Hunting witches in Marblehead and Salem: turkey on the lawn alas.


I have a confession.  I have a witchy past (despite my parent’s best efforts with the Order of the Cross).  Ok, so it was only skirting around the shadows of witchcraft, playing Abigail in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, and a few spells in the chicken house with girlfriends, but boy did I relish the part. Having had my first 14 years imposed on by that repressive religion gave me a particular enthusiasm for the part.  At one point, Abigail (with a bunch of her teenage friends),  is accused of dancing with the devil in the woods, supposedly encouraged by Tituba the slave. (No ill-disguised racism there eh?)  It is a moment of high tension in the play.  For many seconds there is silence.  Then Abigail lets rip with a liver-curdling scream, pretending to be in a trance seeing birds in the rafters.  I gave it my all, slicing the silence with that  ear splitting pitch only young girls can achieve.  It was rather successful, startling the audience, and particularly my parents, and indirectly making my life take on a different course.

One of the parents in the audience was John Mortimer, the playwright.  I was in the same dorm at his daughter Sally at Frensham Heights boarding school.  She had been very helpful impersonating me sleeping soundly in my bed, only the top of her head showing, while I sneaked out to meet my boyfriend Chezzy in the woods. (We’d speed across the Hog’s Back to Guildford on his Lambretta to watch Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds at the RickyTick club.)  After the play Sally’s Dad came to congratulate me and said to my parents “she must go on the stage”.  Not ‘should’ you note.  Previously my parents put their feet down on any theatrical ambitions of mine.  “You’ll have to sleep with the directors” argued my mother.  ‘So?’ I thought.  But John Mortimer?  He was God.  He was Rumpole of the Bailey.

It was tantalizing knowing Salem was only about half an hour away from Nick and Jane’s in Marblehead.  I dropped lots of hints about going there, but Jane kept insisting there really was nothing to do there.  The witch museum was rubbish, and the only other point of interest there was the House of Seven Gables.  She could give me a lift, she works there, but what would I do with the rest of the day?  Still I couldn’t let go of the idea.

You would not believe how complicated it is to arrange public transport to Salem from Marblehead.  Wasn’t this a tourist area, even if the native’s didn’t want to bus it?  I  considered walking, but that’s not possible in America the way it is here in the UK.

I remember once suggesting to my ex that I walk from his father’s house in Woodside north to San Francisco.

“You want to WALK?  WALK to San Francisco?”

“Sure, why not?  It’s only 30 miles.”

“You can’t.  There’s no trail.  You’d have to walk on the highway.”

I was pretty unnerved by their 12 lane highways when I first

saw them and this argument figured with me.  I was always amazed that car hire firms would hand over the keys to a 13 hour jet-lagged Brit, and say ‘have a nice day mam’.   No, in America land is property.  It’s not like here where you can wander almost freely on footpaths, which are all over the place, and the owners have to put up with it.  They might plough up a few paths to deter you, but most people, should you get lost and wander on to their property, just point you back in the right direction.  It’s not like you’d get shot.

Nick and I had a walk around Redd’s pond that evening.

Redds Pond

Wilmot Redd, or ‘Mammy Redd’ as she came to be known, was, as far as I can tell, a ‘crabbit old woman’.  She had lived in a small house on the South East corner of the pond in Marblehead in the 1600s.  Her husband, Samuel Redd, was a fisherman.  She put the local women’s back up, it seems, just by being a bit cranky.  Her fate was sealed when she was accused during the Salem Witch Trials of “detestible acts called Witchcraft and Sorceries, wickedly, mallitiously and ffelloniously (sic) used, practised and exercised at the towne of Salem”.  So far, so Daily Mail.  She denied it, but was sentenced to be “hung by the neck until she is dead”.  On the 22nd September 1692 she and seven other women were hung on Gallows Hill, Salem.

Nick must have noticed my disappointment, because next day we went to Salem.  As we passed the witchcraft museum,  Nick and Jane repeated “It’s crap, you really don’t want to go there.”   But I was delighted to see this sign on the grass nearby:

Sign in Salem park

How wonderful that they are educating witches in Salem.  I wonder what the Tea Party thinks about that?

We went instead to the House of Seven Gables.  This is a pretty interesting house, I suspect.  ‘I suspect’ because we met the worst guide ever there.  Maybe it was her first day?

“Was William  Hathorn (the original owner of the house) married?”

“Good question.  Ha.  Yes, that’s a really good question.  I really don’t know.  Probably.”

Downstairs there was a table full of fascinating old things from the colonial period – probably.

“Would that be a wax candle maker?” I asked.

“Wow.  I never really noticed that before.  Good question, no-one’s ever asked that question before.”

Her other tactic, other than praising our questions, but not actually answering them, was “I’m going to answer that question in the next room”.  Needless to say, she never did.  Or she’d say “I know, it’s confusing”.  Spot on there.

