In 1832, the county historian John Hodgson gave a vivid account of a seventeenth-century witch, Meg of Meldon. He writes:
MEG, or, as some call her, THE MAID OF MELDON, was, according to tradition, a person of considerable celebrity in her day as a witch and a miser; and since her death has continued the subject of many a winter evening’s ghost tale. That she was Margaret Selby, the mother of Sir Wm. Fenwick, of Meldon, is, I think, plain from the following circumstances. After her death, she used to go and come from Meldon by a subterraneous coach road to Hartington Hall, which was her residence after her husband’s death. The entry into this underground way at Hartington was by a very large whinstone in the Hart.
Despite her reputation for witchcraft, all the stories he tells are about her treasure and her haunts. He goes on to say:
The traditional superstitions of the neighbourhood say that, as a retribution for her covetous disposition and practice in unearthly arts, her spirit was condemned to wander seven years and rest seven years. During the season she had to walk her nightly rounds, she was the terror of the country from Morpeth to Hartington Hall. The places of her most usual resort were those in which she had bestowed her hoarded treasure – places she always abandoned after her pelf was found … Many nights of watching and penance are said to have been spent over a well a little to the south east of Meldon Tower, where she had deposited a bull’s hide full of gold, which has never yet been discovered … Several large fortunes, within the last century, are attributed to the discovery of bags of her gold.
One of the hoards attributed to Meg seems to have been real enough, even if it was not hers. According to Hodgson, the ceiling of Meldon schoolhouse once gave way with the weight of a bag of her money while the master was out at his dinner, and the boys lucky enough to be in, eating theirs out of their satchels, ‘had a rich scramble for it’. Robert White, M. A. Richardson’s source for stories of Meg in his Table Book (1842–5), knew a man who was a schoolboy then and managed to get two or three coins.
Like traditional bogeys, Meg appeared in all sorts of shapes. One of her favourites, says Hodgson, was that of a beautiful woman, but she was also often seen running along the parapet of Meldon Bridge in the form of a little dog. Sometimes she appeared as lights and colours, flickering over the Wansbeck, or under a row of beech trees by the river, in the lane between the bridge and Meldon Park. The people of Meldon, however, became so used to her that they would say when she passed them, ‘There goes Meg of Meldon.’
Another of Meg’s haunts, says Hodgson, was in an ‘antient stone coffin’ on the site of Newminster abbey, where people had seen her sitting ‘in a doleful posture’ for many nights together. The country people called this coffin ‘the trough of the Maid of Meldon’ and used the water that collected in it for removing warts and curing other persistent complaints. Later authors say this stone coffin was used as a cattle trough.
According to the Denham Tracts (1892–5), Meg’s husband, William Fenwick, died in May 1652, giving us a rough date for the haunt in the second half of the seventeenth century. Pictures of Meg show her in a high-crowned, broad-brimmed hat like a conventional witch, with piercing eyes, both of which may have contributed to the popular view of her. Perhaps more important was local resentment: given fierce Border loyalties, the chief thing held against her was possibly that, as her fortune was tied up in the mortgage of Meldon, in order to get her hands on it, the young heir of the Herons, whose ancestral estate it was, had to be dispossessed.
The Denham Tracts records an exploit of Meg’s on Meldon Bridge similar to one related of a ghost at TUDHOE, Co. Durham. A man well-known for not believing in ghosts had often heard tales of Meg’s frightening people, and for a lark one night he decided to dress in white and sit on the parapet of Meldon Bridge, waiting for passers-by. He had not been there long when he found Meg herself seated beside him. ‘You’ve come to fley [frighten],’ said Meg, ‘and I’ve come to fley, let’s baith fley together.’