The Witch in the Well
This story is based on the game ‘The Witch in the Well’ played in Cornwall in Victorian times. The children share out the roles; the witch, the mother and the children. The witch hides by the well which can be a tree or a bush or a wall. The mother and the children find a house across the way which will also be a tree or a suitable bush opposite the witch’s well. The children at the home base say,
‘Mother, I want a biscuit.’
‘Let me see your hands?’
The children show their hands palm upwards.
‘Let me see the other side.’
The children show the other side of their hands.
‘They are very dirty, go and wash them in the well.’
They go to the well, where the witch jumps out and frightens them. The children all run back to the mother.
‘There is a witch in the well.’
‘No there isn’t, go back and wash your hands.’
‘Come with us and we will prove it.’
When they get to the well, the witch comes out and chases them all away.
Whoever is caught first becomes the witch and the game starts again.
Once there were seven maids of Padstow who mostly played together. One day, they met in Beck Lane to play a game of ‘The Witch in the Well’. A witch came down the lane to meet them, ‘Oh please let me play the game, I would very much like to play ‘The Witch in the Well’ once more before I die.’ ‘We already have enough thank you,’ said the girls.
‘You may need to count again, your friend fell over on the way. I will play the witch for today.’ The witch went to sit in the seat by the ancient well. The children called themselves after the days of the week and all but the child playing the mother, went into a little house across the road from the well.
‘Can I come in?’ asked the witch. They let the witch in and she took Monday away. Once outside, Monday disappeared. The little mother, whose name was Betty, went to the well to ask for Monday. ‘I sent her to the Doom Bar,’ said the witch, ‘to see if the waves were breaking.’
‘I will go and look for Monday,’ said Betty and off she went.
‘Can I come in to light my pipe?’ asked the witch, tapping her pipe on the door.
‘Yes,’ said Tuesday. The witch took Tuesday away and when they were outside, Tuesday disappeared.
‘Where is Tuesday?’ asked Betty.
‘The witch took her away,’ said the others.
‘Where is Tuesday?’ Betty asked the witch.
‘I sent her to Lelizzick to get wool for my spinning,’ said the witch.
‘I will go and look for her,’ said Betty.
‘Can I come in to light my pipe?’ asked the witch. ‘No,’ said Wednesday. But the witch already had the door open a crack and pulled Wednesday outside. In an instant, she too disappeared.
Betty came back to find Wednesday gone and she went to ask the witch who was sitting on a seat in the well, ‘Where is my Wednesday?’
‘I sent her off to Place House to ask if Squire Prideaux’s housekeeper would give me some medicine,’ said the witch.
Betty went back to the house. ‘I am going to Place House to find Wednesday,’ she said, ‘do not let the witch in.’
But nothing would keep the witch out and one by one, she took Thursday and Friday and Saturday. ‘Where are my friends?’ asked Betty, beginning to cry.
‘All the children are upstairs in my house, where they will work very hard,’ said the witch.
Betty realized the old woman sitting by the well was no ordinary member of the game, she was a real witch and they were in real trouble.
‘I’ll climb up and get them,’ said Betty.
‘You won’t walk up my stairs with those dirty feet,’ said the witch.
‘I shall have to and I’m going to,’ said Betty.
‘The only way you will ever see your friends again, is if you fly up the stairs with wings,’ said the witch. And with that she flew down the well.
Betty sat by the well and wondered what she would tell the parents of her friends. She sat a long time thinking of an answer but she had none. Then she noticed a little dog who had been running back and forth by the well. ‘How will I ever find wings to fly up the stairs in the witch’s house?’ she asked the little dog. And to her surprise, he answered,
‘The wise woman of Bogee Down will help you. Go to her and explain how only you can fly up the witch’s stairs and save your friends. Tell her, you were sent by Pincher, the witch’s dog.’
Betty, walked all the way up to the down and asked the wise woman if she could help her.
‘I might be able to help you,’ said the wise woman, ‘but first you must ask your mother, because I will need you to stay with me for a year and a day and work hard on the tasks I give you.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Betty, ‘I will ask my mother.’ Off she went back to Padstow, where her mother said yes and in no time Betty was back on the down, sitting at the old wise woman’s rocking chair and waiting for her first instruction.
The first task, was to take out a bag of feathers from the chest by the window and lay them out, one by one on the table. Thinking this easy enough, Betty was dismayed when she pulled out a matted ball of rainbow feathers. She hoped to make her wings but by evening, she had freed only one feather. ‘One feather is a good sign,’ said the wise woman encouragingly. Every day for six months Betty sat trying to dislodge the feathers. As she lay on her bed, she thought of her beautiful rainbow wings. When at last she had separated the feathers from the knotted ball, the wise woman scooped the feathers off the table, took them to the door and shook them out over the down. Betty watched as her feathers floated out to sea.
The second task was even harder. The wise woman asked Betty to search in the chest by the window and find a black stone. ‘You must rub the stone until it is the colour of life,’ the wise woman told her. Betty rubbed the stone for months, she thought often of her dear friends and how much she wished to free them. She rubbed and rubbed until at last, one cold evening, the stone began to glow.
‘Go to the chest and find a lovely box with wings engraved on it,’ said the wise woman. ‘Put the stone into this box and ask the king of the wee folk to give permission to undo the spell. Then throw the stone after the feathers.’ Betty threw the stone out on the down and it rolled off after the feathers.
