Close to the Arboretum in Worcester is the Tything – a pathway that has existited since before Roman times (though evidence says maybe earlier).
Windows of worlds past (images to follow) is based on the that feeling of eeriness you may have experienced as you go down The Tything – this is to be expected… because a long time ago it was the home of two witches. It was said – rather unfairly – that if there was something they did not know about the black arts then it was because the devil was keeping it to himself.
The “black arts” referred to any healing potions or spells that could be purchased to help the local people too poor to be able to afford better. The two ladies sold charms and spells to help those who would otherwise be helpless.
They sold spells to cure warts, potions to cure toothache, charms to find what was lost, etc.
Although we cannot speak to their success, they barely made a living but that was more by the fact that their clients were poor rather than their lack of experience and skill. In fact they would have found it difficult to make a living at all if it was not for carts.
“Muddy Road” by John Hearfield
These were the days before tarmac or cobbles even for most roads, they were simple stone tracks with a muddy covering regardless of the weather. So the carts just rolled in and out of Worcester (through the Foregate) pressing down the mud and clay as they went. The carters, however, noticed that their carts had a knack of getting stuck fast in the mud just outside the old ladies’ house.
If this happened, then one of the old ladies would come out of the house and make enquiries of the carter for any coins to pass to a ‘poor old widow woman that did noone any harm’.
If the carter did pass some coins, then the old lady would wave her hand in the direction of the cart saying “God bless the cart!” upon which the cart would miraculously start to move again. The regular carters would talk amongst themselves about the events but none had the courage to refuse the money or press for how the carts got stuck. It did not happen that much but the carters felt the toll was not excessive – unlike the lords who would charge enormously for access to their paths.
One day a salt cart (probably from Droitwich which was famous for its salt production since Roman times) came bobbling along the Tything driven by a man who had not made that journey before. Low and behold the cart got stuck outside the ladies’ house. When one of them appeared asking for coins the carter said bruskly “Don’t trouble me now mother. I have to work out what’s gone wrong with this damned cart.“
The carter got down and went to look at the horses and before long he was surprised to see a long straw laying on the wheel-horses back so he took out a knife and cut the straw in two. The old woman screamed so loud the horse bolted and the carter had to run after it down the road so he did not get to see what had left behind …the other old lady was lying in the road, cut clean in two in a pool of blood.
That was the end of the carts getting stuck in the mud on the Tything – the old woman not seeming to care to collect the toll anymore. This meant the old lady became poorer and though aided by neighbours and people buying what they could to keep her surviving, it was hard to keep things together.
One day she had collected enough money to but a loaf of bread. So she took what she had to the baker just into the city and got a loaf that she favoured the most.
On her way out – clutching the warm bread in her arms – she was faced with a troup of armed men riding towards her. As if entranced by the shiny metal and sun glinting of the weapons, she became rooted to the spot as they rode towards her.
“Get out of the way woman” shouted the leader. “We have important business in the city“.
“Yes your lordship …” she said bobbing in a respectful way.
At this point the leader (dressed in fine silks and linens) decided to have a little fun with her to entertain his men.
“Tell me old woman …where did you get that loaf of bread?“
“From Worcester, it please you sir.” she said giving him a curtsy-like nod.
“And how much did you pay for it?“
“A penny captain sir“
“Well when I am finished you won’t be able to get a loaf of bread for a penny, a sixpence or any amount of money – I have come to collect the King’s taxes and I will take every last farthing or there will be trouble“
“That you won’t …” said the old woman pursing her lips. “…you won’t get into the town and you will never get done with it neither.“
The men and the lord laughed so hard they nearly fell off their horses. “Look old lady the gate (Foregate) is just there and there is nothing to stop us you old fool“.
The old woman quickly replied “Oh, you will get to the gate alright but no further. You are hard as stones – all of you – and stones you will remain.“
Impatiently the young lord spurred his horse on and his men followed …right up until he got to the gate where his horse stopped dead – literally – and the young man was thrown. The same happene with all his men.
When the dust settled, the city were in a quandary as all they saw was a pile of grey stones in the road.
The greed and impudence of the fancy dressed and well healed will ome back to haunt them as it did that captain and his men.
The story was precised from Worcestershire Folk Tales by David Phelps (ISBN 978-0-7524-8580-5)