Following my piece about witch posts I had some interesting responses. If you remember, these carved posts are usually found near fireplaces in very old houses and originally it was thought that the carvings, often featuring crosses, were intended to ward off evil spirits and witches, hence the name. But over the years, Dad came to believe they were in fact associated with the legendary Martyr of the North York Moors, Father Nicholas Postgate.
A friend of mine, Stephen Peill, got in touch to say that there had been one at his father’s house when they lived in Newton-on-Rawcliffe, near Pickering. I’m so grateful to people who get in touch like this because, firstly, it means they are reading my column, and secondly it means I can go all detective and have a good rummage in my dad’s study, one of my favourite pastimes.
I found a couple of ring-bound folders labelled ‘witch posts’ and listed at the front were all the examples that, through exhaustive research and letter-writing, dad had managed to track down. And sure enough, there, at number 29 on the list, was an entry called ‘Old Pond House, Newton-on-Rawcliffe’.
I pulled out the relevant documents, which included information about the post itself, and also correspondence between my dad and the home-owners, who at the time were Stephen’s dad Doug and stepmum Sue.
Dad had written them an approach letter in January 2008, addressing it ‘Dear Witch Post owner’, so it is clear that he did not know them. He explains his purpose for contacting them, that he was conducting research for a book about witch posts, and included a questionnaire to fill in. Dad explains: “My research to date has led me to believe that these so-called witch posts are a valuable and largely neglected part of our northern history.”
Thankfully, Stephen’s parents were very happy to help, and a series of letters were exchanged, resulting in my mum and dad visiting the house in August 2008.
At the time, he wrote: “The cross post formed part of the inglenook hearth, but alterations have marooned it near the centre of the present dining room where it supports a massive beam, and indeed the ceiling.”
Afterwards, Dad sent them a thank you letter, and what I find especially interesting is the way he describes how he had tracked that particular post down: “Sue, you asked how I knew you had a post…I found a newspaper cutting dated 4th October 1984. It is from the Malton Gazette and Herald and it features the sale of your house. It says it contains a ‘witches post’. I am enclosing a copy for you to keep – and you’ll see the asking price of the house was £33,000. Quite a bargain!”
Stephen and I have known each since the mid-1980s when he used to frequent the local pub in which I worked. Despite that being almost 40 years ago, our little band of pub goers still meets regularly at parties and various social occasions. The remarkable thing is, until Stephen mentioned the witch post in the house at Newton-on-Rawcliffe, neither of us had had any idea that our parents had ever met!
I was also contacted by writer Terry Ashby who says: “I recall in the mid-1980s there was an historic cottage for sale in Beck Hole. It’s many years since I was in Beck Hole and I can’t remember the name of the property but it is at the far end of the green on the left side coming from the Birch Hall Inn. I’m sure there is a witch post near the open range.”
I think Terry is right, because in the same file is an entry about ‘Murk Side, Beck Hole’, an old thatched cottage which is mentioned in the Civil Recusant Returns for Egton from 1604-1778. So clearly this house was associated with Catholic resistance during the time of persecution, which backs up my dad’s theory that the ‘witch posts’ were somehow connected. The extremely sad thing is that Murk Side was pulled down in the early 20th century, but the post was moved into another house nearby, where I believe it still stands. There is too much information on this particular post to go into here, it could fill a whole other column.
And that then begs the question, should I finish the book that my dad started?
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 27th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 25th January 2023
4 thoughts on “A witchy coincidence”
It would be great if you finish your dad’s book on Witch Posts. I remember him talking about it and his research at a book signing in Whitby.
I read your Countryman’s Daughter columns every week, and I enjoy them very much.
Aww thank you Gurli! Very grateful that you take the time to read them. I am keen to continue where my dad left off, it was such an important project for him. I just need to get my head around how to do it and work at the same time!
Reading your column about Witch posts, and agreeing with your father’s ideas about them in his book about Nicholas Postgate.
I work part time in Egton and am going to ask a couple of local experts about where unknown ones are. There’s one in the ceiling of the Witching Post pub, which was formerly the top Horseshoe. It’s not shown off or advertised when you are in there but it’s above your head just as you walk through the door into the bar area.
Your father said they all had a different number of bumps or lines below them, I think that the practice of putting sheets on hedges to secretly state where a mass was going to be corresponds with the lines. Say 5 lines, then 5 sheets and people in the know would know that 5 sheets meant a certain house.
Wow Paul, that’s really interesting thank you! Let me know if you have any joy. I must follow this up and continue where my dad left off I think! I’m over that way this weekend so will check it out if I have time