Saturday, 22 September 2007

Legends of Canewdon

It is with great pleasure, to mark the Autumnal Equinox 2007, that I hereby re-publish this interesting article from the archives of ASH Magazine. Mike Howard sent us this article for inclusion in issue number 4, Summer 1989 edition of the magazine. Although lots of subsequent research about the Witches of Canewdon has been published, often debunking the Pickingill lineage as fiction, I really think that this article holds merit; and is worthy of a wider readership - having been written by one of the countries leading experts in folk magic and witchcraft. Mike is still editor of the long standing and respected occult magazine The Cauldron. As always comments most welcome. Enjoy!

Legends of Canewdon by Mike Howard

Few villages in England posses such a long standing reputation for witchcraft as Canewdon, near Southend on sea. In old historical records the name of the place is variously spelt as Canevdun, Canudon and Canevdon. Legend has it that the name is associated with the Danish King Canute or Cnut, and means "Canute's Hill".

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Canewdon became associated with the Craft. In 1847, according to local historian Phillip Benton, the remains of a huge statue described as "a heathen deity" were unearthed near the village. Buried with it were a number of bones which crumbled to dust when exposed to the air. This stone idol, which may have dated from pre-Christrian times judging from the condition of the bones, was smashed up and used to repair the local road.

The first recorded instance of witchcraft in Canewdon dates from the 16th century when a local spinster, Rose Pye, was accused of bewitching a child to death. At the assizes in July 1580 she was acquitted of the charge. By the early 19th century the village had acquired a reputation for strange happenings and was firmly established in Essex folklore as the haunt of ghosts demons and witches. It was claimed that there would be six or seven witches living in the village as long as the church tower stood. Every time a stone fell from the tower a witch died and another took her place in the coven. Other legends linked the church, dedicated to St Nicholas, with magic, witchcraft and the devil. Anyone who walked around the tower at midnight was forced to dance with the coven, children danced around the churchyard as a protection against bewitchment and the devil was said to live under one of the tombstones. There were reports, even in recent years, of the ghost of an old witch materialising out of a grey mist by the church gate.

Why this odd connection with a Christian place of worship with the Craft? Firstly, churches were often built on pagan sites. Secondly, the church tower was built to celebrate the English victory at Agincourt. Tradition has it that the Canewdon coven was founded in the 15th century buy a local landowner who fought in France and had been initiated into the French craft. This is the real reason why the church was significant to local witches.

According to popular belief, during the last century the Canewdon witches terrorised the neighbourhood. They allegedly inflicted plagues of lice on their enemies, "owl blinked" or overlooked wagons so their wheels would not turn and inflicted minor illnesses on the local population. Predictably most of these alleged witches were old women who lived alone who kept white mice as pets. These were regarded as imps or familiar spirits in animal form and had to be passed on when the witch made her final journey to the spirit world, although sometimes they were buried with their mistresses.

Whether these local beldames were real witches or just innocent victims of village gossip is difficult to prove. In rural communities isolated from the outside world witches were seldom regarded as benign. Whatever the truth of the matter folk tradition condemned them as servants of the powers of darkness who had soled their souls to the devil in exchange for magical powers. Belief in witches was prevalent in Canewdon for several generations and they were said to be under control of a male wizard (wise man)who was known as the master of the witches. This sounds genuine for a coven of female witches led by a male representative of the devil (the pagan horned god) was a common pattern in the traditional witch cult of the middle ages.

In the late nineteenth century the holder of the title Master of the Witches was a farm labourer George Pickingill or Pickingale (the family name was spelt both ways) who lived in an old cottage near the anchor public house a few hundred yards form the church. Pickingill was known as a cunning man who could charm warts and locate lost property by divining. He was the resident village character and when the first motor car came to Canewdon it was old George who was photographed alongside it. He had a sinister side to his image as the local eccentric for people said said he could stop farm machinery by staring at it with his intense blue eyes and curse those who offended him with his blackthorn walking stick.

St Nicholas church, Canewdon, Essex.

