There are very few Cleveland villages which, at one time or another, one of the inhabitants had not been stigmatised as a witch. More often than not, it was some lonely old woman, past her childbearing age, probably widowed but more than likely without any degree of patriarchal protection.
The most celebrated of these witches was Nan Hardwicke. She is referred by many writers, but her where she came from is somewhat elusive.
In the Northern Weekly Gazette dated 16 January 1904, Richard Blakeborough gives an account of Nan1Blakeborough, R. ‘Notes on by North Riding Lore. Nan Hardwicke. | Northern Weekly Gazette | Saturday 16 January 1904 | British Newspaper Archive’. 2022. Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003075/19040116/067/0008> [accessed 19 December 2022]. He wrote that she lived at Spittal Houses2‘Spital’, ‘Spittle’ or Spittal’ are all variations in the Northern dialect for a ‘hospital’. “The English Dialect Dictionary, …” Edited by Joseph Wright, 1898. Volume V R to S. Page 670. . Internet Archive, 2014, https://archive.org/details/englishdialectdi05wriguoft. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.
. Very vague. I haven’t been able to locate this precisely, but the Rev. Canon Atkinson, in his book ‘Forty Years in a Moorland Parish‘, refers to a witch by the name of Nanny “of Danby celebrity, who lived in a house … situate about half a mile to the east of the house in which this is written” — i.e. Atkinson’s parsonage3Atkinson, Rev. J. C. “Forty years in a moorland parish; reminiscences and researches in Danby in Cleveland.” 1891. Page 85/6.. Taking this distance and direction literally, it would point to a location south of Ainthorpe, near to the present tennis courts, but the 1853 survey of the OS Six-inch map shows no buildings at this point.
Even though Atkinson doesn’t mention Nanny’s surname, his stories and those of Blakeborough’s Nan are so alike that it’s hard to believe they’re about different people.
According to Blakeborough, Nan’s small cottage had a thatched roof and was standing in 1868. People claimed to have seen the devil come out of it and leave his hoof marks near her door. Another time, people saw Nan and two of her sister witches flying out of the cottage on their “bezums”4bezums — broomsticks.
Atkinson was sure too that Nan was a real person from history. He said he had heard stories about her suggesting that “Au’d Nanny” was bullied by young men, “young bloods”, from the farming community. These men were probably the sons of freeholders, or may have been freeholders themselves.
On an evening, she would often take the form of a hare and hide in a gorse-covered bank, and the young men and their dogs would hunt her just as they would hunt any hare, purely for fun. When disturbed, she would always run up the hill, along a slope, and down a steep descent towards the hamlet called Ainthorpe. She wore clogs or rough shoes with wooden soles and iron tips and heels, so made a lot of noise as she ran. Her pursuers would chase her until she reached a stream where the chase would stop. I am not sure which is the most believable, a witch taking the form of her familiar, not an uncommon notion, or a hare wearing clogs.
Anyhow, one evening, a lad named Thomas, who was not present at the start of the hunt, heard Nan’s wooden shoes clattering towards him. He decided to stop her from reaching the stream and see what would happen. He stood firmly on the path with his legs apart, ready to block her way. As the sound of the footsteps grew louder, he started to get scared. He knew it was the witch he had hunted many times before, but he couldn’t see her. Suddenly, something rushed between his legs, and he was thrown aside like a sucked orange. He heard a strange chuckling laugh as the witch ran off beyond his reach.
These stories of Nan and her doings, occurrences which happened long, long ago, are no longer told by grandparents to their grandchildren. They are being lost to social memory, found only in old books and the remote corners of the internet.
Another story, retold by Blakeborough, was of a farmer who had some sheep in a field. One day, someone left a gate open, and his sheep escaped. The farmer and his neighbours thought that it was Nan who did it, even though they never saw her do it. This happened several times, and the farmer got really frustrated, so he decided to keep an eye out. He hid near her cottage and watched her for two hours, but she never went near her gate. However, when he returned to his field, he found his gate lying in the middle of the road and his sheep were wandering around.
When the farmer was asked who might have done it, he replied without hesitating that it was Nan, and seemed surprised that anyone would ask. He said that she had the power to fling the gate off its hinges just by wagging her finger, and she didn’t need to leave her doorstep to do it. He believed that she was “henk’led on with the devil“.
The featured image is looking north along Ainthorpe Rigg with the rooftops of the hamlet cottages and the Fox & Hounds inn just visible.
- 1Blakeborough, R. ‘Notes on by North Riding Lore. Nan Hardwicke. | Northern Weekly Gazette | Saturday 16 January 1904 | British Newspaper Archive’. 2022. Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003075/19040116/067/0008> [accessed 19 December 2022]
- 2‘Spital’, ‘Spittle’ or Spittal’ are all variations in the Northern dialect for a ‘hospital’. “The English Dialect Dictionary, …” Edited by Joseph Wright, 1898. Volume V R to S. Page 670. . Internet Archive, 2014, https://archive.org/details/englishdialectdi05wriguoft. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.
- 3Atkinson, Rev. J. C. “Forty years in a moorland parish; reminiscences and researches in Danby in Cleveland.” 1891. Page 85/6.
- 4bezums — broomsticks