Under a pale winter sky, a brooding massif rears up over the surrounding countryside. Dominating the landscape for miles around, this whaleback hump of gnarly millstone grit is Pendle Hill in Lancashire.
Around it lies rich pastureland and close-knit communities, with sandstone cottages huddled around churches. A gridwork of lichen-clad, dry stone walls carves up the lower pastures between isolated hill farms. The occasional remote barn dots the foothills, a welcome place of shelter for livestock as the weather worsens.
At 1,827ft (557m) high, Pendle Hill not only casts its shadow over the countryside, it also exerts a measurable influence over the weather. There is a marked difference in the amount of rainfall recorded on the eastern and western slopes. Snagged by the hilltop, the clouds are encouraged to release their rain. The result is rich grazing land in the verdant Ribble Valley, west of the hill.
The hill’s moods change with the weather. In sunshine, it slumbers contentedly – a benign guardian of the villages and hamlets nestling at its foot. But with the advent of winter’s chill, it assumes an altogether more imposing profile. Often, while the valley floor is clear, the Big End to the north east has a frosting of ice. When the first snows arrive, the whole massif turns into a brilliant white beacon, a snow-capped western outlier of the Pennines.
If winter sun brings a thaw, the retreating snows can occasionally leave an icy apparition of a witch riding on a broomstick on the north-facing slopes. An entirely natural feature, this is a chilling echo of the area’s associations with witchcraft. For it was in the villages of Sabden, Newchurch, Roughlee and Barley below that, four centuries ago, a tale of witches and black magic unfolded.
In this necklace of villages and hamlets in the Forest of Pendle, myth and gossip led to the conviction and deaths of 10 people. The Pendle Witches have established a strong hold over local folklore ever since. Their sinister tale still attracts many tourists to the area.
Place of beauty
“Pendle draws people in from all over,” says Maureen Stopforth. Originally from Nelson, four miles to the south east, she now owns the Witches Galore shop in Newchurch. Here, visitors and locals can buy local products, souvenirs and, inevitably, witchcraft-related paraphernalia. “Because of the witchcraft connections, some seem to expect to find an evil place,” she says. “However, when they discover what a serene, beautiful place it is, they simply enjoy the landscape.
“Autumn is my favourite time of year, when the hill is at her best. Pendle is most definitely a ‘she’. In the morning, she is light and capricious, and yet by the late afternoon she can be dark and glowering. Her moods can change by the hour.
“My favourite walk is across the moor then down to Ogden Clough south of the hill. There is a bench on the causeway between the upper and lower water. If you have the time to pause a while there, the views across to Blacko Tower, a hilltop folly, are amazing.
“People have such a deep attachment to this area and the hill that dominates it. Families come to scatter their loved ones’ ashes on the summit, while others return after half a lifetime away with tears in their eyes. And they all say the same thing: ‘we’ve come home’.”
A working history
In the hidden valley beneath the eastern slope of Pendle Hill lie the communities where the rumours which led to the arrest of the Pendle Witches took hold. A journey through these remote villages provides a deeper understanding of this enduring story.
The first is Sabden, to the south east of the hill. This secluded settlement was home to artisan weavers and a watermill before the Industrial Revolution brought cotton mills to the valley.
Two mills remain, their chimneys visible from Pendle Hill. It was, however, the calico print works, established by James Bury and Sons, which was a major draw. Calico was a coarse cotton cloth, named after fabric exported from Calcutta. At one stage, more than 2,000 people were employed hand-stamping and printing the calico.
In the 19th century, Richard Cobden, the anti-Corn Law campaigner, came to the village. Dismayed by the conditions of the local mill workers, he reputedly made one of his earliest political speeches. He later bought the calico print works in 1830, and built terraced housing for his employees. He also established one of the first primary schools in England which was independent of church control.
Like all the other villages in the area, Sabden is dominated by Pendle Hill. “It is what we see every day out of the farmhouse windows,” says Margaret Wright. She owns Cobden Farm in Sabden, which she runs as a B&B for the area’s many visitors.
“It is there as we walk round the fields, as we set off along the farm road. It’s part of life. Its colours change with the seasons.
It is beautiful whatever the weather.
“It’s amazing that one fell, just under mountain-class height, has four such different sides. That’s what makes Pendle so special. Wherever you go, you see change.
“It stands alone, not part of any interlinking fells, but still part of a prehistoric network of beacons and ley lines. Because of the way it lies and its height, Pendle affects our weather patterns. It was the dampness of Sabden Valley that brought textile mills and calico production to the village.”
She acknowledges that the story of the Pendle Witches has left an indelible mark hereabouts. However, the history of the area goes much further back. Research into earlier settlements is being overseen by The Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership. Maureen is a member of the organisation’s board.
“We are beginning to uncover more evidence of the importance of this area to Ancient Britons, dating back to
the Bronze and possibly Iron Ages,” she says.
