I was born in one of Suffolk’s ancient market towns and spent much of my childhood at the coast. The county boasts long shingle beaches, which are hard to beat when searching for treasure. Beach-combing can be an addictive pastime at any age and whatever the weather. Even on cold, wet and windy days, there’s nothing like piling on the layers, a waterproof coat, and walking boots, then heading off for the day. Walking the coastal paths and shoreline is a joy, but coming home with colourful pieces of sea glass and a pocket full of shells, fossils and other natural treasures is an exciting bonus.
I have particularly loved to search the banks of shiny wet shingle for the mystical witch stones. Often known as a hag or fairy stones, the excitement of finding a pebble with a hole worn right through its centre never fades. These sacred stones are rich in folklore and are believed to have magical properties. They have collected many names over the centuries, often called hex stones, snake eggs, eye stones and holy stones; they are believed to protect the owner against evil, their power coming from the water that created them. Stones have been placed inside the walls of buildings for centuries, hung beside doors and at hearth sides to stop witches and evil spirits from entering the home. Folklore says if you look through the hole, it will cast off the magical disguise a witch or a fairy hides behind. I’ve yet to find any advice on what to do if you discover one!
I’ve collected witch stones since childhood, but the stone that travels around with me inspired Seahurst. I found it one morning on Dunwich Beach as our children were flying their kites. Although it’s a stone small enough to nestle in the palm of my hand, it seemed to jump out at me from the bank of brown-grey stones. I was euphoric to find it, and it’s been with me ever since.
Seahurst was a germ of an idea in my mind for a long time before our day on the beach. The stone became the focus for Alfie, the young boy in my story, frightened and looking for protection for himself and his mother against the witch that haunted his late grandfather’s home. Seahurst is a house perched on the cliff edge looking out across the sea. It’s a stunning modernist property of glass and steel – his grandfather’s last big project – but it harbours ancient and sinister secrets.
As part of my research for the novel, I came across the sad but all too familiar tale of Aubrey Grinset, a beggar living in Dunwich in the 17th Century. Elderly and impoverished, she was an easy target in a time when magic and evil were feared by most of the population. She needed something far more powerful than a witch stone to save her from harm. Mathew Hopkins was known as the Witchfinder General, and Aubrey became one of his many victims. She was accused of bewitching two men to death and causing a third, Thomas Spatchet, to suffer terrible fits in a pact with Satan. Spatchet had suffered two head injuries, one as a child and another when he fell down a well. Today we would understand these incidents were the likely cause of Spatchet’s troubles, but back then, such things were misunderstood. All these elements and my witch stone became my novel, Seahurst.
When we arrived home from our walk on Dunwich Beach that day, I considered hanging my stone beside my bed to ward off nightmares. The stones are supposed to be particularly powerful for that sort of protection. Folklore clearly states that the stone must find the person for the magic to be real. As Alfie soon discovers, you cannot be gifted or buy a stone. In the end, I tucked my stone into the inside pocket of my handbag. After all, like Alfie Meyer in Seahurst, you never know when you might need some powerful magic.
Seahurst by S.A. Harris is published by Salt Publishing on 15 May as a Paperback Original at £10.99