* Halloween season is upon us. To mark the event, here’s a story from last year on a spooky motif, based around an anniversary that never quite lived up to its potential.
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It’s a tale of dark arts and superstition, political intrigue and religious persecution.
It was one of the largest witch trials in British history, whereby seven women and two men were sent to the gallows on August 20, 1612.
This year Lancashire marks 400 years since the macabre events that propelled the remote northern enclave, the sole seat of the Duchy of Lancaster in the north, into the national spotlight.
The Pendle Witch Trails continue to fascinate us even today.
“People are always drawn to the dark side of history and the witches lived long enough ago to have taken on the quality of a legend,” says Christine Goodier, author of 1612: The Lancashire Witch Trails, (published by Palatine Books).
“As modern people, we like to think we don’t believe in the Devil. But, 400 years ago, everyone from the King down lived in fear of a clear-cut sense of good and evil.”
The story starts with a young beggar girl, Alison Device, who cursed a peddler on the road to Colne on March 18, 1612. He collapsed in a fit but Alison confessed to witchcraft and, under questioning by the local magistrate, Roger Nowell, incriminated her own family, the Demdikes, and a rival family, the Chattox.
The accused were sent to Lancaster Castle to await trail for witchcraft on April 3.
In response, the Demdike family called a Sabbat, or gathering of witches according to legend, at their home, Malkin Tower, on Good Friday. When Nowell heard of this, he sent a local constable to investigate.
Those present were subsequently accused of plotting to blow up the castle, leading to the imprisonment of several more members of both families, plus Alice Nutter, a local gentlewomen associated with the family.
In reality, all of the accused were probably guilty of little more than working with healing herbs, stealing bones from local churchyards for superstitious rituals and expressing an interest in Catholicism.
The trial was less about witchcraft and more a case of local magistrates keen to find favour with the King. A show trial would, after all, ingratiate Lancaster with the Royal court and dispel its reputation as a Catholic stronghold.
Having survived the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whereby Catholic plotters tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, the protestant king, James I, unleashed a fear-fuelled backlash against the Catholic faith.
He had already published the book Daemonology, linking it to witchcraft, in 1597, and passed an act in 1604 to make it a capital offence “to consult, entertain, employ, feel or reward any evil and wicked spirit, or to utter spells.”
This summer visitors can follow the Lancashire Witches Driving Trail, a 40-mile self-guided route through the former hunting grounds of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The trail, leading from Barrowfield to Lancaster, follows the route to the gallows of the Pendle witches.
A further couple of short walking trails, starting from the village of Barley, delve deeper into the landscape and folklore of the tiny, lost-in-time villages around Pendle Hill, the bleak, exposed landmark at the heart of Lancashire’s witch country.
I set off along the driving trail from the Pendle Heritage Centre at Barrowford, having first digested the small exhibition devoted to the story of the witches. Looming Pendle Hill dominates the first villages along the trail, notably Newchurch where St Mary’s church, dating from 1554, has an Eye of God painted on the façade to ward off evil spirits.
After Clitheroe with its Norman castle and the remote hamlet of Dunsop Bridge, the road narrows and heads into the twist-turning lanes of the Trough of Bowland.
I follow the increasingly precarious roads, sheep-grazing pasture and stoic, stone-built farmhouses, lashed by the elements, the only stark signs of life on the horizon. The low-slung mist adds a frisson to the foreboding atmosphere of the drive.
I descend towards Lancaster and follow the brown signs to Lancaster Castle, arriving in time for one of the regular tours of the castle, first founded in 1093 as a modest motte-and-bailey keep. The tour takes in the Shire Hall with its display of heraldry and the eerie old cells, but it’s the leather-bound Law Library that has the most evocative feel.
On August 18 and 19, 1612, the Pendle witches were brought before the court in this very room, disorientated and weakened by five months in the dungeon in the Well Tower (today known as the Witches’ Tower).
The witches had no defence and the star witness for the prosecution was a child, Jennet Device, the granddaughter of the family matriarch, who testified against her own family while under the care of the court.
It set a legal precedent as Jennet would have been around 11 years old at the time and, ironically, would go on to be tried as a witch herself in 1633.
“I do admire Roger Nowell in a strange way,” says Graham Kemp, Deputy Manager and tour guide at Lancaster Castle. “I think he was a clever – not evil – man for presenting Jennet as his star witness.”
“I’m sure he did his best to push the case through the court – and, no doubt, boost his own career in the process.”
The tour finishes with a visit to the Well Tower dungeon, newly opened to the public for the anniversary. The descent down stone steps leads through twin iron gates to a claustrophobic enclosure cut off all from all sensory stimulation.
