Veterans of the Hallowe'en trudge
David Norris follows the lanterns up Pendle Hill
Saturday 26 October 1996
On 18 August 1612 at Lancaster Assizes, Judge Altham and Judge Bromley tried 19 witches from the Pendle area. They were accused of getting together for a witches' sabbath. Nine of them were subsequently hanged. The names of Alice Nutter and Anne Redferne are etched deep in local folklore, mainly because they were victims of ignorance.
The saga started when a poor girl called Alizon Device met Abraham Law, a travelling peddler on the hills near Colne. She begged for some pins. He refused her. She cursed him and he had a stroke. Of course in an age of witch-hunts that seemed a clear case of sorcery. Zealous magistrates and constables took a nine-year-old's evidence and manipulated family feuds to such an extent that two families ended up confessing to being spellbinders.
Pendle Hill keeps an eerie silence on that slice of history. The local post office in Barley is prone to running an anti-publicity campaign about the present goings on at Hallowe'en.
"There's nowt here now. They come here from as far off as Liverpool, but there's no bonfire on the hill like there used to be."
Locals tell of the old days when everyone met in the main street - armed with turnip lanterns - and set off in procession at 10pm to walk up the hill. Now, on 31 October people simply walk up Pendle Hill as the mood takes them. But with their moving lights the effect is still spectacular - a sort of fairy necklace of illumination.
The hot dog stall in the car park by the stream is the nerve centre for all activities nocturnal. Last year we set off at 11pm. We turned left off the road by the stream where a signpost points to Pendle End.
The footpath alongside the stream is full of tree roots raking out to trip you up. That was where we were told that the right way to do the walk is without a torch. Once past Pendle End the slope gets steeper, the track gets as busy as Oxford Street and your breathing gets heavier. It's then that the English eccentricity hits home. Where else in the world would you meet a group in fancy dress walking down a hill banging a drum at the same time as someone else tries to ride up it on a scramble bike?
Only once have I ever seen policemen at the top checking on safety. But then how can you get lost? There can be as many as a hundred people on the hill at any one time, all noisy, all making that string of lights such an effective, romantic image, and yet so few really know why they do it.
On the drive back into Burnley we gave a lift to two teenage veterans of the trudge. "How many times have you done it then?"
"This is my fourth".
"Why do you do it?"
All Hallows is the first day of the pagan year. Hallowe'en is a time when spirits are allowed to roam free. I've never seen one. Never seen a witch either. The Pendle witches were arrested at Malkin tower four miles away on the evidence of a nine-year-old child. The probable motive for their get-together was not a witches' sabbath but a Catholic gathering in Protestant England.
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