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Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy on the Pendle witches


Here are the first three tercets of a new poem which will be engraved on iron waymarkers, every five miles along the new Lancashire Witches Walk

The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has released a tempting come-on from her part in this year's 400th anniversary of remembrance for the eight Lancashire women and two men who were hanged in an outbreak of public hysteria over witchcraft which resonates in child-murder cases today.

As previously flagged in the Guardian Northerner, she is joining her fellow-poet Simon Armitage in a verse exploration of the tragedy in 1612 which saw political and legal manipulation of villagers living around Pendle Hill, where folklore about the supernatural has a long-standing hold.

The full poem requires you, quite rightly, to visit the new 51-mile Lancashire Witches Walk which threads from Pendle Hill - site of the alleged witchcraft - along public footpaths to Lancaster castle where the ten were condemned. But Duffy and the organisers offer this taster, the start of ten tercets, or three-line stanzas, which reflect the Laureate's views:

One voice for ten dragged this way once
by superstition, ignorance.
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
Witch: female, cunning, manless, old,
daughter of such, of evil faith;
in the murk of Pendle Hill, a crone.
Heavy storm-clouds here, ill-will brewed,
over fields, fells, farms, blighted woods.
On the wind's breath, curse of crow and rook.

Duffy says of the story:

I was struck by the echoes of under-privilege and hostility to the poor, the outsider, the desperate, which are audible still

Peter Flowers of Green Close Studios in Lancashire's Lune valley, which has been awarded £100,000 by the Arts Council to stage the anniversary events, says:

Walkers will be able to follow the story as well as the path, from its beginnings at Pendle to the tragic end.

The trail passes an area of moorland used for hangings and known as Golgotha, the only place in the UK to take the name of 'the place of the skull' where Jesus was crucified.

Such details, with their echoes of Christian churches' past role in persecuting witches – and today's controversy over the issue in Africa - are expected to form part of commemorations, including the total of 40 waymarkers on the new trail. Manchester-based textural artist Stephen Raw is creating ten mileposts to carry Duffy's poem; each will also feature the name of one of the 'witches' and a verse in specially designed letters so that a rubbing can be taken; if you do the whole walk, you can rub the entire poem.

Other events will involve thousands of local people in school visits, discussions and the making of a giant quilt which will embroider both the story and lessons learned from it.

One of the small towns involved is Padiham near Burnley, the scene of local council electoral victories in recent years by the British National Party. The commemorations will examine the role of politics in the Pendle case, which was used by the two judges to further their careers and by the government to crack down on opposition at a turbulent time.

The story has been passed down over the years in part because of a detailed record by the clerk of the court Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, and partly because of the timeless issues of scapegoating, misogyny and cynical authority which illustrates. Potts' rendition of ludicrous evidence includes the testimony of nine-year-old Jennet Device which led to the execution of her entire family, but it did not save her from facing a charge of witchcraft herself, from a lying ten-year-old 20 years later.

Flowers and his wife Sue, who are both artists involved in bringing international colleagues to rural Lancashire, said that Duffy had been commissioned because of the scope for exploration of the story and the depth of the issues involved. Sue Flowers, whose interpretation of 17th century woodcuts of the affair is on display at Lancaster's Judges' Lodgings, says:

This is the culmination of a lot of previous work. We are trying to address social issues, the role of the outsider, how history can be very relevant today. Our schools programme is particularly looking at attitudes and outsiders, how easy it is to judge people.

Peter Flowers says:

Much of the work that Green Close is doing will be raising awareness of present issues around witchcraft and in particular helping people become more aware of, and helping to raise money for, the Lancaster based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria and their work with children accused of witchcraft.

The witches were arrested after a supposed conspiracy at a lonely ruin known as Malkin Tower, whose name was borrowed by Shakespeare for the witches' cat Greymalkin in Macbeth, written some six years before the trial. They were alleged to have planned an attack on Lancaster castle to free another group of supposed witches, as well as casting spells on neighbours and farm animals.
Malkin Tower's whereabouts are lost, but in December water company workers unearthed an ancient cottage close to a reservoir beneath Pendle Hill, complete with a mummified cat which had been bricked up in one of the walls. Simon Entwistle, a historian of the Pendle witches, said that the find was "like Tutankhamun's tomb" for enthusiasts:

It's an absolutely spellbinding discovery. Right in the heart of witching country.

Full details of the anniversary events are here.

Engraved outdoor poetry seems to be spreading in the north, not to everyone's satisfaction.

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