I left Reedley as the light started to press against the ash grey veil of the new morning. Whilst my first day had been crisp and blue and yesterday had been drizzly, today looked to be thoroughly overcast with occasional rain. The gloom of autumn was setting in after the initial joy of seeing the leaves change through orange and red and dance off the trees in great fluttering sweeps, lighting the lanes up with the fiery tones. In a couple more weeks, all those leaves would be mulch and the deciduous trees bare and skeletal.
I navigated through pastures and cloughs – green grass enjoying the damp, but heavy and clinging with it. The River Calder joined Pendle Water and the white blares of balled up wooly sheep grazed around the banks. Pendle Hall was a ghost among the mists which would occasionally rise to display the humped whaleback of Pendle Hill slouched across the vista, above the oncoming spires of village churches that displayed their thin stalks as the Way travelled upwards among the sheep scattered hillfields. An overgrown farm track spilled out at Higham, and several stiles later I came to the village of Newchurch.
The unusual and unexpected use of child witness for the trials was an unfortunate precedent. As British law is mainly formed by precedents, child witnesses became not only common, but relied on in many trials of witchcraft going forward. While King James changed his own views on magic and the supernatural – as religious pluralism became more accepted in the latter half of his reign, his fears about magic subsided and his skepticism regarding how witch trials were performed grew. After his reign, the amount of accused witches dwindled.
However the Pendle Trials were unusual in the number sentenced to death. Between the early 15th Century and the early 18th Century less than 500 people were executed for the crime of witchcraft – most found guilty paid penance in jailtime, fines or being subjected to public ridicule. In the execution of the ten Pendle witches, this one trial made up over two percent of the ‘witches’ executed in those three hundred years.
It is unknown whether Roger Nowell received his promotion, but he died in 1624 as owner of a great deal of land so it can be assumed that he only prospered from his part.
The story of the Pendle Witches has been written into literature and adapted in many forms for the screen. In 1996 a petition was raised to have the ten executed men and woman and Granny Demdike pardoned of their crimes but was denied. Home Secretary at the time, Jack Straw, said a pardon could only come about if it was proven absolutely no crime was committed and whilst the accusation of witchcraft does not stand in a modern court, there was not enough to suggest that no murder nor harm was committed by other means.
Four hundred years later, and the Pendle Witches remain witches.
Newchurch was the area that the Device family hailed from in Pendle. The church of St Mary’s huddled down off a slope. The current church was only built in the 1700s, long after the trials and the Devices would only have known a small chapel here. The church hosts several oddities – amongst them the ‘eye of God’ carved into the west face of the tower – a simple oval, filled with blue, glaring out from far above the mortals passing below. The churchyard itself holds graves of the Nutter family and one gravestone fuelled a rumour that has been hard to extinguish.
The grave in question is a stone slab, the name long eroded away, but with a crossbone etched upon it. Legend likes to tell that this is the grave of Alice Nutter, sealed with a sign of her crime, but a convicted witch would never have been allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. The grave is believed to be Victorian; an era overly obsessed with death and associated ritual and trinkets, and the crossbones was one of a number of popular memento moris incorporated into masonry at the time.
Now it was finally to be the start of the climb up to Pendle Hill. No more stops and diversions. By trees and onto the moors, even more desolate in the gloom. A lot of people dislike moorland hiking, finding it either repetitive or boring, I quite like the expanse of it and how it manages to conjure up something evocative and eerie regardless of the season.
The Lower Ogden reservoir splayed out like a large dark puddle downwards from me until the path curved me to a footpath above the head. On a clearer day the Dales would be opened up to view ahead, but today they remained concealed. The upper reservoir was reached by a rough clamber and I forded a clough to continue the moorland. Bracken was withering, the lower slopes of Pendle were thick with it in summer months but their hold was slipping, turning into brown ribs as their volume ebbed away.
