So much for the official history. The stories told in Sussex tend to be about devout saints, village hauntings and crafty smugglers, far distant from the grand stories of battles and invading armies. And as one of our stories shows, the idea of the strange and porous nature of the barrier between life and death is not just a modern phenomenon…
He might have been Archbishop of Canterbury, but St Dunstan’s favourite place was Mayfield and it’s here that he had his own smithy in which he was making horseshoes. The Devil appeared in the guise of a beautiful girl, flirting and trying to seduce the Saint. Annoyed with his indifference, the Devil sidled over, whereupon St Dunstan grabbed his nose with scalding hot tongs causing him to fly off and soothe his burned nose in the waters at Tunbridge Wells.
Seeing a lonely girl hitchhiker on Worthing Road, a driver stopped and gave her a lift, but when he got to Horsham, he realised he wanted a coffee to help him stay awake and asked the girl to join him. She refused, so he went in alone and, when he came out, found she had disappeared. He was so worried he used the home address she had mentioned to call her parents, who told him she had been run over three years before – hitching a lift outside a café in Horsham.
Highdown Hill, Worthing
John Oliver was an affluent miller who died in 1793. He was said to be in a league with local smugglers and times when he claimed to be off meditating he was actually keeping watch for the authorities. His funeral was a lavish affair and his tomb even more so, as local lore has it he was buried upside down, and the faded verses inscribed on the tomb give the location of his loot. And if you run around the tomb seven times, Oliver will appear and chase you, which is what two schoolboys claimed happened to them in 1983.
Sussex is known for its fairies, called locally ‘Pharisees’ and there are stories of their activities across the county. Selmeston is known for its ‘sweating fairies’, as a carter found one feeding his horses until they were so fat they could barely move. The fairy shouted to the farmer ‘I sweat – do you sweat?’, only for the carter to angrily reply ‘I’ll make you sweat before I’ve done with thee’. The fairies fled, but the carter’s horses then wasted away to skin and bone before dying a mysterious death.
Poet and writer Rudyard Kipling lived in The Elms at Rottingdean between 1897 and 1902, renting the house for the princely sum of £3 a week. The gardens are of more interest, however, as the walls are made of flint and one of the stones looks disconcertingly like a face gazing out into its surroundings. Legend has it that visitors should stroke the ‘nose’ in clockwise direction with the forefinger of the right hand and then turn around three times to have their dearest wish granted.
When Viking raiders sailed into Bosham, they were intent on stealing any of the town’s property that they could fit into their longships, including the church’s tenor bell. As they left the town with their plunder, townspeople started ringing the church bells and, to the Vikings’ amazement, the stolen bell joined in the peal so vigorously that it smashed the boat to pieces and caused it to sink. Local lore maintains that the stolen bell, now lying at the bottom of the estuary, answers from beneath the waves in a spot called Bell Hole. ■