The Witches’ Circle, story by Paul Brown, photo by P W
The Witches’ Circle, story by Paul Brown, photo by P W
Photo by P W

The Witches’ Circle

A mysterious ring of trees in an ancient village is at the center of a haunting series of events involving witchcraft and secret rituals

I don’t believe in witchcraft, ghosts, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or anything else that can’t be proven to exist via science and logic. However, I am interested in all of the above and pretty much anything else that can be considered paranormal or supernatural. This is mainly because I spent much of my childhood reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World books. But it’s also because I grew up right next to a very strange place that would have given even the late old Arthur C. the willies.

The Witches’ Circle is a ring of oak trees around 60 feet in diameter, next to the ancient village of Winlaton, five miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne, in Gateshead in the North East of England. For centuries, the circle has been associated with stories involving the activities of witches from the surrounding area. I grew up in Winlaton with stories of the Witches’ Circle — of sorcery and hauntings and curses. We were warned to keep away. We were told it was an evil place. Of course, we ignored the warnings, and it became an annual tradition each Halloween, after dark, to go down to the Witches’ Circle. Almost 30 years later, I’m still fascinated by the place.

Winlaton sits at the top of the world, high on a hill overlooking the River Tyne. The village dates back to at least the year 1083. Its Saxon-origin name means “town of twisted oak.” From its privileged vantage point, you can see Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge and St. James’ Park, the home of Newcastle United F.C. To the south of Winlaton, fields and woods spill down into the Derwent Valley. The coal-dust track that leads down there is an old funeral route called the Black Path. Oliver Cromwell, the “Lord Protector” who overthrew two kings, marched his Roundheads up the Black Path during the English Civil War in 1650. (When I was a kid, a local teacher found a Roundhead sword in a stream by the path.) Winlaton Mill is at the bottom of the valley, and Whickham is on the other side. The wood between Winlaton and Winlaton Mill is called Lands Wood. And in an open meadow within Lands Wood sits the Witches’ Circle.

We saw some strange things on those Halloween nights at the Witches’ Circle. We were probably 10 or 11 when we first started going down — three or four of us each year, our excited chatter fading to silence as we got near. Coming through the woods to the edge of the meadow, we’d see the flickering light of bonfires. We’d see figures moving around the circle, illuminated by flames. We’d drop to the ground, hiding from view, and notice the figures were wearing white hooded robes and seemed to be performing some sort of ritual. On one occasion, some of the robed figures were sitting on horses. I read a lot of Hardy Boys books as well as Arthur C. Clarke, and I’d love to say we bravely crept forward to investigate further. But we did not. We legged it.

We always went back, though. Lands Wood, a tumbling maze of trees and ponds, crisscrossed with old wagonways, and littered with boxed-up mine pits, was a fantastic playground. We’d explore, build camps, hunt for treasures like the Roundhead sword, and sometimes wander over to the Witches’ Circle. There was an element of dare associated with going to the circle, even in the broadest of daylight, because the meadow it’s located in was fenced off from the rest of the woods and owned by the local farmer. Going to the Witches’ Circle involved trespassing: a thrilling proposition for any young child.

What I remember most, from standing inside that circle of trees, even in the relative safety of daylight, is the gut-clenchingly eerie feeling that crawled around the pit of your stomach. With hindsight, that probably had a lot to do with the stories I’d been told, of black magic and satanic rituals and human sacrifices. And, let’s face it, the spooky name couldn’t have helped. I remember the trees were thick and tall, forming a natural enclosure, with a leafy canopy overhead. Although you could just about see Winlaton from the circle, it felt like you were a long way from home. There were always empty cider cans lying around, suggesting that older kids than us frequented the place. There was a definite sense that empty cans weren’t the only things that had been left here. What I remember most is the big stone slab that lay in the middle of the circle, and the huge blood-red stain.

But what the heck is a witches’ circle? Most typically, according to a Google search, the phrase “witches circle” refers to a group of witches, some say coven. According to the Dictionary of the Occult, a witches’ circle is “a circle intended to keep within its area the occult power aroused by the witches.” Witches’ circles also exist in cemeteries, with supposed witches buried within circles of stones. And then there are a handful of witches’ circles like my Witches’ Circle — a copse of trees that has become associated with witchcraft.

At this stage, I should point out that Winlaton seems a pretty ordinary place, perhaps apart from the fact that it has a disproportionately large number of pubs. But when I was a kid, it was an accepted fact that there was a coven of witches in the village. They claimed to be “white witches” and were relatively open about their activities. People knew who they were. (When I asked my mam if she could remember any of their names, she replied, less than helpfully, “No, but I remember that one of them had ginger hair.”) They believed in the occult, or Wicca, or something like that, and they met up to cast spells and whatnot. This was the mid-1980s and, to put it into context, there was also a flourishing spiritualist church in Winlaton. People believed in strange things — and they still do. Until its recent closure, a group of witches met regularly at Bob Trollop’s bar on Newcastle’s quayside.

