Part Four - The Witch of Brackley Copse
During the 15th century, there was grave concern about necromancy, sorcery, and witchcraft, especially amongst aristocrats that lead to trials. Henry VIII brought in a witchcraft act in 1547 which was replaced somewhat later in 1563 by an ‘Act against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts’ It was clear from this that the authorities were becoming more fearful of witches. London and Essex became the province for witchcraft trials under this new act and would pursue prosecutions of suspected witches expeditiously.
In 1564 one of the first major trials in England was heard at Carfax court. Nora Agnes Hunt, a local spinster stood accused. Nora was incarcerated in Carfax jail house where she confessed that she had been taught witchcraft at the age of 13 by her grandmother. She had given her blood to the Devil in the likeness of a black hound, which she kept in a kennel and fed. Nora confessed she had a cat called Diablo through which she worked her magic rewarding her cat with fresh chickens and rats.
The local townsfolk had accused Nora of causing sickness, plague, and starting fires in their homes by supernatural means; she was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to be burned at the stake. It was known that Nora confessed to her crimes under torture, torture was legally acceptable in England during these times and under torture she had given extraordinary confessions of eating men and boys in her dwelling in Brackley Wood, under further sufferance she confessed that she took the Devil “for her maister and reunceit Christ”. It was heard that she regularly dug up graves at the local churchyard to get finger bones for her spells.
Nora was to be burned in January 1564, a local witness account recorded in the local parish records recounted the day and told how when bound to the tree in Brackley Wood, the fire was difficult to light and whenever the sticks began to burn, the fire would be extinguished by Nora’s breath alone. Frustrated the titular ordered her to be blinded and garrotted, the executioner had his own blade turned on him and he ended up bled to death. The townspeople fled Brackley after another failed attempt to burn Nora. They left her bound to a tree, and to the elements.
The local parish priest claimed he could hear her cries for eleven nights before the Wood fell silent. The Townspeople were so afraid Nora would wreak revenge on them, they first tried to burn the Wood using oil rubbed into the trunks of the trees, this fire consumed most of the perimeter of the Wood, leaving only the middle five acres standing. Sickness returned to the town, too afraid to enter the Wood to finish the job of burning the Witch, the townspeople decided to ensure that Nora would never leave the Wood. The acclaimed Witch finder General, Matthew Hopkins advised that a local river be diverted to encircle the Wood, according to his learnings, a witch can never cross running water.
A rhyme sung by children in Carfax today:
The Witches House
Stay away from the witches’ house,
no man child dog or mouse,
should ever go near the witches’ house.
A crooked dirty wooden shack,
no flowers, no colour, just peeling black,
any warmth this house will lack.
Iron horseshoe nailed to the door,
bones of dead things scattered on the floor,
this witch is queen of an ancient lore.
The witch herself all old and mean,
stays locked inside, is never seen,
except by children when they dream.
On the windowsill she leaves her hat,
her broom left lying on the mat,
whilst in the garden lurks her cat.
This witch and house have stood so long,
to these old woods they do belong,
to try and change things would be wrong.
The rhyme has many versions, in some Nora is mentioned, this version however is the most well-known.
The legend of Nora resided in and around Carfax up to this very day. Many local townspeople have a tale to tell, Mr Norbert Cook, a local butcher in Carfax high street recounted to me his own singular story. “I never really believed in ghosts or anything like that, always been a man who has his feet on the ground that’s me, but my dog Bobty see, he went missing, and my boy Jon was fretting something awful, we searched high and low for him, the only place we hadn’t been was Brackley Copse, the locals were always telling stories about Brackley, saying no one should ever go there, on account of the witch see, well I tells you I never take no notice of such flap doodle, I takes Jon and a flashlight and we go searching the wood, found an old hut we did, and Jon he runs inside shouting he can see Bobty I follows him in I did but that wasn’t Bobty he saw, foaming at the mouth it was, it came at us, I used a stick on it I had to, Jon was screaming, she’s in there father, she’s in there he kept on yelling. I picked up my boy and we ran like ruddy hell, the witch was in there Jon kept saying all the way home. He said he saw her, and I believe him”
Neil Trenchard, editor of the Carfax standard returned to his desk carrying a fresh mug of piping hot coffee. The clock on the wall read almost a quarter to ten in the evening, the last of his staff went home about an hour ago. Neil had stayed late as he wanted to finish the report on Brackley copse that Jack Olsen had been working on prior to his untimely, recent death, the next edition was to be printed tomorrow, and the story had to be finished.
Jack’s death had shocked everybody at the office, Jack wasn’t a particularly popular reporter at the Standard, never socialising with his colleagues, he would eat alone, and when Neil had asked him to train up a new junior reporter, he had refused and threatened to resign stating that he always worked alone, that’s the only way he could be creative, other people, colleagues would always stifle his creativity he often said.
