TIFFY-LOU AND THE WITCHES OF WYRE
Then hurrah for the Lancashire witches
Whose smiles every bosom enriches –
Oh, dearly I prize the pretty blue eyes,
Of the pride of the Lancashire witches.
(Axon Ballads 069)
There is a large boulder by the side of the path in the churchyard of St Anne’s in Woodplumpton and a small sign says that it marks the grave of Meg Shelton – a local witch in the late seventeenth century. Meg was known as the “Fylde Hag” and apparently got up to all sorts of mischief – stealing the milk from other people’s cattle and transforming herself into animals, etc.
The boulder is about three feet long by two feet wide – which doesn’t seem big enough to cover a grave. But it turns out that Meg was buried in a narrow shaft… like a fence post… head down…so that if she tried to dig her way out she’d be going the wrong way, all the way down to Australia! The boulder was put on top to keep her in the grave.
Many areas of Lancashire have legends associated with the rivers that run through the county. And there are many gruesome ghastly tales of witches in Lancashire.
One such story is of Peg o’Nell who is said to live under a bridge over the River Ribble near Clitheroe. There is also a similar story referring to Ginny Greenteeth who is said to live in the River Conder in north west Lancashire and her tale is also told in a song entitled “Jenny Greenteeth” written by Nicole Murray of Australian folk duo Cloudstreet – Nicole’s song is recorded on their cd ‘Violet Sarah and Muckle John’.
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This is a story about Tiffy-Lou and how she came to meet Netty Nettlebags the white witch of Wyre.
With her pointed nose and pointed ears, broomstick always at the ready beside the back door and a tall pointed hat in the cupboard under the stairs Netty Nettlebags was the picture of witches known to millions.
Netty and her friends Annie Appletree and Rowena Rowanberry were the youngest members of the Bogworts and Bindweeds, two very ancient families who have been good white witches around here for over four hundred years.
They lived together in Dreamy Dell, a quiet little place surrounded by wild plants and the tall green trees of Farland Forest, close to the bend in the river.
The windy heights, hidden cloughs and remote homesteads of Pendle are only a forty minute ride away to the east and the gloomy dark brooding red sandstone bulk of Lancaster Castle with its echoing courtrooms and dark damp dungeons deep underground is just a fifteen minute hop northwards on a fast broomstick.
Sometimes Netty, Annie and Rowena would meet with another wise medicine woman, Gaylar, the white witch from the greenwood, who used to travel around the local villages on foot and on horseback collecting herbs and helping people and dragons with her lotions and potions.
Tiffy-Lou twitched her nose and the winter storms subsided and at the time it seemed like it was just a coincidence. But it soon became clear that this was only the beginning of another tale of Tiffy-Lou’s adventures in the world of magic, myth and legend, here beside the river where things are never always quite what they seem.
The swallows had just returned once more from their winter homeland in West Africa; flying in on the first wave of warm winds blowing up from the vast moist green tropical jungles and over the dry arid deserts thousands of miles to the south.
It all started soon after she met Dangerous Duncan the Drumlin Giant when she had first seen some of the natural wonders hereabouts. As a growing young girl Tiffy-Lou already knew Draco the river dragon and Sta-Na the unicorn, and Halich Vigr the Selkie who came ashore to rest for a while after being battered in a raging sea-storm last autumn, and she began to take an ever greater interest in the plants and animals all around. Tiffy-Lou was particularly amazed by the wonders in her own back garden where she gazed on in wonderment as lots of tiny black dots in clusters of clear slimy jelly-like goo grew and changed shape over the following days and weeks into wriggling swimming tadpoles.
Later, she watched fascinated when the tadpoles themselves began to change, as first two little back legs grew and then little front legs soon followed until at last what had begun life as silent little black dots no bigger than a full stop on a page, went on to change shape completely yet again to become noisy little green and black and brown frogs which were soon croaking and hopping out of the pond. So Tiffy-Lou had learned about the magic of one of nature’s miracles that is the evolution of frog-spawn, which happens every year and is always a joy to share.