A tiny trickle of water still glistens on the wall, the only distraction from the complete darkness. The guide’s candle illuminates two iron rings on the floor to which the inmates would have been chained day and night.
Court records, recorded in detail by a London court clerk, Thomas Potts, and later published as The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, served as propaganda for the judgment of Sir Edward Bromley. It was a blatant attempt to cover up the flaws in the evidence and the controversial use of the testimony of a child.
Potts described one of the defendants, grandmother Chattox thus: “A very old, withered, spent and decrepit creature … her lips ever chattering and walking, but no men knew what.”
Alice Nutter was an educated women but may have chosen to remain silent throughout the proceedings to avoid implicating Catholic friends. She went to the gallows without uttering a word.
The next day, the condemned were taken by cart through the streets of Lancaster, past jeering crowds, to the gallows at modern-day Williamson Park, above the city. On the way, they were granted one last drink at a local hostelry.
Today that pub is the Golden Lion on Moor Lance, its place in history marked with a plaque dedicated to “All those who suffered through prejudice and intolerance.”
Next door, the Dukes arts centre is staging Sabbat, its famously part-fictionalised telling of the witch trials. The production, staged in the round, then tours over summer.
“Drama is great at putting you in the shoes of other people,” says Joe Sumison, the Director of the Dukes.
“The earthy, physical quality of the production makes you empathise with the human story behind the hysteria.”
Local people are careful not to celebrate the anniversary this summer – it was, after all, one of the darkest chapters in British history.
The Vicar of Lancaster Priory, the Revd Chris Newlands, whose parish is adjacent to the Castle, has spoken passionately about the need to learn from history. Plans by the Barrowford artist, Philippe Handford, to spray the numbers 1612 in 500ft high, dye-based figures on the side of Pendle Hill have been scrapped following local protests.
There are even calls for the Pendle witches to be pardoned – the 20 victims of the 1692 Salem witch trials in New England were exonerated and a formal apology issued in 1957.
But, most of all, the anniversary is about remembering the injustice of the times. “The witch trails are part of our local history in Lancashire,” says Joe Sumison.
“But, on a wider level, they tell a story about victims of political interference and socio-economic conditions.”
“Those lessons,” he adds, “are still valid today.”
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* This story first appeared in Discover Britain magazine in 2012. Liked this? Try Art Deco Blackpool.
* This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more.
Breakfast is a gloriously gut-busting affair. Crispy bacon, succulent sausages, eggs, mushrooms and baked beans.
It keeps on coming thanks to a battalion of white-jacketed stewards, fussing over the arrangement of the china and polishing the silver on starched-white napkins.
“Would sir like more toast?” Don’t mind if I do. Well, I have been up since 6am and it tasted great, washed down with lashings of hot, milky coffee and panoramic views.
My not-so-petit dejeuner is not being served in a Far East five-star hotel or aboard a luxury cruise liner in the Caribbean.
Far from it. I’ve got a ticket to ride on the Fellsman and am currently sat on a train, trundling through England’s Northwest from Lancaster to Carlisle.
This new, steam-hauled service is a living-heritage excursion back in time to the golden age of rail travel. The first timetabled steam train to operate on the line in over 40 years, the Fellsman [pictured above] runs every Wednesday until September.
It uses a pool of three restored steam engines from the Thirties and period carriages from the Fifties with table seats, panoramic windows and table service in Premier class. It picks up passengers from Lancaster and cuts a splendidly scenic, 260-mile swathe along the mountainous Yorkshire-Cumbria frontier, using the historic Settle and Carlisle line.
“Rail is still the best way to see Britain,” says Nick Dodson, Chairman of Statesman Rail, which operates the service.
“Steam trains smell of nostalgia and the Fellsman harks back to the golden age with its standards of service and dining.”
Saved from closure some 20 years ago, the Settle and Carlisle line is now regarded as one of the great train routes in Britain, running northwards and almost parallel to the M6 and West Coast Main Line route to Scotland.
It’s a testament to the Victorian engineering that not only built a network around Britain, but also took the iron horse to India, Africa and South America.
Track construction started in 1869 with a workforce of 6,000 men – over 200 went on to loose their lives on the job. Passenger services started in 1876 at a total cost of £3.5m.
The combination of challenging climatic conditions, steep gradients and complex engineering of the 21 stone-built viaducts, 14 tunnels and numerous bridges fostered a reputation as a one-off ride.
It is immortalised in the 1955 short film, Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, held by the British Transport Film archive.
“The Settle to Carlisle line is part of Pennine culture. It’s a triumph of man over environment,” says Nick Dodson. “Blood, sweat and steam got the trains through and the engine drivers were afforded the same respect at that time as airline pilots are today.”
Joining me for the Fellsman’s first run are a good-natured mix of retired rail enthusiasts, fathers and sons on bonding day trips and mature couples enjoying the sense of nostalgia.
