This article first appeared in the Oct./Nov. 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
One of the first things I noticed when I moved up to Lancaster in the northwest of England from Bristol down in the southwest, other than the slightly cooler temperatures and much wetter skies, was a small white monument on a path leading to Lancaster’s medieval castle. It was the final waymarker of 10, each of which had the name of someone executed during the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612. These cast-iron tercet waymarkers, designed by Stephen Raw, mapped the 50 or so miles the witches were made to walk from their homes on the other side of the county to stand trial. The waymarkers were commissioned for the 400th anniversary of those trials, along with a poem, “The Lancashire Witches,” by the U.K.’s then–poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, with a verse on each waymarker.
The witches were impossible to ignore with pubs such as Pendle Witch, the Water Witch, and various signs featuring broomsticks around Lancaster. The 10 poetry markers, however, seemed to be adding alternative perspectives and questions to consider onto what had become a somewhat grimly themed tourist attraction, and I was well aware that I was also a tourist and not immune to being enamored by the idea of witches. The poem highlighted the fact that in 1612, the hangings would also have been a tourist attraction with huge crowds attending, guest houses fully booked, and the city of Lancaster benefitting from the influx of visitors. The verses shifted the attention back onto the witches being people, not workers of magic, highlighting their socio-economic class (all but one lived in poverty), that all but two were women, and that this took place during an era of extreme superstition, scapegoating, and religious persecution. The waymarkers situated along the arduous route these people were forced to walk did place the modern-day tourist (and cyclist) at some of the bustling tourist sights, but also amongst beautiful but isolated barren landscapes devoid of any shelter from the north’s changeable and sometimes harsh elements, giving more insight into what the accused went through. And so, I set off to find the other waymarkers and learn more, and with the COVID pandemic preventing extended tours in the fall of 2020, it seemed a good time for a mini-quest that kept me within a day’s ride from home.
My first day got me near Waymarker One on a flattish route. The weather was unseasonably sunny for the third week of September as I pedaled south, then east, and seemingly back in time. A bridge took me over the A59 for my first glimpse of Pendle Hill topped with ominous clouds, and it loomed again behind the long Victorian railway viaduct at Whalley. All the hills were saved for the last 10 miles, and after passing another pub called Pendle Witch 35 miles from the one in Lancaster, I got lost around Sabden before rolling into a lovely B&B in Barrowford that had just reopened. I was their first guest since March.
The green leaves were just beginning to show the red and gold tinges of a crisper autumn in the air as I pedaled to Barrowford’s Pendle Heritage Centre. It was closed, but down its cobbled path Waymarker One was shining bright white in the sun.
The Lancashire Witch Trials occurred during an era of witch-hunting fever in 17th century Britain. They comprised not only the more widely-known Pendle Witches, but also the Samlesbury Witches, the Padiham Witch, and the Windle Witch. The majority were women, but two men had also been accused, and the first waymarker was for John Bulcock. John and his mother had been at a gathering at Malkin Tower, the home of the Demdikes, on Good Friday in 1612. On the waymarker, a line of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem read: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
I headed over Barrowford’s old toll bridge and very uphill into the countryside, which welcomed me to “Pendle Witch Country.” The Lancashire Witch Trials on August 18 and 19, 1612, became infamous due to the high number of people executed at one time. People accused of witchcraft had few rights and were usually poor old women, either single or widowed, and were made scapegoats for the deaths of humans and cattle, or even cursing people with pain. However, one anomaly was the widow of a yeoman farmer, a gentlewoman with her own land.
I zoomed down a steep hill, crossed a bridge, and came to a sign showing a witch on a broomstick pointing to Lancaster Castle, about 50 miles as the broom flies. I’d arrived in the village of Roughlea.
I leaned my bike against a hedge opposite a life-sized statue of a woman, her head solemnly bowed, wrists shackled, wearing a long dress to denote her rank as a Lady.
“Have you come to see Alice?” a local asked from the other side of the street, a lovely shared moment between two women admiring a third.
Alice Nutter wasn’t related to the families at Malkin Tower but had been identified as being there by one of them, a child named Jennet Device. Nutter pleaded not guilty but made no statement before or during the trial, not that this would have affected the outcome; the accused were denied witnesses and lawyers.
There’s speculation that Nutter was a Catholic and only called in at Malkin Tower on her way to worship on that Good Friday. Her silence may have been to protect others she had been practicing her faith with. Catholicism was illegal during Protestant King James I’s reign, and the king lived in fear of a Catholic uprising following the gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes. The monarch wrote a book called Daemonologie, about the dangers of witchcraft, and passed “An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits,” which carried the death penalty. Meanwhile, the magistrate, Roger Nowell, was zealous in his ambitions in terms of his career. An easy path to gaining favor with King James I was to aggressively pursue the persecution of Catholics, witches, and other non-conformists. The odds weren’t in Nutter’s favor.