We shuffled out none the wiser.  It was a nice house.  Lovely garden.  If you have time to spare in Salem I’d recommend a visit, but if I were you I’d mug up on the history before you go.  Apparently the book The House of Seven Gables written by Nathaniel Hawthorne (b. July 4th 1804), a relative of the first owner who fictionalised those times, is very informative, and groundbreaking.   Nathaniel added a ‘W’ to his name to distinguish himself from Colonel John Hathorne, another rellie.  John Hathorne was a JP who who presided over the Salem Witch Trials.  Despite being one of the first pilgrims, who had escaped religious persecution, he had a thing about Quakers.  He used to regularly beat them up, or rather, have them beaten up.  No wonder Nathaniel wanted that ‘W’.

The garden of the House of seven Gables, Salem

The garden of the House of seven Gables, Salem

The House of Seven Gables colonial mansion, built 1668, Salem

The House of Seven Gables colonial mansion, built 1668, Salem

The rest of the afternoon we spent at a pumpkin and farm with extensive apple orchards, a classic Halloween thing to do.  The apples were big and crisp and even.  Perfect for display – but flavour-wise give me a good old English Coxes Orange Pippin.


Essex Radio Station

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The journey home was not uneventful.  First we passed Essex Radio Station, obviously a happening place with its finger on the pulse, and then, to my absolute delight, we saw a turkey strolling about, without so much as a by-your-leave, on someone’s front lawn.  It’s hard to convey the size of the thing from the picture, but I would say it might intimidate a labrador.   I hope it knows where to hide in December.

Turkey on the lawn, alas

Turkey on the lawn, alas

Over there they do it in wood

IMG_5124Our family have never been close.  Not particularly alienated, I just get the sense that we couldn’t be bothered.  There was a natural division, four boys then a girl.  Obviously, with bedrooms and all that, the boys went in two by twos.  My mother used to introduce me “This is Mary, my P.S.”  And I was, if not exactly an afterthought, a change of sex in the family, born four years after the last boy.  ”The first  girl born for 60 years”, said my mother through gritted teeth,  when I pulled on my favoured dungarees.

At some point, looking after her in her 80s (when, demented, she became a sweet old lady) I realised one of the reasons we were not close was she operated on a kind of divide-and-rule system.  She was a fantastic grandmother however, the sort that you find on all fours behind the sofa, or flipping pancakes in a sweat.  One that the grandchildren wanted to keep in touch with even when they grew up.

Which brings me to Nick, my nephew from the north, who escaped far west, and beached in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  Nick who diligently visited Judy whenever he came back to the UK,  and dined me finely.  Being the eldest son of my eldest brother, we are almost as close in age as I am to his father, and feel like mates.  When Nick married his long-term partner Jane in the summer I thought I’d go.  Then I revised this plan (how much do you actually see of a couple on their wedding day?) to visit a respectful time afterwards.  I didn’t really know Jane and I wanted to.  Now I do, and am the richer for it.

Coming from an area full of stone houses with walls a meter thick, and strange prehistoric bristle-tailed hopping silver fish, it was homey to see these early settler houses doing a good impression of villages round here in the Cotswolds.   I don’t know if Marblehead has weird silverfish, but they do have cockroaches, or, as Nick pointed out, Palmetto bugs.  (Which is what you have if they are in your house; in your neighbour’s house they are cockroaches.)  I examined the map before I left.  There was a Gloucester, Worcester,  Essex and Truro…hundreds of English names. Did the settlers land, and think “goodness me, this looks just like Gloucester” or did they think “know what, lets call this place after the old country” and wiped away a tear.  Maybe it made them feel less lost in a New England.  I think of them whenever I use a cup for measurement, carefully unwrapping little tea cups from protective cloth and examining them for chips after their journey across the ocean.

Marblehead is a little-tea-cup kind of a place.  Houses preserved in ‘revolution’ style by assiduously applied planning rules (even ones built in a later era).  Made of  clapboard, they are painted a gorgeous palette of colours (which I found to be rather more subtle without my sunglasses).  Much be-flagged and neat as a pin, it would be picture postcard perfect if  only they’d pick up after their dogs.

Being on the coast, Marblehead is all about boats, the Boston Yacht Club predominates.  Nick has a modest boat and we discussed plans the next morning over breakfast at the Driftwood Diner.

Blueberry pancakes at the Driftwood Cafe - child size portion

Blueberry pancakes at the Driftwood Cafe – child size portion

We would sleep overnight on the boat and make a 4 am start for Provincetown, Cape Cod.  I wondered about the wisdom of sharing a small boat with a honeymoon couple, but assumed they’d be past the heavy rocking stage having been a couple for ten years.  I worried about my usefulness on the boat.  The last time I sailed was at school on Frensham Ponds, where the limit of my technical lingo was ‘duck’, or ‘watch out’ or ‘oh shit’.  I wondered about the wisdom of having a barbecue on the boat.  I worried about my propensity to sea sickness, combined with jet lag.  But most of all I thrilled at the thought of possibly seeing humpback whales on the Stellwagen Bank.IMG_5121 IMG_5147 Continue reading