From Settle we build a steady head of steam to a maximum speed of 60mph as we climb towards the 24-arch Ribblehead Viaduct with views of three Pennine peaks.
Sturdy stone cottages cling stoically to the rough-hewn landscape of the peaks, fells and farmland. Lambs gamble playfully in the lush-green fields and gurgling streams tumble over moss-coated stepping stones. Walkers in muddy boots, stop, sup from their flasks and wave us on by with a grin.
While the passengers snore through a mid-morning snooze, or catch up on the weekend papers, I head back through the train carriages to the staff car for a word with guard and fireman Alasdair Morgan.
An affable Bolton lad with a boyish enthusiasm for steam trains, he sports a jaunty knotted handkerchief to protect his silver-fox locks from the onslaught of soot.
“It’s a 20-mile climb from Settle to Ribbelehead, so I’m putting ten shovels of coal on the fire every couple of minutes to maintain boiler pressure and keep the water boiling,” says Alasdair.”It’s dirty, smelly and noisy – and I love every minute of it,” he grins.
“You have to interact with a steam loco, listening to the sounds it makes. It’s a living entity.”
Break the journey
With a two-hour break in Carlisle to stretch my legs, I head for Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, where the Border Galleries explains Carlisle’s development as a rail hub.
Given its strategic border-crossing location, seven different railway companies had lines ending at Carlisle Citadel Station by 1876.
Back on the platform as the staff prepares the train for the return, I quiz my fellow passengers about the experience.
“I remember the old days of steam trains from the Fifties and loved the ride today,” enthuse friends Maurice Parker and Brian Plant from Staffordshire. “People moan about British trains but this service shows we still have a lot to be proud of.”
I can smell the dinner simmering in the kitchen car as I take my seat and settle in for the early evening return.
Everyone loves steam trains. Maybe it’s the genteel elegance of the dining car, maybe the idea of revisiting an indulgent, luxurious era, maybe the sense of pride that Britain once built railways for the world and can still operate a first-class service.
Or maybe it’s just as Nick Dodson says.
“Nothing beats a full English in an old Pullman carriage with the smell of the steam wafting in through the open windows.”
Yes, maybe. That breakfast was pretty special.
* This story was first published in Hotline magazine in 2009.
* This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more.
There’s a wind of change blowing in off the bay in Morecambe these days.
The town boomed in the mid-19th century as a seaside resort and became an architectural pace setter in the 1930’s when the Art Deco movement influenced its architecture.
It has gone into hibernation in recent years. Its iconic hotel, the Grade II-listed Midland, was but a cherished memory.
But Morecambe is stirring from its slumbers. This summer the Midland reopened following a £11m regeneration by property developer Urban Splash and the new byword for the resort is urban regeneration.
The Midland first opened in 1933, featuring murals by the sculptor Eric Gill and rugs by textile artist Marion Dorn, both adorned with the famous seahorse motif that became the hotel’s trademark.
It was unabashedly chic, airy and light with the original architect, Oliver Hill, deliberately eschewing the clinical feel of some Modernist buildings to create a vision in chrome, marble and glass.
The curved structure hugged the contours of the Victorian promenade and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows offered maximum exposure to the legendary Morecambe sunset.
In its pre-war heyday, the glitterati from Coca Chanel to Wallace Simpson all came to sip cocktails with views across the sands to Cumbria. The Midland had become a destination in its own right.
Today the hotel retains the visual impact of the original incarnation but adds a 20th-century twist, combining the Art Deco facade with the contemporary interior of a boutique hotel.
Some locals may be unsure about the angular, modernist lobby furniture but everyone applauds the fact that Gill’s artworks have been restored to their original splendour and re-instated.
The stone mural of Odysseus once more stands proud behind reception and the elaborate ceiling medallion is the crowning glory of the sweeping, red-carpeted staircase.
Even Dorn’s mosaic seahorses again folic on the floors and fittings.
Of the 44 bedrooms, six are rooftop suites with individual features – the honeymoon suite features a hot tub on a private roof terrace.
My room was comfortable with a small balcony overlooking the sea, although some may find the central wood unit, containing pull-out slots for wardrobe, toilet and kettle, rather confusing.
“My personal reaction to it today is probably in keeping with the reaction of those first visitors,” smiles Peter Wade, a local historian who leads walking tours around Morecambe.
“The interior is very modern now but it was very modernist when it opened in the 1930’s and, initially, people were skeptical then too.”
That night, after a drink in the purple and fuchsia-hued booths of the Rotunda Bar, I took dinner amongst the minimalist white tables of the Restaurant.