Craft tradition claims Pickingill was descended from a long line of East Anglian witches and that male members of the family had been priests of the Horned God since Saxon times. The first recorded member of the family was Julia Pickingill, the famous witch of Brandon who helped the \Normans hunt down Hereward the Wake and his rebels in the Norfolk fens. She was burned to death when the wooden tower she occupied was set alight by the Saxons.

Pickingill had gypsy blood ans was raised with the travelling people. His Romany kin venerated the black faced Mother Goddess of their ancestors and the young Pickinghill was encouraged to participate in there ceremonies involving ritual nudity and moon worship. This led Pickingill to become a devotee of the goddess and in later life he founded nine covens in southern England practising a heady mixture of East Anglian and French Craft, Romany folk magic and Scandinavian paganism. Each coven was led by a priestess of had to prove she had "witch blood" or had been inducted into an existing hereditary Craft tradition. Pickingill's use of priestesses, his veneration of the goddess and his contact with ceremonial magicians and occultists led many witches to condemn him as a renegade.

Pickingill passed into the spirit world in 1909 and was buried in an old (unconsecrated?) part of the churchyard. His powers, if local folklore can be believed, did not diminish with his death. On the day of his funeral as the hearse drew up at the church gate the horse trotted out of the shafts and cantered off up the lane. It was said that his imps haunted his empty cottage for many years until it was demolished and passers-by reported seeing their red eyes glowing in the darkness. Shortly before his death it is claimed Pickingill disbanded the Canewdon coven. Certainly little is heard of Craft activities in the village after the old magister died and his son, also called George, does not seem to have carried on the family tradition. Persistent rumours however suggest the Pickingill craft is still flourishing underground in the area and that remnants of the Nine Covens are still active elsewhere. Although the village has changed considerably in the last few years, with a modern housing estate replacing many of the old cottages, Canewdon still has an eerie atmosphere especially at dusk on a winter's evening.

After Halloween 1975 a pin studded doll was found next to a black candle in a wood near Canewdon which revived folk tales of the old witches. However this is more likely to have been the work of a practitioner of black magic than any modern witch. Legends persist though, and in 1977 a local resident pointed out to me the house of an old man in the village who was said to posses the power of the evil eye. In 1973 an Essex councillor claimed Canewdon was one of the last placed in England where witchcraft was still being practised. He said a coven meeting in the village was planning to cast a spell to prevent Maplin Sands being used as the site of the third London Airport.

Monday, 10 September 2007

The Peterborough Bardic Chair revived


The Search for the Chief Bard of the Fens is now on!

13th June 2007 – Flag Fen, Britain 's Bronze Age Centre announces the 2008 ‘Battle of the Bards' competition now open, for contestant's who wish to compete for title of ‘Chief Bard of the Fens'. The competition is part of the Flag Fen Eisteddfod, an open community festival of music, poetry and storytelling including stalls, workshops, art displays and children's activities, which will run on the 14th and 15th June 2008. Contestants will have 15 minutes to woo the judges and captivate the minds of the audience through stories, music or verse. The winner shall receive their title in a special chairing ceremony, on the Bardic Chair of Flag Fen.

According to legend 31 English cities were once ancient Bardic seats and therefore had the right to elect their own Bard each year through open competition. The Bardic tradition which is an offshoot of a much older Druidic practise has been largely revived today. The ancient Bardic seats, which were claimed by the Chief Bards of their locality, were usually associated to a sacred location within the city like a burial mound or man-made hill which makes Flag Fen the perfect location for the event.

Reconstructed Bronze Age Roundhouses at Flag Fen

Flag Fen's Bardic Chair is being made by a local rustic furniture maker, with locally sourced bog oak in keeping with the theme. A smaller version of the chair already used by storyteller's can be seen in the Iron Age Roundhouse at Flag Fen. The Bardic Chair will remain at Flag Fen and the ‘Chief Bard of the Fens' has a duty to attend their chair at least twice in their title year. With chairs already revived in Glastonbury, Bath and London, Peterborough is set to be next on the Bardic map.

