Spirit of the Age: Toil and trouble on a black hill

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IT BEING Hallowe'en I have been in search of things that go bump in the night. And where better to find them than in Pendle, that redoubt of rural Lancashire which rejoices in the title of the nation's Witch Capital.

To conjure the appropriate mood I took to read on the train the Malleus Maleficarum, that dusty manual for witchfinders drawn up by two ardent Dominican priests sometime around 1482. It is a vast edifice of meticulous juridical procedure and scholastic philosophy. In it we learn, inter alia, how the omnipotent goodness of God can encompass the existence of the agents of the Devil that are witches; how incorporeal demons which have sex with men in their sleep can carry off semen; and how witches are transported from place to place.

Nor is it short on suggestions of what to do when you have tracked down the horrid practitioners of the foul heresy of witchcraft. There are sections on, "How Witches are to be Shaved in those Parts where they Conceal the Devil's Masks and Tokens", "Various Means of Overcoming their Obstinacy", "Of Common Purgation, and especially of the Trial by Red-hot Iron".

The work of these celibate Dominican inquisitors may read like sexual psycho-pathology now. They clearly have a phobia of women - the Latin word fe-minus, they tell us, means faith weakened. They have a deep repugnance of sexual activity - they have a section on "Whether Witches may work some Prestidigitatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be entirely removed and separate from the Body".

But they are also full of plainer hints on things like "The Devices and Signs whereby the Judge can recognise a Witch". It was the kind of thing I thought might come in handy in Lancashire. Before I left I had rung the Pagan Federation whose number I found on the Internet. Yes, they said, there was a coven still in Pendle. But, no, they did not want to talk. Witchcraft, nowadays, was a private matter.

Perhaps, I thought, I could track them down when I got there. The youth in the tourist office at the foot of Pendle Hill, was happy enough to point me to the official notice about the trial of local witches in 1612 in which 10 were sent to the scaffold. But when I asked about their modern equivalents he looked uneasy. The woman who might know was not on duty today, he said.

In the Pendle Inn an old chap in his late seventies told me he had once found a pentangle of stones in a local wood, but that had been before the war. Nowadays all that remains is the practice of climbing the hill with turnip lanterns on Hallowe'en. "It's modern. It only started in the 1950s," he said. "But it brings in the crowds. The police have to introduce a one-way system around the hill that night."

Such innocent folklore carries the fading echo of something far darker, and yet not necessarily supernatural. The witchfinding of 1612 had its roots in Daemonologie, a textbook on the eradication of witches written in 1597 by King James I himself. The monarch was obsessed by the subject and pronounced that a mole, scar or birthmark on a woman was the infallible sign of a witch, left by the Devil when he sucked her blood.

What chance then had the deformed old crones who made their living by healing with herbs or begging with curses and were branded as witches by magistrates zealous to do the King's bidding? They were condemned on a tissue of false confessions, uncorroborated statements and contradictory evidence. The very utterance of the allegation of witchcraft in that time - not unlike that of paedophilia in our own - was enough, it seemed, to rob people of the use of their reason.

And as today with the killing of street children of Brazil, those who were executed were social undesirables and petty criminals. The Pendle Witches were deformed, retarded, epileptic, facially disfigured or, like the widow Chattox, then in her eighties, "a very old withered spent and decreped creature, her sight almost gone ... Her lippes ever chattering ... but no man knew what," in the words of one contemporary account.

Perhaps, I thought, the place to find them now was up on the hill which lours black, like the broken back of some sleeping mastiff, above the Forest of Pendle. I set out - in rain which turned to hail - on the long climb up a path, steeper than an escalator, to the summit which at 1,831 feet is not far off the official height for a mountain. By the top those muscles that we city dwellers have forgotten we have were aching in the backs of my legs.

That is not all we have forgotten. In pre-Christian times a fire burned on Pendle Hill at the spring festival of Beltane. There were probably ceremonies too at Samhain, the Celtic New Year which became our Hallowe'en, a time for looking back at those who had died in the previous year and making divinations on what the future might hold.

Yet there was nothing eerie about the atmosphere, as I had been forewarned by one over-excited guidebook. As I picked my way among the bemused black- faced sheep to the top, the rain fell away and a luminous light shone through the heavy white clouds. On the boggy mountain top it was even possible to imagine how the itinerant preacher, George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, had once climbed here and was inspired by a vision from the Lord of "a great people" waiting to be gathered.

But the wind whistled and whipped. It was too wild and bleak for witches, or anything else for that matter.

Here there was neither lark nor lapwing, wheatear nor pipit. Only a solitary crow, a black shape, ripped and tossed and twisted by the elements of which it seemed a part. It was definitely a crow.