NO offence intended to East Lancastrians reading this, but it feels like you’re reaching the end of the world when the M65 becomes the A6068 at Colne, and on a miserable late November morning amid a national epidemic of rain, rain and more rain (with a lot of flooding thrown in), the borderlands with Yorkshire didn’t look at their best as I negotiated the roundabouts and pointed my trusty motor towards town.
However, and not for the first time, I was surprised at how grand this proud Lancashire town is on the quiet, a near-secret known only to those who make it this far into seemingly-uncharted Red Rose territory.
Having parked up for the day (another great boon for Colne – it still offers free parking, where others have copped out in recent years), I made my way towards the heart of it all, with its library positively buzzing that dark and dingy morning.
Why was I there? Because of the Witch Way. The which what? No, the Witch Way, a historic route between Colne and Lancaster based on that taken by the alleged Pendle Witches as they were taken for trial in 1612. And I was there as a guest for an event marking the culmination of the county council-backed Lancashire Reads campaign, on Lancashire Day (Tuesday, November 27).
Welcoming as it was in the library, I was about to leave the warmth of this social hub to board a specially-commissioned, extremely smart double-decker bus due to depart at 9.15am, with stops at Clitheroe and Garstang before an event and themed lunch at Lancaster and a wander up to the castle to see where the ‘witches’ met their sorry end.
I did have concerns about the wisdom of the venture after entering the foyer and negotiating my way through a mass of … erm … senior visitors, togged up to the eyeballs against the cold. Was there a Pendle autumn club outing the same day? Or was it just an embarrassing double-booking? No, but it was a working day, so I shouldn’t really have been surprised by the average age of the assembled travellers.
Besides, this was at least a crowd of like-minded punters, intrigued by the sad tale of the Pendle Witches and justifiably proud of their local heritage and Red Rose roots. And although the vast majority were past fighting age, I felt it best to keep my Surrey tones to myself at first, and at least avoid the usual cliche about Northerners being so much friendlier than anyone else.
I think I sensed a similar sense of trepidation (not for the same reason, mind) from the event’s special guest, Manchester-based author Livi Michael, who less than a year ago was approached with an invitation to rewrite the Pendle Witches story in a short, accessible way, aimed primarily at younger readers. After a lot of thought, she decided to tell the tale from the viewpoint of Jennet Device, the young girl who innocently shopped her family, her anecdotal evidence proving enough to see them hang, in what proved not only a harrowing chapter in our rich history, but also a major milestone in the development of our law under the reign of demon-fearing monarch James I.
The result of Livi’s labours was the novella Malkin Child – so named as the chief witness’s family home was Malkin Tower – and it proved a big success, acclaimed by readers of all ages, not least thanks to support from the county council reading development team and local library staff. And so here we were a few months later, with Livi back on the patch where her story was set, paying back the county’s faith in her with a whistle-stop tour of libraries on a special day for the Red Rose county.
We knew we were finally up and running when we were shaken out of our early morning slumber by the resonant, projected tones of the town-crier of nearby Nelson, reading his Lancashire Day proclamation before we all jumped on to a splendid beast of a coach supplied by public transport operator Transdev. The livery alone is stunning, and could only have been improved by having Leyland written on the badge rather than Volvo. No offence to any Swedish readers, but Lanky folks do prefer things done their own way.
We were soon on the way, our sleek mode of transport turning heads on the pavements for the first time that day as we left Market Street and headed for those brooding hills beyond. On any other occasion you might have been praying for better weather, but dark and miserable somehow fitted the bill for this commemorative event, and you at least got something of a feel for what all those families must have felt as they left their home at the foot of imposing Pendle Hill on a similar route 400 years before.
En route was the new statue of Alice Nutter in Roughlee, one of the doomed ‘witches’ in that infamous trial, hers just one of the poignant case histories retold many times over the years. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to stop, with time against us already and two groups of primary school children waiting to meet Livi. If you do get a chance though, seek it out. Interestingly, our charter bus was fittingly named Alice Nutter, one of several Witch Way buses operated by Transdev, all named after the original victims.
