under unusual circumstances, not to mention a large boulder.
In life, however, Meg was a simple woman who dined on haggis made from boiled groats mixed with thyme and parsley. Oh yes…and she occasionally dabbled in the black arts, the most famous example of which involved her stealing some milk from a neighbouring farm before turning her pitcher into a goose to disguise it for the getaway. Unfortunately an ever-vigilant local belted the goose on its head with his walking stick causing it to shatter, allowing the milk to pour out.
On other occasions Meg would cross the night sky on her broomstick, turn milk sour and make the local cattle lame, for no other particular reason than that she could. Exactly what her problem with the local dairy was is open for debate.
And then there was her peculiar relationship with the Lord of Cottam to whom, according to Ken Howarth’s ‘Ghosts, Traditions and Legends of Old Lancashire’ she: “...promised a hare to chase and hunt on the condition that he gave her a cottage on his estate at Woodplumpton near Preston. This was on the proviso that a certain black hound was not loosed in the chase.” As you’d expect from the narrative of such tales, during one particular hunt the proviso was forgotten, the black hound was unleashed and the hare only just managed to escape through Meg’s cottage window with the hound still snapping violently at its heels. Apparently from that time onwards Meg Shelton always walked with a limp.
So let’s just get this straight…leaving aside the superstitious inventions of tattle-mongers, Meg Shelton, an obvious peasant woman despised by the locals enough to be branded a witch, was given a cottage rent free for life on the estate of a leading local aristocrat? Blackmail, do you reckon? Or was the Lord of Cottam himself just being benevolent as, of course, so many of our local aristocracy are? Actually there is another explanation…although for reasons of slander we ought to stress that it’s only speculation. In Joseph Gillow’s ‘The Haydock Papers’ Meg was reported to live in ‘…a wretched hovel called Cuckoo Hall’. And there might just be a clue as to her relationship with the Lord of Cottam in that name. There is a distinct, although obviously unproven, possibility that Lady Cottam was infertile and, therefore, an outsider was required to provide the estate with not so much a ‘hare’ as an ‘heir’. Having performed her duties, perhaps, Meg was duly set up with her lowly hovel as promised, but felt hard done by living in the shadow of luxury and watching her own child affectionately reared by outsiders. All matters considered, Meg might even have been about to blow the gaff and inform the youngster when, serendipitously perhaps, she passed away…though far from peacefully. Again we’d like to stress that this is purely conjecture and, as such, not worthy of anybody’s efforts to take us to court, but despite her reputation as an interfering old witch Meg never actually succumbed to Matthew Hopkins, the witch finder general. Instead she met her end when, in 1705, she was mysteriously crushed to death at her cottage between a barrel and a wall.
And if that wasn’t suspicious enough to suggest that she might have been carrying some dark secret to her untimely grave, her corpse was apparently buried by moonlight. Not that ‘torch-lit burials’ were an uncommon occurrence around the Fylde in those days, but they certainly weren’t reserved for the interment of witches. In fact moonlit funerals were more often than not the reserve of the aristocracy, the most famous (if not notorious) example of which took place in 1732 when the whole west side of Poulton market place was razed to the ground during the burial of Geoffrey Hornby. Apparently, on that particular occasion, an unprotected candle in the hands of a young bystander caused the disaster, sparks from the conflagration burning the mourners’ faces.
Meg, of course, being Meg, refused to stay put and, following several reappearances of her corpse next to the path, she was reburied headfirst and a large granite boulder was placed over the grave to keep her contained. Her spirit was finally, and perhaps again suspiciously, laid to rest by the ‘Priest of Cottam Hall’. All of which is highly contentious in its own right as witches would never have been buried in hallowed ground in the first instance, let alone the second. Nonetheless, the boulder still stands in the churchyard at Woodplumpton and can be seen in the photograph below.

Meg Shelton wasn’t the only witch to haunt the Wyre, of course, just the only one remembered in history by name. There was, for example, the coven from Lancaster who caused a commotion in the 1970s by holding their meetings (whether in their scuddies or not we can’t be certain) at the demolished but still consecrated Newers Wood chapel in Pilling. In fact at one time witches must have been rampant around the district, lumps of iron, horse shoes and sickles being only a few of the methods employed by superstitious locals to keep them at bay. William Thornber even informs us that: “…a hag-stone penetrated with a hole and attached to the key of the stable, preserved the horse within from being ridden by the witch.” Hag stones were also hung from the head of ‘…the master’s bed’ so that witches wouldn’t climb onto his back for a midnight romp.
And what exactly was a hag-stone? Well, we’re glad you asked because, for the first time in this article, we can actually talk about something genuinely archaeological. Hag-stones, as you’ve probably guessed already, were generally Neolithic adzes such as the one illustrated below that was unearthed in Pilling.

Accidentally discovered by industrious turf diggers these mysterious objects, on coming to light after thousands of years underground, acquired a ‘supernatural aura’ in the minds of uneducated peasants.
Nowadays the Wyre still teems with witches, most of whom are slightly too large and middle-aged for their purple chiffon skirts. On the whole, however, they’re pleasant enough, keen to point out that they’re ‘white witches’ and that they ‘…don’t mess around with the dark side’, they’re obsessed by ornamental candles and crystals (generally with the words ‘A Present from Tenerife’ printed on their bases…sometimes even containing a dead crab), own several packs of Tarot Cards and factory-made Runes and charge twenty-five quid for a five minute palm reading.


Brian Hughes said...

It's hardly surprising you didn't find any ways of making money...have you seen how much archaeologists earn? Incidentally, your 'Make Extra Money' link obviously mustn't pay very much if you're having to look through archaeology websites to boost your income. If you hang around long enough some bloke claiming he's the manager of a Nigerian bank should e-mail you with an offer you can't refuse. Make sure you give him your full bank details, won't you?

John said...

Gee, Brian,
and you thought I was haunting this blog :0)

At least I try to blend in, and get involved, before trying to sell you stuff.

Two more great posts, though, showing the ever diverse history of your fair realm.

We have witches here in America, as well, but to misquote Kim Novak in the fabulous movie "Bell, Book, And Candle"...

'you're spelling it wrong'.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...

You have 'wutches' in America?
And, before you answer that, yes I did get the joke and round these parts we have fossilised tree stumps in them.