An old crone with a warty nose, muttering hocus pocus over a bubbling cauldron . . . perhaps the first image many would conjure up when asked to picture a witch.
More importantly, most people would label them a fantasy figure, something that exists in films and books, not everyday reality.
However, contrary to popular belief, there are many “witches” residing in Northampton and you are more likely to bump into them at your local shop than riding a broomstick on Halloween.
“Witches are here among us and they are not people to be feared. They are doctors, policemen, firemen . . . they could be your next-door neighbour,” says Alex Park.
“All they ask is to left to practise what they believe and to be given the same respect as anyone else.”
Alex, from Billing Aquadrome, Northampton, is married, a father, a shop assistant, and he is also a witch. In fact, he is a high priest of the Pagan religion.
“I don’t mind being called a Pagan or a witch,” says Alex, 58, who was drawn to witchcraft at the age of 13.
“My father was into it and I discovered his books. I was Church of Scotland at the time but what I read in the book appealed to me and I knew it was for me.
“Then I started to practise on my own, getting books on different subjects. When I was 18 I met my coven who then trained me properly.”
Alex tells me that a lot has changed since the days when he first started as a witch.
“It is easy to find other witches now, but it wasn’t then. These days you can go through things like The Pagan Federation.
“I found my coven when I saw someone with jewellery that indicated who they were and then I managed to tease out the information.
“It is something you have to come to of your own free will, you are not pulled in by others.”
However, according to Alex, the persecution of witches is a lot more recent than many would believe.
“There is still persecution, even back in the 1970s you could lose your job for being a witch, and in 1954 you could still be hanged. But I am not afraid to stand up and say I am a witch.
“I think we are now moving into a more tolerant time.”
Nor, says Alex, is witchcraft about the darkness often portrayed with the “wicked witch” in countless fairytales.
“Proper witchcraft is a celebration of life and the reproductive cycle and nature.
“We believe as you sow so shall you reap, and what you sow you get back three-fold.
“If you do bad, even if you think wrong thoughts, you will get that back, our thoughts need to be positive.”
Russ Baxter, aged 53, who is from Lings, Northampton, works in IT and is also a Pagan witch, puts it another way.
“Magic is like a car, it is neither good nor evil. It’s what you do with that car. If you drive your car into a crowd at a bus stop it is evil, but if you drive someone to hospital with it, it is good.
“Witchcraft is shades of grey, just like life is,” says Russ, who was drawn to Paganism in his late 30s and described it as “coming home”.
And both believe that their magic works.
“I do magic and I know it works,” says Alex. “A lot of what I do is to do with healing. Sometimes farmers will ask us to bless the crops so they get a good harvest.
“We sometimes read spells sometimes we create then. It depends what kind of ritual is needed.
“We use all sorts of things: crystals, wands, candles, incenses. It used to be hard to get ingredients but it’s quite easy now, as there are more sources.
“We do use spell books like the Book of Shadows, which is passed down from coven to coven. There a personal section where you write your personal shadows within it and then the book remains.
“Spells but are not a big part of what we do,” says Russ.
“The spells I do are for important things like health issues or trying to help friends. If someone is struggling it is not about asking for something specific but for asking for the universe to bring something to pass. Say someone is looking for a new job, you don’t ask for a specific job you ask for the job that is right for them to be made available to them, and ask for the universe to give that a little nudge.
“You can’t study results like in science, and a lot of things aren’t repeatable. You can use books but a lot of things you can come to with a free mind.
“It’s not a dogmatic belief system.”
But according to both, Northamptonshire seems to have a special appeal to witches.
“There are lots of witches in Northampton: at least 60-odd Pagans I know of in Northampton and about two thirds are witches,” said Russ.
“Out of the Pagans in the south and Midlands, Northamptonshire has the most.
“An Australian couple came here to be hand-fasted, and they said they came to Northampton, because it was the Pagan capital of the world, which surprised us, but it seems to have this reputation outside the UK.”
“There is something special about Northampton. There is an energy in Northampton that attracts people to it,” added Alex.
“I think with the new wording on the census we will find out there are more Pagans or witches. There were 130,000 in England in the last one.”
So where does the stereotype of a fairytale witch come from?
“We think the stereotypes started around Shakespearean times, with hags and witches,” says Russ. “But witches aren’t masculine or feminine, it’s about the balance between the two. The thing to remember is not all Pagans are witches, and not all witches are Pagan.
“It’s not something you do, it’s something that you are.”
So how do real witches spend Halloween?
“Halloween is when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest and your loved ones can sit at your fire and make merry,” says Russ.
“Halloween is also the one time of the year we can wear our robes in public and no one blinks an eye,” he added.
To find out more about Northampton Pagans visit: www.northamptonpagans.co.uk