ENGLAND: On The Trail of Lancashire’s Pendle WitchesThis speck of UK countryside is what experienced hikers seek out, where solitude abounds, and where wind-swept views can’t be captured fully on a digital camera, a backcloth portrayal of hamlets, sheep speckled boulder-strewn fields, beleaguered farms and unstable stone walls, where only low-beamed country inns offers respite and shelter.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2010
The moorlands and hillsides surrounding the ancient cotton town of Colne had disappeared under a dense cloud of dark grey, like some ghost from Wuthering Heights had thrown a giant Victorian cloak over the desolate landscape and moss-encrusted, dry-stone walls.
For three days it had rained relentlessly on the Pennine hilltops, underlain with Northern England millstone grit releasing more water than many locals had seen in years, turning village ‘becks,’ (small streams) into rivers and the town’s main river into a whisky-coloured raging torrent that scoured out the grime of the old working-class valley, an area of ‘Bonnie Colne’ known as Waterside – and for good reason as it once helped power the 27 cotton mills that lined its water-worn banks.
Twenty four hours later, with the sun now shining I started exploring this tiny nook of Lancashire, some say the bleakest, yet most dramatic corner of landscape in England. This, for the uninitiated is Pendle witch country and a place where serious hikers are in footpath heaven. The sentinel and dominant feature is Pendle Hill, a giant 557m high sleeping bullock of land that can be seen from most people’s terraced front doorstep or cobblestoned back street.
This speck of UK countryside is what experienced hikers seek out, where solitude abounds, and where wind-swept views can’t be captured fully on a digital camera, a backcloth portrayal of hamlets, sheep speckled boulder-strewn fields, beleaguered farms and unstable stone walls, where only low-beamed country inns offers respite and shelter. A region that offers hikers a few hours of enlightenment to multi-day walks that will test the most fervent long distance traveller.
One of the most obvious places to hike and a right-of-passage to any youngster growing up in the nearby mill towns is Pendle Hill. It rises above the ancient hunting ground of the Forest of Bowland, once home to wolves and wild boar. The best known route that passes over this behemoth is, The Pennine Way National Trail, all 268 miles as it traverses the rugged backbone of England, from the Peak District in Derbyshire into Lancashire, across the Yorkshire Dales and over Hadrian's Wall to the Cheviots. Said to be amongst the finest walking tracks in England.
Pendle Hill was still recovering from the previous day’s downpour. The first part of my three hour circular trail started from the picturesque village of Barley, an uphill trudge to the nearest hamlet of Newchurch in Pendle. Here in the graveyard of St Mary’s, consecrated in 1544, supposedly lies the body of the enigmatic Alice Nutter, one of nine local witches who were hanged at Lancaster Castle in 1612 – expect their 400th anniversary in 2012 to be a rather ropey and witchery affair.
The word ‘Witch’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Wicca’ meaning the wise ones. The Wicca believed they had magical powers which they used during pagan religious rites. When King James of Scotland succeeded the thrown of England in 1603 he introduced even harsher statutes against those practising witchcraft. His act of 1604 made it a capital offence “to consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit, or to utter spells.” It meant that keeping a cat or dog could have serious consequences if you were suspected of witchcraft.
The Pendle region today capitalises on the witches as part of their tourism drive and why wouldn’t they? Alice Nutter, Chattox and Mother Demdike are names that still resonate with locals and send shivers down the spine. Chattox is alleged to have stolen teeth and skulls from the Newchurch graveyard. Nearby Ashlar House was where Demdyke, Chattox and her daughter Anne Redfearn were interrogated on 2nd April 1612 and sent for trial. Elizabeth Southernes (Mother Demdike) aged about 80 and blind died in prison before the trial began.
On August 20th 1612, Anne Whittle (Chattox), Ann Redfearn , Elizabeth, James and Alizon Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt (known as Mouldheels), Jane Bulcock (a extremely distant relative of mine) and her son John Bulcock were hanged at the top of a moorland hill known as Golgotha near Lancaster Castle in front of huge crowds.
I started to cross farmland avoiding fresh cowpats, climbing wooden stiles over dry stone walls, then down into a valley beside lower and upper Ogden Reservoirs, a saddle of land hidden from sunlight, lonely and unmanned. Then the long slog up Pendle Hill on a track more suitable for sheep, gasping for air with sweat coating my thermals as the wind seemed to blow from Thor, the Norse God of Thunder. Stone cairns led me to the summit or Trig Station - a white stone wind-blasted marker, a desolate spot except for a few hardy souls that had also hiked to the top that day for a panoramic view to all points of the compass.
This is a walker’s paradise. From the town of Colne I made frequent day trips hiking out into both the Lancashire and Yorkshire countryside discovering unspoilt landscapes, idyllic valleys and rugged sinuous walks; along canal towpaths, moorland tracks, reservoirs and river bank footpaths, as well as an evening tour on the Colne Heritage Trail. There are at least 12 major walks that explore Pendle’s rich tapestry of landscape and history, but the best known and hardest is The Pendle Way, a rugged 45 mile circular route which takes in some of Pendle’s most attractive countryside, a trip that can be undertaken in eight sections.
One of the most popular sections starts from the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford. It is a walk of contrasts from gentle riverside paths around ‘watermeetings’ (where two rivers converge) to hillsides of Blacko Tower and the windy moorland of Weets Hill with outstanding views of the Yorkshire Dales before you finally descend into Barnoldswick.
One of the ancient traditions was ‘Beating the Bounds,’ a way of teaching young lads the lay of the land. There are two beautiful ‘Beating the Bounds,’ walks, one in Barnoldswick and one in Foulridge, (pronounced locally as Foalridge). Long before maps, local boys often had their heads bounced on boundary stones to remember the place, the direction they were travelling in and the way home. These days you can walk these routes with your family without the same applied trauma.
It would be amiss for any traveller to the region not to visit the settlement of Wycoller, a hamlet that can be traced back as far as 1260. It was an agricultural village until the 18th century when the manufacture of woollens and worsted on handlooms became an important industry. It was also an ancient region that first farmed cattle by corralling them in fields known as ‘Vaccaries,’ where large stone slabs the size of doors were placed side-by-side to form a solid fence back in the 13th century.
Today Wycoller is a 350 acre conservation area with hikers’ trails, public footpaths, bridle paths and woodland trails all worth discovering. This is also the location of the Elizabethan ruins of the 16th century Wycoller Hall, said to be the inspiration for Ferndean Manor in Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, where the heroine found Rochester after the hall burnt down. It’s also possible that the Heights above the hall were the Wuthering Heights."
The surroundings of Colne are still steeped in history, mythology, witchcraft, century-old ruins, medieval castles, heritage trails, olde worlde attributes and probably a good splash of countryside that Constable missed painting in his landscapes! Therein lies a rich vein of paths that criss-cross some of England’s finest forests and geography terrain and yet for many months of the year are all but deserted.
Step away from the well-trodden routes and walk in the midst of a land that time forgot and you won’t be disappointed. Even Rochester or Heathcliff might still raise a ghostly smile and bid you welcome.
Remember to buy the Great British Heritage Pass before you leave home as it is available through www.visitbritainshop.com/newzealand. With the Great British Heritage Pass you can visit them all – just buy an affordable one-off pass for either, 4, 7, 15 or 30 days and you will be granted entry to over 580 UK heritage properties. This is the turn-key to unlocking Britain’s best kept secrets.
VAT rises on Jan 1st 2011 from 17.5% to 20% so take this into account on all prices.
Download a PDF of the Discover Pendle visitor’s guide as well as walking and cycle routes at:
Town Hall, Nelson, Lancs. BB9 7LG
T: +44 (0)128 661 981
Pendle Heritage Centre
Park Hill, Barrowford,
Nelson, Lancs. BB9 6JQ
T. +44 (0)128 2661 701
Pennine Way National Trail
Natural England, Bullring House
T: +44 (0)192 4334 500
Pendle walking Festival
Week long in Early September
T: +44 (0)128 661 981
25 Walks in England’s Northwest
Download a PDF featuring Fred Talbot’s walks from the series ‘Wainwright Country’ on ITV Granada
Shane Boocock would like to thank Visit Britain for the ground arrangements, go to: www.visitbritain and Etihad Airways for their wonderful Pearl Business Class flat bed service from Sydney to Manchester via Abu Dhabi. Go to: www.etihadairways.com
If you would like to read this article in full or licence it for your own publication, please click here to contact Shane.