Sadly this post will start off on a slightly negative note, but will hopefully soon rise above that and develop into something much more interesting.
About six months ago I was contacted by the Museum of Witchcraft managers and informed that the soundtrack to the Wisewoman’s Cottage tableau which I had narrated was being replaced by another that had been created by some of the Friends of the Museum. Although I was initially rather miffed that I hadn’t been consulted before this decision was made, I did agree that it had been a long time since the original recording and that it was time for new material.
Then just recently a link to Gemma Gary’s blog was circulated via the Museum’s Facebook page where it described the update of Joan’s Cottage by herself and others. Upon reading it I decided to rise above the rather disparaging comments made about the previous soundtrack, as everyone is entitled to their personal opinions although I’ve never understood why some feel the need to denigrate what preceded them; however I couldn’t ignore what was an inaccuracy within the text. I politely pointed out to the Museum that despite what was stated, I did not get paid for narrating but gave my time and energy freely, and asked for the mistake to be rectified. The Museum duly got back to me and said that they would contact Gemma Gary and wrote an explanatory note on their blog page (where Gemma’s link had also been posted).
Please note: If you follow the link to the article, you will see that it suggests that the person who provided the previous incarnation of Joan’s voice (Cassandra Latham Jones) was paid. In fact, she gave her time voluntarily. We remain grateful to everyone who has been involved in any project which has been of benefit to the Museum.
All well and good I thought, sorted without any complications. Wrong! 😦
Far from discreetly amending her text, Gemma Gary in her wisdom chose to ‘up the ante’ and escalate the whole situation by writing the following:
“For many years now, visitors to the Museum have been able to hear the voice paid to represent ‘Old Joan’ [18/8/15 it has been brought to my attention that the provider of this voice claims to have volunteered her time. She was in fact paid to do ‘promotional work’ for the Museum. It was my understanding that the recording was part of this work] reciting (with the incongruous inclusion of the odd cold and sinister cackle) an extraordinary and wonderful collection of verbal charms and spells,”
This, a blatantly untrue statement, is made ludicrous by the fact that Gemma Gary was not present or ever involved in any of these events which happened nearly 20 years ago. No-one knows better than I, whether I was paid or not! As a direct result of this Gemma Gary’s blog links were removed by the Museum from both the Facebook group and the Museum’s blog. It remains to be seen whether that lie stays within her blog – but whilst it remains I think it says more about Gemma Gary than it does about me.
Anyway, enough of all this unpleasantness and on to more interesting things. Although these events had unsettled me it did make me think about whether it might be a good idea to share exactly what did happen all that time ago as it’s quite an interesting tale. Certainly it would add a bit more clarity and might even avoid future inaccuracies and assumptions from certain quarters.
Let’s go back to the late nineties, to 1997 to be exact. I had a phone call from Graham King who had recently purchased the Museum of Witchcraft from Cecil Williamson in Boscastle. As a result of this call Graham came down and stayed overnight in my cottage in order to speak at our Pagan Moot later that evening. It was the start of a long and stimulating friendship with Graham, the Museum and countless others who helped him initially to revamp the Museum in those early days.
One of the main objectives in the Museum’s transformation was the removal of the rather disturbing (to some) and sensationalist ‘Dennis Wheatley style’ tableaux. These incidentally were fascinating to deconstruct, as some very unusual and enigmatic items came to light which wouldn’t have been seen by the average onlooker passing by. Graham had some very definite ideas of what he wanted to put in their place and a reconstructed Wisewoman’s Cottage was top of the list.
Although Graham had to introduce and purchase a lot of new materials to replace old, outworn things, he wanted to use recycled materials whenever possible. This not only fitted in with his environmentally friendly ethos, but he felt that this would have been the way that a wisewoman would have acted – utilising and reusing the materials available to her. He was absolutely right – at least as far as this particular wisewoman is concerned. 🙂
I remember that there was a lot of discussion about how to get sufficient stones for the building of the cottage walls and how costly they were to obtain. Graham admitted to me that after he had seen where I lived, it gave him inspiration for the Wisewoman’s Cottage planned for the Museum. Just so that you can see what he meant, here’s my cottage as it was back then:
Later that same night there was a storm at sea which managed to find its way into the inner harbour, because when Graham and Liz woke up the next day they found that a huge pile of stones had been deposited by the Museum door by the thrashing waves. It appeared that the wind and sea gods had heard of their plight and had provided what was needed!
