A witchy coincidence

The photo taken by my dad in 2008 of the witch post found in the house belonging to my friend Stephen Peill’s parents. Until now, neither of us knew our parents had ever met. 

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

Is the truth in the post?

Dad continued to research witch posts and their connection to the martyr Father Nicholas Postgate right up until his death in 2017.

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