The wookey hole is a small village near to Wells in Somerset, UK. It is dominated by caves formed by the action of the River Axe on the Limestone Hills.
The caves have been inhabited for 35,000 years BC, when they were explored by a Neanderthal man, looking for shelter and security. During 600 BC-50 AD, the Celts used the caves and after that, numerous travellers from Romans onwards have made reference to these caves. In 189 AD, the Roman diarist Clement of Alexandria relates to the “clashing of numerous cymbols”, a known phenomenon where changes in the air pressure produce extraordinary noises.
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, parlour, Hell’s Ladder and The Lake of Gloom.
One version of the story tells of the “black witch who lived in the cave at the head of the stream of sorrow on the confines of hell” who was slain by the most famous monarch, Arthur, King of the Britain’s. However, it is likely this story was made up in the eighteenth century in an effort to attract tourists. The real legend is much older and runs as follows:
During the dark ages in the village of Wookey, lived a beautiful young woman. She was completely devoted to her lover but he was not as devoted to her. Late one night, when he failed to come home from the local ale house, the young woman went out to look for him. She found the man with one of the local wenches in a compromising position. The young woman was heartbroken and fled from the scene, tearful and wailing, out of the village towards the caves which the local preachers claimed lead to the caverns of hell.
Once inside, her sorrow and pain soon turned to anger and hate. She called upon the devil to curse the man who had betrayed her. That night, as she lay shivering in the dark chambers, a frightening vision appeared before her. The vision claimed it was a demon from hell sent by Lucifer. It claimed that Lucifer heard her calling and was offering her great power. She could curse her wayward lover herself, providing she gave him her soul. Still enraged, the woman accepted and was given the power of dark magic. The next day, the man woke to find he was afflicted with a pox.
Though the new witch took much pleasure in the man’s suffering, it did not satisfy her appetite for revenge. After being treated so badly by her ex-lover, the witch continued her revenge by taking it out on new budding relationships by using her merciless arts to curse the lives of females and keep them from the joys denied to herself. One day she spotted a couple walking towards her caves and cursed their relationship to fail. Sure enough, a couple of days later the couple began to argue. The man eventually stormed off to take holy orders, forsaking the love of a woman forever. The man became a good minister and much given to charitable work. This angered the witch but she vowed never to dabble in the relationships of others again.
As the years past, the witch became increasingly bitter. She lived alone in the caves with her dog and her familiars, a goat and its kid. The people of the village knew she was witch and everything that went wrong in the village was blamed on her. She took her feelings out on the townfolk, causing their crops to fail, storms, change in drinking habits and their milk to sour. They even blamed her for the terrible plagues of disease that hit the village. In desperation they called upon Father Bernard, the man who became a monk through the witches curse. Acknowledging their need, his superior, The Abbot of Glastonbury, obliged and appointed him to exorcise the witch.
Father Bernard had particular skills in such matters, being deeply versed in the exorcising of necromancers and wizards. The villagers led the monk to the shadow of the cliff at the valleys end, where his keen grey eyes rested on the entrance of the rock;he then looked up to the sky, as if in invocation. Father Bernard approached the entrance surrounded by the villagers, but as they drew closer, they halted one by one in their approach, too frightened to continue. Indeed the priest also felt fear, and unfastened the rosary and crucifix from around his neck. Believing his God would be with him, he continued into the dark caverns and was swallowed up by the interior darkness of the hill.
The monk continued in blindly and felt the tunnels were neverending. Suddenly, a dull light shone through the blackness. He pressed on until he was in the threshold of the first cavern.
Something moved by the stone lamp set on the floor on the far side. A crouching heap of rags stirred, heaved then erected itself into the uncertain light from the wisp of flame. A peering form, gaunt and terrible, confronted the monk from across the width of the cavern. the pale features of the creature were barely visible in the gloom. There was a hissing intake of breath, a lean arm shot out towards the monk, 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 through Father Bernard’s fingers, but his answer sounded high and calm in the quiet of the caves. “It is Holy Mother Church that bids thee. Repent oh misguided spirit, and leave thy wickedness ere judgement 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 his crucifix and never turned his head. The monk realised the witch was muttering something into the pool. When she fell silent again, the monk tried again, “Woman” he said solemnly, “I say once more, repent, for thy wizardry cannot harm me.” An empty hush came down on the cave once more, but only for a moment, then peal after peal of long drawn laughter, beating on the ears and distracting the senses. A circle of livid light grew about the rock on which the monk 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 unscorched robes, a rending clash shook the cave, and a mass of rock fell headlong over the place where he just stood. 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 known as Hell’s Ladder. The brave monk followed her and they met again in the shadowy depths of the inner cave.
Father Bernard raised his hand, his gaze relentless and fixed. The witch stopped, unable to move, and a shadow of fear flashed across her face. In strong, unhurried tones, the monk spoke, 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 convulsively stiffened, her eyes glare froze and her lips writhed back in an effort to frame a final curse. She appeared to solidify and straighten, Her tattered garments seemed to sink in and merge with her aging flesh. A supreme terror passed into an unbreathing, deathly rigour, and as the monks voice ceased, only a stoney image reared itself by the unheeding river. She had instantly turned to stone and her frozen figure still remains in this cavern-known as the witches kitchen-to this day.
The witch of Wookey Hole is actually a stalagmite in the first chamber of the caves. Over the years, the rock took on a human form and thus the legend is born. But is it just a tale? The story was first written down in 1748 though circulated among generations for years before. In 1912, a cave explorer, H.B. Balch, found evidence that may substantiate some of the story. He discovered a milking pot, a ball made from stalagmite, tools and even human remains which may or may not belong to the witch.
If that was not enough, the caves are also said to be haunted. The ghost of a potholer who drowned is said to roam the chambers. The spirit of a little child who died on the site has also been seen. And, of course, the witch herself is believed to demonstrate her powers on occasion. For more information, check out their website.