In The Beginning . . .

Throughout the Middle Ages,Lancashire was ripe with tales of cunning folk.  In 1595 a conjure man called John Hartley convinced the Starkies of Huntroyde that seven members of their household were possessed by demons.  The Starkies were related to Roger Nowell, a Justice of the Peace from nearby Read who spearheaded the infamous Lancashire Witch Hunts of 1612.

Devil

James 1st became King of England in 1603 – the same year Jennet Device was born into the Demdike Clan at Malkin Tower – and the same year that a terrible plague swept the land.  Two years later Guy Fawkes’ Jesuit Gunpowder Plot failed to blow up Parliament, but it did trigger a nation-wide persecution of priests at a time when Lancashire was still a Catholic stronghold.

Witches, ghosts, and boggarts were a part of English folklore, inspiring many weird and wonderful tales that included Shakespeare’s Macbeth  (1606).  The wise women of Pendle Hill worked the superstitious locals to eek out a meager living.  They offered a wide range of services from basic herbal  medicine to midwifery and abortion – concocting charms, curses, love spells, and potions – claiming they could heal, harm, and foretell the future.

On March 21st in 1612, Old Demdike’s teenage granddaughter – Alizon Device – set off to go begging in Colne.  On the way she met a peddler called John Law who refused to give her the pins she demanded and so she cursed him.  Moments later Law collapsed, paralyzed down one side of his body.  He pointed the finger at Alizon Device and his son went straight to the authorities.  Because Alizon was one of the notorious Demdikes the rest of her family were rounded up for examination and before long, the Lancashire witch hunts had begun.

Olde English Parkin

Parkin is a chewy gingerbread cake that is very popular in Northern England, especially on Bonfire or Guy Fawkes Night (November 5th).

Parkin

Ingredients:

4oz plain flour

4oz fine or medium oatmeal / porridge oats

4oz softened butter

4oz soft brown sugar

4oz black treacle

4oz golden syrup

2 eggs

1/2 level teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon bicarbonate soda

2 teaspoons vinegar

1 teaspoon dry ginger

1oz crystalized ginger

1 teaspoon mixed spice

6 tablespoons milk

Method

1. Heat the oven to 325 / 170 / Gas 3.  Grease an 8-inch lined square tin.

2. Place the butter, sugar, treacle and syrup in a saucepan and heat gently until the fat melts.  Do not boil.  Set mixture aside to cool slightly.

3. Sieve all the dry ingredients (except the bicarbonate of soda) in a large mixing bowl and scoop out a well in the center.

4. Place the bicarbonate of soda and vinegar inside the well and wait for the fizzing to stop.

5. Add the milk to the slightly cooled mixture in the saucepan, and beat well with a wooden spoon until all the ingredients are blended together.

6.  Carefully add the contents of the saucepan to the ingredients in the mixing bowl and stir thoroughly.

6. Lightly beat the eggs.  Add to the mixing bowl.  Blend until it looks like a loose batter.

7. Pour into the tray and place in the center of the oven for about 1 hour.  The parkin will turn a dark brown color and spring back to the touch when cooked.

8.  Leave inside the tin until completely cold.

Hint: Parkin should be wrapped in greaseproof paper and stored in an airtight container for at least a day before cutting up and eating.  It keeps for about 2 weeks, growing moister and richer with time!

A Less-Known Lancashire Witch: Meg Shelton

Aside from the infamous Pendle Witches who were put on trial in 1612 and 1634, there were other unfortunate victims maligned and persecuted throughout Lancashire.  Many of their names were never recorded.  Some were accused and later released – some went to court and were found Not Guilty – and some were undoubtedly dealt with by the locals in their own ways.

In these unenlightened times it was common for women denounced as witches, shrews, and gossips to be locked inside a scold’s bridle – a metal brank that caged the head and prevented eating or speech.

scold

Public floggings and placement in the stocks were also regular market-day events.  And tales of dunking suspected witches in near-by ponds and rivers to see if they were guilty (and floated) or innocent (and drowned) are part of local folklore.  So it is quite surprising that one other name still fills the local schoolchildren with terror – Meg Shelton, The Fylde Hag.

Born Margery Hilton, Meg (or Mag) Shelton is said to have lived at various times in Cuckoo Hall near Wesham, Singleton, Catforth, and Woodplumpton.  She was a poor beggar woman who survived mainly on a haggis made from boiled grouts and herbs.  Meg is infamous for her shape-shifting skills, and apparently could turn into a variety of animals and all sorts of inanimate objects at will.  One tale records her creeping into a barnyard at night to steal corn.  When the farmer ran out after her there was no one in sight, though he did notice an extra sack of corn.  So taking his pitchfork he prodded each bag, finally uncovering Meg’s disguise when she squealed and reappeared nursing a bleeding arm!  Another of her injuries was explained by an accident trying to outrun a black dog when she was disguised as a hare.  The dog nipped the hare’s hind leg – and Meg was said to walk with a limp thereafter.  Meg was often seen riding her broomstick at night.  She could turn milk sour, lame cattle, and  curse hogs.

But the reason folk remember the Fylde Hag today is because of the strange events surrounding her death.  She was killed in 1705, crushed between a barrel and the wall of her cottage.  She was buried on May 2nd, at night, by torchlight, in the grounds of St. Anne’s Church in Woodplumpton.  The following morning her hand had clawed its way to the surface and had to be reburied.  The same thing happened again and everyone was naturally terrified.  A priest came and performed an exorcism.  Then someone suggested they rebury her upside down so she would dig her way to Hell, instead of to the surface.  So they planted her head-first in a narrow trough, and then put a huge granite boulder on top to keep her in place.

In hindsight it seems odd that a known witch would be put to rest on consecrated ground.  Usually they were buried at a crossroad with no signposts so they could not find their way home.  Or their bodies were burned.  And it is entirely possible that the granite stone in  St. Anne’s graveyard is a harmless relic carried down by the ice age.  But superstition is often stronger than common sense – and we all like to believe in a little magic.

Over the centuries, the legend of Meg Shelton has survived and flourished.  I grew up being told that if you walked three times round her grave chanting, I don’t believe in witches, then that hand would rise up from the grave and grab your ankle.  But I cannot say if that actually happens or not as I never dared try!

Shelton Grave

Meg Shelton’s Grave: Photo by Brian Young

Source:

Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside,2007)

The Scrying Game

Since the days of the Ancient Persians, wizards, witches, and Romany gypsies and have sought for ways to look beyond the familiar world around them.  Cunning folk have stared into fire, water, polished stone, magic mirrors, and crystal balls, seeking divination of hidden knowledge – visions of future events – or clairvoyant arts to find lost objects and detect criminals.

Scrying is a common Celtic practice too.  It comes from the Old English word descry and means to make out dimly or to reveal the past, present, or future.  Used to detect chaos, evil, good, and magic, scrying often brings a message.  The seer goes into a trance and uncovers a series of hidden images, rather like a movie playing inside their skull.  But the visions are symbolic and need interpreting, which is a skill that is only learned and honed over time.

Look into Kit’s crystal ball below.  I see you – if you see me too then perhaps you’ve also got the gift!

Crystal ball