If it’s a history of the case of the Pendle Witches you’re after, there’s much better out there on the web, but for those who don’t know, Alice was one of the group tried for murder, accused of using witchcraft, at a two-day trial in August, 1612, at Lancaster Castle, one of 10 hanged at nearby Gallows Hill – on moorland now dominated by the wondrous Ashton Memorial and Williamson Park – after being found guilty of causing death or harm.
In total, 11 locals – men included -were charged with murder by witchcraft, with an additional alleged Pendle ‘witch’ tried at York Castle. Of those, 10 were found guilty and hanged, one died while awaiting trial, and one was found not guilty, the first documentation of those trials – long before America’s Salem Witch Trials – recorded in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster by clerk of the court Thomas Potts.
Back on board, co-organisers Jake Hope and Janet Swan and their team flitted up and down the aisles as we pressed on for Clitheroe, with a low winter sun finally out by the time we spotted the stunning castle watching over this celebrated Lancashire town. And within a few minutes we were piling into our second library, where I followed Livi downstairs to meet 37 year six children from Pendle Primary School.
She was in her element there, reading from Malkin Child then being bombarded by questions from pupils and teachers alike, revealing her inspiration and a little of the history of the book and the case itself, details about her past and present projects, her writing secrets and more, responding warmly to some great questions from her young audience.
Livi also impressed on her listeners how her grandmother, while of strong Christian faith, might too have been carted off to Lancaster Castle if she’d been born 300 years earlier for her use of herbal mixes and remedies, a factor that inspired her to ensure the story of this early miscarriage of justice remained in the public conscience.
No doubt she would have happily stayed to field further questions, but the bus driver was ready to set off again, with another 35 pupils waiting at Garstang Community School and a few miles between us and them. So we got back on our merry Witch Way, Janet leading a couple of renditions of traditional folk song Old Pendle before the stark backdrop of Pendle Hill and the West Pennines grew ever more distant, replaced by the Trough of Bowland.
When I got back on the bus at Clitheroe, Livi was being enticed into the cab of the coach for a publicity shot, and I was wondering if she was still at the wheel when we briefly took the wrong turning in Garstang, the locals a little bewildered at the sight of Alice Nutter‘s perfect three-point manouevre by the Lancaster Canal. Mind you, they didn’t have that new-fangled satellite navigational technology in 1612, so it’s understandable.
At our next stop I sensed trouble when I spotted Nelson’s town-crier in conference with Garstang’s female equivalent. Is that where the term ‘cry-off’ comes from, I wonder? Meanwhile, Livi was answering more probing questions from youngsters at the library on Windsor Road, before the bandwagon moved further north.
Next stop was Lancaster itself, and this time Livi was joined upstairs at the Market Square library by Martin Domleo, who read three of his fine poems – including poignant Dickens 200 Writing Competition winner Sunderland Point – before a special platter of Malkin Pie, supplied by Sanwitches of Sabden – involving a heady mix of layered lamb, veg, beef steak and bacon with suet shortcrust topping, herbs, spices … you name it. This being Lancashire there was pickled cabbage in abundance too, and a cheese and onion alternative.
With that to walk off, the party moved up to the castle and around the outer walls for our finale, with distant Pendle Hill just about visible through a gap, and an official guide taking us through a quick but detailed history of the background to the trials, while pointing out Gallows Hill and conveying at least something of the hardships endured by those Pendle folk in the dungeons at the base of the tower where we stood.
A guided tour within the castle would have been welcomed, the best of the day’s weather now behind us, and I know from a past tour of the courthouse and dungeons something of that. But time remained against us and the road back to Clitheroe and Colne beckoned. Besides, many of us will return. And 400 years on we still owe those martyred in James’ name our respect, and the lesson learned by this original witch-hunt should not be forgotten.
Malkin Child – A Story of Pendle’s Witches by Livi Michael is published by Foxtail, an imprint of Litfest Publications, in a special hard cover at £8.99, and is available from all good booksellers. For the writewyattuk review, click here.
And for further details about the trials, try http://www.lancashirewitches.com