Graham and the team set to with gusto to create the inside of the Wisewoman’s cottage with the stones, wood and window frames recycled and/or found in the local dump and any skips they came across on their travels. Once the ‘grunt’ work was achieved I was assigned the job of covering the walls with whitewash and painting the woodwork. At one point Graham remonstrated with me that I was doing too neat a job and to roughen it all up a bit!
Once the cottage was starting to take shape, Graham told me his plans to have a mannequin created of an old woman around age 70 years to represent the wisewoman. He was going to call her Joan in honour and in remembrance of Joan Wytte the Guardian of the Museum (another story!) Graham then asked me whether I would be willing to narrate a soundtape of charms as he specifically wanted a wisewoman to be the voice of Joan on tape. It would mean travelling up to Hampshire to Graham’s friend who owned a sound studio. I readily agreed to this and plans were made to travel within that week.
In the end, four of us travelled up to a small village called Wherwell in Graham’s old van. After a long and bumpy journey, (I think the suspension was a bit dodgy!) we arrived at the White Lion and had a few well-deserved pints and a bite to eat.
The next morning at breakfast we were introduced to a couple of people I hadn’t met before, but who I still know and occasionally see today. It was Paul Broadhurst and Vivienne Shanley. Paul is well-known in the dowsing world as he used to team up and co-wrote with the famous and beloved dowser from Cornwall, Hamish Miller. Vivienne, who was Paul’s partner at that time, was an accomplished artist who has produced many fine works of art, some of which can still be found within the Museum. For example, a beautiful presentation of The Wheel of the Year:
Apparently our services weren’t required until later in the afternoon whilst the studio was being prepared, so we were free to explore the village – which we duly did. There was no question that Wherwell was very picturesque, however as we wandered around the lanes and then the surrounding fields and meadows there was this distinct feeling of unease bordering on unreality…and then the penny dropped. It was Fran, a member of the team at that time who pointed out that in the fields there was a huge amount of dead wood lying around, which down our way in West Cornwall wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. It would have been gathered and collected ready to be stored for kindling and logs for the winter. When we made our way back to the village lanes and walked past all the cottages, we noticed that there were logs stacked ready for open fires and log-burners – but they were uniform and neatly stacked, obviously delivered rather than harvest the same from the fields a few yards away.
When we looked closer, we could see that the thatch and surrounding gardens were manicured and well-controlled – even the climbing ivy was chopped off in a straight line in an attempt to regiment and tidy up nature. We realised that this was one of the places that had been taken over by the affluent who loved the idea of a country idyll often seen in copies of Country Life. They lived in what used to be peasant and farm workers cottages, probably turfing out the locals who now were forced to live on council estates or in urban poverty. It’s an elite fashion craze followed by folks that I call ‘Aga Louts’ or the ‘Green Wellie Brigade’! I heard that in Knightsbridge, London where monied people drive around in needless (considering the terrain) 4 x 4 landrovers known colloquially as ‘Chelsea Tractors’, that they actually use spray on mud to make it look like they’ve been driving across the countryside! I was dumbfounded when I first heard this – and I’m not entirely convinced that this is true…maybe it’s an urban myth (or should that read rural myth?) A perfect example of approbation by the rich of what used to be a peasant/working class culture. This has been mirrored in the occult world too, in my opinion, but that is another story for another day.
Back in Wherwell it was time to attend the recording session. Firstly there was the Pagan Chants for background music to the Museum which was to be performed by Liz Crow and her friend Heike Robertson which was worked on and successfully completed after about an hour or so. Then it was my turn.
