Happy New Year and welcome to 2023! I do hope you’ve had a wonderful time over the holiday season. For us, the festive period is always a time of joy alongside reflection, when we think of our lost loved ones who are not here to share it with us, and about other people who suffer loss and illness around this time of year.
If you’ve read any of my dad Peter Walker’s writing, either through his books or columns, you’ll know how proud he was of his home county and he would agree with a commentator I heard saying: “Of all the regions of our great country, Yorkshire seems to pride itself on taking most pride in itself.”
Dad grew up in Glaisdale, a small village in the heart of the North York Moors, and in a 1979 article I found in his study at my mum’s house, he tells us how lucky he was to have a childhood which allowed him to freely roam the rural landscape. He writes: “Remote and beautiful, it boasts several isolated farmsteads and I used to visit friends there, living in solitary splendour and away from the bustle of life in the towns.”
These ancient farmhouses were very sturdily built and Dad found their interiors fascinating, particularly the huge inglenook fireplaces. At least two that he visited had carvings on the wooden posts supporting the smoke hoods of these fires. The posts were known as ‘witch posts’ and they sparked in Dad an interest that lasted right up until his death in 2017. In his later years, it became a real quest to find out more about the stories behind them. What he discovered went against many long-held beliefs but Dad was convinced his research proved him right.
Originally it was thought that these carvings were intended to ward off evil spirits and witches, hence the name. They were usually crosses, some simple, while others were more complicated, with the cross forming the centre and elaborate carvings surrounding it. But over the years, Dad came to believe they were in fact associated with the legendary Martyr of the Moors, Father Nicholas Postgate.
Postgate carried out his ministry in the 1600s at a time when Catholics were being persecuted by the state, and to be caught practicing mass was considered a treasonable offence. Therefore many Catholic priests went underground, and, like Postgate himself, often hid in open sight by being ‘employed’ by wealthy landowners as servants and gardeners. Although these landowners outwardly appeared to support the Church of England, in fact they still secretly practised Catholicism thanks to brave priests like Fr Postgate.
Moorland locals devised cunning ways of letting fellow Catholics know where mass was being celebrated, such as hanging out a certain number of items on a washing line near the home in question. Unfortunately, Postgate was eventually caught baptising a child and was executed in York in 1679. In 1987, his sacrifice was recognised by Pope John Paul II, who beatified him alongside 84 other Catholic martyrs from England and Wales.
During his quest to find out more about Postgate, Dad discovered that witch posts bearing these cross symbols only proliferated during the time of the martyr, and only in areas where he is thought to have visited, which is the main reason why he believed they were connected to Postgate. Their purpose, he suggested, was to secretly indicate to fellow Catholics that they were in a safe house. It is possible that the association with evil spirits and witches was a deliberate ploy by Catholics to spread misinformation so that the true meaning behind the symbols would not be discovered. One of these posts can be seen in the Ryedale Folk Museum in Hutton-le-Hole today.
Dad was finally able to publish his theories in his book ‘Blessed Nicholas Postgate, Martyr of the Moors’, a comprehensive biography of the holy man. As I was researching this piece, I came across a Yorkshire Post interview he did in 2012 and what I didn’t know was that his diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2007 was what inspired him to finally write the book.
“It’s a story I feel very strongly about and thought I should get on with the book before I died,” he said.
I wonder if anyone reading this knows where any more witch posts can be found?
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 6th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 4th January 2023