Cumbria's most famous witch is probably Mary Baynes, who lived in the 18th century. As an elderly lady, she gained a reputation as a witch when a man who she had cursed was blinded in a farming accident. People could smell brimstone – the devil's perfume – in her cottage; she prevented butter from appearing in the churn; she stopped geese from laying and she finally withered and died at the exact moment that some eggs from a bewitched hen were fried. The reason for the persistence of Mary Baynes' story is her prophesies. She said that one day, 'fiery, horseless carriages' would cross the nearby fell; thirty years after her death, steam trains did just that.
Mary Baynes, like many witches, could turn into a hare. The Eskdale Witch had the same skill, according to a traditional song:
'They tried every trick with gun and snare, but they never caught that wily hare;
'Twas then the men were filled with fear, for they knew witchcraft was lurking near.
Now the wise old sage knew what must be done, with a silver bullet you must load your gun.
Level it when the moon is clear, it's the only way to slay that hare!
Now the gun was primed and levelled that night, and the bullet crashed out in the pale moonlight;
Then the sight they saw filled the men with dread, for where the Hare fell, a Witch lay dead.'
(The Eskdale Hare, Traditional)
Of course, witches had their 'tools of the trade'. Margaret Teasdale, a Cumbrian witch who died in 1777, was found after her death to possess a 'hand of glory' – the preserved hand of a hanged man – and the skeleton of a child.
Many people in the Lakes must have feared witchcraft, as 'witch jars' – stoppered pots filled with a potent witch-repelling mixture of urine, fluff and nails - have been found, usually around doorways. One of these can be seen in Kendal Museum. Keswick Museum has another remarkable artefact, a desiccated cat, which was placed in the roof of Clifton Church in the 13th century to repel evil-doers.
The church records of Lamplugh, near Loweswater, reveal some interesting run-ins with the supernatural in the 17th century. They state that seven people died after they had been bewitched, presumably by the three old women 'drowned upon trial for witchcraft'. It appears that the area was thoroughly beset by the paranormal, as the records also say that four people were 'frighted to death by fairies'!
One of the spookiest parts of the Lake District is the old coffin path in Wasdale. In years gone by, there was no church in Wasdale, so bodies were carried by pony and cart over the mountains to St. Catherine's Church in Eskdale. One day, a young man died, and his body was taken on its final journey. At a particularly remote part of the route, the pony bolted, taking the cart and coffin with it. A search was made, but neither the pony nor body was found. A few months later, the young man's mother died, and she, too, was taken along the coffin path. The pony pulling her coffin bolted too, and the villagers ran after it. They eventually found a pony and coffin, but it wasn't the mother's; it was the son's, lost months before. The son was buried, but the mother's body was never found. It's said that at certain times of year, a ghostly horse can be seen galloping across the moor, pulling its burden behind it.
Muncaster Castle is the place to go if you fancy some serious paranormal investigation. Many ghostly happenings have been reported, from whispering, to children's cries, the smell of burning, rattling door handles, ringing in the ears and sudden headaches. The spooks aren't just confined to the castle, either; the ghost of Mary Bragg, a former castle servant, lingers on the roads nearby. It's said that she was summoned to the bedside of her sick lover, only to find that the invitation was a set-up by a love rival who had arranged for Mary to be strangled. Her body was found in the Esk estuary, and her murder was covered up by nervous officials, which may account for the restlessness of Mary's spirit.
Cumbria lays claim to a couple of the most impressive wizards in England. Michael Scot, who lived in the 13th century, is said to have built a church in a single night; thrown rocks on to Carrock Fell, and turned a coven of witches to stone to create Long Meg stone circle. He could summon demons, and command the sea; he cured the illnesses of the Holy Roman Emperor, and measured the distance to the stars. His writings were still in Wolsty Castle, near the Cumbrian coast, in the 17th century, when a writer called Satchells visited. He wrote that Scot's work, which was full of magical symbols, 'was never yet read through, nor ever will, for no man dare it do... for Mr Michael's name does terrify each one'.
So what was the truth? There's no doubt that Scot was a real man; there are records about him in museums and libraries across Europe, and it's known that he studied the early versions of physics, chemistry and astronomy. The 'magical symbols' used in his writings were probably Arabic and Hebrew letters, which the ordinary Cumbrian of the time wouldn't recognise. His studies suggest that he hadn't ruled out the possibility of what we would call magic, as he thought that certain substances, used in certain ways, when the planets were in certain positions, might produce supernatural effects. Perhaps this was the reason that he was regarded as seriously spooky even in his own lifetime, and he has the dubious honour of being the only named Englishman condemned by Dante to the 'eighth circle of hell' in his 'Inferno'. Scot is supposedly buried at Holme Cultram abbey.
Another wizard story is very old, dating to the Dark Ages. The wizard was known as Lailoken, and he worked for a local chieftain. The chieftain was killed at a savage battle at Arthuret in northern Cumbria in CE573, and Lailoken, driven mad by grief and self-recrimination, fled to the forests, where he lived for the next forty years. Lailoken foresaw his own death by stoning, stabbing and drowning, and sought out St. Kentigern, who absolved him of his sins before he died exactly as he had prophesied. Lailoken's name has been lost to all but experts in the old Celtic records of Cumbria, who believe that his nickname was Myrddin, or, as we now pronounce it, Merlin.
Our carved pumpkins!
There are lots of Halloween-related events this October half term. Here are just a few which are within easy reach of our Lake District cottages:
Muncaster Castle 24th – 31st October
Visit this famously-haunted house for twilight garden tours, enhanced by illuminations, sound effects and music; an owl tour, magic shows and a ghostly grotto.
Ravenglass & Eskdale Miniature Steam Railway 29th-30th October
La'al Ratty, the little steam train, will be travelling through Eskdale, looking for spooks en route. Hot soup or 'dead man's finger' sausages for supper, and prizes for the best Halloween outfit.
Holker Hall 27th – 29th October
Spooky walks, crafts and competitions for all ages.
Ullswater Steamers 30th October
Halloween magic for all the family on a two-hour cruise. Optional fancy dress.
Taffy Thomas, Storyteller 28th-29th October
Spooky storytelling at Beetham Nurseries and the Storyteller's Garden at Grasmere.
World of Beatrix Potter 30th- 31st October
Pumpkin carving, face-painting and pumpkin treats in Peter Rabbit's garden.
Carlisle Castle 25th – 29th October
Ghost and Ghastly Story tours.
Rheged 26th-29th October
Pumpkin carving, broomstick-making and 'care of magical creatures'.
The Folklore of the Lake District, Marjorie Rowling
Life and Legend of Michael Scot, J. Wood Brown
The Guide to the Mysterious Lake District, Geoff Holder
The Ghosts of Cumbria, Laurie Kemp
Find one of our Lake District cottages for a spooky break at Halloween.