The Witches’ Circle

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. I am, however, interested in all of the above, and pretty much anything else that can be considered paranormal or supernatural. This is mainly because I spent part of my childhood reading Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World books. But it’s also because as a kid I often visited a very strange place that would have given even the late old Arthur C the creeps.

The Witches’ Circle is a ring of oak trees around 60 feet in diameter, next to the ancient village of Winlaton, four miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. For centuries the circle has been associated with stories involving the activities of witches from the surrounding area. I grew up with stories of the Witches’ Circle – of sorcery and hauntings and curses. We were warned to keep away. It was an evil place, we were told. We ignored the warnings, of course, and it became an annual tradition each Halloween, after dark, to go down to the Witches’ Circle. Some 20-odd years later I’m still fascinated by the place.

Geographically, Winlaton sits at the top of the world, high on a hill overlooking the River Tyne. From its privileged vantage point you can see Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge and my beloved St James’ Park. To the south of Winlaton, fields and woods spill down into the Derwent Valley. The coal-dust track that leads down there (an old funeral route) is called the Black 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.

The Witches Circle by Geoff Brown
The Witches’ Circle, photo by Geoff Brown

We saw some strange things on those Halloween nights at the Witches’ Circle. We were probably 10 or 11 when we first started going there, 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 inside the circle, illuminated by the flames. We’d drop to the ground, hiding from view, and notice that figures were wearing white hooded robes, and seemed to be performing some sort of ritual. 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 didn’t. Not surprisingly, we legged it.

We always went back, though. Lands Wood, a tumbling maze of trees and ponds, crisscrossed with old waggonways, and littered with boxed-up mine pits, was a fantastic playground. We’d explore, and build camps, 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, primarily because the meadow it’s located in was fenced off from the rest of the woods and owned by a local farmer. Going to the Witches’ Circle involved trespassing: a thrilling proposition for any young boy.

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 your insides. 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 that 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 quite regularly. There was a definite sense that empty cans weren’t the only things that had been left there. But what I remember most is the big stone slab that lay in the middle of the circle.

Map showing the Witches Circle and Lands Wood, 1862
Map showing the Witches’ Circle (centre) and Lands Wood, 1862

But what the heck is a witches’ circle? Most typically, according to Google, 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’, people knew their names, and they were relatively open about their activities. 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. According to the internet, a local group of Pagan witches holds a regular moot on the second Tuesday of each month at the Northumberland Arms in Newcastle city centre.

Newcastle actually has a strong historical connection to witches – 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 the scourge of witchcraft, and sent for a Scottish witchfinder, who most sources name as John Kincaid. 30 women were dragged into the town hall, stripped to the waist, and pricked with large pins, or bodkins. Kincaid, who was paid twenty 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 travelled around Tyneside with his false prickery, and there is record of a witchfinder being paid to examine and try witches in Gateshead. It’s thought that 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 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 to witchcraft, and then hanged alongside 14 female witches on the Town Moor (at the site that is now St James’ Park) on 21 August 1650.

Women Hanged for Witches from England's Grievance Discovered by John Gardiner
Women Hanged for Witches, from England’s Grievance Discovered by John Gardiner, 1655

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, which is adjacent to Lands Wood. There is also the strange tale of one Jane Watson, a local healer, who apparently terrorised the inhabitants of the Winlaton Whitehouse, a manor located at what is now Axwell Park. Two children were said to have been visited in the night by ‘the witch’ Watson, who tried to give them an apple and then disappeared in a ‘flash of fire’. A servant heard the children yelling, ran to their room, and said she saw Watson hiding under the children’s bed. The master of the house, John Ogle, thrust his rapier 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. One is the tale of the ghost of Anne Walker, who somehow alleged from the grave that she had been murdered by the owners of the flour mill at Winlaton Mill in the 1630s. The two owners pleaded their innocence, but were found guilty and hanged. A legal curiosity, the case is possibly the only one in history where the evidence of a ghost was heard in a court of law. There are also several ghost 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 UK. It’s said to be haunted by the ghost of Mary Eleanor Bowes, ‘the Unhappy Countess’, or ‘the Grey Lady’.

One of the most famous old Winlaton tales is that of an ‘unknown gentleman’ who was found hanging from a tree in Lands Wood in 1660. It was supposed that this man, later named as Selby, was a prominent Parliamentarian who had hanged himself on hearing of the Restoration of Charles II. Suicide was illegal, and suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground. Instead, the man’s body was taken to a crossroads in Winlaton, at 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 centre of the village, a construction vehicle fell through the roadway, uncovering a network of ancient tunnels. Their origin is unknown, but local historians believe the tunnels were built and used by a persecuted religious group. The tunnels were reported to be around five feet high and two feet wide, and buried around two feet below ground. Once the repair work was completed, shops and flats were built over the entrance, 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 blokes 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 kind of 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 huge block of stone, 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 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 centre, 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. Probably poured there by those heavy metallers, taking care not to get any on their white hooded robes. The blood red stain was almost certainly a prank, a joke, a fake. But the massive stone, I think, was not. And then it disappeared.

Aerial view of the Witches Circle and Lands Wood
Aerial view of the Witches’ Circle and Lands Wood via Google Maps

OK, this is the strangest thing that happened to us at the Witches’ Circle: we were older this time, maybe 18. It was Halloween again, and four or five of us 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 wind whistled around our ears. Within a matter of 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 genuinely became 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 now, 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 afterwards for a pint to recover. What was it? Most likely a freak weather phenomenon. A squall, maybe. Or a tornado. They’re actually relatively common in the UK. 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 in an effort 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 and more dense wood nearby. That didn’t make any sense. The stone was so 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. It’s out there, they said, in the deepest darkest part of Thornley Woods. You might spot it if you ever go walking down there. You’ll be able to identify it by the blood red stain.

The Witches Circle 2012 by Geoff Brown
The Witches’ Circle October 2012 by Geoff Brown

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.’

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 other shrubs and bushes. It doesn’t really look like a circle anymore. It seems to have lost its magic. In any case, like 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 believe in all that stuff, then this Halloween you might want to nail a horseshoe to your door.

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football, history, true adventure. The Guardian, Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, Longreads, Deadspin, etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK