“Fabled for its theft, violence and sexual laxity, where the church was honoured without much understanding of its doctrines by the common people”
So was described the area of Pendle, in the darkest innards of Lancashire in the 1600s. A poor and insular place far, far away from city life amongst the scrubby purple moors. The country had been pulled between Protestantism and Catholicism throughout the reigns of the Tudors. Now a Protestant King, the first of the Stuarts, sat on the throne; a pious and educated man, but one terrified of the supernatural.
Whilst the people of Pendle still often attended Catholic Mass in secret, God was only a part of their lives about as much as the Crown was. It was assumed their lowliness could never be truly paid any heed by neither Kings of Heaven nor England. Instead of prayers for healing, luck, wealth, love or revenge, they sought out talismans and charms and potions from local women said to be skilled in the art of magic. Religion and magic lived alongside each other in the rural villages, absorbed together into local tradition.
In 1612 every Justice of the Peace in Lancashire was ordered to make a list of those that did not attend Anglican Mass or refused to take communion in an effort to uncover those who answered to forces other than God. There were Papist connotations in contemporary witchcraft and most supposed spells included Catholic prayers as part of their performance so it was no small leap to assume that this was also an attempt to weed out the witches in the realm
With a King on high alert for both Catholic and magical plot, the Justice of the Peace for Pendle, Roger Nowell, saw an opportunity ripe for his own promotion; especially after a complaint from a peddler came to him and, on investigation, a whole community fell apart in accusation.
The area around Pendle now still sweeps wide with the bristling and untameable moorland, and Pendle Hill throws its silhouette high into the horizon. I started the trail that weaves through this history in the small town of Barrowford, by the Heritage Centre. With a waymark of a broom-riding witch, the legacy seems to have been thoroughly embraced.
I followed the rapidly running stream of Pendle Water quickly into tree lined fields and past old stone bridges. Barrowford was left behind quickly and I fell into an easy pace. This was not intended to be a challenging trail, and it was admittedly welcome to be able to walk looking mainly ahead and not at my feet. I was looking forward to three days of half idle, autumnal country walking; classic and lovely, making a change from being battered by wind on the top of Trotternish Ridge or sinking thigh deep through miles of Snowdonia marshland.
But, of course, my old enemies were sure to crop up sooner or later. I approached farmland, and ended up standing and staring at whole field full of many, many cows across the gate. Earlier in the month I had had to call off a different trail because the effects of obstructed Rights of Way and, also, numerous, numerous, bulls in fields had me half running for my life and spending most of the time of detour. I had already been nervous about cows, as many hikers are (they are so big) but now it seemed that the wariness was in danger of becoming a phobia.
A small, wiry, older man walking his dog passed behind me and said hello, where was I going? I explained I had just started the Pendle Way. Oh that was very nice. Yes, it would be, once I got past the cows.
He gestured at the field “Oh they’ll be fine! I go through there all the time. Would you like an escort?” I absolutely would like an escort, please help me with the cows! I can get myself over a mountain and ford a river, but I’ll take whatever help I can get when it comes to these monsters.
Cows are mean.
Mark, the small, wiry, man, breezed into the field with his scruffy white dog, Polly, on her lead. I walked nervously a couple steps behind him as he sauntered around the bulky bovine hides and within inches of their large, swinging faces. I swear cows choose their victims and anyone that isn’t chosen thinks the rest of us are mad.
We were well across the main body of the wide hill of the field when 12-year-old Polly decided to try an apparently new trick and slip her lead. Mark’s calmness instantly smashed into alarm and panic as Polly careened joyfully round in larger and larger circles. Mark tried to call her but she didn’t listen. She clearly didn’t know what to do about the cows, but was truly relishing her freedom like a teenager at their first parentless party; finally released but not too sure about what to do next. Mark gave in to panic and ran after her and man and dog ended up chasing each other in circles. Every time Polly let out a solitary barking whoop of glee, Mark begged her to come back lest the cows attack
This was not doing my cowphobia much good. Whilst no cow had become agitated yet, they had all started to become curious, which is just the word other people use before the cows start advancing en masse. I fumbled in the hipbelt of my backpack and pulled out a ziploc of biltong powder and flung a handful at Polly as she next passed me.