Now it was springtime in the countryside. In the hedgerows, hawthorn bushes were covered in sweet scented creamy white blossom which fell like confetti along the tracks. Red Campion flowers grew bright and fresh among the head-high clouds of lacy white cow parsley on the verges of the lanes. Bluebells carpeted the woodland floor and buttercups turned the meadows into waving fields of gold.
Tiffy-Lou twitched her nose again and springtime changed into summer as golden headed dandelions were transformed into round white feathery clocks which began ticking silently all across the fields, measuring time by the lengthening daylight hours, before casting their seeds on the breeze to travel like fairies flying high over the hillside and out across the river.
One hot sunny day in mid-summer, Tiffy-Lou was out walking beside the river, listening to the birds and collecting herbs to take home in her basket. Fantastically bright coloured red and gold dragonflies and shiny azure blue damselflies flashed around in the hot sunlight along the path as a reed bunting sang his clear but hesitant song in short pauses and sounding like a young child trying to count and forgetting what comes next. And swallows swooped down low to fly around her shoulders and knees; when all of a sudden she bumped into her old friend Betty Bramble. Most of the local people knew Betty Bramble down along the river riverside path.
“Ah Ha!” said Betty. “I think the flying creatures like you, young Tiffy-Lou, and I see you already know your herbs. Have you seen my friends Netty Nettlebags and Annie Appletree and Rowena Rowanberry anywhere around here while you have been out and about today?”
“The dragonflies and damselflies know my Grandad, who also walks beside the river, and they often accompany him for a while along the path; and the swallows always watch out for him at the fork in the lanes when they come back every spring time. So, as they know my Grandad, they also now know me.” replied Tiffy-Lou. “I don’t think I know Netty Nettlebags or Annie Appletree or Rowena Rowanberry, but I do know Gaylar though – because she helped old Gwen Dragon before Draco the River Dragon was born.”
Betty Bramble took Tiffy-Lou along the path through the trees to Dreamy Dell and sure enough Nettie, Annie and Rowena were all there mixing their potions and chanting strange words like ‘Puccinelia Maritima’, ‘Spartina’, ‘Zostera’, ‘Juncus Maritimus’ as they stirred the cauldron.
“Hello girls,” called Betty, “I think you might like to meet young Tiffy-Lou here, she’s another friend of mine. She doesn’t realise yet that she is actually very much like you three so I’m sure you will all have some great fun together.”
And with that, Betty walked away and left Tiffy-Lou there with the three young witches.
Tiffy-Lou twitched her nose, and Netty, Annie and Rowena immediately ceased their chanting and stopped their stirring, and they welcomed young Tiffy-Lou into their home with a refreshing brew of herbal tea.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Tiffy-Lou.”
“Good day to you Tiffy-Lou, I am Netty and these two young ladies are my very good friends Annie and Rowena; we are the last of the witches of Wyre. But Netty said that you are very much like us so are you a witch too?”
“I don’t know,” replied Tiffy-Lou as she kept her nose very still. “But sometimes when I twitch my nose, strange things seem to happen around me.”
“Hmmm,” replied Netty. “I see from your basket that you are collecting herbs, and from what Betty Bramble says, you also have the creatures of the air flying down and around you. Tell me Tiffy-Lou, do you have a cat?”
“Yes, I have a cat called Pilchard.”
“Ah ha!” cackled Annie, as witches do, “you have a cat that is really a fish or is it a fish that is really a cat? Or is it really a catfish?”
“I don’t know,” murmured Tiffy-Lou nervously, “to me, Pilchard is a cat.”
“But the cat could be a fish in disguise, or maybe the cat is a fish that you can change into a cat or a cat that you can change into a fish?” asked Rowena.
“I don’t know!” said Tiffy-Lou. “Pilchard is a cat and has lived with me all my life. Why do you ask all these questions?”
“Because, young Tiffy-Lou, we think that perhaps you are very much like us. Have you got a broomstick?” asked Netty Nettlebags.
