“So you’re meeting a man you met on the internet, you have no idea where you’re going and you’re hunting witches?”
“Yeah, basically, but I’ll leave my phone on.”
And that was the last I saw of my wife and child.
Not really! Greg turned out to be a nice guy, but we kind of knew that already.
We first met Greg, virtually, before he rode LEJOG in aid of Hoxton Monster Supplies (journal link is here) but today we were along for the ride of his newest idea for a route. The Essex Witches Trail is designed to visit some of the major sites of witch trials in Essex. Not only will you visit the major sites, but you will pass through six villages where alleged witches were based. Now this isn’t my specialist subject so please forgive any broad historical brush strokes in the remaining on the article but I feel I have come a long way in the past few days.
The mighty Shire Hall in Chelmsford.
We met nice and early at Shire Hall in Chelmsford, a grand building at the top end of the High Street (currently surrounded by metal fences as the council dig up the High Street again for no reason in particular). This was a first stop for us but often an end point for the trials of witches in Essex. Although there were other witch trials here the most infamous ones related to a man named Matthew Hopkins in 1645. Hopkins was the (self-appointed) witch finder general and rounded up witches from around the county, and indeed East Anglia, through many means and brought them to Chelmsford for trial after obtaining confessions via various foul methods. Of the 38 known accused witches in the Chelmsford trials on the site at Shire Hall in this period, 17 were hanged; six were declared guilty but reprieved; four died in prison; and two were acquitted. The site on which Shire Hall stands holds some deeper secrets than I had ever thought.
We departed the city centre on part of National Cycle Route One and onwards for an 85 mile loop into the Essex countryside. With a few witchey stops along the way!
Greg disappearing into the woods.
The first of these was in Hatfield Peveral, around 10 miles from the county town. It was here where 25 people were accused of being witches between 1566 and 1589. Many were found not guilty but many were hanged or died in prison. From here we rode north to Stisted, the next stop on our tour. On the way to Stisted we realised that neither of us were sure how to pronounce Stisted, Sti-sted or Stis-ted. We’re unsure. Either way it was here that Joan Cunny was born in around 1508. She was accused of killing her neighbours and causing a great storm. Which would have been quite impressive (the latter I mean). Cunny had told of how she knelt in a circle and prayed to Satan to conjure her familiar and spirits. The pre-trial examination of Joan Cunny, along with those of Joan Prentice and Joan Upney, was published in 1589 as The Apprehension and Confession of Three Notorious Witches. Joan Prentice appeared to have owned a ferret named Satan who had allegedly killed a child. Pretty gnarly ferret from the sounds of things. My mate Dave used to have a cat called Lucifer. I’m not sure he would have made it through the 16th century either. Joan was also hanged on 5th July, as was the other Joan, Upney, who may or may not have had a pet Ferret. In 2022 Stisted appears a tranquil village, perhaps unaware of the dark ferreting antics of its past.
Some lovely stamps adourning our Brevet card.
Forward we went and on, under the mighty Earls Colne viaduct (nothing to do with witches), through Dedham Vale (Constable country, no witches, well none that we have researched anyway) to Manningtree, the home of Hopkins. Now Manninigtree is witch heavy. You did not want to be an aspiring witch in Manningtree back in the day. Hopkins made quite a good living from accusing people of being witches as he was only paid when they were brought to trial through admission. He was particularly fond of the floating test. You know the one! The one you can’t really pass with flying colours. As a result of Hopkins residency there were many witches accused here and not only did Hopkins live here but he died here too in or around 1647 from either TB or failing to float himself. He is buried at Mistley Heath, where we really should have gone for a bit of grave hunting to be honest. Next time. Maybe on Halloween. That would be fun. Type IV fun. The type of fun you do as teenagers, drunk on cheap cider, in someone elses kitchen, with cards and a glass.
A pavement lunch.
Our lunch was taken up the road in Mistley in the shadow of a swan statue. Mistley seems to have a real affinity with swans. Topical really but unexplained nevertheless. I am sure it’s just a google search away. After some more coffee it was onward to our last stop; the most haunted house in England and home to the witches prison or “The Cage” in St Osyth. It was here witches were kept for interrogation and transport and the plaque on the wall said it was last used in 1908, I’m not sure what for! So over 300 years it’s probably got a few echoes in the walls! Indeed the last time it was sold it took a decade to sell it, mainly because the owner sold it because the owner was scared for her and her childs life (see clips below). Actually terrifying.
My bike outside "The Cage". Brave bike.
We finished at Colchester Castle. The imposing castle in the middle of the oldest town in Britain was where around 1000 of accused from Hopkins’ witch finding were kept before transport for trial. Nowadays there are some nice pubs nearby and probably a nail bar or a vape shop. Likely both.
Colchester castle. Our End point.
Our ride provided a recce for the Essex Witch Trail ride which will happen on 23rd of October 2022. A ride, close to Halloween, that will take in all the spooky spots in Essex. You can sign up and find out more about it and take part yourself at Gregs website HERE
Upon signing up you will be sent a brevet card and at each stop on the witch hunt there will be something spooky to stamp you card with, a token to collect, a question to answer or a photo to take. Greg will be lurking near the castle in Colchester or the pub opposite called the Queen Street Brewhouse between 2pm and 6pm to check your brevet card and give you your t-shirt. Sign up is now LIVE and we look forward to seeing you there!!
And the train home after a long day!