Weird Suffolk: Be careful what you wish for when visiting a witch

A wise woman holds a plant in one hand and a fan in the other. Woodcut from 1700-1720

Old Nan Barrett was a reputed witch or cunning woman who worked in Eye in the late 1700s. - Credit: Wellcome Collection

It is never wise to try to get the better of someone who makes a living from being cunning – no good comes of tricking someone whose business is magic. 

Today’s story is a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for and, in turn, paying for services rendered. 

The book this story hails from is a paragraph in itself: The Vocabulary of East Anglia: An attempt to record the vulgar tongue of the twin sister counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, as it existed in the last twenty years of the eighteenth century and still exists; with proof of its antiquity from etymology and authority by Reverend Robert Forby, published in 1830.  

Having drawn breath, we may begin. 

Old Nan Barrett was a reputed witch or cunning woman who worked in Eye in the late 1700s and whose words of wisdom were sought for decades. 

People would travel for 30 or 40 miles to ask her advice on a wide range of matters ranging from illness to romance, love to hatred. She could also draw up horoscopes. 

On one occasion, a farmer’s wife had lost some feathers – useful to pack mattresses and quilts – and quickly made her way to Eye to consult Nan Barrett to discover where the feathers were and if she would ever see them again. 

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Nan quickly assured her that the feathers would return and that she had no need to worry – she then extended her palm for it to be crossed with silver. 

Happy with the answer she had been given, the farmer’s wife turned on her heel and left, laughing as she heard Nan tell her that although the feathers would return, she would soon wish they had stayed lost. 

Delighted that she had outwitted a witch, the woman came home and she and her maids began the long process of milking the herd. 

As she bent over the pail, the farmer’s wife heard a noise like beating wings and, as she turned her head to see what was making the noise, she saw her feathers flying into the yard like a snowstorm and settling into the pails of fresh milk. 

Both milk and feathers were ruined and the tale spread across Suffolk that Nan Barrett’s threats were not to be taken lightly. 

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