If you go to Toddington, in Bedfordshire, and you walk the short distance from the old church to an area known as Conger Hill, you will see a large mound of earth. Long ago, back in the age of Chivalry and, some say, magic, a great medieval building stood on this site. Now the mound is all that is left from these mysterious times.... Or is it?
To answer this question we have to go back many, many years. Now, just imagine you are standing on same spot in 1249. King Henry III rules England with the assistance of a small number of wealthy Barons. It is a bright morning but a nip in the air sends a shiver down your spine. As you look up, in front of you is a magnificent stone castle, surrounded by a moat.
The castle is the stronghold of Sir Paul Pever, who also holds a beautiful Manor House nearby. Sir Paul is a very important man for he is the king's seneschal (steward) and, as such, he is responsible for the running of the royal household and the dispensing of justice.
It is still winter and Sir Paul's household is busy preparing a feast before Lent (a period of fasting when only the plainest of foods may be eaten). Sir Paul is to visit the Manor and there is a rumour that some very important people will be arriving with him, perhaps even the king! The feast must go well, so that the manor will continue to prosper.
And this is where our story really begins. For, just as the preparations were in full swing, a disaster occurred. The chief cook was taken ill and there was nobody to make the royal pancakes.
It was a tradition particularly loved by Sir Paul, especially as the old cook, who had been with Sir Paul since his childhood, added one special ingredient that made these pancakes taste like no other.
The other cooks shook their heads; no one knew the recipe. Then a young kitchen maid had an idea.
"We should consult the witch that lives in the woods," she said. "She loves to cook and if anyone can make a pancake fit for a king, it will be her."
So off went the cooks, with the young maid and a knight to guard them, for many bandits roamed the countryside.
Finally they saw wisps of smoke through the trees and a rickety wooden house came into view. An old woman, wrapped in a thick shawl, sat outside stirring a large cauldron. She had long grey hair, a deep wrinkly brow and a very angry scowl. The young maid found the courage to speak.
"Wise woman," she said, "we are hoping you can help us. One of the cooks at the castle is ill and nobody knows how to make the royal pancakes."
The old woman's scowl deepened:
"Go away," she growled.
"But we need your help," said the maid, anxious they should not have come all this way for nothing. "My Grandmother told me there was nothing you could not make or do with your magic recipes."
The old woman looked up. Now, she may have been extremely grumpy and unpleasant but she was also very, very vain. Unwittingly the young maid had said just the right thing.
"And...if I make your pancakes," said the old woman, "what do I get?"
"Our gratitude," said the girl. The old woman scowled.
"Gold, um gold coins," said one of the cooks. The old woman still scowled.
"A room at the castle," said the knight. The old woman just shrugged.
"Why," exclaimed the young maid, "you would be famous!"
Seeing a flicker of interest, the girl continued, "Everyone would know YOU were the person who saved the feast."
"Perhaps," said the old woman, in that slow cunning voice witches sometimes use, "after all these years of toil, a warm room and some gold would help ease the pangs of old age."
She shuffled to her feet.
"We'd best be on our way then."
Rumour soon spread that there was a witch at the castle.
"It will bode no good," said the jester.
"I've never heard the like," said the lady's maid.
But the old woman seemed industrious enough (hard working) and the smell from the grill and cooking pot was so enticing that many household members would pop into the kitchen on the merest excuse.
Knowing the witch was not well disposed to humans, the other cooks insisted on sampling the dish before the main feast. As they tucked in, they were all smiling. The pancake was delicious and the filling truly magical.
"This is nearly as good as the pancakes our clever cook used to make," said one of the servants. Another nodded. "The master will be pleased with us."
The old woman seethed. How ungrateful, she thought. NEARLY as good, how DARE they! As the hours passed her mood turned darker and darker.
"The master will be pleased, will he?" she mumbled to herself, "I don't think so. I'll show 'em what a real pancake is like, with MY own special ingredient!" (Unfortunately by a 'real' pancake she meant a witch pancake). A smile played on the old, wizened face. It was not a nice smile.
The time for the feast arrived, the castle was sumptuously decorated in purple and rich red tapestries hung from the walls. The servants bustled in and out serving the guests with the best wine and delicacies the manor could offer. Then it was time for the pancakes. The smell was delicious and Sir Paul and his guests strained forward with anticipation. Taking a large portion, Sir Paul tasted the pancake followed quickly by his eager guests.
But, within moments, the smiles of pleasure turned to grimaces, the guests were choking and, I hate to mention this, spitting and reaching also, as they tried to be rid of the vile tasting pancake. Shuddering in disgust, Sir Paul thundered out his instructions.
"Dismiss the kitchen staff and throw whoever is responsible for this outrage into the dungeons!"
So the old woman was consigned to a deep, dark dungeon under the castle. Her cauldron and grill were thrown in with her. "Now you'll have time to practice your cooking," the guard sneered. Here the old witch stayed and over the years, as well as her recipes, she cooked up plagues and heartaches and much trouble for Sir Paul's family.
Just three years later, Sir Paul died, leaving instructions that his body should be buried in London but his heart at Toddington. As the years passed, the castle and manor fell into disrepair. Part of the manor became converted into a farm house and the castle crumbled away.
Today Toddington is a quiet place, very different from the days when the great manor saw such festivity. However, the heart of Paul Pever is not the only thing to be buried in Toddington – for, deep under the castle mound, the old witch remains.
Close to the mound is the church and it is the custom in Toddington to ring the church bell on Shrove Tuesday, to remind people to make their pancakes. This is known as the Pancake bell. It is said that, if you place your ear to the ground on Conger Hill and listen very carefully, when the bell rings, you can still hear the old witch boiling her cauldron and preparing her pancakes.
The church bell is rung between 11:00 and 11:15 and, until recent times, it was the signal for local children to leave the school and go to Conger Hill to listen for the witch. Unfortunately, witch pancakes are no longer studied in school, but one question remains unanswered - with what did the Witch fill her pancakes? What was the special ingredient? Was it, perhaps, some spiders or a bat, or something worse? Perhaps it’s best not to stay near the hill too long.....just in case!