I cycled up and down country lanes into woodland at Barley’s picnic site, its outdoor café doubling as an information center. I followed the one-way system around plastic barricades for a cake and asked if they knew where the next waymarker was. Nobody had heard of it. Luckily, there is a website listing each waymarker’s GPS coordinates, so I used my phone to find it.
I was led up toward Ogden Reservoirs. I had friendly exchanges with dog walkers, hikers, and a jogger while we all kept apart, but no one had seen the waymarker. The road became a dirt track ending by a gate that read “Private Fishing.” The coordinates showed the marker somewhere nearby. I heard a group of young lads downhill in the foliage. Near them, I spotted it. The boys walked up some hidden steps on a designated walker’s path and out the gate. The second waymarker was for Katherine Hewitt, who’d been at Malkin Tower with Alice Grey, both accused of murder through witchcraft. Grey was the only one of the Pendle group found not guilty. Katherine Hewitt wasn’t so lucky.
Despite the gruesome aspect to this immersive history lesson, I was enjoying my quest. But next was Waymarker Three via Sabden through the same hills in which I’d gotten lost the day before. This day proved no better. Between misreading my paper map and my phone sending me down bridleways, I began to think the area was cursed.
It was 2:30 PM before I found the Spring Wood picnic site next to Whalley golf course. The waymarker was for Alizon Device. She had been accused of making John Law stumble, possibly suffering a stroke, after he’d refused to give her some metal pins. Device, her brother James, and mother Elizabeth, all from the Demdike family, were summonsed by Nowell, and Device confessed to witchcraft under torture. During the trials, they were all identified as witches by Jennet, Alizon Device’s nine-year-old sister, the same girl who’d incriminated Alice Nutter. Although she was just a child, James I had written in Daemonologie that, “Children, women and liars can be witnesses over high treason against God,” giving passage for Nowell to use Jennet Device as his key witness. Incidentally, this precedent not only carried over to the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, it also came back around to Jennet when she was tried for witchcraft in 1633 on the accusation of a 10-year-old boy. While she was acquitted, she likely died in jail for failure to pay her board fees for the time spent in jail.
I headed toward Clitheroe, relieved to find a cycle path to avoid the A671. Clitheroe Castle was easy to find as it dominated the skyline. Just inside its grounds was Waymarker Four. I’d been recording videos at each one, and a man walking his dog stopped to enquire why. It turned out Steven was a keen cyclist, pulling from his rucksack a book about a round-the-world bicycle tourer. His dog was named Lizzie, which I remarked wasn’t that different to the name on the waymarker: Isabel Robey.
Robey was the Windle Witch from the other side of Lancaster. A woman in her early 70s, she’d been accused by her god-daughter’s husband, and by her neighbor, whom Robey had allegedly cursed after being refused some milk. Clitheroe Castle was also where the Padiham Witch, Margaret Pearson, had been put in the pillory, a type of stock. Her crime had been “riding a mare to death” by using witchcraft on a horse.
With my day’s quota complete, I pedaled to Waddington to stay in the Lower Buck, a pub’s converted coach house. It was furnished entirely in shades of grey, with its pièce de résistance being a huge ornamental silver stag’s head staring down at the bed. A friend phoned to tell me rumors about Lancashire getting locked down the following day, but with my route about to take me through a land barren of people, let alone alternative transport, there was nothing I could do other than continue on. If lockdown closed my next day’s accommodation, I’d be knackered but able to cycle home.
The new day’s ride had me pedaling north and upward into the Forest of Bowland. It didn’t matter how far I progressed; whenever I’d glance back, there’d be Pendle Hill never getting any smaller. I was overjoyed to approach Slaidburn, the waymarkers’ halfway point. Slaidburn is a charming village with a river running through it and a working phone box as there’s no mobile signal. Waymarker Five was by the café, and on it I recognised Alice Nutter’s name. It was a stark reminder. While I’d been enjoying the favorable sunshine and scenery, Alice and the others had been made to walk all this way through all weather to wait in jail for what they must have known was a probable death sentence.
Slaidburn’s café was a small mecca for a socially distanced queue. I joined a line of motorbikers, a small group of female cyclists on road and eBikes, and a farmer who’d driven over on his tractor. Glad of the refreshment, I was then off into a designated area of outstanding beauty so barren that cattle grids were landmarks on my O.S. map. Dramatic fells took me higher into moorland covered in ferns turning the color of rust. The late burst of sunshine had reinvigorated a few thistles, and I watched two white butterflies fluttering around them while I waited in a passing place for a car to slowly trundle past.
I’d decided to bypass Waymarker Six, which would have had me leaving my bike for a six-mile round-trip hike onto Salter Fell, something I didn’t want to add to my long day in the saddle. I’d worked out that the waymarker was probably for Elizabeth Device, the mother of the prosecution’s nine-year-old star witness, Jennet.
