WEIRD SUFFOLK: The witches’ stones of Lowestoft that run to the sea at midnight and can conjure rain from the sky
PUBLISHED: 18:00 28 March 2020
Geograph.org.uk/ Adrian S Pye
According to legend, stones placed in Lowestoft’s Belle Vue Park in Tudor times run down to the sea at the first chime of midnight and can be used as ‘rainmakers’.
Strange stories lie in the least expected places: a pile of stones in Belle Vue Park in Lowestoft is said to run to the sea on the first chime of midnight at midsummer to bathe.
These are the so-called Witches’ Stones, a rough cairn of stones which lies just inside the south gate of the park and which was once a vital lifeline to those at sea. Believed to be the remains of a Tudor warning beacon built in 1550 by the Marquis of Northampton, one of a pair of warning fires in the town, the other at the top of Green Score, now Links Road. Fires would blaze from a platform on top of the cairn to warn ships of forthcoming emergencies, early forerunners to lighthouses and possibly the spark that ignited a legend which has persisted over the centuries.
It is said that unless the stones are bathed in fire, they will race down to the seashore at the first strike of midnight chimed from the town hall clock to bathe in the water before rushing to be back in place by the last stroke of 12. Some say this happens only at midsummer, others that it happens far more frequently as the stones shed the mortar that binds them for a joyful dash for the water. Others claim that the stones are ‘weather makers’ and can cause rain to fall if water is poured over them.
But why the name? It is believed that the Witches’ Stones, now topped with an anchor, bear their name due to a shameful episode from Lowestoft’s past, where two women were accused of witchcraft and hanged in 1662. Amy (or Ann) Denny and Rose Cullender were tried at Bury St Edmunds after an unlucky 13 accusations were brought against them, including that they had betwitched people following disagreements, cursed animals and damaged property. The pair had been brought to trial by Samuel Pacy, a wealthy fish merchant and property owner in Lowestoft who had refused to sell Amy any of his wares and, according to Pacy, was then punished by Denny’s dark arts. His daughter Deborah “was taken with most violent fits, feeling most extreme pain in her stomach, like the pricking of pins and shrieking out in a most dreadful manner like unto a whelp, and not like unto a sensible creature…”
Throughout her fits, Deborah claimed it was Amy who had caused them. Her sister Elizabeth then fell ill, and the pair suffered for two months with a range of ailments ranging from lameness and soreness to a loss of speech and dreadful reactions to words such as ‘Lord’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’. The sisters also began to blame another reputed witch, Rose Cullender, saying that both women would appear to them and warn them that more torment was on its way. At their trial, other neighbours claimed the women had wronged them: Dorothy Durrant said Denny had murdered her 10-year-old daughter and almost killed her infant son William, who had been cured by counter-magic from Great Yarmouth.
A Dr Jacobs had told Dorothy to hang baby William’s blanket over the fireplace and burn anything found in it: when she took it down at night, a large toad fell out which was duly burned and exploded with a flash of light. There were accusations that carts had been bewitched and animals cursed – Rose Cullender was accused of bringing forth “a great number of lice of extraordinary bigness” – chimney collapses were blamed on the women, the ‘evidence’ was plentiful if unfounded. Neither woman admitted their guilt, but both knew that defending themselves was pointless. They died on March 17 1664.
The link to the swimming stones of Belle Vue Park is said to be that – in life - Amy Denny was in the habit of sitting on the stones and throwing curses at passers-by, an anti-social habit that would – later – possibly lead to her terrible downfall.
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