Neil couldn’t see anything particularly warranting such self-praise from the writings and copy he provided for publication, and had been mulling over the decision to fire him, it was only the fact that Jack had been at the Standard long enough to stack up a sufficient pay out if he were to be made redundant, so Neil had decided to wait and watch and eventually, surely Jack would slip up, create an opportunity, a window, do something, or say something that was deemed a sack-able offence. Nobody, not even Neil anticipated that he would leave the Standard and the world at the same time.
Neil had just finished adding the finishing touches, embellishments to Jack’s report on the supposedly haunted wood, in fact Neil had practically re-written the whole piece; he had given it his editorial artistic flare he thought. He smiled as he sat back in his chair slurping at his coffee and reading the report for the fourth time that evening. ‘Local reporter meets grim end in Haunted Carfax Wood!’ read Neil’s title. He only needed a photograph to go with the article. Helen, Neil’s secretary, personal assistant, and subject of his long and secret extra-marital affair had said that he should use one of Jack’s photos he’d taken that fateful day, the rest of the office had agreed during their weekly discussion meeting about the content of the latest edition, Neil concurred realising that it may lead to more stories that could sell more newspapers, maybe old Jack wasn’t such a proverbial waste of space after all thought Neil.
Neil opened the envelope that the police had left him, Jack’s envelope containing various disks, files and memory cards that belonged to the Paper. He tipped the contents of the envelope out onto his desk, and studied them, he picked up each item in turn and almost dropped the flash memory stick; it was icy cold, almost burning. He sucked his finger before touching it again, this time it felt normal. He picked it up and inserted it into his PC, he clicked on the window and selected to view current files, he opened the file named ‘Brackley Copse’. Neil’s mobile phone began to ring as he clicked through the stream of digitised wooded pictures, the screen on his phone showed that his wife Laura was calling him, Neil declined the call, too busy he thought, it can wait till I get home.
The lights in the office began to flicker, and one by one they went out with a little ‘Ping!’
‘Bloody electrics in this building’ Neil shouted out loud as he left his desk to flick the light switch on and off several times. The only source of light now was emanating from his Dell PC monitor; suddenly the monitor began to flicker violently; Neil watched the monitor as he pressed a button on his desk phone; he intended to leave a voice message for the site manager to complain about the power disruption; the ring tone was also disrupted, replaced by only an irritating crackling electronic noise. Neil hung up the phone.
Neil became transfixed by the image that was vacillating on his PC monitor screen,
‘What the hell?’ Neil leaned forward to stare at the murky anthropomorphic form that was slowly taking shape on the monitor; it seemed to be forming from within the image of the wood. Neil sprung up out of his chair and backed away from the monitor; he became unnerved by what he had seen. Suddenly the monitor fizzled out of power, it’s once illuminated screen was now aphotic.
Neil suddenly found himself in a darkened office; the only source of light emanated from the security lights outside. Neil bumped into a filing cabinet as he felt his way towards the office door.
Scratch! Scratch Scratch! A disturbing sound filled the room; it seemed to echo from all around the office. Neil opened the office door and was relieved to see a fully lighted corridor beyond; he slammed the office door shut behind him and he leaned his back against it as he took a deep breath,
‘I must be going soft!’ he spoke out loud, and then burst into a fit of nervous giggles. Neil’s mirth was cut short when he saw the corridor lights begin to flicker; one by one they fizzled out leaving him alone in the dark once more. Scratch! Scratch! Scratch! Neil ran down the corridor, he glanced back as he ran and wished he hadn’t. It was coming for him. A swirling mass of black thread like ringlets filled the corridor, scratching along the walls as they moved swiftly along, creating a sickening ear piercing scraping sound that a sharp knife would make across a glass bottle.
Panting, and fearing that his heart would burst, Neil reached the end of the corridor, he tripped over something, was it a waste paper bin? Whatever it was it sent him tumbling down a long flight of steps, all the way to the fire exit below. Neil cried out in pain, in the red glow from a fading emergency light fixed above the fire door he could see a bone protruding from his shin; the rest of his leg was all twisted at an unnatural angle. Before the emergency light faded Neil saw a form beginning to take shape at the top of the stairs, the swirling black tangles came together like black smoke up a chimney to take the shape of a woman. The figure, slight and bony, made its way down the stairwell. Neil screamed in pain as he forced himself to stand; he felt for the exit bar on the door and pushed; pain burnt into his arm like a branding mark, he realised the fall must have also broken his wrist.
Hobbling away from the back of the building, Neil was snorting and blubbering in blind panic; as the pain got so great he simply fell face down in a heap into a dirty puddle of rainwater, and all the while he could hear that awful thing cackling as it approached him. The puddle of water began to ice over, the grimy moisture covering Neil’s face and begrimed shirt also began to frost. Neil twisted his crippled body around as he lay on the concrete; a hideous cackling face loomed over him as a pair of bemired talons reached down to claw at his terror stricken face. Scratch! Scratch! Scratch!