Witch of Wookey Hole

Wookey Hole is a village close to Wells in Somerset, England. The name Wookey is thought to come from the Old English wocig (an animal trap). The village of Wookey Hole is dominated by the Wookey Hole Caves, which were formed by the action of the River Axe on the limestone hills. Within these caves, the Witch of Wookey Hole dwells. 

The Witch of Wookey Hole is a stalagmite in the first chamber of the caves and the central character in an old English legend. Because of the witch connection most of the caves are named after her. There is her kitchen, and her parlour, there is Hell's Ladder and The Lake of Gloom.

The Caves

Wookey Hole Caves have been inhabited for 35,000BC years, when they were explored by Neanderthal Man, and are believed to have been used for shelter and security. During 600BC- 50AD the Celts used the caves and after them numerous travellers from the Romans onwards have made reference to the caves. There is evidence to suggest that when they have not been vacated as a home for Iron Age people, the caves have been a place to visit and marvel at.  In 189 AD, the Roman diarist Clement of Alexandria wrote of "clashing of numerous cymbals" within the cave. This is likely to have been caused by a known phenomenon where changes in air pressure produce extraordinary noises. 

As with most of England, there is not much information about Wookey Hole after the Romans left. However, there is one tale that is believed to date from these dark ages of history. There is speculation of a “black witch who lived at the head of the Stream of Sorrow on the confines of Hell believed slain by Arthur, King of the Britons; most likely in an effort to increase tourists. It is thought that this was embellished from a much older legend from the Dark Ages.

The Story

The witch is thought to have once been a beautiful young woman, who lived during the Dark Ages. Although little is known about her, she was thought to have been devoted to her lover. One night, when he failed to return from the local alehouse, she went looking for him, and to her horror, discovered her love in a compromising situation with one of the local wenches. Tearfully she fled the scene, wailing as she went, out of the village and into the caves, which local preachers had claimed lead to the caverns of Hell.

Once inside the caves, her sorrow turned quickly to anger, and crying out, she called on the devil to curse the man who had betrayed her. During the night, as she lay, shivering in the dark subterranean chambers, a diabolic vision appeared to her, claiming to be Lucifer himself and offered her the chance to gain the power to curse her wayward lover in return for her soul. Still in a rage about what had taken place, she accepted and was given the power of black magic. The next day the man woke up to discover that he was afflicted with a pox.

Despite taking great pleasure at her former lover’s suffering, the embittered witch was not sated and took to frequently spoiling budding relationships of the villagers. Blighting girls’ lives and keeping them from the joys that had been denied to the jilted witch. She cursed a couple who then took to arguing so much that he stormed off and took holy orders, forsaking the love of women forever. This man became such a good minister, completing many charitable works, enraging the witch that her meddling had inadvertently resulted in good works and she vowed not to dabble in any more relationships.

The Witch resided in the dark caverns for many years, with her dog and horrid familiars, her goat and its kid. The villagers of Wookey Hole continued to be the recipients of her anger. Farmers crops failed, storms abounded, the milk soured and the inhabitants suffered terrible plagues of disease. In desperation they sought assistance from The Abbot of Glastonbury who obliged and appointed Father Bernard, whom the witch had caused to become a monk, to exorcise the witch.

Father Bernard had particular skill in such matters, and was versed in the exorcism of necromancers and wizards. Led by the villagers Father Bernard approached the entrance to the caves, but as they drew closer, one by one they halted in their approach, too frightened to continue. Unfastening the rosary and the crucifix about his neck, and, believing his God to be with him, he continued into the dark caverns and was swallowed up by the interior darkness of the hill

For a time, with his arms stretched out before him, the monk groped blindly onwards as he traversed the seemingly unending tunnel, when a point of feeble light shone through the blackness. He pressed on until he was within the threshold of the first cavern.

He saw something moving by the stone lamp set on the floor at the farther side. A crouching heap of rags stirred, heaved and then erected itself into the uncertain light from the wisp of flame. A peering form, gaunt and terrible, confronted the monk across the width of the cavern. The pale features of the stranger were barely visible in the gloom; the face of the Witch glared in full, misshapen relief above the flicker of yellow light.

There was a hissing intake of breath, a lean arm shot out towards the Benedictine, and a gloating chuckle sounded through the chamber. Then a voice, malignant and threatening, addressed him; "Rash beyond all reason, why comest thou to look on me?"

The beads were swiftly passing beneath the touch of Father Bernard's fingers, but his answer sounded high and calm in the quiet of the cave.

"It is Holy Mother Church that bids thee. Repent O misguided spirit, and leave thy wickedness ere judgment overtake thee. Thou troublest heaven with thy sorceries and thy mischiefs are abhorred of all mankind. Repent; put away the powers of evil, for thy spells shall not avail thee against the wrath that is to come."

The arm was gradually withdrawn, and behind the monk rose a sound of hoarse and laboured breathing. Father Bernard lifted up the crucifix and never turned his head. As he finished speaking he realised the Witch was muttering something into the pool, when she fell silent he tried again. "Woman, I say once more, repent; for thy wizardry can harm me not." An empty hush came down on the cave again, but for a moment only; then peal after peal of long-drawn laughter, beating on the ears and distracting the senses, ran round the gloomy void. A circle of livid light grew about the rock on which the Benedictine stood, and a thick haze interposed between the Witch and the hooded figure of the man.

With his lips moving silently, and his eyes riveted on the obscuring outline of the Witch, the monk advanced. As he stepped beyond the confining ring of flame with un-scorched robes, a rending crash shook the Cave, and a mass of rock, breaking out of the lofty roof, fell headlong over the place he had just forsaken. With a shriek of execration and anger, the hag sprang back towards the river, signing swiftly with her hand. She fled deeper into the cave down a narrow passageway called Hell’s Ladder. The brave monk followed her and they met again in the shadowy depths of an inner cavern.

Father Bernard had raised his hand. His gaze was relentless and fixed, and a stern and quelling authority showed in his aspect. The Witch checked, and halted suddenly immovable, while a shadow of fear flashed across her intent and baleful visage. In strong, unhurried tones the monk was speaking, and the sonorous Latin phrases rang with a hollow echo through the cavern. Quickly, Father Bernard scooped up a handful of water from the river, blessed it and threw it over the witch. The Witch of Wookey convulsively stiffened, as if held in an invisible grasp. The glare froze in her eyes, and her lips writhed back in an effort to frame a final malediction. Her evil figure subtly changed, appearing to solidify and straighten; the tattered garments seemed to sink in and merge with her aged flesh. A supreme tremor passed into an unbreathing, deathly rigour, and, as the monk's voice ceased, only a stony image reared itself by the unheeding river. She had turned instantly to stone and her frozen figure remains in this cavern - known as The Witch’s Kitchen - to this day.