Who doesn’t en­joy the quirks of an in­de­pen­dent mu­seum? They alone cel­e­brate as­pects of life that other in­sti­tu­tions may choose to pass over. This se­ries asks cu­ra­tors of the UK’s most un­usual gal­leries and col­lec­tions to share their high­lights and take yo

The Simple Things - - NEST | COLLECTIONS - Photography: JONATHAN CHERRY Words: JULIAN OWEN


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.”


The potion-mak­ing herbs. Not as sat­is­fy­ingly witchy as eye of newt and toe of frog, but at­mo­spheric none­the­less

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