The rains started and the grey sky lowered to take over the view completely. I pulled my hood and hat on tightly and stopped amid the rough, bleak moors to catch my breath. Hannah of @hanupnorth, an extremely funny lass who has smashed the three peaks, described Pendle Hill as ‘Pen Nevis’. She, and many others, describe how unassuming it is, but the ascent catches you off guard and before you realise it you’re completely winded and shattered by a mere blip of a hill nearly a hundred feet less than the trifle that is Kinder Scout. It’s only 1,800 feet, but has become notorious for packing a punch far out of its category.
So I soldiered on against the rapidly increasing steepness of the slope. Maybe there’s a warning in the fact that its name combines three different words for ‘hill’ – originally called ‘Penhul’ with the Cumbric pen and the Old English hyll both meaning ‘hill’ and now the modern English ‘Hill’ got slapped on the end.
The position of Pendle Hill is an odd one. It stands detached from the rest of the South Pennines and the Ribble separates it from the Bowland Fells to just sit on its own amongst the Forest of Bowland attracting folklore and legend and being associated with all strange events that ever occurred nearby. The devil was said to have jumped on it, smacking great footprints into its flanks, creating all the other mountains in the proximity by flinging rocks in anger from its top.
I’m not sure how he’d have the energy. When I finally hauled up to the trig, all glossed around in clag, I was far too tired to do much jumping. On clearer days there would be many more people up here, but it seems those many more people were wiser than me. I had only come across two trail runners and a dog walker on my way up. No views for me today from the top, just the way down.
Mercifully the way down approaching Barley was far quicker and less painful despite the rain that kept battering in unrelenting contempt. To ascend here at this point is a sharp but short shock – it is the more popular tourist ascent and is incredibly steep but can be done easily in half an hour. The Way just took the long way round.
I stumbled into the village of Barley and hunted down a pub where a lovely proprietor sat me in front of a fire and brought me numerous hot drinks. It was only just under four miles now, across pasture and moor, to get back to Barrowford.
I went via the village of Roughlee, where the Nutters had lived and where a statue that supposedly represented Alice had been erected to commemorate 400 years since the trials. Her copper face already green from oxidation, and her hands shackled ready, frozen in pose, before her journey to trial and then to her death.
Apart from the quarrelsome Devices and Whittles, Alice gets remembered amongst the ‘witches’ purely for her status. But aside from the feuding families and herself there were four others – John and Jane Bulcock, Katherine Hewitt and Alice Grey. Not much is known about them, and they suffered purely for being acquaintances of the primarily accused families.
It wasn’t long until I reached the Heritage Centre again in Barrowford. The weather was now fully moodily sympathetic with the story I had travelled the last three days. It would have been August when the ‘witches’ were trialed and hanged however; their deaths occurring in bright and glorious midsummer at odds with what the story might have us automatically imagine.
We have all seen a rumour grow out of hand, we all know someone whose life was altered by enduring gossip, we have all heard false accusations made in anger and fear. We have all wished bad luck on someone who wronged us and we have all seen how both fear and vengeance escalates. The story of the Pendle Witches may be a very old one, but it is still alive because all the sins are enduringly human. We are all bound to act rashly for our fears, and we all have a part of ourselves that would have us branded.
And what happened to Jennet Device, the child whose innocence and ignorance was manipulated into a tool that condemned her family and friends? Twenty four years later, at the age of thirty three, she found herself accused of the same crime her mother, grandmother and siblings had hanged for – maleficium. She was accused of the murder by witchcraft of a member of the Nutter family and was found guilty. Mercifully, the judge refused to pass a death sentence and passed the case to the King. James I had been followed by Charles I who held little patience with accusations of magic and, under cross examination, the primary witness admitted it was all a fabrication. Nevertheless, Jennet Device died in prison.
Her accuser and the primary witness for the prosecution was a ten year old boy.
- Distance: 14.5 miles
- Total Elevation: 2,424ft
- Terrain: farm tracks, waterside, moorland, some overgrown paths; potentially very muddy, steep ascent and descent of Pendle Hill
- Toughness: 5/10
- Maps Used: Hiiker Map; Pendle Way (downloaded for offline use). Use Ordance Survey Explorer 021: South Pennines