The witching hour is upon us – again

Actors from the Blackpool Tower Dungeon's arrive on Pendle Hill to mark the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials.
Actors from the Blackpool Tower Dungeon's arrive on Pendle Hill to mark the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials.
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Pendle Hill casts a long shadow over the rest of Lancashire – even 400 years on from the trials which put it on a macabre map of the world.

Not that you can see it on a clear day from Blackpool. Even from the top of the Tower. The Ribble Valley lies between it and us.

You have to delve deep into Blackpool Tower Dungeon for some insight into the enduring appeal of the 17th century Lancashire Witch Trials.

Six hundred years on it’s the setting for an ’orrible histories homage to the women and men of Lancashire who were condemned as witches by a child in their midst.

It’s become one of the most popular attractions within the resort Dungeon – as 2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the infamous witch trials.

Interest is set to soar for Halloween with visitors invited to enter the eerie woods of Pendle, come face to face with Alison Device and hear her grizzly tale, and venture into isolated communities where reports of witchcraft are rife – and anyone can be accused, even you!

Visitors dodge the Witch Finder General as he relentlessly pursues potential witches and hear the story of Alice Nutter, one of Pendle’s witches, hanged for her crimes. One of Alice’s descendants is believed to live in Blackpool.

Of the 11 who went to trial, only one was found not guilty.

Some years ago a Blackpool woman also hit the headlines after claiming to have regressed under hypnosis to a so called previous life – as Jennet Preston.

Jennet, of Gisburn, was of the lesser known of the Pendle Witch clan, most of who came from two rival families. They were hanged on Gallows Hill, Lancaster, after being jailed at Lancaster Castle. Jennet was actually executed in York.

Back in the 17th Century Lancashire didn’t get the best press from the church authorities – the witchcraft trials revealing the county as a wild and lawless region “fabled for theft, violence and sexual laxity, where the church was honoured without much understanding by the common people”.

Time was the Fylde may have had its share of covens too. One specialist on the subject, the late historian Kathleen Eyre, maintained there were 14 covens “between Freckleton and Fleetwood.” It passed into folklore - although it’s more likely to have been a nice bit of alliteration rather than reality.

Today, as local pilgrims prepare to travel to Pendle Hill, later this month, for the ultimate Halloween party, and Lancaster continues to run a packed programme of allied events, it’s hard to know just why witchcraft continues to cast its spell.

One writer on her own flying visit to the Fylde tomorrow reckons she has the answer.

“People, particularly children, are fascinated by the fine line between what is real and what is not,” says Harriet Goodwin, author of The Hex Factor (Stripes Publishing, £5.99).

Harriet is running two workshops at Fleetwood Library tomorrow for pupils from Chaucer and St Mary’s primary schools.

Harriet has a softer focus than the harsh lines of Pendle Hill. “It’s not about pointy hats and witches so much as ordinary people who may be extraordinary,” she adds.

The same goes for the kids for attend the workshops.

“I’m looking for writers who bring words alive,” she admits.

Up for grabs is the chance to win a travel deal, with tickets and meal, to Wicked, the musical, in London’s West End.

It’s part of an alliance with Lancashire County Council’s library service, which also commissioned a new book, the Malkin Child, by Manchester-born writer Livi Michael, to tell the story of the 1612 witch trials through the eyes of nine year old Jennet Device, the key witness for the prosecution.

Jake Hope, reading development manager, says: “The book was commissioned for Lancashire Reads to get as many people as possible from the age of 10 upwards to read the same title by borrowing it from their local library. We have 350 reading groups.”

But Harriet’s new book The Hex Factor takes it a stage further. A hex is a magic spell, a bad one, and Harriet’s fictional 13-year-old heroine has to de-hex victims of bad magic.

Harriet explains: “There’s so much interest in the X Factor right now the title just came naturally. My heroine sees mysterious glowing x’s above people who have been hexed by witches. I love encouraging kids to talk about it and write too.

“It’s interactive and fun. It also surprises some to learn that witches exist. Or people who claim to be such. I’m a fairly laid back mother of four – but all children love to be spooked a little.”

Harriet’s two previous bestsellers are The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43 and Cravenhunger, which she describes as a “seriously scary ghost story... I even succeeded in frightening myself!”