On The Trail of Witches: The Pendle Sculpture Trail

In this post, Steph takes you on a wonderful discovery of witches through the Pendle Sculpture Trail.

The Pendle Sculpture Trail was closed at the time of writing due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A suspicious-looking witch outside of Witches Galore.

In April last year a friend and former colleague, who is an artist herself, kindly took me to see the Pendle Sculpture Trail. We both have a mutual interest in the Pendle witch trials for various reasons. We had a quick stop off in the village of Newchurch-In-Pendle to pop into Witches Galore. The shop sells all sorts of witch-themed items from history books, novels and jewellery to homeware and novelty souvenirs. It’s a great little shop that I’ve visited many times over the years. With the Covid-19 pandemic at the moment, I’d recommend you visit their online store if you’re interested in showing some support for a small business.

It’s always fun to see the witch decorations the owners have on display outside but the shop doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Pendle’s associations; you can usually buy a copy of Thomas Potts’ The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster there. Potts was the clerk to the court during the 1612 trial and his work provides an interesting glimpse into the sort of things that occurred during a witch trial. Although I like the more ‘fun’ elements of the associations some places have with witches and the fact that it that is often what gets people interested in what actually happened, I appreciate a shop that takes time to stock serious history books alongside the novelties.

We also walked just across the road to see St Mary’s Church and the famous Nutter family grave next to the church, in which Alice Nutter (one of the supposed ‘witches’ who was convicted and executed in 1612) is most likely not buried. ‘Witches’ would, unfortunately, not be given a ‘good’ burial in consecrated ground but the grave has nevertheless become known to many as ‘the witch’s grave.’ One thing that may have given rise to the idea that Alice may be buried there is the fact that that there is a skull design carved into the stone. This isn’t really anything unusual for the period, however.

Pendle Hill isn’t far from Witches Galore. It dominates the landscape.

The sculpture trail itself is located in Aitken Wood near the beautiful village of Barley. The trail was launched in 2012 as part of the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the trial of 1612. There’s a bit of a walk from the carpark through the village of Barley and on to the trail. You’ll pass beautiful fields and reservoirs along the way before you start your climb up a fairly steep slope to get to Aitken Wood, so wear sensible shoes when it’s safe to visit again!

Aitken Wood

One of the first faces you’ll encounter on the trail is a figure from Lancashire folklore who was not involved in the story of the Pendle witches. Not every piece is associated with the witch trials that took place in the early 17th century but many are associated with folklore or wildlife. Some some of the sculptures by lead artist Philippe Handford seem to be a part of the woods themselves, coming to life as the trail unfolds. He utilised trees which had already been illegally felled in some parts of Aitken Wood prior to the trail being created.

Some of the sculptures by Philippe Handford make it seem as though Aitken Wood is a supernatural force itself

The boggart and other sculptures of weird and wonderful creatures have been made by Incredible-creations.

Boggart by Incredible-creations

Before you get stuck in to tracking down the ‘witches’ on the trail, you’ll encounter a sinister looking Witchfinder General sculpture by Martyn Bednarczuk. Immediately my mind went not to Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, but to a more local seeker of witches; Roger Nowell. Nowell was the local Justice of the Peace at the time of the 1612 trial and it was he who investigated the complaints of witchcraft in the area and ultimately brought the Pendle witches to trial.

Witchfinder General sculpture by Martyn Bednarczuk

Throughout the trail you should keep your eyes peeled for the stunning ceramic plaques made by artist Sarah McDade. They were some of my favourite pieces on the sculpture trail. There’s a plaque representing each person who was accused of witchcraft and dragged into the trial of 1612. If you’re not familiar with Potts’ Wonderful Discoverie, you’ll be able to learn the story as you go by piecing together the clues left throughout the trail and on your trail map in order to find out which plaque represents whom!

Whose stories should you look out for on the Pendle Sculpture Trail?

The Pendle witches weren’t the only people in Lancashire to be accused of witchcraft and executed for it in 1612 (although one of the Pendle witches didn’t actually make it that far, having died in gaol) but when the ‘Pendle witches’ are discussed it’s usually in the context of the ten people who died as a result of the investigation. The stories you’ll be tracking down are those of these ten Pendle witches. The Samlesbury witches were also brought to trial in 1612. In addition to the Pendle witches and the eight Samlesbury witches, Margaret Pearson from Padiham stood accused of witchcraft at the Lancashire Assizes, as did Isabel Robey from St Helens.

The majority of the Pendle witches of 1612 came from two families, each headed by a notorious matriarch. Elizabeth Southerns (known as Demdike), her daughter Elizabeth Device and two of Elizabeth Device’s children, Alizon and James, were accused and found guilty of various acts of witchcraft. Anne Whittle (known as Chattox) and her daughter Anne Redferne were also accused. Jane and John Bulcock, Katherine Hewitt and Alice Nutter were also among those accused. Some of the accused already had a sort of ‘witchy’ reputation, as they appear to have been cunning folk; people who employed charms to heal you, find lost property, ‘unwitch’ your property and heal your sick animals.

Elizabeth Device’s youngest child, Jennet, was not convicted of witchcraft. She was, however, used against her own family. The name Jennet Device appears amongst the locals accused in and brought to trial in 1634. Those who stood accused in that trial were acquitted after it was determined that Edmund Robinson and his father, who were accusing people of being witches, were lying and there was nothing supernatural about the marks discovered on some of accused. The sculpture trail doesn’t appear to touch on this trial, which was inspired by stories of those who were executed in 1612. Centuries later, those stories are still inspiring others!

