The Pendle Witches Way - narrative

The Pendle Witches Way day 1 - Innsign at Sabden
We had seen something about the Way on the net, and the story of the witches aroused our curiosity; also, crossing the Forest of Bowland would be new to us. The background story of witches being hanged for being social outsiders looked gruesome, but engaged our interest. Phil Bedson's book gave us the story, a ghastly account of the misfits of the local society being rounded up for what sounded like being eccentric. As well as the obvious associations with the Salem Witches, it gave us cause for thought about misfits in our current society. Although what's reported of the story today frequently says 'allegedly', 10 people were actually hanged at Golgotha gallows in 1612 after being found guilty of witchcraft. The other side of this dark bit of our past is that, by way of celebrating history, plenty of local businesses are now making good from the story. We did the walk in June 2013, when the cold jet stream delayed the spring - in contrast to the distressing story, this meant we had lovely, colourful wild flowers throughout our walk. We arrived in Sabden the previous night to the sight of glowing yellow fields, covered in buttercups.

The Pendle Witches Way day 1 - Sabden (photo Jeremy Polmear) DAY 1. Sabden to Barley
The sweet, quiet village of Sabden was by the river, in the valley bowl, protected by the surrounding hills. We had grey weather, in tune with the grey story - often the local hills were cloaked in cloud; but sometimes it was higher, allowing broader view of the hills. The churchyard at St Nicholas had a glorious deep-red rhodedendron bush, in full flower; bright and dark made a striking contrast.

This first day introduced us to some of the places the unfortunate witches had lived, though their actual hovels had long since disappeared. Other related buildings had survived, with solid houses of old stone. We chatted with some of the locals, who seemed amused by the history and not bothered by ghosts. Although the morning drizzle was on and off, we stopped, during a patch of sun, for a picnic, just before the village of Fence (Higham). The almost luminous yellow of the buttercups lit up many surrounding fields. Several local gardens also had splendid rhodedendron bushes in a variety of bright colours, and there was lots of May blossom around.

At the pretty village of Newchurch-in-Pendle we were greeted, and then followed, by a black cat with heavy hooded eyelids. Soon after, we saw a white horse. This place was certainly living up to the old wives tales of its reputation.

The long ridge of Pendle Hill stood out, proud, on the skyline; an imposing presence above the attractive village of Barley. The contrast of green valleys and hilltop views was a good introduction to the area. Walking by the Calder River had made a change from all the farms, with their sheep, lambs, and dairy cattle. There were also pigs - blotchy brown and black, described by Jeremy as the ugliest he'd ever seen. One of the businesses taking advantage of the story was the Pendle Inn at Barley, with the names of their dishes playing amusingly around the witches theme.

The Pendle Witches Way day 2 - looking back to Barley from Pendle Hill trig point (photo Jeremy Polmear) DAY 2. Barley to Clitheroe
The self-catering accommodation meant there was no breakfast; as the local cafe opened too late, and the weather looked OK, we set off on an empty stomach, by a sweet little green path alongside a stream. The hillside was a veritable Watership Down of rabbit warrens: I've never seen so many rabbits, all scurrying for cover. The views expanded as we went up a long zig-zag path, across the side of a massive whale-backed hillside. It became a grassy, rather barren slab, with big panoramic views all round. We took about an hour up to the trig-point, where we chatted with a local graphic designer. Although farming and tourism sustained the local villages, there were also work-from-home types around. He said that Halloween was a major event in the village, but they hadn't had J K Rowling along.

The much promised rain only bothered us with a couple of 10 minute showers. But the wind was strong and cold. We found a long set of steps cut into the steep hillside, which helped our descent; we were pleased to be back down to the lower slopes of the hill, with another brook surrounded by a variety of trees. Then we reached Clitheroe through more farmland, buttercup fields and green lanes. For the afternoon, our map showed a Geology Trail nearby; however, except for a small display of crinoids in the 340 million year old rocks, it was a bit disappointing. A brief visit to the Castle (now just a Keep) gave us views around, and a small taste of more local history. Through our evening meal at Emporium we were entertained to see that Friday night in Clitheroe was clearly 'girls-night-out': a veritable parade, with them all out in groups, in smart clothes, very high heels and thick make-up.

