I was in Lytham a couple of days ago seeking out the memorials relating to the Mexico ship disaster of 1886 which led to the deaths of 27 lifeboatmen. The worst loss of life in the history of the RNLI. Chatting to one of the locals on the Lytham Promenade, he enlarged on the Cliftons of Lytham Hall, an interesting family by all accounts, and the influences they had had on the town over the centuries. He mentioned the mysterious Witch Wood.
Witch Wood is what’s left of The Big Wood, a 5,000 acre site, once part of Lytham Hall Home Park. The Cliftons ran into financial trouble and sold off the estate to Guardian Royal Exchange in 1963. Somewhere along the line the local council gifted the remaining derelict Witch wood to Lytham St. Annes Civic Society who proceeded to create a narrow strip of woodland, a green corridor in the heart of the town. Undergrowth was cleared and new native trees planted. A plaque says the woodland was officially opened by Prince Phillip in 1974.
My visit, with cycle in tow, was going to be brief. The approach, after visiting St. Cuthbert’s Church, was along an old private driveway, now open to pedestrians, over the railway into the old Clifton Estate.
I’d been told of the Witch’s Grave inside these woods. Spoiling the story, not a female scary Witch but a horse belonging to John Talbot Clifton, the squire of Lytham Hall. The horse, Witch, had an accident in 1888 within the woods and a gravestone apparently marks its resting place.
Once in the woodland strip do I go left or right to find the grave? I go left, westwards, along a well-used path, no cycling allowed says the sign. Fair enough. The narrow wood is bounded on the south by the railway and to the north by a largely hidden housing estate. It should be easy to spot the grave especially at this time of year with little undergrowth. Of course, I don’t really know what I’m looking for. After walking a few hundred yards I have not found the gravestone. I turn around and head back.
A local couple are walking towards me – “excuse me, do you by any chance know where the Witch’s grave is?” ” Yes you must have passed it back there – it’s on the right in the trees” They offer to show me where, and I retrace my steps once more. It is evident they are very proud of their wood and extol the virtues of the Lytham Civic Society and all the good work the volunteers do. They are not too keen on irresponsible dog owners or cyclists. I wheel my bike quietly beside me. Next thing my guides and I are at the far western end of the wood where it joins the road without encountering the grave. They apologise, explaining they were distracted by our conversation. I apologise for troubling them and turn tail to try again.
Along the way I gather up more ‘knowledgable’ locals in my quest. “I think it is in the other half of the wood” is a popular opinion. So over the driveway and into the eastern half of the wood, we spread out scouring the undergrowth. They begin to lose interest but say they will shout if they find it as they scatter off onto side paths. I retreat to the western half as advised by the next group of locals, one who had walked these paths as a child believing in the Witch and fairies in the trees. For a while I follow them but begin to doubt their reliability and hang back, bicycle still in tow. That’s about a dozen locals I’ve consulted so far, it can’t be so difficult, surely. Back to the central driveway.
At last a pleasant lady with spaniel, must be local. I repeat my request and all of a sudden positivity arrives. She marches me without any fuss to the spot maybe a hundred yards away which I must have passed half a dozen times. I thank her profusely, she looks at me wondering whether I will be able to find my way out.
To be honest the gravestone is small and not that obvious in the trees. The stone is inscribed – The Witch. Died Jan 5th 1888. Satisfied, I can continue on my way now, not daring to mount my bike till well out of the wood. I cannot give you a grid reference for the stone – best of luck if you go in search. Try asking a local.