All of the pieces on the sculpture trail are fantastic but, out of all of the strange and wonderful creatures made by Incredible-creations you’ll encounter, the Black Dog is my favourite. In the popular imagination, witches tend to be associated mostly with cats but the figure of the witch’s familiar did not just take on feline form. Dogs, hares, ferrets, rats, toads and even horses are just some of the wide range of forms familiars were thought to adopt. The familiars of the Pendle ‘witches’ were said to have taken on a variety of forms but the dog is especially important. Their trouble started with a story of a man being attacked by a ‘thing like unto a black dog.’

The horns and scaly tail of this very good (or very bad) boy are great nods to some of the representations of dog familiars in images featured in books and pamphlets detailing the stories of witch trials. His black coat is not just a reference to the colour of one of the canine familiars in the story of the Pendle witches but also the folklore of the black dog spirits said to haunt Britain. Depending on where you are, they can be either good or bad in folktales. East Anglia has the infamous Black Shuck. In Lancashire folklore, some of the names given to such spirits are Gytrash, Skriker and, more familiar to fans of the Harry Potter series, Grim or Padfoot. The red eyes of the sculpture, which seem to have a sort of devilish glow to them, are also consistent with the folklore of ghostly black dogs.

Unicorn by Incredible-creations

There are plenty of other fantastic creatures waiting to be discovered, along with more sculptures that seemingly rise out of the landscape or stone walls. The unicorn is a real beauty and bound to be popular with many. Who doesn’t love a big old unicorn? It was sunny when my friend and I walked the trail but we found the ground around the unicorn to be quite soggy that day. He still looked very ethereal and majestic and no doubt continues to do so in all kinds of weather!

Perhaps one of the most important pieces is the ghostly procession or Chained Witches you’ll see as you come to the end of the trail or, rather, this part of the trail. It was designed by artist Peter W Naylor. It’s another one of my favourite pieces on the trail. You get a nice view of Pendle Hill near this sculpture. In 2012, the 400th anniversary of the 1612 trial, Philippe Handford displayed ‘1612’ in giant numbers on the hillside using a material designed to protect crops from frost.

If you look closely, you’ll see that nine figures appear to make up this sculpture and all of them are female. I can see why that would be. Maybe it was easier to make it that way? Part of me can’t help think that it may slightly reinforce a popular misconception that many have; that witches were all women. James Device and John Bulcock are represented by their own plaques on the trail, however, and I think enough people will follow the story to know that men were also accused. Perhaps these figures are not just meant to represent the Pendle witches and other Lancashire witches but the victims of witch trials in general?

During the period of witch trials in England, it was believed that women were more likely to be witches. They were seen as being both physically and spiritually weaker and more open to corruption. However, women also played a role in the condemnation of other women when they accused other women of witchcraft. To say that accusations of witchcraft occurred purely because of misogyny is too simplistic. The reasons why people were accused of being a witch might vary. A number of factors were often at play, including their relationships with family and neighbours. And of course there was religion; the story of the Pendle witches contains elements of Catholicism.

It’s good that this sculpture is deliberately distressing. You see ‘witches’ bound in chains as they are walking off to be hanged. That’s right; we used to hang witches in England rather than burn them. Their crimes were classed as a felony and for first and minor offences you could spend some time in the stocks or pillory. I think I would be a bit disappointed if the trail ended with a fun sculpture rather than something to drive the reality of what happened home.

There is one last sculpture, located away from the rest of the trail, which is worth going to see. In her native village of Roughlee, a sculpture of Alice Nutter by local artist David Palmer stands at the side of the road near patches of celandine. I like her clothing but I’m not a fan of her skin, which looks somewhat monstrous. Perhaps it’s a nod to the image green skinned ugly witches we’re used to seeing around Halloween? Is it asking us to question the narrative that was pushed in 1612? Despite her strange skin, her resigned and solemn expression still fills me with sympathy.

It was lovely to see how people have interacted with the sculpture. When we visited, we could see that someone had left some daffodils in her hands and a small crystal at her feet. It’s clear that she hasn’t been forgotten and it seems that people may be paying their respects to Alice by leaving things near the sculpture. In a way, it appears to be taking the place of the grave a ‘witch’ wouldn’t have.


Witches Galore online shop.

You can read Thomas Potts’ The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster online here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18253

Megan and Jayne, ‘Philippe Handford on crafting a Sculpture Trail for the woods’ (Interview), Pendle Folk, 27 September 2018: http://www.pendlefolk.com/philippe-handford-crafting-sculpture-trail-woods/

Philip C Almond, The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill (London, 2012).

Malcolm Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England, (Cambridge, 2000).

Jonathan Lumby, ‘Those to whom evil is done: family dynamics in the Pendle witch trials’, in Robert Poole (ed.), The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester, 2002), pp. 58-71.

Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze: Jennet Preston and the Lancashire Witches, 1612, (Lancaster, 2007).

Stephen Pumfrey, ‘Potts, plots and politics: James I’s Daemonologie and The Wonderfull Duscoverie of Witches’, in Robert Poole (ed.), The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester, 2002), pp. 19-21.

Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996).

John Swain, ‘Witchcraft, economy and society in the forest of Pendle’, in Robert Poole (ed.), The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester, 2002), pp. 73-87.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s