Ghosts and fairies in the South Downs
A study of myths and legends across Sussex and the South Downs has revealed that areas within the National Park could be home to 80 per cent more fairies and a third more ghosts than the average across East and West Sussex. It also reveals that there could be almost twice as much magical treasure buried beneath the protected landscape.
The findings come as part of a project to map the folklore of Sussex and the South Downs by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy with the support of the National Park Authority’s Sustainable Communities Fund.
“The shape of the land shapes our myths and legends, so it’s not surprising that stories have grown around the ancient flint mines, barrows and hill forts of the South Downs,” says Heather Robbins from Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester. “It’s been fascinating to see how they fit across the land and we hope it will encourage more people to learn about their local mythology.”
The Tudor Old Manor House that previously stood on the site of Hinton Ampner was reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in the country – complete with howling, shouting, gun shots, screaming, loud bangs, mysterious music and an overwhelming feeling of dread. And a ghost army of defeated Royalist soldiers is said to return to the nearby English Civil War battlefield at Cheriton.
Was it the verdant spirit of Hampshire’s countryside that led the people who built Winchester cathedral to carve mysterious Green Men into its ancient walls. Estimates vary from 60 to 70 of these strange faces covered in leaves, spewing vegetation from their mouths or sprouting it from eyes, noses, mouths and ears.
Who lies beneath Kingley Vale? Tales of hauntings in the dark and silent grove of ancient yews will come as no surprise to those who know this spot. But are the ghosts marauding Viking warriors, left to rot until the trees grew over their bodies, or do the gnarled trees take human form by moonlight?
Stories suggest that the South Downs hills are filled with magical riches. The Golden Calf on the Trundle was claimed to have been made by Aaron whilst Moses was on Mount Sinai. The Devil guards this prize jealously, keeping it well hidden from any treasure hunters.
Here be dragons… Legend says that the distinctive ridges curling around Bignor Hill were cut by a giant worm wrapping his enormous tail around the hill. Meanwhile a fearsome dragon guards his marvellous hoard of gold and precious stones in an underground tunnel near Cissbury Ring.
With the remains of Bronze and Iron Age forts, a Roman temple and its distinctive ring of beech trees, Chanctonbury Ring is said to be the most haunted site in the South Downs. Stories vary but walking seven times around the ring might summon up the devil, a druid, a lady on a white horse or Julius Caesar and his army.
The Devil was enraged by the Christian conversion of pagan Sussex and swore to split the Downs in one night and let the sea in to drown the Christian folk and their churches. His furious digging sent clods of earth flying in all directions to form Chanctonbury, Cissbury, Rackham Hill and Mount Caburn. But he was foiled by an old woman who lit a lamp at her window – tricking him into thinking that the Sun was rising.
When the railway from Brighton to Hastings was being built in 1845 it cut right through the ruins of Lewes Priory. Railway workers opened up a well filled with hundreds of bodies believed to be the remains of the royalist soldiers killed in the Battle of Lewes in 1264. The bones were dredged up, loaded onto thirteen trucks and hauled to the nearby marsh where, according to the local paper, “they were thrown into the mass of rubbish which forms the railway embankment through the brooks”. There are rumours that the soldiers rise again each year to continue their fight against the Barons.
Bevis of Arundel was a giant so huge that his sword, Morglay, was longer than a man and Hirondelle, his horse, was taller than a house. As the gate-keeper for the earls of Arundel, he lived in a special tower with an allowance of a whole ox and two hogsheads of beer each week. On the eve of his death he threw Morglay from the tower window and asked to be buried where it fell. In Arundel Park there is a spot still known as Bevis’ Tomb.
One local legend claims that the Long Man is a memorial outlining the figure of a giant from Windover Hill who fell and broke his neck. Another talks of a fight between the Long Man of Wilmington and another giant from Firle Beacon, which ended in the death of the tallest man to have ever lived in England.
Ol’ Sary Weaver, lived at Up Waltham in the 1800s. Local lore tells of her being a witch who could turn herself into a hare.
Pharisees is an old Sussex name for fairies. Once rife across the Downs, living in ancient earthworks and hill-forts, the fairies were most recently seen on Harrow Hill near Patching, with its flint mines and earthworks, which is said to have been their last home.
To find out more about the rich and varied folklore of the South Downs National Park visit