Witchy weathervanes and woodsmoke
I love to walk down the high street of our village at dusk, just before the curtains are pulled close, to catch a glimpse of others’ inside worlds. At this time of year the perfume of woodsmoke and the nip in the air add to the atmosphere. You feel almost as if you could step back in time into those timber-framed dwellings, while the witchy weathervanes and the swirls of pargetting suggest that the past and its mysteries are merely a step away.
This homely feel as you peer into the pastel-painted snugs of neighbours is deceptive. Not so long ago, this part of Suffolk was a hotbed of suspicion and persecution, and that witch atop the weathervane serves as a reminder of dangerous times.
From 1599 to 1694 a series of witch trials took place a few miles away in Bury St Edmunds. The most famous was that of 1645, overseen by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General.18 people – 16 women and two men – were executed in one day as a result. And this was only one of 124 witch trials that took place in Suffolk that same year…
More evidence of the fear of witches can be seen quite clearly today. In one old farmhouse, just down the road from where I type, marks made from candle flames can still be seen upstairs, where they were believed to ward off evil or protect against a possessed member of the household. The ‘possessed’ may simply have been a sleepwalker, the marks’ proximity to bedrooms suggesting so.
Desiccated cats – often placed in the walls of newly-built homes centuries ago to ward off evil - are a regular feature here too – one has been hanging up in the bar of The Nutshell pub in Bury St Edmunds for years, and you can come face to face with Rameses at the Guildhall in Lavenham. Bottles and shoes would also be placed strategically to protect against witches.
It’s not all scary though. Our village was once home to a priory of Augustinian canons, founded in 1100. The remains of the priory church and tomb slabs can be seen today, in the lawn of what is now a private house. It may be spooky to think of the goings-on 900 or more years ago, but I have only ever felt a surge of positive benevolence in the vicinity of the building.
Suffolk’s historic backdrop has inspired some of my own unusual experiences.
Close to the site of the Order of the Holy Cross of Welnetham, the Crutched Friars, I was met by a shimmering mass of energy, almost – but not quite – in human form one dark October evening when I opened my front door. Again, there was no feeling of malevolence, it was just like a friend popping round to say hello, or beware, or may peace be upon you.
I am happy to share my village with the imprints of my forebears, even those accused of witchcraft, the monks, the Roman soldiers who once stood guard on the corner there, and the Anglo Saxons who left burial urns and a fine gold cross to mark their place in history. They were friendly folk, I’m sure. What I find more infinitely more chilling are the witchfinders and the self-proclaimed mark makers and the finger pointers, who sought persecution and terrorised a peaceful place.