Newcastle has a strong historical connection to witchcraft — most notably via the town’s 17th-century witch trials. In 1649, in the midst of the Civil War, Newcastle magistrates decided that the town was suffering due to witchcraft's scourge and sent for a Scottish witchfinder, who most sources name as John Kincaid. Thirty women were dragged into the town hall, stripped to the waist, and pricked with large pins, or bodkins. Kincaid, who was paid 20 shillings for each witch he found, claimed that 27 of the 30 women didn’t bleed when pricked and were therefore “children of the devil.” They were hanged.

Kincaid then traveled around Tyneside with his “false prickery.” There is a record of a witchfinder being paid to examine and try witches in Gateshead. It’s thought Kincaid found at least 10 more witches, and it’s entirely possible he found some of them in Winlaton. However, many locals opposed the witchfinder. He was chased back to Scotland, apprehended, subjected to a trial that didn’t involve pricking, and sent to the gallows for his part in the death of 220 women.

It wasn’t only women who were accused of witchcraft, by the way. One so-called “wizzard” (with two “z”s, just like the Roy Wood pop group) named Mathew Boumer was imprisoned in Newcastle, tortured until he confessed, and then hanged alongside 14 female witches on the Town Moor (at the site that is now St. James’ Park) on August 21, 1650.

Winlaton has its own strange tales of witchcraft and ghostly goings-on. I can’t find any specific reference to the Witches’ Circle in local history texts or online, but there are tales of witches living in the aptly-named Haghill Wood, adjacent to Lands Wood. There is also the strange tale of one Jane Watson, a local healer, who had apparently terrorized the inhabitants of a residence called the Winlaton Whitehouse. Two children were said to have been visited in the night by Watson, who gave them an apple and then disappeared in a “flash of fire.” A servant heard the children screaming, ran to their room, and claimed she saw Watson hiding under the children’s bed. The master of the house, John Ogle, thrust his rapier sword under the bed, and a terrible scream was heard. But all that was found was a half-eaten apple.

There are plenty of ghost stories, too. The most famous is the tale of Annie Walker’s ghost, who claimed to have been murdered by the owners of the Winlaton Flour Mill in the 1630s. The two owners were hanged on the ghost’s testimony. And there are several stories associated with Gibside Hall, which overlooks the Witches’ Circle and was named by the National Trust as the fifth most haunted property in the U.K. It’s said to be haunted by the ghost of Mary Eleanor Bowes, known as “the Unhappy Countess” or “the Grey Lady.”

One of the most famous Winlaton tales is that of a “mysterious loner” who was found hanging from a tree in Lands Wood in 1660. It was said that this man, later named as Selby, was a prominent anti-royal Parliamentarian who had hanged himself on hearing of the Restoration of Charles II. Suicide was illegal, and suicide victims could not be buried in consecrated ground. Instead, the man’s body was taken to a crossroads in Winlaton, at a place called Knobby Ends Lane, and buried at midnight. A stake was driven through his heart in the belief that this would prevent his ghost from walking (a vampiric touch pre-dating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a couple of centuries). “Selby’s grave” became a local landmark, and for hundreds of years, passers-by would throw three stones at the cairn that marked the grave — a superstition supposedly designed to help a spirit pass to the afterlife.

Here’s another strange Winlaton story: in 1936, while making repairs in the center of the village, a construction vehicle fell through the roadway, uncovering a network of ancient tunnels. Winlatoners had known about the tunnels for years. In 1928, Prince Edward made a royal visit to the village and viewed an entrance to the tunnels inside a house owned by one “Taffy” Lewis. Another villager had gone into the tunnels and found a large room containing a ceremonial stone table, which was removed and stood in the garden of a chapel known as “Tebb’s House” until the 1960s or 1970s. The tunnels’ origin is unknown, but local historians believe they were built and used by a persecuted religious group. The tunnels were reported to be around five feet high and two feet wide, and were buried around two feet below ground. Once the repair work was completed, shops and flats were built over the entrances, and the tunnels have never been fully explored. No one knows for sure how far the tunnels extend or where they lead to. Strangely, it seems that no one wants to find out.

As for the strange things that we saw at the Witches’ Circle, most of them can be explained. One Halloween, as we headed down toward Lands Wood, we were passed by two individuals wearing white hooded robes — just like the ones we’d seen on previous trips. They passed right by us, silently, and we couldn’t see their faces. But we later found out that they were a couple of lads a bit older than us, both 1980s heavy metal fans (think Otto out of The Simpsons). They clearly had some interest in the occult and — whether in seriousness or jest — liked to dress up as druids and visit the Witches’ Circle on Halloween. Not witches, then, just rockers. So that partially explained the “ritual” we’d observed. But it didn’t explain the stone slab.

