Weird Suffolk: Westleton Witch's Stone
PUBLISHED: 16:00 25 May 2018
Bad luck has already befallen the hilltop church of Westleton - its spire collapsed in high winds in 1776 and its replacement fell when it was hit by a German bomb in World War Two - but it's no more than you'd expect for a building with both a witch and a devil in residence.
St Peter’s, built around 1340, is a quaint, thatched church bereft of tower or spire, a peaceful place that harbours an incongruous secret: for a local tradition has it that the Devil himself lives below a small grating at the base of the wall to the right of the priest’s door and that if a particular ritual is observed, Old Nick will rattle his chains below ground.
If you make your way from Hinton direction, along Bowman’s Lane, you can turn left into Devil’s Lane, a road which mothers used to conjure up the phantom highwayman Blue-nosed Fisk who was said to patrol the lane and who served as warning to children not to stray into the wilds of Darsham.
Beside Devil’s Lane is Darsham Road and then a track to the church can be found just past the vicarage – it’s a quiet spot, chosen by the monks of Sibton Abbey near Saxmundham as the perfect spot for a church to serve the community and, it seems the perfect place for Satan and one of his servants to make their home.
For in addition to a Devil in residence, Westleton also boasts a witch.
In front of the Devil’s grating is the Witch’s Stone, a 14th century gravestone which has fallen and is flush with the ground – legend has it that grass will never grow over the stone and that if you use it as a base, you can summon Satan’s wrath by performing a simple ritual.
Place a handkerchief or a piece of straw in the grating and then run round the church three or seven times anti-clockwise but never look at the devil’s lair until you have finished the ritual – back at the Witch’s Stone, the item you’ve placed in the grating will have vanished or you’ll hear Satan rattling his iron chains from his underground home.
Other tales suggest that the entity summoned is actually the witch rather than the devil and direct those who wish to dabble in dark arts to place an object in the hole in the wall above the stone which will vanish after seven laps of St Peter’s.
Conscientious readers will remember we mentioned Westleton in a previous story about Brandeston vicar John Lowes, who was accused of witchcraft by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and who, after intense torture and in a delirious state, confessed to a number of strange crimes, claiming that he had bewitched cattle and caused a ship to sink off Harwich harbour on a calm day, causing the loss of many lives – he said that he had worked in league with Satan and had committed “most heinous, wicked and accursed acts” with the help of six imps who visited him daily.
• Read more: Weird Suffolk: The Brandeston Witch
Vicar Lowes was put to death in Bury St Edmunds and was brought to the gallows on August 27 1645, protesting his innocence. Alongside him were others accused of similar crimes, including Katherine Tooly of Westleton, who hanged on the same day as Lowes having been found guilty of attempting to kill a Driver using her familiar, or imp.
Westleton had been a centre of puritan activity from the late 1620s under the spiritual leadership of its vicar John Swaine (or Swayne), who was originally appointed by the patron of Sir Harbottle Grimston, an Essex magistrate and MP who played a prominent role in the early stages of the Hopkins witch hunts in his native county.
Some believe the legend of the Devil under Westleton was woven by smugglers who would drag their kegs and bales from nearby Sizewell Gap to hide them in the marshes or carry them inland across the desolate heathland to the nearest safe place – underneath the church in its crypt or under the roof space.
But few dare to test their theory by circling the churchyard to summon those said to haunt the hillside church of St Peter’s.