It would be the height of folly to point to any particular village or town and claim it had a particular reputation for witchcraft - most communities with any distant history would have tales to tell of witchery and sorcery - most of these tales have been embellished over the years, and I have no doubt the stories that are told within these pages, of witches and sorcerers, of wise and cunning men have seen much revision over the centuries since they were told about hearths in inns and homes. Often these tales, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been woven into something grotesque and cruel. Perhaps the origins of these stories are less so.
Most of these legends of sorcery and witchcraft seem to relate to the ostracized in a community, either willingly or unwillingly, outsiders for some reason, that became in crisis faced by communities the focus of their ire. Rather tiresomely, most, if not all of these unfortunate individuals, were women. Some were known for their skills in the natural world, and were often called upon as healers, their knowledge making them useful, a vital part of their communities. Many no doubt thought that their desire to live on the fringes of a community would be accepted in light of their usefulness. However, reading between the lines of many of the tales of witchcraft that have come down to us through the years, it is clear that the unpleasant conclusion one must come to, is that in the face of an unfathomable crisis, a community in its efforts to find reason where none was immediately apparent, would turn its collective eye upon its outsiders - the strange, the odd, the different, the isolated. Those that had been useful, became useful in another way, the lightning rod for all ills - and they suffered accordingly.
Having said that, most communities would likely have had some connection to witchcraft in the past, there do seem to be certain places that have retained their tales of sorcerous goings on to a greater extent, and passed them on to us. Caerwys is one such place.
Ffynnon Deg is now thought lost beneath the lake on the edge of the wood, but the springs which would have fed the well remain numerous at the base of the limestone escarpment.
In his Eisteddfod silver medal winning essay (1887), and subsequently published Welsh Folklore (1896), Elias Owen recounts the tale of a Mr Richard Jones who as lad travelling with his mother to Caerwys Fair in order to sell a cow, came across a hare crossing the road before them, ‘hopping and halting and looking around’. His mother was much concerned at the sight, believing it to be an ill omen.
‘We may as well go home, Dick, for no good will come of our journey since that old witch crosses our path.’
Despite continuing onto the Fair, and staying all day, they failed to sell the cow.
A darker tradition centres on a group of stones a little north of the town, between Ty Coch and Coed y Ffrith. These were investigated by the Canon Ellis Davies as a possible cromlech. Although he dismissed them as natural limestone outcroppings at the time, he was informed, ‘on more than one occasion’ that the largest of the stones was once used as a sort of stake, ‘on which witches were burnt to death’. Drilled holes within the stone were apparently used to restrain the unfortunate individual as they burnt.
And darker still, is the tale of an old Caerwys woman who lived alone and isolated from the community within the woods around the town. It seems she was considered to be a witch by most in the town, and it is hard to see that this conclusion was not come to through that isolation, and her apparent knowledge of the natural healing qualities of plants. Did she isolate herself, or was she ostracised by her community? The tale, as known, does not say, focusing on the witchery, of course, not the reasons for her seclusion.
It would seem that by the time of the events to be told, she had garnered a reputation of a witch. Whether this was courted by the woman, or imposed is unknown. However, she was known to wander the woods and fields in search of herbs and other plants, ‘for her spells’. She was said to have lived in a cottage on the edge of the town, variously described as ramshackle, decrepit and long abandoned by a woodsman and his family. She rarely ventured into the town, but on the occasion that she braved to do so, the townsfolk avoided her, with mothers telling their children to stay away from her. The children, however, would often creep out of their homes and taunt the woman as she walked, while adults who could not avoid her, would spit in the street as she passed.
It’s not clear when the following events happened, but it would be folly to think such collective hysteria was a terribly ancient thing. One late evening, as the final chime of midnight rang out about the town, the plaintive wail of a child pierced the night. Almost immediately, it was joined by another, and then another. Before long, all the children of the town were crying out, their sleep riven by the most terrible nightmares. Parents huddled their children, aware that their neighbours were doing the same all about Caerwys. But as frightening as this was, worse was to come, as it became clear that this was no isolated incident of madness. The next evening, as midnight passed, the cries began again as the nightmares descended upon the young, worse than the night before. The next evening was a tense affair, the lights of Caerwys burned late into the night, as midnight approached - would the children sleep tonight? As the bells of the church chimed, parents held their breath as their children slumbered uneasily. But as the last chime softened, the cries, and then the screams began…
Soon the town was on its knees, as the effect of the horror seeped into the life of Caerwys. All endeavour slowed to a crawl - fields and livestock went untended, shops closed and come Sunday, the hollow eyed townsfolk huddled in the church, as the priest offered what comfort he could - but even his despairing pleas to heaven went unanswered.
It’s likely that the people of the town had early begun to point an accusatory finger at the old woman in the woods, but perhaps through fear they did nothing. But the children continued to wail and sob, and then began to fall ill through lack of sleep. The people of the town became increasingly desperate.
A group of townsfolk entered the woods, intending to question the old woman as to her involvement in the nightmare. Perhaps they believed they had convinced themselves that they meant no harm, but it seems, the old woman thought differently. The stories differ a little here, since in some she was not at home when they arrived at her cottage, in others she hides from them behind her bolted door - but in another, the townsfolk hear her cackling as they pound upon the door.
Coed Trefraith was the site of Sarah's cottage. Through these woods the towns folk made their way, determined to end the curse of the Witch of Caerwys.
The townsfolk left, but returned of course - you know how this ends. The nightmare of the screaming children continued, and the desperation of the folk of Caerwys made the unthinkable, quite thinkable. Some townsfolk had left the town by now, taking their children with them, and word had returned that the spell was broken on leaving the parish. Enough was enough. A decision was made. Surely the curse could not be maintained with the death of the one who had laid it.
As the sun began to set, a group of townsfolk entered the woods and approached the cottage. There was no attempt this time to bring the old woman to her door. Instead, in an eerie silence, the shuttered windows and doors of the cottage were blocked from the outside and hastily gathered wood was placed about the cottage. With little drama, the fire was lit, and soon the flames began to rise, until the cottage was entirely hidden behind a wall of flame that played strange shapes in the darkening woods about. But the townsfolk stayed - until they heard the screams from behind the flame - shrill and more piercing than those their children had ever made. Slowly, the townsfolk made their way back to the town, the screams becoming fainter, swallowed entirely by the flames.
Those on the outskirts of the town put their children to bed, but sat at their children’s windows from where they could see the glow of the fire still, slowly fading. As the midnight bells began to ring, parents calmly waited. As the last chime faded into a profound silence, the children slept - and wearily their parents made their own way to their beds.
In some accounts, the smoldering ruins were left untouched, for nature to reclaim. It was not long before all traces of the cottage were lost, though a smell, a stench it is said, could be detected in the woods at times - in the night, at midnight. Some, poachers in truth, have claimed that on occasion in the dark, they have come across the shattered remains of an old cottage, only for it not to be there in the morning. Even stranger, however, were the tales of a laughing, a cackling amongst the dark of the woods.
Evocative stuff. But was this old woman the same that was said to have lived by the now lost Ffynnon Deg, within Coed Trefraith. The well now lies beneath an artificial fish pond, but it was said that the old woman, who was known as Sarah, was an intermediary in gaining the blessing of the well. Was Sarah and the witch of Caerwys one and the same?