It’s up and down the lanes around Pendle Hill to find Newchurch and everything it has come to symbolise in the dreadful events of the Pendle witch trials of 1612.
- Pendle witch trials
- St. Mary’s church, Newchurch
MAP (click on it to open in a new window)
If you ever think you suffer from bad luck imagine this scenario: you’re having a rotten day, you see a pedlar approaching and you ask him for some pins. Nothing else, just pins. He says no, you curse him under your breath and the old boy hits the deck! What happened next entered English folklore and led to the deaths of eleven people at the gallows in Lancaster and York. Alizon Device’s misfortune was more than just a badly timed stroke that felled the pedlar, but to be born into a poor family, a desperately poor family, at a period in time when the king, James I, thought witches were out to get him.
So much has already been written about the Pendle Witches that I’ll try not to repeat here, but when you decide to head for Newchurch you just can’t ignore the subject. Starting the walk at the foot of Pendle Hill the views in every direction are bleak; this isn’t the pastoral landscape of an Elgar symphony, it’s a rough windblown emptiness, watched over by a forbidding mass that cuts off this part of the world from civilisation. It’s the terrain of mystery, a theatre of myth. Barley is down there tucked in the fold between Barley Hill and Stang Top Moor, with its mix of chocolate box cottages and more splendid stone houses. It has a pub and no guesses for what’s on the sign outside: a witch on a broomstick.
As I pass the village green and the brook, the car park and visitor centre I start to realise a pattern emerging. The witches as tourist commodity. All the paraphernalia, the trails, the signs are happy to exploit the story, but not the facts. The names Demdike and Chattox trip off the tongue, but with hardly any acknowledgement of just who these people actually were. Elizabeth Southerns (Demdike) and Alice Whittle (Old Chattox) were in their eighties, husbands long since dead, and left to survive with families in tow and no welfare state. In constant competition with each other over accusations of theft, break ins, intimidation and murder, they had to live by their wits and the knowledge that set them apart from others; wicca, witchcraft, more likely a form of early homeopathy. And being poor they would probably have been the first suspects following a failed crop, a dead cow, a collapsed pedlar.
The roadsign directs me to Newchurch and I set off up the hill in a slight drizzle of rain. Looking back, Barley has disappeared again, cloaked by the folding terrain. Pendle Hill continues to observe my progress. Newchurch is an unusual hamlet; it’s rare in this area in that it’s built on the hillside and not at the foot of it. The first thing to grab your attention is the shop and its ‘welcomer’. At Abercrombie and Fitch you’ll be greeted by a sunbronzed freak of nature, but here it’s a hag. (And I have to say this particular example is the most disturbing I’ve ever seen outside this shop, and that includes the animatronic cacklers of the 1970s.)
I suppose buying a souvenir isn’t a crime and there are some belters displayed in the shop window, but a more interesting and poignant bit of history is a few yards farther down the road. The church of St. Mary’s. Unless you’ve been forewarned you might not notice the ‘eye of God’, a curious bit of masonry on the south wall of the tower. The church, like many others, has been built piecemeal over many centuries and the tower is a restored feature of a 16th century predecessor. The rest of the church dates back to 1740 give or take a few decades. Here it stands, looking across the valley with an audience of gravestones, one of which is outside the church entrance: a family grave of the Nutter family.
It always struck me as odd that a convicted witch should be buried next to a church, but there are two things to remember. Firstly, Alice Nutter, the convicted witch in question, isn’t buried here, this is the grave of a related branch of the family; and secondly, she wasn’t really in the same league of dodgy behaviour as Demdike and Chattox, but rather in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in a maelstrom of accusation and counter-accusation, local ambition and confusing decrees set out in James I’s book on witchcraft: Daemonologie. The Nutters had already crossed paths with Chattox when Robert Nutter accused her of bewitching his beer (a practice that probably still goes on if the taste of some real ales is anything to go by). Chattox confessed to murdering him with a spell.
No, somehow Alice Nutter, a respectable local woman, came to be at Malkin Tower on the fateful night of Good Friday, April 6th 1612, the night that Elizabeth Device, Demdike’s daughter, and a number of others had gathered for a feast. They were all arrested, imprisoned at Lancaster Gaol – except for Jennet Preston who was tried in York – and in the proceedings that followed were identified by Jennet Device, Elizabeth’s own daughter. Alice Nutter protested her innocence to the end, but was hung along with the rest of them.
Malkin Tower – the name Malkin is local dialect and probably means a poor woman, or more derogatory, a loose woman – is round here somewhere, or was round here. It could have been close to Newchurch or in Blacko where Malkin Farm is now located and has remnants of a ruined building buried in an adjacent hillside, or Barley! So many old buildings have been recycled over the centuries, but the landscape is still dotted with isolated farms and houses. As I approach Roughlee I turn left and head back through the trees towards Barley.
I have to admit that pub sign is actually quite impressive. Pity the pub’s closed, but never mind. It’s on up the hill, the long drag back to the car and the wind’s getting up now. I’m being treated to a bit of that windswept roughness that Pendle is so good at dishing out. Life is hard out here, but nothing like as hard as it used to be, back in a time when family feuds would get you killed, when a bad pint would be the end of you, when being a Catholic in Protestant England could be fatal, and asking for a couple of pins could put someone in bed with a stroke and you on the end of a noose.