England Travel Guide

This Town Full of Witches Is the British Equivalent of Salem, Massachusetts

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In this sleepy fishing village in Northern Cornwall, you can step into the fascinating world of witchcraft and the occult.

With its dramatic coastline and quaint-yet-rugged village of whitewashed cottages and thatched roofs, this looks like an ordinary coastal town in the South West of England. That is until you notice the excess of witchcraft and pagan-related shops and signs promoting tarot readings. Welcome to Boscastle, a designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” that’s home to one of the most haunted hotels in the United Kingdom and the world’s largest collection of witchcraft and occult-related items. Just five miles northeast of Tintagel, the castle of Arthurian legend, and nestled within a natural inlet, there’s a lot to explore in the UK’s equivalent to Salem, Massachusetts.

One of the main draws to the area is The Museum of Witchcraft, which houses over 3,000 objects and 7,000 books within its relatively tiny space. It’s a gruesome collection with items ranging from instruments of torture to a first edition of James I’s Daemonologie, a book which shaped many of our modern associations with witches: potions, familiar spirits, and the power of flight. Prepare to learn about how spells were cast and see the paraphernalia used by witches and magicians across the world; it’s an intimate space and you can’t help but be impressed with how the treasures inside are presented.

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What’s pleasantly surprising is the ethos behind the museum. In reality, most of those accused of witchcraft in the U.K. were the elderly, disabled, those living with mental health issues, herbalists, and, quite commonly, those in conflict with neighbors. It’s obvious to anyone who visits that the staff is determined to show visitors the frank brutality inflicted upon those vulnerable people. This includes lists of local people who were killed in Cornwall and Devon and across the U.K.

Never is this better exemplified than with Joan Wytte, a suspected witch whose bodily remains once hung in front of a coffin within the museum. The museum curator, Graham King (a practicing witch himself) decided back in the 90s, after several spooky encounters and a change of heart regarding the exhibition of Wytte’s body, that it was time to lay Joan to rest. With the help of several other local witches, King gave Joan Wytte a burial at last—in a suitably creepy spot, thanks to the overgrown graves and horseshoe bats that nest in the tower.

The people of Boscastle have always been receptive to the presence of magic and occult within their community. In fact, in 2011, 3,339 people identified as pagan in the Devon and Cornwall area. It turned out to be the perfect spot for Cecil Wiliamson, the original curator of the museum, and an integral part of MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service), for researching Nazi occult interests. Unsuccessfully, he tried to set up the museum (originally a shop) in other parts of the U.K., most notably Stratford-upon-Avon. However, he was consistently persecuted as a result, in the form of modern witch hunts. In the 1950s, locals tried to burn down the building that housed the collection, with Williamson still inside. This eventually led him to set the museum up in Boscastle, where it’s stood ever since—even surviving intense flooding in 2004.

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If you’re looking to go beyond spells and magic and are up for a good old-fashioned haunting, then Boscastle also features one of the U.K.’s most haunted spots: The Wellington Hotel. Originally a coach house, the hotel was featured on “Most Haunted in 2004 and has hosted some fascinating guests over the years, including the writer Thomas Hardy and his wife. Boscastle features in many of Hardy’s works, and you may even catch a sighting of Hardy and his wife as they supposedly walk the halls of the hotel together to this day. Aside from the Hardys, you may also spot the commonly sighted coachman who is thought to have drowned in the harbor. Anyone brave enough to sleep over will undoubtedly hear stories of the regular hauntings from an old lady in room number nine. The ghost of a  young girl in rooms fifteen to seventeen might provide you with the fright you’re looking for.

For those wanting to enjoy everything Boscastle has to offer, make sure you catch The Devil’s Bellows, a blowhole under Pennaly Point shoots water across the harbor right before and after low tide. Alternatively, taking a boat trip out to see the Cornish caves and cliffs to catch sight of the local wildlife is a favorite activity that really shows the magic of the area. Or, seek out the spot where locals have claimed to see pixies and other creatures of folklore by taking a two-mile hike to St. Nectan’s Glen, a stunning 60-foot waterfall that pours into the valley below.

Like its counterpart in Massachusetts, you’ll find that much of the tourism and local events in Boscastle are based around witches and witchcraft. But, thanks to the beliefs and passion of those who live there, the village errs away from being a gimmicky spot subject to mass tourism and is rather a quiet and thrilling celebration of the weird and wonderful spiritual world.