Gone But Not Forgotten
- Feb 7, 2004
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Original story here
Wookey witch becomes a bone of contention
By Cassandra Jardine
A witch's cauldron of controversy is bubbling in the caves of Wookey Hole in a battle over an ancient skeleton.
Trouble began to simmer after Gerry Cottle, the former circus supremo, bought the Somerset caves last Christmas and discovered that Wookey's most famous resident - the witch - was not included.
Her bones reside at the Wells and Mendip Museum two miles down the road. They have been kept in this charming - but not much visited - building since being discovered in the caves in 1914 by an archaeologist, Herbert Balch.
Mr Cottle is adamant that he needs Wookey's witch back. "She belongs here," he said yesterday. But Bridget Hobhouse, the museum administrator, is determined to hang on to them. "They are our bones," she said.
Pinned up in a case on the wall, the bones look unremarkable, but there is a colourful story attached to them.
According to legend, they belong to a beautiful woman who lived 1,000 years ago. She suddenly lost her looks and was driven from her village, taking up residence in the caves where she spent her days cursing those younger and happier than herself.
In doing so, she turned a young man's new wife against him. He decided to become a monk at Glastonbury and later wrought his revenge when asked to perform an exorcism on the caves.
Chasing the witch through the underground passages, he cornered her in the cavern known as the Witch's Kitchen, threw holy water over her, and thus turned her into stone.
The story moved on a notch when Balch found the bones of an elderly female goatherd with a comb and a limestone "crystal ball". The story has become part of the "visitor experience" at Wookey Hole.
"There's our witch," declares the guide, as a crone's face is projected by lights on to the rock. "And here she is turned to stone," he says later, as the spotlight turns on a rock that resembles a hook-nosed, long-chinned woman. The crowds lap it up - and Mr Cottle feels that they deserve to see the real bones at his on-site museum.
He is used to getting his own way. At 15, he defied his stockbroker father and ran away to the circus. By 25, he had started his own circus. But he has had enough of big tops and, last year, he bought Wookey for £5 million.
He now intends to spend £2 million more revamping the caves with music events, spook shows, and actors dressed as witches and wizards. On Monday, his lawyer told him that he had a good chance of getting the bones - but, in Miss Hobhouse, he has a formidable opponent.
A garden designer from an old, landed Somerset family, she is at pains to show herself impervious to Mr Cottle's rogueish charm.
"There's our witch," he said at the museum yesterday. "Was she as tough as you?" he asked Miss Hobhouse. She gave him a dusty look. "You are not having her," she replied crisply.
"We are an archaeological museum - and Mr Cottle is a showman," she explained. "He is not having our witch."
"More people come to us," said Mr Cottle.
"The serious-minded come here," countered Miss Hobhouse. "The last owners of Wookey Hole tried this, and we sorted them out - so you can stop wasting your money on solicitors."
"I won't give up," said Mr Cottle, as he left. His plan now is for a Return the Witch to Wookey campaign to embarrass the trustees into returning the bones.
Miss Hobhouse believes he cannot win. "He's got to live in Somerset, he's an in-comer - and we don't want any more civil wars here," she said.
The trustees of the museum - led by Martin Grass, a keen caver - confirm that they will not surrender their bones. "There's more chance of Greece getting the Elgin marbles back," said Mr Grass.