On Wednesday just gone I had the privilege of talking to a group of young people at Newbrough Youth Club, just beyond Hexham in Northumberland, all about witches. They are doing a project with Groundwork North East and Cumbria about the local legend of Meg the Witch, and this was my contribution to it all.
My book The Memory of Snow is set at a very special spot on Hadrian’s Wall, at Coventina’s Well, a sacred well area near Brocolitia Mithraic Temple and Carrawburgh Fort – but the Well is now little more than a huge puddle with flowers growing around it. In my book, Meggie is a young woman accused of witchcraft in 1649 and tried as such by a pretty evil character called Cuthbert Nicholson. Nicholson was a real witch hunter who travelled the area at that time, and there really was a witch called Meg in Newbrough as well – but as Meg was a very difficult lady to find anything out about, except the fact that she has a brook named after her called Meggie’s Dene Burn which flows from Coventina’s Well, everything I have written about her is fiction. The children at the youth club had taken it on board to try and find out more about Old Meg (as apparently she was an old lady) and learn about witches and discover all sorts of wonderful things about their local history, and I was there to chat about, basically, what I had made up as I went along.
I took a powerpoint presentation with some photographs and pictures on, as well as a prepared talk, to the club; but I soon realised that it would probably be a lot more interactive and exciting if I just talked through the slides instead – and thus ensued a fabulous twenty minutes or so discussing witch hunters and Romans and burning witches as opposed to hanging them, and bits of human skulls that were found in the Well, and a whole raft of things relating to imagination and creativity and ‘what ifs’ and ‘what do you thinks?’. I’m pleased to say that, judging by the crowd of children that kept moving closer and closer to my laptop and asking question after question that they were pretty engaged with it all! They’d already been for a walk to the far end of the village to see the pile of stones where it is alleged that Meggie’s house was, and they’d also had a trek across the field where she is meant to be buried. Her grave is meant to be marked by a thorn tree, but I was informed that there were a lot of thorn trees, so nobody really discovered where it was. They did, however, discover kingfishers and owls and water mint and a ram’s horn and a pretty, polished pebble. I believe the children are also visiting Dilston Physic Garden to learn about herbs and having a trip to the Well itself, making besom brooms and lavender bags in the meantime.
I did get to see the site of Meggie’s house and her burial site myself though – and it’s all in such a beautiful, quiet spot that the people of Newbrough are, I decided, very lucky to live in such an area. I’ve popped some photos in here as well, so you can see for yourself what the countryside is like. One interesting fact that also came up was from the local historian who was there to talk to the children as well – as we were chatting before the event, he told me again about the burial site and how it’s a bit difficult to tell someone who is moving into the house on the land that there’s a witch buried in their garden. I think the owners already know, though, because I was also told that their home is haunted by Meggie… I really hope Meggie doesn’t take offence at what I’ve written and talked about, or I could be in deep, witchy trouble myself! However, my other question was, if she was supposedly buried, how come her ashes were meant to be scattered in the brook, giving it the name of Meggie’s Dene Burn? It seems a thing to wonder on, as they say.