One day about 15 years ago I was out walking in Wiltshire and I met a bunch of travellers who were celebrating the ancient wheat festival of Lammas. Back then I had a company making cameras for photographing rare documents and the more it had grown, the less I ended up doing what I enjoyed. I was stressed to the eyeballs.
Meeting the travellers really got me thinking – and I sold everything: my company, the Jag, the cottage. Then a friend showed me an article that said that the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, was up for sale and said, “You should buy that,” so I did. It was signed over to me at midnight on Halloween in 1996.
We’re not the only witchcraft museum in the world but we’re the only one of any size and we try to be quite scholarly. The meaning of the word “witch” has changed over the years. Wise women in the villages fulfilled the role of doctor, social worker, healer – every village had a wise woman or two. There are plenty of old charms and spells that contain Latin or phrases from scholarly works – witches weren’t the ugly hags of myth; these were intelligent people. The persecution was about fear; people are afraid of powerful women.
I used to sleep in a room in the museum, directly above the cursing exhibit. I’d regularly hear crashing noises, ones like breaking glass, in the middle of the night – but when I’d go down there would be nothing going on, nothing to see. I devised my own way of handling it, which was to go and talk to the poppets [doll figures] and tell them to behave themselves and quieten down.
For many years, we exhibited the skeleton of Joan Wytte, who was imprisoned for witchcraft and died in Bodmin jail in 1813. She was displayed in a coffin-like box and there were instances of the lid shutting itself, even though it was behind glass panels. But I didn’t like exhibiting what was once a living human being and so we buried her properly on the night of October 20 1998.
There has been a lot of interest in our mandrake collection since mandrakes appeared in Harry Potter. Mandrake roots are reputed to grow only on the ground under a gallows and they are super little characters that look really human. They’re often used in fertility spells. It’s a European tradition to dress them up and put little crowns on them. They’re kept in miniature coffins, because of the association with the dead on the gallows.
The 2004 flood that devastated Boscastle was hugely traumatic. At the time I was one of the coastguards; in fact I raised the alert for the flood. In many ways, looking back, we were lucky – no one was killed. The water tore through the museum quickly, smashed all the cases, and went out slowly, sending everything into gloopy, sewagey mud. But that mud saved a lot of our artefacts from being washed away. It was a difficult time although it showed us how many people love the museum: we received emails and donations from all over the world. The big museums helped us out – the Natural History Museum in London donated cases to replace the ones that had been smashed up in the flood. It was good to be recognised by them as a serious collection.
The most talked-about item in the museum is probably a scrying mirror, a dark mirror that’s not fully reflective. This one belonged to Cecil Williamson, who founded the museum 60 years ago. If you imagine a gypsy using her crystal ball, a scrying mirror is used in the same way – it’s a tool to de-focus your mind and perhaps help you to contact the spirit world, maybe ask for a revelation to help you in your magic, which you then see in the mirror. You look through it rather than into it. We have several scrying mirrors but this one somehow still seems to be alive. Visitors talk about faces and shapes they’ve seen in it – its magic still manages to captivate people.