A ruined Lancashire cottage that may once have been a witches’ meeting house has thrown local historians into a frenzy.
Lancashire is often associated with the golden age of British enterprise and invention. Monuments of the nation’s great industrial age litter its towns and cities, many of which are sadly nursing a prolonged economic hangover. But last week provided an often overlooked, timely reminder of a more permanent wonder of the county’s makeup and history.
Despite the deprived post-industrial enclaves that sit in its shadow, Pendle Hill is a towering presence on east Lancashire’s skyline. The hill is one of the many natural wonders that make up this picturesque landscape: go east and you get the Pennines, north-west lies the Forest of Bowland, journeying south-west will take you to the Yorkshire dales national park. Despite its position among the many, Pendle Hill sits slightly isolated, perhaps fittingly given its unique status.
Before the chimneys began to dominate the landscape, the hill played host to one of pre-industrial Britain’s most infamous stories. In 1612, 11 local men and women were accused of witchcraft, and their trial culminated in the hanging of all but one of them.
Despite the story being well known in Britain and beyond, there has always been an element of mystery and romance attached to it. Every year thousands of visitors to Pendle Hill are intrigued by one of the regions great historical episodes. But the modern mind has mostly come to accept that it was little more than a story of persecution born out of an atmosphere of superstition, where religious zealots were keen to protect their denomination of faith led by the crown itself.
Pendle hill witches cottage
Last week’s discovery of a cottage bearing the remains of a mummified cat in its walls may do little to dispel accepted thought, but it is still a find of major historical significance. When those accused of witchcraft were being tried at Lancaster Castle, Thomas Potts, the court clerk, records all of them stating a meeting place, namely “Malkin Tower”. Until now, the location of this place has remained unknown. The latest find has local historians in a frenzy, and the nature of the well-preserved cottage has initiated comparisons to Pompeii and even Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Whether the cottage is shown to be the legendary meeting place of witches or not remains to be seen. But what the find should instil in the local community and those like it across the country is a sense of the potential wonders that their surroundings can throw up. In an age where the fortunes of the nation are highly dependent on the City of London and its financial district, so much so that the prime minister can defy a whole continent to protect its interests, the connection with immediate surroundings has been eroded.
The fact that one of British history’s ugliest episodes was played out in such an area of splendour is a stark reminder that human interests little reflect the beauty of the world we inhabit. This was true of the industrial maelstrom that swept this beautiful part of the nation, darkening the surrounding skies, and in its demise, blinding future generations to the beauty and history that surrounds them.
But Pendle, it seems, has always had this contradiction. This is best reflected when you learn where JRR Tolkien was formulating the ideas for Lord of the Rings. His travels brought him to picturesque Fence – another location overlooked by Pendle Hill. He found a serene place that was perfect for the peaceful life of the hobbits, and, significantly, when he looked over to the neighbouring location of Brierfield, the sight of thick, black smoke blazing from the chimneys gave him his Mordor.