I had my script of sayings and charms compiled by Levannah Morgan which I had familiarised myself with. I am a trained theatre performer, but in one sense I didn’t have to act as such because I was already a working wisewoman. All I had to do was add a few decades to my age as I was in my forties at the time. Fortunately to all concerned I managed to record the whole script on the first take and I was just about to climb down off the stool I was perched on, when Graham’s voice came over the tannoy system -“Can you give us a selection of cackles please Cassandra?” I have to say I was not expecting this, but duly gave them what was asked and then we were all released from our hours of intensive work and spilled out like naughty schoolchildren into the garden outside.
Graham and his friend said that they needed to spend the next day editing, adding sound effects and working on the tapes so we were left to our own devices. Me, Fran and Liz went for a long, relaxing walk down a wooded lane to find what was locally known as the Witch’s Cottage. It was situated as per tradition right on the outskirts of the village far away from any other dwelling. It was a lovely spring evening and Liz gave us a beautiful rendition of ‘Lady of the Woods’. She has a unique poignant quality to her voice and is especially skilled at singing laments.
When we returned it was time for dinner which was followed by an evening at the White Lion Folk Club which was very entertaining. Me and Fran were doing our best to remain upright on this ancient leather sofa that dipped in the middle rather alarmingly – so much so, it felt that you were on one of those Waltzers that spin around at fairgrounds. Mind you, this was probably enhanced by the many excellent real ales we sampled that night! The evening was being facilitated by a rather bossy woman who could only be described as a ‘born-again Redcoat’! You know the sort – they insist that everyone does a turn, in this case, either singing or playing an instrument. Quite frankly Fran and me were incapable of performing anything because we were giggling so much. This seemed to make this woman even more insistent…which made us laugh even more and…well I think you get the picture! In the end she gave it up as a bad job and moved on to someone else, much to our relief and I’m sure to all the others as well!
The next day I emerged rather bleary-eyed. I was sharing a room with Fran and what I didn’t realise was that she snored – very loudly and erratically. I didn’t get much sleep so I was pleased to hear that we were visiting nearby Winchester that day. This gave me the opportunity to purchase some ear-plugs – and I haven’t travelled anywhere without them since!
Before that we visited St Catherine’s Hill where there was a huge labyrinth cut into the turf on the summit of the hill. I spent a spell-binding 20 mins walking that mazed path and, as usual when I do such things, felt my energy and consciousness shift into another level.
Winchester is the ancient capital of Wessex and you could feel history all around in spite of a lot of 21st Century trappings crowding the space. I was entranced by Winchester Great Hall with its famous Round Table and was amused to find when I emerged into the yard, Liz madly rummaging through a skip she had found there. She emerged victorious with yet another foraged prize for the Museum. 🙂
Soon it was time to return to Wherwell and to Graham who was well pleased with how the sound tapes had turned out. We all returned to Boscastle that night battling through a seriously thick fog to the Museum, tired out but with a strong sense of achievement.
A few weeks later the commissioned mannequin arrived and was carefully and appropriately dressed by us girls and there was Old Joan ensconced within her newly crafted cottage and looking very much at home. I have to admit that I was startled by her appearance at first because the finished Joan bore an uncanny resemblance to Rowena Cade (Creator of the Minack Theatre) who I had nursed about fifteen years ago. It was all feeling a bit weird and deja-vu ish, especially when the soundtrack started up. I felt like I was in the middle of an episode from the Twilight Zone!
I have included this link because this film commissioned for the Museum wonderfully conjures up the atmosphere of this unique place – it also contains some excerpts of the original Wisewoman tape.
So here we are back in 2015 and things have moved on. Graham has handed the Museum on to a new owner who is redesigning a lot of the presentation of the exhibits into a more up-to-date genre. Joan’s voice is now different and is now more motherly and I suppose as a result, more acceptable/accessible – although to be honest I have heard some call it “a bit like Jackanory”. I guess in comparison I would have sounded something like Granny Weatherwax (without the cackle!) but I make no apologies for being ‘Old School’. That’s the one thing we can always guarantee – All Things Will Change. 🙂