I passed another lone cyclist out on a day ride from Lancaster. He told me lockdown was now maybe starting the following day, and so I headed to High Bentham hoping my accommodation was still receiving guests.
The pub was open but a member of the staff stressed that I should lock my room, even when in it. This unfortunately proved sound advice as nearing closing time, aggressive shouting in the hallway was stopped by the police arriving to arrest someone.
I was glad to leave the next morning, cycling into more sunshine and home the long-way-round, passing dark-grey stone houses framed by trees, many still holding onto their green leaves. I went past Hornby Castle nearer where the fell walk would’ve brought the “witches.” Back on roads I knew, I rode up Quarry Road to Caton Moor Wind Farm. I cycled warily past cows in case they decided to trample me, to friendlier sheep grazing around the distinctive eight turbines turning like modern windmills. Anne Redferne was the name on Waymarker Seven. She and her mother Anne Whittle of the Chattox family had been accused of witchcraft by the Demdikes. In the past, a member of the Chattox family had stolen from them and so between them there was a fractious history.
The sunny but brisk panoramic views showcased Lancaster, Morecambe Bay, the Lake District’s fells, and Ingleborough, one of Yorkshire’s three peaks, which all disappeared on my fast downhill into Caton. The start of the wooded bike path alongside the River Lune was littered with what I’d noticed becoming annoyingly ubiquitous: the lost face mask.
At Crook o’ Lune, near the river’s distinctive s-bend, was Waymarker Eight, named for Jane Bulcock, the mother of James from Waymarker One. The café hut was open, but one customer complained about the seats being taped off. He was reprimanded with, “Haven’t you heard the news?” The latest was Lancaster’s lockdown had been postponed but only by two days.
The path was partly closed, directing cyclists onto the pavement alongside the A6. I turned onto smaller roads and up toward the city’s Williamson Park, wondering if the “witches” had been made to go up every hill between Barrowford and Lancaster. I passed the Golden Lion pub with its brass plaque saying it was where the condemned stopped for a final drink on their way to the gallows.
I hadn’t been able to locate Gallows Hill, where the Lancashire Witches had been executed on August 20, 1612. It turned out the Victorian park’s central feature, the Ashton Memorial, was built on it. Over 400 years ago, there would have been no memorial to Lord Ashton’s second wife, no café, butterfly house, or children’s play area, but the former moorlands would have shown the same views out to Morecambe Bay and the Lake District. Therefore, I was somewhat confused as to why the waymarker by the café was number nine, not number 10, it being where the witches’ lives had ended. This waymarker was for the matriarch of the Chattox family, Anne Whittle, also known as Old Chattox. Alizon Device accused Anne of murdering her father John Device by witchcraft, and of also cursing and killing four other men.
I went down into the city, passing a sign with a witch on a broomstick under a 20 mph sign, making it look as if there was a speed limit on broom travel. From 1800 onwards, public executions took place at Lancaster Castle, but in 1612 it was where the accused, whether found guilty or innocent, were imprisoned while awaiting their trials, known as the Assizes. On the last waymarker was the name of James Device, one of the four in the Demdike family who’d died. Three were hanged, but there was no waymarker for James’s octogenarian grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns, Old Demdike, who’d died in jail. So maybe that was why the 10th waymarker was at Lancaster Castle, marking the site of another type of death sentence.
The Assizes were held twice yearly with visiting judges attending them. Sir Edward Bromley and Sir James Altham had judged the Lancashire Witches, but there was one more person who’d been at the Malkin Tower gathering. Jennet Preston was instead tried in York because she came from Gisburn. Her judges, however, had been the same. Bromley and Altham found Preston guilty of witchcraft on July 27, 1612. She was hanged two days later.
In Lancaster, huge crowds would have gathered to witness the executions. Nowadays the “witches” are still attracting visitors like myself. Having out-ridden the lockdown and with less than a mile to go, I pedaled home. In the evening while jotting down my notes, I wondered how this left-handed, middle-aged woman who traveled alone might have fared if accused of witchcraft 400 years ago.
Fly from the U.S. into London and take a three-hour train, or into Manchester for a one-hour train ride.
Ordnance Survey Map: OL41, Forest of Bowland
Free Lancaster district cycling and walking route map, available from the Tourist Office in the Storey, Lancaster, and pdf here.
The GPS coordinates for the waymarkers are on this link.
Holmefield Gardens B&B, Barrowford
The Lower Buck, a pub B&B in Waddington near Clitheroe
The Coach House, a pub B&B in High Bentham
If the youth hostel had been open at Slaidburn, I would have stayed there for an extra day so that I could go on the fell walk out onto Salter Fell/Hornby Road, the old Roman way to find Waymarker Six. The YHA hostels are great because there’s nearly always somewhere secure for the bike, and they’re cheap, even moreso if you’re a member.