The witches’ villages
To the east of Sabden are the villages of Higham, Newchurch, Roughlee and Barley. These were the sites of the alleged bewitchings. Bypassed by the main highways running to the north and south of the hill, they are linked only by narrow single track roads. In the 17th century, these isolated settlements in the lee of the hill were inaccessible outposts. Largely beyond the reach of the forces of law and order, they would have been left to their own devices.
Today, the clusters of sandstone houses nestling in the shadow of Pendle Hill wear their diabolical associations with pride. A statue of one alleged witch, Alice Nutter, stands on the road to Blacko near the site of her home in Roughlee.
St Mary’s Church in Newchurch has an 18in (46cm) ‘Eye of God’, inscribed 16ft (5m) into its tower to ward off evil. There is also a reputed witch’s grave, engraved with a skull and crossbones, near the porch. This is allegedly the last resting place of one of the Nutter family. It is however unlikely to be Alice. She would have been buried near her place of execution at Lancaster.
A three-mile drive north east from Higham leads to the pretty town of Barrowford, and the Pendle Heritage Centre. This is based in an elegant Grade II listed farmhouse, parts of which date back to the 16th century. Here, more can be found out about both the witches and the area’s rich heritage.
“The Forest of Pendle is dominated by scattered farmsteads and sleepy hamlets,” says John Clayton. A local historian and landscape archaeologist, he also advises the heritage centre on the history of the area. “Within this ancient community are to be found farming families whose local lineage can be traced back over many centuries.
“Prior to local government reorganisation in 1974, Pendle was a small, rather insular district, still clinging to its former status of a baronial hunting forest. The people of Old Pendle have been shaped by the autonomy and insularity of the ancient forest. Tradition, legend and superstition easily overcame progress here. Medieval farming practices survived on many
a Pendle farm well into the second half of the 20th century. Even today the ubiquitous modernisation within national farming has had a relatively limited impact on many of the isolated Pendleside farmsteads. Farming here remains low intensity by modern standards.
“The hill itself has many moods. The remnants of the ancient Pendle woodlands never disappoint as they take on their autumn colours and the wild deer forage among the fallen leaves. Throughout the winter months, occasional snowfall transforms the foothills into a gridwork of striped fields where the medieval ploughing becomes evident.”
Back in time
Heading north-west from Barrowford through the villages of Roughlee and Barley, the route passes underneath the steepest and highest slopes of Pendle Hill. It then drops down into the Ribble Valley and the village of Downham. Nestling in a dip below the church and village inn, ducks dabble happily in the beck beneath the little stone bridge.
This tiny village is often hailed as the most beautiful in Lancashire. The properties are owned by a local family, the Asshetons. Under their careful custodianship, Downham has remained largely unchanged for more than half a century.
There is an almost complete absence of the trappings of 21st century technology. No satellite dishes, TV aerials or telephone cables are visible in its streets.
Looming over the settlement to the south is the ever present Pendle Hill, an inspiration to writers and artists for years.
“Pendle means everything to me. I walk around it, up it or on top of it almost every week,” says local designer, artist and sculptor Philippe Handford. Based in Simonstone, nine miles from Downham, he is repeatedly drawn to find inspiration on Pendle. “It’s not just our local hill, it has a huge physical presence. As a teenager, I would always head to Pendle to find space to think. I was always drawn to it and those massive views from the summit.”
Inspiration for art
Philippe was the lead artist in the creation of the Pendle Sculpture Trail at Barley. Another of his projects was to install giant ‘1612’ numerals on the eastern slopes of Pendle to mark the quatercentenary of the witch trials. Fabricated from felted natural sheep’s wool, these 300ft (91m) tall figures were pegged onto the side of the hill in the summer of 2012. They remained in place for 48 hours before being removed.
“I had to overcome a huge amount of local opposition to the idea. It took me aback, because I would never do anything to scar this hill which I love so much. Since the installation, however, I have had nothing but praise for it.
“My favourite route up to the summit is via Ogden Reservoir. You don’t encounter as many people, and there’s more space for quiet contemplation. You get a much better idea of the size of the hill and the fact that there’s a greater expanse and much more complexity than the profile you see.
“The most dramatic view is from the road between Blacko and Downham. Despite living here for more than 50 years, the impact when you see the Big End rear up ahead is immense. It still takes my breath away.”
Rising up above valley and cottages, the ever-present profile of Pendle Hill remains impassive, inscrutable and immovable. It has been affecting the lives of those who live below it for centuries, lending a frisson of drama to this pastoral idyll. It is truly a beacon in an otherwise unassuming, undiscovered landscape.
The story of Pendle’s Witches
The Pendle Witches were essentially members of two families: the Devices and the Whittles. The eccentric matriarchs of the families, Elizabeth Southerns, known as Demdike, and Anne Whittle, known as Chattox, claimed supernatural powers.
In the remote villages to the east of Pendle Hill, elderly widows would sometimes claim special powers. This allowed them to command respect in the community and earn a living. However, the new king of England and Scotland, James I and VI, had a fear of witches, after 300 were believed to have plotted his death. He claimed to be an expert on witchcraft and published a treatise called Daemonologie in 1597. This whipped the country into a hysteria in which any unusual or unfortunate occurrences could be depicted as the devil’s work.
“By the demise of the Tudor period in 1603, a large number of smallholders had seen their few acres absorbed into the expanding farms of the wealthy,” says landscape historian John Clayton. “These people became destitute, their only
resort being begging or stealing to stay alive. Their generation was ordered to conform to a new Protestant hegemony. This meant they had not only lost their livelihoods, dignity and status, but also the comfort and certainty of the religion
that they were born into.”
“To survive within a politically uncertain society, they turned to the traditions of their rural background. Through the use of folk medicine and skill in the application of the Old Religion, certain women were able to gain a reputation. They were able to heal people and livestock, but were also thought capable of wreaking a terrible revenge upon their enemies. Labelled as witches, these people enjoyed a degree of status that would eventually see them clash with authority. Inevitably, the authorities won the day and the outcome was the extermination of a poor, disaffected sub-class within rural society.”
The trigger for the gathering tempest in Pendle centred on Demdike’s granddaughter Alizon Device. She allegedly cursed a travelling pedlar, making him lame. Local magistrate Roger Nowell arrested Alizon, who confessed to the crime and implicated others.
Nowell rounded up members of both clans and questioned them about further offences. These included the holding of a Witches’ Sabbath on Good Friday 1612, when all God-fearing citizens should have been in church.
In total, 19 men and women were sent for trial at Lancaster. Demdike died in the hellish conditions of the castle dungeons before the trial date.
Another granddaughter, nine-year-old Jennet Device, later confirmed that the Sabbath had taken place. It was her testimony that led to the conviction of 10 witches, including her sister Alizon and her mother Elizabeth. All were hanged.
The case was recorded by court clerk Thomas Potts, who published The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, in 1613.
Climbing the hill
Pendle Hill is part of, but slightly physically apart from, the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the north. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it has formed a stark divide between the largely rural Ribble Valley and the rapidly industrialising towns to the south east.
On the western slopes lies the picturesque village of Pendleton, named for the hill. It nestles below the Nick of Pendle, a distinct cleft in the elongated summit ridge where the steep road passes over into the Forest of Pendle. The tiny village and its surrounding parish contain 18 listed buildings. A bubbling stream, Pendleton Brook, runs down the centre of the main street.
From the village it is a short, but steep, walk up to Apronful Hill, a ridge on the massif. This curious name derives from a folk tale that the devil climbed up with an apronful of rocks to hurl at Clitheroe Castle. His apron string broke and the rocks scattered to the ground. Here, the views over the Ribble Valley and up to the Bowland Fells on the northern horizon rapidly open out. The footpath passes picturesque farmsteads on the flanks of the hill. It then climbs steeply up a rocky rake to abandoned stone quarries. At this point, the full extent of the massif is revealed.
A short walk to the south west is the mysterious burial mound of Jeppe the Knave’s Grave. Here, a local ne’er-do-well was buried beyond the parish boundaries after his execution in 1327 for breaking the strict forest laws. The site of the grave is a low-lying mound with head and foot stones. It is, however, thought to predate the miscreant’s interment, possibly back to the Bronze Age.
To the north east, a wide grassy track ascends gently along the ridgeline to the sprawling plateau of the hill. From here, there is a 90-minute walk to the white stone triangulation point on top of the steep escarpment of the Big End.
Underfoot this is an area of blanket bog, a densely vegetated plateau with high rainfall, where peat is formed. Interspersed with tussock grass is the occasional swathe of rustling red, late autumnal bracken. The hardy hill sheep graze contentedly, their thick, matted woollen coats insulating them.
Peregrine falcons soar above craggy gritstone outcrops. The mercurial merlin scythes across the steep-sided cloughs, a steep-sided valley or ravine, cut by the upland streams tumbling off the plateau.
As the ascent steepens, new views open up. The very best vista is only revealed as the ground falls away steeply on the north-eastern edge of the plateau. From here, there is a panoramic view to the four corners of the compass. Forty miles to the west is a glittering strip of the Irish Sea. To the north are the Bowland Fells, the West Pennine Moors to the south. Finally, the prominent limestone peaks of the Yorkshire Dales are visible to the east. It was this view that influenced a totally different man to the Pendle Witches. Climbing to the summit in 1652, George Fox believed he had caught a glimpse of heaven. The experience inspired this thoughtful son of a Leicestershire weaver to found the Religious Society of Friends, known as the Quakers.
Words: Mark Sutcliffe Photography: Mark Davis; Richard Faulks; Jed Sims.