Look, I don’t know. I don’t own dogs. Chucking meat at it seemed sensible, but Polly didn’t notice as her fluff flew back from her face giving her an enormous grin as she skipped merrily about the field. I started chasing as well, just to look useful more than anything, flinging out biltong powder at the renegade dog. The cows were all staring now. I don’t really blame them; there was a tiny fluffy white dog being chased by a shouting old man who was then followed by a girl with a backpack on flinging meat powder all about like something that belonged in Mr. Bean.
Eventually Mark just launched himself off his feet and landed on the dog, inches from a cowpat, and wrestled her back into her lead. He stared at me, now gaunt with shock.
“She’s never done that before!” He insisted. I nodded my belief, but was now all too wary of the field full of disturbed cows, at least fifty or sixty of them, all just staring us down. I also now barely had any biltong left to stir into my pasta and instant mash tonight and Polly hadn’t appreciated any of it. Polly was the only thing on that entire field looking happy and now just trotted alongside Mark like nothing had ever happened.
Even Mark now clearly wanted to get away from the cows and we were both glad when the next hillside field was full of sheep. Except I got to go on whilst my chivalrous escort now had to return back from whence he came. I thanked him as he sat on the ground, double and triple checking Polly’s collar before turning back. I do not know his or Polly’s fates, but I trust they re-crossed safely and got home for a much needed brew.
The next couple miles kept following the stream, through enchanting wildlife areas and under trees until, eventually, the whole of the slab of Pendle Hill revealed itself. Whilst not the biggest hill in the world, by simple virtue of the area around it being much flatter, it looked huge. The circular route of the Pendle Way meant it would crop in and out of my vision for the next three days until I climbed it, by which time it would really have built itself up to be a thing of foreboding.
The rolling moors of the Forest of Bowland spread beyond the Hill. There’s not much ‘forest’ about Bowland anymore; these days it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but mainly for its gritstone fells, valleys and peatland. Whilst the word ‘forest’ in this way refers to royal hunting grounds, the protection of the Forest Laws that gave the King rights to use these lands for his hunting also protected them from clearing. So there were great swathes of actual true woods and forests here, until the Forest Laws were revoked in 1507 and our forests became deer parks and small estates and the trees cleared to make way for the heather moorland on which grouse thrive. It was already mostly moors by the time of the witch trials.
A long and lovely walk along the drystone wall crested Weets Hill with a detour by the trig point to look out to Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent to the north. A post by a stile gave picture of a series of stickmen; hiking, cycling and horseriding, all waving and encouraged you to “Be Nice! Say Hi!”. It doesn’t seem like people need much encouragement; this is definitely one of the friendliest places I’ve walked. I took the amble down to Barnoldswick stopped in the country park just though the village for my lunch.
The tall tower of the old Barnoldswick cotton mill disappeared as I turned the corner from the park onto the moor that lead down and down to eventually join the canal. I would stay on the canal path for some time and it was thoroughly pleasant. This canal towpath is no ordinary one; it is the Leeds-Liverpool canal path. It is the longest British canal built as one waterway and travels 127 miles. Recently, it has become seen as another long distance path as many walkers, and many more bikers, enjoy the challenge of travelling its length.
The few miles of it I would walk were all serene; with great green pastures to one side (livestock safely contained) and, on much of the other, the back gardens of homes that lead down to the water’s edge. Where the two other trans-Pennine waterways were built to travel underground, this one breaches the hills through the Aire Gap via a chain of locks I passed two trios of locks; the Greenberfield Locks, that lift boats to the highest point of the canal. An enterprising businessperson had set up here, with a cafe and a few benches to take advantage of boat owners waiting for the waters to rise and for cyclists and walkers celebrating the highest point of their journey,
Limestone knolls, formed by the retreat of the last ice age, made up most of the horizon on the latter half of my canalside walk. I had to leave the towpath via a field of cows but after one jogger, then another, passed through successfully, I decided to be brave and scurried my way across not even looking at them.
