Witch Wood is a long narrow strip of woodland and within it lies a single small headstone. Rather enigmatically, it states “The Witch. Died Jan 5th 1888“. Many people pass by without noticing the grave, others might wonder what lies beneath – not, as some might think, a woman accused of being a witch, but actually a horse, reputedly a favourite of the squire of Clifton Hall, John Talbot Clifton. The horse met with an accident in the wood, and the stone marks its final resting place.
Widely known by his middle name, John Talbot Clifton was 19 years old in the year of Witch’s death. His father had died eight years previously, and his grandfather two years afterwards. It’s unclear if Talbot was riding The Witch at the time of the accident. He had set off the autumn before on a trip to Australia and New Zealand, and from there was meant to continue to carry on to China and Japan. He never made it to the latter two countries as he suffered a riding accident, which cut the whole trip short. The journey had been meant to last up to a year, but he was back home after just four months, which means he could have been present in the wood at the start of January 1888.
The year after The Witch’s death, Talbot came into his full inheritance. This included land at St Anne’s, Lytham, Warton, Westby, Little Marton and Clifton – a total of 17,000 acres and 250 tenants. A huge week-long celebration took place in Lytham, but if the locals had hoped this would mean he would stay at his ancestral home of Lytham Hall they were to be sorely disappointed. He would spend his time at first mostly in America, indulging in buying horses, driving a horse and trap at high speed, playing polo and participating in steeplechases. In later life, he became an explorer, first living with indigenous people of the far north of Canada (which involved persuading them not to kill him!) His future adventures included trekking through the Andes, getting involved in an aborted attempt to find buried treasure on Cocos Island, becoming a war correspondent in Hong Kong and hunting for orchids in Indonesia.
Witch Wood is Opened to the Public
Talbot’s son, Harry Clifton, inherited the family fortune and rapidly burnt through it all. In a bid to raise money, he sold Lytham Hall to the Guardian Royal Exchange in 1963. Witch Wood was donated by the local council to Lytham St Anne Civic Society. A large amount of work was then carried out in the woodland, which had not been maintained for many years. Undergrowth was removed and paths laid through it, to create a walk of almost a mile from the Andsell area to Lytham. Prince Philip opened the woodland in 1974.
Work continues to this day, with volunteers from the society still working on maintaining its well-used paths. They have diversified the wood by planting native species such as oak and beech and take part in regular litter picks. Their hard work has paid off – the trees have preservation orders, and the woodland is a site of special scientific interest. It supports over 20 species of birds, including the rare woodcock.
Finding the grave today
The Witch’s grave lies between the section of woodland bounded by Bridge Road and Ringwood Close (see map below). It is just a few feet off the main path (and is nearer to the Ringwood Close entrance).
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2022
There are a number of access points to the woodland. Below are listed one at each end of the woodland, and one towards the middle:
- Bridge Road: The entrance is actually on Blackpool Road, close to Bridge Road which has some on-street parking.
- Ringwood Close: This can be reached from Lytham Hall. Head down Green Drive. Then turn left onto Forest Drive and right on to Maplewood Close. Then right on to Frenchwood Avenue and left onto Ringwood Close.
- Ballam Road: Behind the Station Pub, just over the railway bridge
Gentleman by birth, Explorer by nature: A short biography of John Talbot Clifton, Squire of Lytham Hall, Marianne Blaauboer. Available from Lytham Hall.
Temporary free exhibition on the life of John Talbot Clifton, Lytham Hall, September 2022