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Interview with a Pendle witch

Four centuries after the infamous witch trials of 1612, artist Joe Hesketh is a modern day Halloween witch from Pendle. Matilda Battersby meets her

Four hundred years after the Lancashire region of Pendle became the scene of Britain’s most notorious witch hunt, resulting in the trial of 12  “witches”, the death of one in custody and the hanging of 10 others, there is at least one resident brave enough today to call herself a witch.

Joe Hesketh, an artist, grew up near Pendle Hill. “I was a bit of a strange child,” she says, twiddling a strand of her platinum hair which is elaborately coiled on top of her head and covered with plastic spiders.

“I was different to everybody else and got bullied a bit when I was tiny. So aged five I decided that I was going to be a witch like the Pendle witches. I frightened them to death at Brownies.”

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She used to perform “little spells” to give herself the upper hand, but Hesketh doesn’t subscribe to a particular form of witchcraft, such as Wicca. “I know people who are white witches, of course, but I always call myself an orange witch because I’m not black or white. I like colour!”

Hesketh’s sorcery is in her painting, for which she spends up to six weeks per canvas conjuring colour and form to produce works of provocative narrative beauty. A series of five large paintings inspired by the witch trials form part of a larger exhibition opening in London tomorrow, on All Hallows’ Eve.

Working from an old windmill in Pendle, Hesketh has infused her work with a sense of the paranoia, superstition and fear that she believes fuelled the wrongful hanging of the nine women and one man found guilty of witchcraft and executed at Lancaster Castle.

For inspiration she walked the 39 miles of the Purgatory Trail that links Pendle Forest and Lancaster Castle. “Because I’m dyslexic I find it hard for things to stick in my brain. So I thought if I walked the route where they were taken, got myself as close as possible to where we know they were taken, it might just sink in a bit more.”

“It worked ridiculously well. At one point when I was on the trail and I’d been walking for days on my own with my little dog I did a double take when I looked behind me because I thought there were these women in black sat watching me among the trees. It sounds mad but I felt like I was being followed by them, like they were happy I was making paintings for the people of Pendle to see.”

Historians have long accounted for bitter village rivalries and the petty one-upmanship that catalysed accusations of witchcraft in Pendle in the seventeenth century.

Six of the twelve accused came from two rival families, the Demdike and the Chattox clan. Witchcraft was to some extent an accepted part of life in those days, with rituals, healers, the prescription of potions and tinctures all part of rural life.  

The money people could earn from “witchcraft” caused resentment in an agricultural community crippled by poverty at a time when fear of sorcery and magic was rife, fuelled right from the very top of society by King James I’s obsession with demonology and by the Anglican church which was clamping down on pagan traditions.

“Local people were just trying to make a living in serious hard times by blessing people’s cattle sending out well-wishes, like prayers, to their neighbours,” Hesketh says.

“When they were imprisoned and taken to trial people told [the accused] that if they admitted to witchcraft and named others, then they would go free. But really they just sentenced themselves. They were told that the bigger the witch they were, the more likelihood there was of getting off.”

Hesketh says Pendle is not all that different in 2012 than in 1612. “Small communities like Pendle are all the same. It’s like Chinese whispers and things get blown out of proportion. Things are exactly the same now as they were then. You’d think things would have moved on. Well, they have a bit obviously. But not to the extent that people don’t question what they hear. They want a bit of gossip at any price.”

Witch trials took place in England between the fifteenth and eighteenth century, resulting in fewer than 500 executions in total. “[During the trials] people admitted to summonsing the devil in a back alley. Killing people. One young girl said that she asked a pedlar for a pin, because her mother wanted one for something she was making, but the pedlar wouldn’t give it to her,” Hesketh says.

“The girl said ‘I curse you to death’ to the man, and at that exact point - talk about coincidence - he had a heart attack and died right in front of her. That was a massive piece of evidence for the judge.”

Hesketh says she decided to investigate the Pendle Witch Trials because looking around the district you might think they celebrated witchcraft rather than persecuted it. “Growing up I wasn’t told the story [of the witch trials]. Everywhere you go in Pendle there are witches hats, broomsticks and places are named after the witches. But people don’t know what really happened.”

How does Pendle treat its resident witch? “I’ve always been called ‘Witchy’ in the village, in the playground. ‘The Witchy one’, they call me, but I kind of like that.”

Joe Hesketh- A Pendle Investigation, The Newman Street Gallery, 31 October to 22 November 2012