Choosing from a menu of British seaside favourites, I opted for Morecambe Bay potted shrimps followed by Cumberland sausage and mash while the evening sun flooded the all-glass rear of the building with flame-hued rays.
The next morning I had a date with Evelyn Archer, head of the Friends of The Winter Gardens, the Grade II-listed theatre that is Morecambe’s other Art Deco gem.
Built in 1897, Laurel and Hardy graced the stage in its heyday. The Friends already secured £12m to revive the theatre’s faded façade and, with £11m and four years, they believe they can re-open as a multi-purpose venue for theatre, dance and events with a top-floor restaurant overlooking the bay.
“I’m a Morecambe lass and watched the town decline,” says Evelyn, guiding me up faded marble staircases and through Art-Deco lounges on a tour of the venue.
“Now we’ve got a blank canvas. We’re finding a new niche for Morecambe and highlighting the attractions of the bay.”
Leading the charge is Cedric Robinson MBE, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, who has been leading guided walks across the potentially hazardous sands of Morecambe Bay since 1963.
The walks start from seaside village of Arnside, about 10 miles north of Morecambe, and finish at Kents Bank around – a journey of around eight miles.
En route are fine views of the South Lakeland hills and a chance to spot communities of wading birds.
It’s still early days to speak of a renaissance for Morecambe but the signs are good.
The next stage of the regeneration process is the £100m revival of the town’s West End, but more family attractions and improved infrastructure are needed to lure the design cognoscenti and upwardly mobile weekenders the Midland targets.
“My dream for Morecambe’s future is cocktails at the Midland followed by a show at the Winter Garden,” says Peter Wade.
He may yet sip that martini and take his seat for curtain up.
The re-opening of the Midland has brought a new confidence to Morecambe and, with a new generation of visitors forming a groundswell for the revival of classic British resorts.
Maybe Morecambe’s glory days are yet to come.
Get some sea air
Start with a trot along the promenade, Marine Road, to full the lungs with ozone. The comedian Eric Morecambe (he changed his name as a homage to his home town) is captured in bronze in classic Bring Me Sunshine pose [pictured above], and is now the focus point for day trippers – catch the statue as dusk for the light show.
Step back in time
The Winter Gardens is currently seeking major funding for regeneration. Meanwhile it opens on weekends for hard-hat tours of the building and a rousing pep talk from the Friends of The Winter Gardens on their grand plans for the iconic venue. Tickets contribute to the restoration fund.
Walk this way
The Echoes of Art Deco guided walk is two-hour walking tour of Morecambe, exploring the surviving Art Deco buildings and the history of the town. Tours start and end with the Midland Hotel, taking in the former Littlewoods department store building and the site of the former swimming baths complex en route.
Bird in the hand
The Tern Project kick started the regeneration bandwagon, erecting public artworks along the five-mile seafront based around the birdlife of Morecambe Bay, namely oyster catcher, curlew and turnstone. Follow the trail along the promenade from the stone jetty to the light gallery, tracing the stone-statue wildlife en route.
Shrimps and shells
Poulton Village, a maze of fishermen’s cottages, wrought-iron-facade shops and maritime murals, located just behind the promenade, is the town’s original settlement. Try browsing the specialist local shops – call in at the Shell Shop for sea shell-inspired jewelry, and stock up on potted shrimps at the Shrimp Shop on Poulton Square.
Catch it if you can
Morecambe celebrates Heritage Open Days each September with free entry to civic buildings. Otherwise, throughout October the RSPB Nature Reserve at Leighton Moss, Silverdale, located about ten miles from Morecambe, is hosting Bearded Tit walks to explore the wildlife of the region.
Where to eat
Artisan Cafe, 296 Marine Road Central. This non-smoking, non mobile-phone café for lunches and snacks has a front-parlour feel, good coffee and a Mediterranean motif to the menu.
Brucciani, 217 Marine Road West. An art-deco café, featuring the original oak paneling, Bakelite fittings, and Formica tabletops. Soak up the atmosphere over a knickerbockers glory
Chill, 229 Marine Road Central. Living up to its name, this friendly little café has smoothies, coffees and snacks with sea views.
The Smugglers’ Den, 56 Poulton Road. Morecambe’s oldest pub, dating from around 1600, is a traditional spot to chat with the locals over a pint of Cask Marque ale.
Pebbles at the Crown Hotel, 239 Marine Road Central. With a view across the bay and a menu of local produce, Pebbles is a solid option. Catch the special menu – three courses for £14.95, served 6pm to 8pm, Monday to Friday.
The Borough, 3 Dalton Square, Lancaster. Further afield in neighbouring Lancaster, The Borough is a no-nonsense gastropub for hearty pub fare and CAMRA-lauded, hand-pulled ales.
* This story was first published in Coast magazine in 2008.