The next day, the wise woman asked Betty, ‘If you could be a bird, which one would you be?’
‘I would be a thrush,’ said Betty, smiling.
‘A thrush it is then. Follow Crackrattle stream until you come to Trevillador Wood, follow the little stream, and when you get to the wood, ask every thrush to give a feather for love’s sake.’
Betty walked along the road, and up onto the downs, she could see Tintagel in the distance in one direction and the two headlands, Stepper Point and Pentire. She followed the little stream until she came to Trevillador Wood. The thrushes were singing all about her, Betty asked each thrush for a feather, ‘Please thrush, may I have a feather for love’s sake?’ Lots of thrushes gave Betty a feather and she followed the stream back up to the down with her skirt pockets full of feathers.
‘Put the feathers in the box where you keep the stone, Betty please,’ said the wise woman.
Next day, the North Wind blew and it grew very cold.
‘If I die of cold, the witch will keep the maids,’ said the wise woman weakly. Betty felt very sad and seeing her sadness, the wise woman said, ‘Keep me alive through the cold spell, Betty and perhaps we can still save your friends.’
Betty looked about the little house, it was very cold and the fire had died to a few embers. The old woman slept. Outside, snow was falling, covering the ground with an ever thickening blanket. Betty looked in the shed by the house but there were no sticks for the fire. She looked about her. A hare was running toward the hut, when it got close, it turned into the witch, who leaned on her broom and laughed at Betty.
‘The sticks are all buried deep under the snow. The wise woman will die tonight, I will have won.’ Before Betty had a chance to reply, the hare was bounding off into the snow. From behind the wood shed there came a snuffling sound, Pincher the witch’s dog had once more been left behind.
‘Hello Pincher,’ said Betty.
‘Hello Betty. Come look, I have found wood and peat under the hedge.’ He led the way and helped to dig it out of the snow. When the fire was lit, the dog said, ‘Please remember me when you save your friends.’
‘Tell me, how are they? What do they do in the witch’s house?’
‘The witch makes your friends spin all day. They are working hard. Will you remember me?’
‘Of course I will, Pincher.’
The snow and winds continued to ravage the down and Betty’s stock of wood and peat was gone. The old woman lay on her bed, she was very weak and fading fast. All Betty could do was wrap her arms around her and hug her warm. Warmed a little, the wise woman said,
‘I won’t die until you have your wings.’
As she spoke, a ball of red rolled across the snow toward the house. Betty watched it roll right across the down, through the door and into the hearth. The ball gave out a lovely cheery heat and Betty and the wise woman fell asleep. When they woke the snow had gone, the wise woman said,
‘Now Betty, we must work hard to finish your tasks. Go to the chest and get a bottle from it. Fill the bottle with a note from every thrush you meet.’ As Betty approached the wood, thrushes flew to her, ‘We will give you songs, Betty.’
‘No thank you, I would love just one note from each of you, please.’
As she walked back to the down, she heard two squirrels talking, they thought Betty couldn’t hear them and how useful that was.
‘There is the maid from Padstow Town, she rubbed the stone the colour of fire, the very same stone Prince Fire was turned into by the witch and she untangled little Lady Soft Wings. All this she did through love for her friends. The small people are her friends now, they will help her. The Prince of Fire is to make her wings.’
All at once, Betty found herself surrounded by butterflies, Lady Soft Wing’s sisters. She hurried back to the wise woman surrounded by wings. Everything was ready. Inside the box, amongst the thrushes’ feathers, stood a little man making wings. When Lady Soft Wings arrived, the wise woman asked her to sing the making song. The fairies all waved their wings and sang. Betty felt very sleepy.
When she woke up, she had wings. ‘How do I look?’
‘Just like a thrush,’ said the wise woman.
The little thrush delighted the fairies by singing and then flew away across the moor to find her friends.
When she saw Betty the thrush, the witch lay on the ground groaning. Betty sang and the girls heard her song over the sound of their spinning wheels. The door opened and she flew up the stairs. ‘I am Betty turned into a thrush,’ she sang to her friends. The little dog Pincher ran up and joined in Betty’s song. The girls all stared at the little thrush in amazement, then they heard Betty’s voice in amongst the thrush’s song. The girls all giggled and followed thrush Betty down the stairs. As they came out into the sunlight, they saw the witch flying off,
‘You must command her to do something or you will remain a thrush,’ warned Pincher.
‘What is it you want, Pincher?’ Betty asked.
‘To be free of the witch,’ he said.
Betty flew after the witch and the children and Pincher all chased after her to the well.
‘Sing your command, thrush Betty,’ said Pincher.
The witch stood in the road, angry with her little dog.
‘Turn Pincher back into a boy,’ sang the thrush.
‘I keep the dog,’ snapped the witch.
‘No, you must let him return.’ The witch passed her broom over the dog and he turned into a boy. The thrush sang again sending the witch back down the well to stay there forever and everyone sighed with relief. The children all returned to Padstow where they met with their mothers and fathers on the quay. Betty was once again a little girl and she asked her mother if they might care for Pincher, whose parents had died long ago. The boats all raised flags in honour of the children’s return. The boy and Betty became good friends and when they were grown-ups they were married and lived happily.
retold by Anna Chorlton