“No. I don’t have a broomstick, but I do help my Mum to clean up at home and I can brew a cup of tea.” replied Tiffy-Lou as she wondered what all these questions were about.
“We must remedy that immediately, and with all haste,” said Netty, “come on girls let us go into the forest together and gather the wood to make a broomstick.”
It did not take them very long to collect enough Birch twigs for the broom head and a fine straight branch of Ash for the handle. Back in the cottage yard Netty took a length of twine from a hook on the wall and together the three young witches made a brand new junior broomstick especially for Tiffy-Lou.
Netty, Annie and Rowena then taught Tiffy-Lou how to fly on her new broomstick. They started off with just a few short hops around Dreamy Dell before zooming over to Pheasant Wood to see the golden magic carpet of celandine flowers. From there it was another short flight to Towers Wood where they watched the geese on the pond and squirrels in the trees, before returning over Farland Forest and back to the cottage in the Dell.
Tiffy-Lou learned very quickly and was eager to be off again but her new friends said that she had done enough for today. They asked her if she had any brothers at home so she told them about Charlie and Simon who were both a few years older than her. “Oh, you must bring them with you next time you come to see us,” said Annie. “Leave your broomstick here with us and we will look after it for you.”
Some days later, Tiffy-Lou, Charlie and Simon walked together over the hill and through the trees to the cottage in Dreamy Dell. Netty, Annie and Rowena had been busy making two more new broomsticks for the boys and, after a few flying lessons, they all rode their broomsticks over to visit the famous Treacle Mines below Pendle Hill.
On the way back home, they stopped for a rest beside the magical Crystal Fountain in the meadow near Windy Harbour. “Have you got any magic words, Tiffy-Lou?” asked Netty. “Ooh, yes, she must have some magic words!” said Rowena. “Come on Tiffy-Lou,” prompted Annie. But Tiffy-Lou had already thought about this and had some words ready.
Spinning around and around three times, she then stopped and stood very still, and said her magic words: “Abda Abda Bott Bock and Bisky, Oh No!”
It was so quiet you could hear Gorse seed pods clicking and popping in the sunlight.
Then something very strange happened. As the three young witches and Tiffy-Lou and her brothers watched, the magical Crystal Fountain began to change. The fountain was made of hard glass crystals and stood silently in the field beside the junction on the track. But now the hard glass crystals were transformed into spouting clear wet water which leapt high into the sky before cascading noisily splashing around the youngsters. And skylarks trilled overhead.
Returning once more to Dreamy Dell at the end of the long day, they were all tired after their adventures. Tiffy-Lou and the boys walked home again over the hill. Netty flew after them and spoke quietly to Tiffy-Lou, “Come back and see us tomorrow afternoon.”
Tiffy-Lou went back the next day and Rowena met her at the end of the path through the trees. “We wanted you to come again today because you have been so good to us and we have really enjoyed you sharing some time with us. Now we have something very special to give you. Come over to the cottage, Netty and Annie are waiting.”
She stepped in to the cool dark cottage. “Come in Tiffy-Lou” said Annie. As the three young witches stood at the kitchen table, they uncovered a small wooden box. It was their gift to Tiffy-Lou and together they passed it into Tiffy-Lou’s outstretched hands.
“Take great care of this young Tiffy-Lou,” said Netty, “It is a mythical magic box from the distant past. Keep it with you for ever.” “Look inside, lift the lid.” Annie said. Tiffy-Lou lifted the lid and looked into the box but she could not see anything inside. Rowena could see the puzzled look pass across Tiffy-Lou’s face and explained that right there inside the magic box was an invisible secret magic key which was to open many doors in the future for Tiffy-Lou. She was now the new guardian of the invisible key in the magic box…
Now, the cottage is gone but Dreamy Dell is still there, as the family area by the river. On a warm summer day, if you sit quietly at one of the wooden pic-nic tables in the family area, and look out over the field, you might see three swallows dizzily swooping down low over the grass and around the tables. Surely the three swallows cannot really be Netty Nettlebags, Annie Appletree and Rowena Rowanberry in disguise? Or are they?