It’s like the opening scene of a horror film. Kelly Appleton-Swaine, Buildings Conservation Officer for Heritage Lincolnshire, leads the way up the ladders and I follow suit. Clutching torches, we climb into the dark space of the attic; above us is thatching and below, a precarious criss-cross of roof beams. We tread carefully along one, avoiding holes and the dense curtains of cobwebs, before clambering into a section of roof space partitioned off from the rest. Here, in a space no larger than a couple of metres square, are three broken glass bottles, hanging from a beam.
I keep the light of my torch on them as I approach, and the shadows cast create an even eerier atmosphere. The practical-minded archaeologist in me knows they’re just glass bottles. And yet there’s something ominous about them hanging there in the dark; such an incongruous place for a trio of bottles to find themselves. Why are they there? Who hung them up? When? What function were they supposed to serve, if any? And why hasn’t anyone taken them down yet?
I’m standing in the roof space of the Old King’s Head, a thatched, brick-built coaching inn in Kirton, Lincolnshire. The date stone provides a date of 1599, and despite later remodelling, much of the exterior fabric has remained the same. Functioning as a pub until the late 1960s, this historic building is listed as Grade II, and Heritage Lincolnshire purchased it in 2016. They’re currently developing the project and are seeking heritage enterprise funding to renovate the building and make it sustainable by converting it into a café and B&B.
Heritage Lincolnshire were told about the hanging bottles from a previous resident, who’d lived there between 1999 and 2003. He’d been directed by his grandmother (?) never to touch or disturb the bottles, as they’d been put there for a reason – although what that reason was remains a mystery.
The bottles, made from brown or green glass and shrouded in dust, have been dated to c.1800-1850. They’ve been broken from the shoulders down and hung by string; the thick knots holding the bottles in place beneath their necks suggest that they were smashed before being hung. There were no obvious sherds of glass on the floor beneath them and, without scientific analysis, no easy method of determining if they contained anything. Either side of the bottles are nails protruding from the beam, wrapped in similar pieces of string. This suggests that other items may once have hung amidst the bottles – but what might they have been? More questions and no answers.
Kelly tells me that they’ve received numerous suggestions for the purposes of the bottles. The most recent theory is that they acted as rudimentary fire extinguishers; during the nineteenth century, glass ‘fire grenades’ were filled with salt water and either thrown into a fire to douse the flames or hung in a building as a precaution, much like fire extinguishers today. But if these bottles were broken before they were hung then this theory doesn’t really fit…
Were they instead intended as deterrents? Like scarecrows in fields or cats posed in walls, were they meant to scare off unwelcome trespassers of the faunal variety (e.g. bats)? Or maybe they were linked with more supernatural threats: witches, demons, ghosts, and fairies. After all, sharp objects have been used in domestic rituals to protect against such dangers: from knives and scissors concealed within the fabric of a building to the nails and pins placed in witch bottles to counteract bewitchment. Speaking of which, perhaps the Kirton bottles represent a distinct (localised?) interpretation of the witch bottle custom.
The theory that Kelly – a self-proclaimed ‘romantic’ – particularly likes is that these bottles represent three members of a family who once lived in the building. Perhaps they acted as memorials; perhaps their representative qualities gave them a protective power. Kelly is drawn to this theory because it creates a connection between the building and its long-ago occupants. The Old King’s Head becomes more than a structure of bricks and dates, but a place with a story. She is particularly interested in a fingerprint that we spy on the inside of one bottle’s shoulder: might that print belong to the person who originally hung it, she wonders.
Lots of questions, lots of theories, but still no answers. The bottles’ past remains veiled in mystery, but I’m just as curious about their future. What does Heritage Lincolnshire plan to do with them? Unable to build an internal stairway to the attic, Kelly imagines the space will be used for storage, while the bottles will be incorporated into the interpretation of the building. But she doubts they will be brought down. They’ll probably be left hanging in situ indefinitely – but why? As Kelly remarked in an email back in January, ‘it’s funny as even though we live in the modern world, no-one has actually touched or moved the bottles since we discovered them!’. Is that grandmother’s advice to never touch or disturb the bottles, because they were put there for a purpose, still being followed today?