Jody Williams, Organiser, commented “We hope the Eisteddfod will spark the imaginations in the young and the old as stories are a great way of bringing communities together and learning about different cultures. This is important in a city such as Peterborough that has a vast multi-cultural population as stories can deepen cultural understanding and bring a sense of acceptance and belonging whether historical or fiction. Oral stories bring communities to life allowing audiences to soak themselves in historical imagery as the teller and listener journey together to different places meeting a range of characters. We hope the Eisteddfod and our other storytelling projects will encourage more people to explore their creative side and take an active interest in local literary projects which aim to raise the standards of local talent.“

Peterborough Cathedral

The Eisteddfod has been announced a year and a day in keeping in with ancient tradition and is also supported by Peterborough's Central Library who will be hosting their ‘Young Poets of the Year 2008' final on the Saturday.

For further details on the Eisteddfod and how you can enter the competition please visit the website at or email

Friday, 7 September 2007

Chesca Potter interview, 1992

It is with great pleasure that I can now re-publish an interview that ASH Magazine co-editor Dave Hunt produced for the Summer 1992 edition of the magazine. The interview is now 15 years old, so please bear this in mind when reading it! Chesca's Wild Wood Tarot is now unfortunately out of print but an online guide is available here: Green Wood tarot

This, the second in our occasional series of interviews with personalities within the esoteric scene takes us to meet one of the countries foremost "Magical Artists". Dave Hunt is the man with the questions.

Dave: When and how did you become involved in the esoteric?

Chesca: I was always mystically minded, but a deeper interest started about 10 years ago. Three specific occasions come to mind.

1. When I moved to Kings Cross and started having visions of a huge green and gold Goddess called Elen, standing over St Pancras old church. I spent years trying to understand what or who I had seen, whilst researching the lost mythology of London, some of which is written up in the book I edited "Legendary London" and in my booklet "Mysterious Kings Cross".

2. Whilst I was still living in Lancaster, I took a book out of the Library called "The Silbury Treasure" by Michael Dames. I can honestly say that book changed my life, not only did I rush down to Avebury and Silbury but it changed my way of looking at nature. I seemed to be able to tap into a sort of memory at some ancient places and interact with them, now in the present. Sometimes I see places with a sort of x-ray history, seeing who or what had been "worshipped" there in prehistoric times and how succeeding cultures changes and adapted their "worship" depending on their cultural belief system.

3. The third early influence for me was hearing about the Green Stone saga from Andrew Collins. I learned a lot from him, about the interaction between the physical world and the psychic.

Dave: What are your personal beliefs?

Chesca: I don't really know how to answer this. I am not a fundamentalist, meaning I don't have a rigid belief system. Having explored many aspects of the mysteries, I believe part of my purpose is to rediscover and make public the very ancient "green" mythologies, updating their relevance, so new people can meditate and contact ancient spirits of the land in order to empower woodland and nature.

Dave: From where do you derive inspiration for your art?

Chesca: The inspiration for my artwork comes from sacred places and my psychic or imaginative contact with the spirits of the land.

Dave: Did you have any formal training?

Chesca: I trained at Edinburgh in art history and print making.

Dave: Who are your favourite artists?

Chesca: My favourite artists are the so-called British Mystical landscape tradition, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Turner. I also like 18th century prints of ancient sites and hand coloured natural history prints.

Dave: What are your artistic aspirations?

Chesca: I can only think of a couple of years at a time. At the moment I am working on the Green Wood Tarot with Mark Ryan. Redesigning and restructuring the tarot system to be based on the wheel of the year. My dream is to be a "site guardian" of a small woodland and spring, and to be caretaker on all levels, of the natural history and ecology, and to make sure the spirits of the place are strong and happy.

Dave: What are your views on the future of the British Pagan movement?

Chesca: I really don't know where the British pagan movement will go in the future. I would like to see less emphasis placed on individual experience, personal development and satisfaction. The land is in crisis and I feel that Pagans should take far more magical responsibility for the effects of their rites on the land. I think that some pagans are destroying ancient sites because they presume that any pagan rituals are good for them., but actually if the beings they call on do not belong to the place, or know the place, it can unbalance the energies. I think people are draining sacred places of their power by not feeding that power back to them!

Artwork by Chesca Potter, as submitted for the original interview. Questions by Dave Hunt.