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24 September 2014

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Uncovering Warwickshire's sinister secret

Meon Hill seen from College Farm
Meon Hill seen from College Farm
We investigate the rumours and the evidence behind the pitchfork murder of a suspected witch in the sleepy Warwickshire village of Lower Quinton.

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Valentine's Day is etched in the minds of people in a small South Warwickshire village forever because of a strange murder, carried out among rumours of witchcraft and black magic.

Faye from the website team went to Lower Quinton to delve into the mystery and uncover the facts and the legends.

The man
 Charles Walton's cottage in Lower Quinton
Charles Walton's cottage
The murder victim at the heart of this gruesome and mysterious tale was 74 year-old Charles Walton, a farm labourer who had lived in Lower Quinton all his life.

He shared a rented cottage opposite the village church with his niece, Edie.

The cottage is still there today, although it has now been converted from three small cottages into one large property.

Despite Charles' advanced years, he continued to help out in the local farms until the day of his murder.

Charles was well-liked in the village, although he was an unusual character. It is said that birds would flock to be fed from his hand and he had the ability to tame wild dogs with his voice.

He was a real country man and knew many rural tales and the old ways of the countryside.

However, it's said some villagers some thought he might have been involved with witchcraft because of his strange knowledge and abilities.

The murder
 Hedges on the lower slopes of Meon Hill
Hedges on the lower slopes of Meon Hill
On the day of his murder, 14 February 1945, Charles was tending hedges on Hillground, a field at the bottom of the Meon Hill, with a pitch fork and a trouncing hook.

When his body was found, villagers were shocked at the scene of the brutal and unusual murder.

Charles' trouncing hook was embedded in his throat and his body was pinned to the floor by his pitch fork.

Witchcraft was suspected as a large cross was carved into his chest.

Previous cases documented include people murdering those they believe have put them under a spell.

In these cases, the victim - believed to be the witch that cast the spell - was often given the sign of the cross by the person taking their revenge.

The location
Meon Hill, the furthest of the Costwold mounds, has been surrounded by strange tales for many centuries, concerning devilish deeds and ancient hauntings.

One legend from the eighth century says the Devil kicked a boulder from the top of the hill, intending to smash the recently built Evesham Abbey.

The legend tells that his angry deed was thwarted by the locals' prayers and the stone instead fell on Cleeve Hill, outside Cheltenham.

People there then carved the stone into the shape of a cross, to rid it of evil from the Devil's touch.

Another version of the tale says the Devil threw a large clod of earth to smother the newly built abbey. However, the Bishop of Worcester saw the devil and with the power of prayer altered the devil's aim.

In this version, the clod fell short of its target and formed Meon Hill.

There is also a legend that phantom hounds of the Celtic king Arawyn hunt the hill at night.

The king was the lord of departed spirits who would hunt to gather souls, riding a pale horse and accompanied by a pack of white hounds with red ears.

Mysterious black dogs have also been sighted in the area on many occasions.

Witchcraft connection
 Meon Hill seen from College Farm
Meon Hill seen from College Farm
Witchcraft was investigated as a possible connection to the crime because of the corpse's cross and because hayforks had been used before in the murder of witches.

During the investigation a member of the police found a book titled The book, Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeareland, written by J. Harvey Bloom, in 1929.

A striking passage in the book stated a Charles Walton died in 1885 - 60 years before our victim's death - after seeing a foreboding ghost.

Rumours of the more recently killed Charles Walton being involved in witchcraft - and possibly being the same man as the earlier victim - endure.

The investigation
The case was so important that investigations were led by Scotland Yard's Detective Inspector Robert Fabian. It was this inspector that went on to inspire a television series of 39 episodes, called Fabian of The Yard, making him one of the first police heroes on television.

The crime, however, has never been solved.

Visiting the village
Visiting the village and the site of the murder was even more extraordinary then I had expected.

The events of that Valentine's Day are still very fresh in the minds of the villagers.