I passed around the leafy grounds of St Mary le Gill church and the bright teashop at the centre of the graveyard, down a little snicket and across a stream to the golf course. The path across was not clear, but with no golfers out today there was little fear of being smacked in the head with an errant ball so I walked across until I could make out the yellow arrow of the witchy waymark on the edge of the trees beyond.
I had left Lancashire briefly now, for a small trip into North Yorkshire as I went an rambling path around the hill in front of me, to turn back on myself and head for a different corner which lead in front of a country house and back into Lancashire. Most other times of year I expect it is fairly unnoticeable, but now had been set up as some sort of Halloween wonderland for children with pumpkin shaped dodgems and carnival music in a minor chord pumped out over sound systems with the odd comedic menacing laugh thrown in for good measure. The kids squealed and bright orange candyfloss was being waved around on sticks. I would say I was out of place, but I was following a Witch trail so who was I to judge?
Ahead were the moorlands above Earby. I dipped down to the village and the messy ghostly funfair was soon far in the distance behind me. I shuffled my way to the Red Lion Inn until the sun began to send shadows long; now at not even five in the afternoon. Before the light was lost, I had made my way out and around to the access land at the top of Bleara Moor and set up my little camp for the night. With the darkness setting in so early, the evenings in camp are long and I had eaten my dinner, written my journal and was frankly ready for bed at eight. The moon was large and bright and comforting and the wind was barely a breeze. I struggled to stay awake, and eventually just let myself succumb to sleep.
The Peddler and the Beggargirl
A peddler, John Law, was passing through Pendle one day in 1612 when a beggar girl asked him for a few pins. He refused her request and carried on, but a few steps further suffered what we would now recognise as a stroke.
Whilst he managed to get himself to a nearby inn for help, the girl, Alizon Device was bereft with guilt. As he had denied her begging, she had flippantly cursed him only to see him struck down by malady in front of her. Whilst she had never intended anything truly by her words, she was overcome by mortification by the harm she had inflicted through, she presumed, magic.
Alizon was a thirteen year old child of the Device family. She lived together with her younger brother James, and younger sister Jennet, with their mother and her grandmother. Her grandmother, known as Granny Demdike, was well-known in the area for dealing in charms and potions and talismen and herbal remedies that many deemed magical. She had not been feared as a witch, but respected as one for fifty years, and made her meagre living through it.
Their home was small and squalid and lacking in love. It was a miserable childhood for Alizon and her siblings, and now Alizon felt she had added to her family’s misfortune by inadvertently using magic and causing harm to a man. She even visited Law as he recovered, confessed to him and begged forgiveness.
Law’s son instead wrote to Roger Nowell, insisting that there was a witch who had cursed his father. On Nowell’s questioning, Alizon, absolutely racked with guilt, said she had sold her soul to the devil. He questioned her family, and her little brother James claimed Alizon had also bewitched a neighbour’s child. Her mother, Elizabeth, swore none of her children were witches, but that her own mother, Granny Demdike, had a mark on her body that could well be from the suckling of Satan himself.
Nowell asked about the wider neighbourhood, and here maybe Alizon saw her chance for revenge, pointing her finger at a family the Devices had a long-term feud with, the Whittles. She claimed their matriarch, Anne Whittle, known as ‘Old Chattox’, had been the one to curse Alizon’s own father to die when he could no longer pay her for protection.
Calling the two matriarchs – Granny Demdike and Old Chattox – before him, the two eighty year old blind women both gave Nowell damning confessions of having sold their soul to the devil. Why would they say such things? Ignorance? Trying to protect their families? Truthfully, it was probably torture.
- Distance: 12.5 miles
- Total Elevation: 1,479ft
- Terrain: Good paths and tracks via waterside, moorland and farmland
- Toughness: 2/10
- Maps Used: Hiiker Map; Pendle Way (downloaded for offline use). Use Ordance Survey Explorer 021: South Pennines