This was a substantial block of rock, about six feet long and three feet wide, and a foot or so high from the ground. It was flat and pretty square and had obviously been cut to shape and deliberately positioned right in the middle of the Witches’ Circle. It was deeply embedded in the ground, suggesting it had been in place for a long period of time. It looked like some kind of altar: a sacrificial stone. That might seem ridiculous today, but — face facts — olden days people liked to sacrifice things. Scores of sacrificial altars have been found around the country. It’s not improbable to conclude that this was one of them.

Here’s the thing, though: across the top of this stone, splayed out from the center, was a huge red stain. A huge blood-red stain. Now let me come straight out and say that this blood-red stain was almost certainly not red blood. It was almost certainly blood-red paint. Possibly poured there by those heavy metallers, taking care not to get any on their white hooded robes. The blood-red stain was quite probably a prank, a joke, a fake. But the massive stone, I think, was not. And then it disappeared.

OK, this is the strangest thing that happened to me at the Witches’ Circle: we were older this time, maybe 16 or 17. It was Halloween again, and we set off from my parents’ house. I remember my dad jokingly offering a big stick to take with us in case we saw “the druids” again. There were four or five of us, and we headed out into the still black night, clouds obscuring the light of the moon. All was quiet as we headed down the Black Path towards Lands Wood. We could just about make out the Witches’ Circle through the darkness. There was no bonfire, no movement.

Then, as we neared Lands Wood, the wind quite suddenly picked up. Grass began to swirl at our feet, and the wind whistled around our ears. Within seconds, we couldn’t hear each other speak and had to shout to be heard. I remember looking up and seeing the clouds swirling rapidly above us. The wind became so strong that it became genuinely difficult to walk. We weren’t scared or worried. We were whooping and laughing. But the force of the wind drove us back. We turned around and struggled up the Black Path, away from Lands Wood and the Witches’ Circle. By the time we got to the top of the path, the wind had completely stopped.

Has my memory embellished this story? Did I imagine it altogether? No, I don’t think so. One of my friends who was with me that day has moved away, but I dropped him a line and asked him, “Did that really happen?” He remembered it more vividly than I did — the still black night, the sudden wind, the swirling clouds, the shouting, the struggling to walk. He remembered something else, a mist gathering around us, and the fact that we went to the Vulcan pub straight afterward for a pint to recover. What was it? Most likely a freak weather phenomenon. A tornado, maybe. They’re actually relatively common in the U.K. What happened was most likely caused by a tornado. It almost certainly wasn’t caused by witches.

Back to that big stone, “the sacrificial altar.” It did disappear. We heard that either the farmer or the council had shifted it to stop kids heading to the Witches’ Circle every Halloween. We went down for a look, and sure enough, the stone was missing, just a deep mark in the ground showing where it had been. Someone said it had been moved to Thornley Woods, another larger wood nearby. That didn’t make any sense. The stone was too big and heavy. Why move it anywhere else? Just smash it up and dump it. But they didn’t want to smash it up and dump it, someone said, because, you know, it belonged to witches. My dad reckons he found it once, in overgrown bushes near Mill Lane, not far from the Black Path. You might spot it if you ever go walking down there. You’ll be able to identify it by the blood-red stain.

One last thing I need to mention about Winlaton: the horseshoes. It was common in the area, from the 17th century, for every home to have a horseshoe nailed to the door in the belief that this would ward off witchcraft. It’s a tradition that endured. As late as the 1890s, local historian William Bourn wrote: “If the existence of horseshoes on the doors of farms and cottages in this area is evidence of the belief in witchcraft, that belief must have lived extensively in former times, as nearly every door is guarded by a horseshoe.” Even today, you can still see horseshoes nailed to the doors of houses belonging to old Winlatoners.

I won’t be going down to the Witches’ Circle this Halloween. Since the stone was removed, the place has changed a lot. The farmer has erected a fence right around the circle. And the ring of trees has become overgrown with bushes. It doesn’t really look like a circle anymore. It seems to have lost its magic. I’ve moved away and don’t plan to go back. (Unlike the characters in Stephen King’s It, I made no pact to return with my now-adult friends to investigate a resurgence of supernatural events…) In any case, as I said, I don’t believe in witchcraft, ghosts, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or anything else that can’t be proven to exist via science and logic. But if you do believe in all that stuff, then this Halloween, you might want to nail a horseshoe to your door.⬧

Written by

Writes about sports, history, true adventure. The Guardian, FourFourTwo, Longreads, etc. www.stuffbypaulbrown.com

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