The strangest thing was that everyone I spoke to was expecting to be asked questions. No one thought to ask why I was there, as they were clearly prepared for an inquisition at any time.

I do mean prepared, too. After a number of very similar conversations with different people, I started to feel I was facing a community response. It seemed that it has long since been decided how to act when people arrive asking questions in Lower Quinton.

The people I spoke to were friendly, but impenetrably tight-lipped.

Community response
 The College Arms in Lower Quinton
The College Arms pub
The landlord of the College Arms, Tony Smith, said he could tell me nothing. Revealing a lot about the community feeling, but nothing about the details, he said: "I can't talk to you about that. After 17 years of running this place I know there are some things we don't talk about.

"Talking about it would upset people and there's no sense in alienating people in a small village like this."

He added: "There are no relatives of Charles Walton left in the village and people that might have known what happened are all dead or gone."

quote start
No one will, talk to you about it. The family have all gone now anyway. There are none of the Walton family left here now...I have no answers to your questions.
quote end
Joyce in the village post office
We discussed Fabian of the Yard's involvement, as I was now coming to understand how the detective found gathering evidence such a challenge. Mr Smith admitted the community was tight-lipped, describing it as "watertight".

Talking in a guarded and hypothetical way, he said: "In cases like this, there's always someone that knows something. Someone knows what happened, but for the sake of relatives and for not upsetting people, no one will say."

He added to this his certainty that the murder was not witchcraft, but would say no more.

Mrs Wakelon at the village stores suggested there are still people for whom the event is more than legend, but they will not talk.

 Lower Quinton Village Stores
Lower Quinton Village Stores
She said: "People don't talk about it. It's a closed subject.

"Those that would know about it are gone, except one who's in hospital and another that's in a nursing home. All the others have gone or passed away."

Joyce, who has run the village post office for 35 years, was even less inclined to talk, insisting the event was before her time.

Despite this, she knew the tale well, but just gave me the warning: "No one will, talk to you about it. The family have all gone now anyway. There are none of the Walton family left here now. I have no answers to your questions."

Witches in the village
 Witch weather vane in Lower Quinton
Witch weather vane in Lower Quinton
All connections with witchcraft in the village have been suppressed, although one person I spoke to talked about rumours of continuing witchcraft in the Cotswolds nearby.

I was also told the strength of the community feeling against witch connections was felt by the previous landlord of The College Arms.

He spoke of plans to hang lucky witches on broomsticks from the beams in the pub lounge. Needless to say, the landlord changed his design plans after the village response.

I saw just one witch in evidence in the village, as a weather vane on the house behind Charles Walton's old cottage. It was a striking sight in the shadow of the church.

Graveyard mystery
 Grave marked with initials in Lower Quinton
Grave marked with the initials C H W
Surprisingly, Charles Walton does not seem to have a grave in the churchyard. The graveyard holds a very small number of headstones, a reflection on the tiny size of the community, but there seems to be none for the supposedly well-liked murder victim.

All I found was a very small, half hidden, stone bearing the initials C H W. There was no date and no other details.

However, site user MJN wrote: "The reason he does not have a gravestone is because it was destroyed by a relative who became upset by the media visting his grave on the anniverary of his murder each year."

Photographic evidence
Click the images button below to launch a gallery of photographs connected with the murder of Charles Walton. See his house, the scene of his murder, the farms he worked in, the graveyard and more from the shadows of Lower Quinton and Meon Hill.

images button

Exploring Meon Hill

If the photoghraph gallery is not enough to satisfy your wish to smell the farms and explore the hedges for yourself, then don your walking boots.

There are a number of footpaths to explore the area which is still dominated by farms.

I took the path through College Farm up to the lower fields of Meon Hill, where it eventually joins the Heart of England Way.

I'm afraid I lost my nerve and turned back at that point, but I believe if you continue another four miles or so, it will take you up onto the hill and through the lands trampled by Charles Walton many years ago.

Please tread carefully if you choose to follow his path.

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