The Witch’s Well

The Witch's Well

As you might imagine, the North has its fair share of witches too. There’s always been a good quantity of ambiguity regarding witches in English folklore; for example, is that troublesome old woman really a witch, or just an old lady who lives alone and knows how to manipulate people? One particularly infamous Northumbrian ‘witch’ was Meg of Meldon, who lived in the village of the same name several centuries ago.

There were many stories about old Meg, the old woman who lived in a run-down old cottage at the edge of Meldon. These rumours were eagerly yet cautiously passed among the villagers when they met in the street or at the market. They supposed that old Meg was a witch of reasonable powers. A particularly enduring tale was that the miserly old Meg was very rich. She hoarded her gold and hid it in several places, but no one would dare go looking for it or even to burgle her house; for the entire village was afraid of her powers and feared she may put a spell on the person who crossed her.

One night, a peasant who lived in the village dreamed that he saw one of old Meg’s secret hoards, hidden deep at the bottom of an old well near Meldon Tower. In the dream, a mysterious voice told him that if he went to the well at midnight, a stranger would come to help him lift the gold out of the well and he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams. There was, however, one condition; neither he or the stranger who helped him could utter a single word or otherwise break the silence.

The next day, the peasant remembered all he had seen in the dream, but he did not take the vision seriously. Like everyone else in the village, he had wondered about the hiding places of old Meg’s fortune; but what good could come of stumbling around in the dark? But when he talked about it with his friends, he was surprised to learn that they knew of the well.

“Oh aye, I know it. They call it a well, of course,” said one, “but there’s not been any water drawn from it as long as I can remember. Dry as a bone!”

Intrigued, the peasant decided to see if he could find this well. Sure enough, there it was; exactly how he had seen it in his dream. He dropped a pebble into it and listened carefully for any splash which might come. There was none, for the well was as dry as his friend had said.

This discovery made the peasant think that there may have been some truth to his dream, and that the old well would be a good hiding place for old Meg’s money. So he waited until dark, and just before midnight he crept up onto the hill to the well. As he reached it, he heard the bell in the clock tower strike twelve; and to his amazement, he saw a stranger approaching him. The stranger’s face was hard to see in the darkness, but he carried a long rope with grappling irons fixed to the end.

Remembering the warning in his dream, the peasant did not greet the stranger. In silence, they fixed the rope to the beam of the well and let it down. There was a dull thud as the irons hit the dry earth at the bottom of the well. The peasant almost cried out in excitement, but held his tongue just in time. The iron hooks caught something resting there, which felt like a bag of a considerable size and weight. When they heard this, the peasant and his strange assistant began to wind in the rope very slowly and carefully, fearing the bag would come loose from the irons.

As the bag bumped the sides of the well the peasant could hear the faint sound of jingling, coming ever closer as they raised it higher. He began to think of how rich he would become, and how he would be able at last to buy his own farm and be his own master. To his great excitement, he saw the bag looming out of the darkness. He lost his patience and leant forward to pull the rope with his own two hands. The bag was just within his grasp when he joyfully shouted, “Now we have her!”.

Only at that moment did he remember that he was not to speak. To his horror, the bag came loose from the hooks and tumbled back into the well shaft. In despair he turned to the stranger. Then the moon came out from behind a cloud and he saw that the stranger was old Meg! She gave a shrill cackle and vanished before his very eyes; and terrified, he ran home as fast as his legs could carry him. Never again did he return to the well; and safe to say, no one went looking for old Meg’s gold ever again.

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