>I’m fascinated by folklore and superstition. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in the modern but rural fringes of a mill town, but some neighbours never refused to buy the pegs the gypsies came round selling. Better keep them happy, otherwise, you might get cursed. Happened to a friend’s auntie didn’t it? Never been the same, she hasn’t. I remember seeing milk left out for the ‘Hob’, the local name for a Boggart – a sort of mischievous Yorkshire pixie – at a farm gate in the Worth Valley. If you go to the Grouse Inn not far away, you’ll drive down Hob Lane. Until at least the early 80s many houses in Langcliffe up in Ribblesdale had smooth stones on thresholds and window ledges to keep evil out.
It may be full of second homes, Volvos and easier to buy a William Morris tea cosy than a light bulb in the Cornish village of Boscastle, but it’s a lovely place. Apart from the catastrophic floods of a few years back, the village is chiefly famous for the medieval harbour – where the tide comes in so quickly it’s like a giant filling his bath – and the Museum of Witchcraft, a place I’d wanted to visit since I first read about it the Fortean Times.
The museum was first opened in 1951 by former MI6 agent Cecil Williamson. Back then it was on the Isle of Man, and it’s had several homes since – not every community was happy with such a collection in their presence. It’s been in Boscastle since 1961. Amazingly, in this era of ‘relevance’ there is not a single mention that I could see of Harry sodding Potter. It’s just exhibits with captions, and that’s the way I like it.
A tale did the rounds after the floods that while the Christian bookshop was washed into the sea, the Museum remained untouched. Actually, that’s not quite true – on the ground floor of this utterly unique collection there are markers at chest height showing the limit of the inundation. Given the fragile state of many of the exhibits it does make you wonder if magic played a part in their survival. Some items did get lost, alas. We’ll never know what ‘baked grave dust’ looks like – just the container remains.
Many of the exhibits here are surprisingly recent – one of the latest additions being a tumescent flint nodule long used to encourage fertility. The custodian of this stone – the last in a very long line of keepers – had donated it because nobody in her village ‘believes in that stuff any more’. There’s a ram’s skull that was once part of a witches shrine on Bodmin moor that was venerated as lately as 1967.
I always thought that witch balls were fairly rare, so it came as a surprise that there was a factory in Nailsea churning them out in the latter years of the 1800s. You’d hang them in your window to keep witches out. Surprisingly many pubs have a desiccated cat on show. It’s likely this had been found in building works and was left by the original constructors to keep out rats. Over here’s a collection of charms worn by troops in the trenches of Flanders. Down there, a human skull fashioned into a drinking cup by Eggy ‘Bald Head’ Roberts – stonemason and warlock. He’d drink beer from the skull in pubs and recite poetry for a few extra shillings. In another cabinet a lock of hair from a redheaded virgin – keep that on you and a life of prosperity is assured. Look – a red shoe which contains a (dead) sparrow encased in wax. This was the work of a Plymouth witch, ‘Black Doris’ – a charm against jealousy. Next to that is a number of what most would term voodoo dolls, but are more correctly known as ‘poppets’. The one of the wartime ATS sergeant hanging from a noose was very effective, apparently.
Of course, most witchcraft was (and maybe still is) used for nothing but good, wholesome ends – making sure that the season’s crop would be a good one and to ensure the health of livestock. Has all this died out in our age of soya lattes and broadband? To paraphrase Laurie Lee, do the old ways still persist where the roads are bad? I do hope so.
PS – I made very sure that it was OK for me to take pictures. You don’t want to upset a witch.