The Witches of Wizards Alton
Another tale of the supernatural from Stiltshire
Like most English counties, Stiltshire has had its fair share of witches, wise women, warlocks and various persons of pagan interests. Stiltshire folk over the centuries have been generally tolerant of such people, believing them to be at best purveyors of an ancient craft of healing and miracle working, and at worst harmless eccentrics. In the days of the witch hunts the county came under scrutiny and at first roused the interest of the witchfinders. In many a tavern could be found people who, on being plied with a few quarts or slipped the odd shilling, could be relied upon to recount lurid tales of child sacrifice, of flying broomsticks, or of elderly women indulging in unnatural practices with black cats or, more usually (this being Stiltshire), black pigs. However, on closer examination, the alleged perpetrators of these acts invariably proved to be strangers whom no-one could identify, victims’ names were curiously absent from parish registers and the secret glade in the middle of the forest always turned out to be one of a dozen such clearings, each with a blasted elm or a prominent ring of mushrooms. In the end the inquisitors, faced with this lack of hard evidence even by their standards, and increasingly out of pocket, turned their attention to other regions where the locals were more willing to betray their neighbours for the price of a pint or two.
But there is one village in Stiltshire which has had more than its fair share of association with the supernatural. Originally called Alton, it was home in the thirteenth century to a magician, by all accounts a powerful and charismatic character who built up a following of mostly female devotees. Little else is known of him now but such was his fame at the time that the name of the village acquired the prefix “Wizards” which remains to this day.
There is one curious artefact in the vicinity – an ancient menhir which might be just like any other standing stone but for a large replica of a human nose which protrudes from one side. Whether it was sculpted from a natural protuberance in the rock or by painstakingly chipping away at a much larger block of stone, the nose is extremely life-like, even down to the hairs which, although somewhat eroded over the centuries, are still visible in the nostrils.
Whether because of some inherent mystic quality of the place (some say it is a confluence of ley lines) or simply because of its name, Wizards Alton has attracted persons of paranormal leanings over the years. The most notable instance was in the 1920s, when a short, stocky man with flowing black hair calling himself Hermes Brunato purchased a large derelict house called Hemlock Hall and set up a community consisting of himself and a group of dark haired, pale skinned young women. He became known locally as The Wizard, an appellation of which he seemed thoroughly to approve.
The inhabitants of Hemlock Hall tended to keep themselves to themselves, although the women were occasionally seen gathering herbs from the hedgerows or buying provisions in the village shop, where they were generally shunned or regarded with suspicion by the good wives of the neighbourhood. But on moonlit nights they were known to gather within a circle of trees on the edge of the village close to the ancient lichen-clad monolith, where they danced naked and with great abandon for the gratification of their master or, during his not infrequent absences, for their own amusement.
Mr Quainton Rhodes recalls the story told to him by his Uncle Teddy who, as a young lad of 15, went to watch the witches dance. He hid behind a bush and gazed wide-eyed, transfixed by the swirling black tresses, the heaving bosoms and pale, plump buttocks gleaming in the moonlight - until one of the witches turned and slowly winked at him, whereupon he fled red-faced, jumped on his bicycle and pedalled furiously all the way home to Aggerby.
The community flourished for about three years before its activities came to an abrupt end. For the story of the day of reckoning we turn to the testimony of Sidney Blagness, a carter by trade. On 14th June 1928 he was taking his lunch in the station yard at Kings Pebberworth, having just unloaded a consignment of bales of cloth, when he was approached by a large, stony-faced woman who enquired whether he could drive her to Wizards Alton. He agreed and drove briskly, whistling in his accustomed manner while his passenger sat unsmiling and tight lipped beside him. Once in the village, she asked him to take her to Hemlock Hall and to wait while she attended to some business.
Almost as soon as she entered the house, there were sounds of great vituperation from within. Minutes later she emerged, dragging the Wizard by his ear and subjecting him to a non-stop torrent of verbal abuse. Between the front door and the gate she had denounced him for abandoning his family, consorting with trollops, provoking the wrath of the Almighty by practicing alchemy and wearing a ridiculous wig. Whilst climbing onto the cart she had further accused him of flirting with Satan, bringing disgrace upon his former regiment and neglecting his dahlias. In the absence of any instruction, Blagness turned his horses towards Kings Pebberworth and listened in amazement as this formidable woman continued her tirade, without apparently pausing for breath, for the entire hour and a quarter’s duration of the journey.
The facts as Blagness gleaned them are these. The Wizard’s real name was Herbert Brown, he was an actuary and lived in a semi-detached house in a respectable suburb of Birmingham. Mrs Brown, for it was she, had become suspicious of his frequent absence on “business trips” and, acting on two clues, a fragment of the Stiltshire Gazette found in his jacket pocket and a dusty grimoire hidden in the attic, had made enquiries and eventually determined his true whereabouts.
On arrival at the station, she thrust half a crown into Blagness’ palm while telling her husband how the cat had been suffering an unduly severe attack of fleas which was obviously demonically induced as a direct result of evil goings-on in Wizards Alton. As the carter climbed back into his seat and took up the reins, he could still hear her voice blaming the miserable Herbert for causing her aged mother’s rheumatism. Subsequently, on relating the tale to his brother, a porter at Stilchester Central, he learned that the monologue was still in full spate when the pair changed trains an hour later. The experience had a profound effect on Sidney Blagness and he went to his grave some thirty years later believing his own wife, who was not exactly blunt of tongue, to be a model of virtue and restraint.
Herbert Brown was never seen in Wizards Alton again. Of his coven, one or two drifted away soon afterwards. The remainder stayed at Hemlock Hall and opened a tea shop, which became very popular with the tourists. Local people were more wary; “Won’t catch me drinking that witches’ brew!” they would say.