The Pendle Witches Way day 3 - countryside near Dunsop Bridge (photo Jeremy Polmear) DAY 3. Clitheroe to Dunsop Bridge
This was a day of many small pleasures. Despite a poor forecast, we were lucky with the weather. Heavy showers before setting off stopped as we walked out, and we were hardly troubled by rain. We left Clitheroe by going along the side of the River Ribble; there were some pretty, old bridges. The mellow, ochre-brown of the local stone is used attractively, most notably in the 1600 Bashall Hall and Stables. This was a good day for birds, with a heron standing stock still at the water's edge, ready to pounce on unsuspecting fish. Later, picnicking by the River Hodder, a flash of blue kingfisher shot past, off over the rapids. We saw several pheasants, heard lots of skylarks and a few curlews.

The afternoon began with pretty woodland paths, through the trees, but became more difficult, both for navigating and underfoot, around Spire: we clambered over churned-up, boggy, tufty mud. It was hard work. Then we came to a moor, with grand views across the broad-backed Lancashire hills. Although it was a long day, it ended beautifully, with the slanting sun warming our arrival in Dunsop Bridge.

The Pendle Witches Way day 4 - Langden brook from Hawthornthwaite Fell (photo Jeremy Polmear) DAY 4. Dunsop Bridge to Abbeystead
We had hoped for better weather (predictions by the Met Office were again not quite accurate); the short showers of the morning were bad enough to make us put our heads down. We set off by the Langdon Brook, again enjoying the soothing effect of the tinkling waters. Then a good track took us into the hills, surrounded by heathers, sphagnum moss and blueberry plants, with meandering streams coming down the side valleys. We heard lots of different birds again today, though I couldn't identify any of the calls.

We reached the 'Forest' of Bowland. There were no trees: the name came from it being a Royal hunting ground. Instead we had expansive views, with great, rounded shoulders of hills spreading in all directions.

The DAY 5. Abbeystead to Lancaster
The window of our B&B looked back to Hawthornthwaite fell - a lovely start to the day, and a good reminder of where we'd been. Apparently 75% of the world's high moorland is in the UK. As we were off the official Way, we took cross-country paths, going North-East to reconnect, and joining again at the Victorian Jubilee Tower. This had a good view of all the surrounding countryside, including our destination, Lancaster, and the Western beaches. Next it was back with the sheep and cows in the farmland; the day really felt like our last walking day. A diversion on the Way meant going via more little roads, but again, we were accompanied by lots of birdsong. Having a little rest before reaching the pub, a pair of curlews flew round us - perhaps we were near their nest. We were close enough to see their fine, curling beaks. Going under the M6 wasn't too noisy, and then the last bit of countryside took us into town.

Golgotha Park, where the witches were hung, had a different name and no sign of them; perhaps it wasn't a surprising denial, where you want children to play happily. Next we visited the Golden Lion pub, where some of the condemned (we were told) had had their last drink. Lastly we visited the Castle, where they'd been held; however we'd missed the last tour. One of the Museum staff showed us the entrance to the dungeon where they were shackled; clearly people were nervous of them. As we talked it emerged that he was Graham Kemp, and had done an Arthur Miller on the story: following extensive research, he'd written a play about the trial. He explained that the judges were the real evil characters in this sequence. They didn't believe in witchcraft, but political expediency meant they needed to deliver a good hanging. (In order to get one, they allowed evidence from a 9-year-old girl, thus setting a legal precedent for Witchcraft trials that caused the downfall of the Salem witches in Massachusetts some 80 years later.) Poor old souls - the witches didn't stand a chance. Graham also made an interesting point about the kind of 'alternative' medicine the witches practised actually being the standard medical practices of those times. It made a striking end to our journey. And to finish: we ate our dinner in the Pendle Witch pub, and Jeremy drank Pendle Witch Brew.

The Pendle Witches Way day 5 - the final dungeon, Lancaster Castle (photo Jeremy Polmear) This was a satisfying walk, despite the ghoulish associations. We had made a strange kind of pilgrimage, from the witches' homes to their place of death, via a variety of rich lowland farms, and broad barren highlands and moors. Although the cattle farms were diminished from some years ago, because of the foot and mouth outbreak, we saw an incredible number of sheep farms, with loads of buttercups and wild flowers. The local welcome ranged from the cold shoulder on one up-market estate to friendly and hospitable people; overall I came away with a strong impression of Lancashire warmth.

© Diana Ambache 2013