On the trail of the Witchfinder General
Summer’s here and the skies are blue over my corner of Essex. Our river estuaries are at their most attractive at this time of year with plenty of birdlife making the most of the shallow water. Some of the best walks in the county follow the river banks and many are easy to reach by rail. So when Greater Anglia asked if I would like to help promote this summer’s #railadventure campaign, I jumped at the chance. Many of my favourite North Essex coastal towns and resorts are easily reached by rail, among them delightful Walton-on-the-Naze and Dovercourt’s historic lighthouses and Blue Flag beach. Regular readers of this blog might remember the super Greater Anglia days out I had in Harwich and Wivenhoe last summer – if you’ve never been, I’d definitely recommend them.
This excursion was inspired by a novel I found on a book exchange shelf in a guest house in Cape Verde. My charger wouldn’t function, the Kindle was out of juice and I’d resigned myself to a long flight back with no reading material. It was the only book on the shelf which was in English and when I turned it over to read the blurb, I found it was set in Essex. That book was “The Witch Finder’s Sister”, the debut novel by Beth Underwood which told the unsavoury tale of Matthew Hopkins, who held the position of Witchfinder General in 17th century Essex. Though born in Suffolk, Hopkins was closely associated with Manningtree and Mistley. Nowadays, they’re not only both reachable by train but a half hour walk apart.
The journey from Kelvedon required two changes of train but nevertheless ran like clockwork, taking just over half an hour in total. There’s even more opportunity to enjoy the countryside views on the way back – time it right as I did and there’s a direct train from Manningtree to Kelvedon taking just 20 minutes. It’s faster than driving, as well as being much less stressful. We’re wedded to the convenience of our cars, but on the train it’s nice to be able to get up and walk around – or sit back and relax on the comfortable seats. There was even sufficient time on the Colchester to Manningtree train to grab a coffee from the onboard buffet. For a less hurried walk when connecting to the Mistley train via the underpass my tip would be to find a seat nearer to the front of the train.
Alighting from the train, my first impressions of Mistley were favourable. The port, once centred on the transportation of grain and malt for the brewing industry, is still operational but many of the old buildings that line the quayside have been renovated and repurposed. The malt extract works on the opposite side of the road are still in business and the smell of malt permeated the air as I strolled down towards the village centre.
I couldn’t resist popping into Cooper’s Gallery to browse the colourful ceramics, paintings and textiles. Next time I shall walk in the opposite direction so that the gallery is my final stop; as it’s just across the road from the station I won’t have to walk far fully laden. This time, however, willpower was required as I wished to walk to Manningtree unencumbered by shopping bags. Liz, the gallery owner, was a mine of useful information about Mistley and the history of the quayside, lending me a calendar of old photographs to browse as I ate lunch at the T House cafe next door.
It was low tide and Liz explained how the partially submerged barge I could see from her window came to be stuck in the mud. Apparently, the sails of the Bijou caught alight during a bombing raid in 1940. So that the fire wouldn’t spread, she was cut free from her moorings and allowed to drift away from the quay. Burnt out, she’s been there ever since, the tide covering and uncovering this century-old vessel and gradually eroding what’s left.
Across the street was The Mistley Thorn. The present day building was built as a coaching inn about 1723 and is now a restaurant with rooms to stay in. A pub stood on the site in the mid 17th century which was reputedly owned by Matthew Hopkins. He was supposed to have “examined” his first witch at the Thorn in 1644. An information board on the side of the Thorn tells a little of the story that Beth Underwood so cleverly adapted for her novel.
In an age of mistrust and religious upheaval, Hopkins decided there was more money to be made as a witch finder than as a lawyer, switching professions and assuming the role of Witchfinder General by 1645. Witch hunting set in motion a chilling sequence of denunciation, interrogation and finally execution. The trials were a joke. So-called witches were said to bear the Devil’s mark, a part of their body that didn’t feel pain. This could be a mole or a birthmark, which Hopkins prodded with a spike or cut with a blunt knife to see if it bled.
Another method was to tie the alleged witch to a chair and throw her into a pond. God’s pure water would reject a witch, it was thought, and she would float, but if “proved” to be a witch, she would be hung. Hopkins used to carry out such practices at Mistley’s Hopping Bridge, a short walk from the Thorn. It’s said that his ghost haunts the site and is most likely to be seen when there’s a full moon.
The exact number of women who were targeted by Hopkins is not known, but it is thought that the prolific Hopkins was responsible for several hundred deaths. In less than two years the number of witches he convicted represented about 60% of the total number punished in England from the early 15th to the late 18th century. In 1646, a parson from Huntingdon by the name of John Gaule published a pamphlet exposing Hopkins methods for the nonsense they were. The Witchfinder General wrote back in an attempt to defend himself, but popular support for his actions had begun to wane. Hopkins retired to Manningtree, a rich man. He died in 1647 of tuberculosis and was buried in the churchyard at Mistley Heath; both the graveyard and his body are long gone.
I headed to Manningtree, passing Mistley Towers, erected as part of a failed scheme in the late 18th century to reinvent Mistley as a saltwater spa town. The twin towers that remain are all that’s left of a grand Georgian church, designed by Robert Adams and eventually demolished in 1870. I walked over the Hopping Bridge – in broad daylight I saw no ghosts. A lone swan glided across the still waters of the pond.
Across the road, following the south bank of the River Stour along what’s known as The Walls, I encountered more of these graceful birds. Mistley has been traditionally associated with a large population of mute swans, which have made their home here since the 18th century. Back then, as barley and other grain was unloaded at the quayside, some would be blown by the wind into the waters of the Stour and its tributary channels. Not surprisingly, the swans hung around to feed off this grain and have done so ever since. These days, those that remain are part of a domesticated herd.
The sun was out, fittingly for what’s termed the Essex Sunshine Coast, and I couldn’t resist an ice cream as I walked towards Manningtree. In Tudor times a centre for the cloth trade, later a port, Manningtree claims to be England’s smallest town (by area, not population). The town also gets a mention in the Shakespeare play Henry IV Part One, as Falstaff is likened to a “roasted Manningtree ox”. The Witch Finder’s evil reach extended to Manningtree too, for it was here that some of his victims were hanged, and the town sign bears his picture.
With bunting out and kids playing on the town beach, it was hard to imagine such troubled times. As I made my way to the train station, I thought what a pleasant afternoon I’d had on my latest #railadventure.
I received free train travel from Greater Anglia in exchange for writing this review of my #railadventure, but there are some great deals to be had for paying customers, particularly if you travel off peak. For instance, if you book in advance, tickets from Norwich to London are available at just £10, Cambridge to London at £7 and Southend to London at just £5 (all fares quoted are one way). Accompanied children travel for just £2 return and you don’t even have to pre-book for their ticket as this fare is valid on all off peak trains within the Greater Anglia network. On top of this, they are offering 2FOR1 on top London attractions, helping your summer holiday budget stretch further.
Did you feel inspired to plan your own rail adventure after reading this blog? Why not complete Greater Anglia’s survey using this link: