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SIMON COSTIN MUSEUM OF WITCHCRAFT AND MAGIC, CORNWALL
If you want to bring bees to your garden, plant sweet williams. And if you want them to stay, let them know when poorly Uncle Harold finally passes and keep them in the loop if Katherine announces her wedding date. “Tell it to the bees” may not feature in many gardening books, but it runs deep in folklore. “My mother was evacuated to Dorset in the war,” says Simon Costin, “and remembers the family telling the bees. They’d know before anyone else. Bees were said to flee the hive if you didn’t tell them of things.”
And if the insect confidants stay until their buzz-before-date expires, you can pop their furry bodies in a pouch for good luck. Simon has one. He also has a desiccated cat, retrieved from the wall where it had been installed as a charm against mice; a clay figure – or ‘poppet’ – with eyes, neck and heart pierced by pins; a two-headed pig in a pickling jar; racks full of herbs for the making of supernatural potions; and a few thousand other pieces that together constitute the largest collection of its type in the world.
The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic is dramatically located in a gap between treacherous Cornish cliffs on the Elizabethan quayside at Boscastle. “The way you arrive down that hill and enter that shrouded valley all adds to it,” says Simon. “You enter this almost liminal space.”
Founder Cecil Williamson first established a museum on the Isle of Man in 1949, moving to Windsor and Bourton-on-the-Water and then to Boscastle in 1960, following an arson attack. Previously, locals had tarred and feathered signboards, hung a cat, and been led in lengthy protest by an Anglican parson. “It drew a big crowd,” Cecil told the New York
Times in 1970, “so I went out to the protestors and told them, ‘This way for Satan! The parson says he’s in here, come and see him.’”
Cecil sold the collection to Graham King in 1996, three years before he died. Graham, in turn, transferred ownership to Simon in 2013. Still, Cecil’s imprint remains strong. “A lot of things were found after he died,” says Simon. “Poppets, charms and spells. He never outlined his practice, but it seems to be based on working with the seasons, phases of the moon, herbs, chants; that strand of witchcraft, not ritual magic tradition.”
There was a time when Cecil could have been killed for his beliefs. A memorial to some of those who were underlines that this is as much a museum of social history as it is
folklore or the occult. “That’s something we tried to do,” says Simon, “because scapegoating still goes on.” One exhibit is a chair in which the accused would be weighed against a bible. “We have an image of the screaming mob pulling someone out and burning them, but very rarely did that happen. The weighing chair came about when the authorities were moving away from mass accusations against witches and encouraging people to look for ‘proof’, not burn or hang people willy-nilly.”
Simon is no less colourful a character than Cecil, his CV showcasing time as art director for Alexander McQueen, assistant to Derek Jarman and founder of the Museum of British Folklore. When did he discover his fascination with custom? “I always point to my parents’ big tome of a book, Folklore, Myths and Legends of
Britain. It’s riddled with inaccuracies, but it was so special. I loved things to do with magic and witchcraft, as children do in that Harry Potter way, and that book pointed towards things taking place. Whenever we went on holiday, I’d lug the book out and see where we were going. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance I saw up in Staffordshire, for example, was so magical and strange.” We’ll bet it was: carbon analysis shows the antlers used in the dance date to the 11th century, and there’s speculation they replaced an even older set.
Simon enthuses about everything from tar barrel burning in Ottery St Mary (“health and safety hasn’t managed to crush that yet”) to the “incredibly visceral, dangerous, wonderful” Lewes bonfire, but is keen to look beyond annual tradition. “Today you’ve got ghost bikes chained to railings where other cyclists have died – that’s folklore. So are acid tabs stamped with little pictures, the hand gestures in gang culture. You’ve got Notting Hill Carnival, incredibly vibrant and totally folkloric, started by the people, as opposed to initiated by local government. Things have never been stronger, really. It taps into currents that have been bubbling along for a while: sustainability, where food is sourced, younger people looking at alternative ways of living that aren’t as commercialised. It’s very much of the moment.”
From the funny (the hexing Hitler pin cushion) to the moving ( protective amulets from Great War trenches) and gruesome (the scold’s bridle used to stop women talking), the museum is beautifully displayed. Love and empathy are clearly at play here, prompting us to ask one last question: do you practise yourself, Simon? “Um... I never really talk about it. Put it this way, I wouldn’t be taking on a museum of witchcraft if I didn’t.”
“I WENT OUTSIDE TO THE PROTESTORS AND TOLD THEM ‘THIS WAY FOR SATAN! THE PARSON SAYS HE IS IN HERE, COME AND SEE HIM!’”
The potion-making herbs. Not as satisfyingly witchy as eye of newt and toe of frog, but atmospheric nonetheless