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South Downs folklore: Celebrating Sussex Day

South Downs folklore: Celebrating Sussex Day

June 9, 2023

At the southern tip of England with lofty viewpoints across the English Channel, Sussex has always been a strategic stage where history has played out.

For thousands of years it has been a historical hotspot – a story of invasion, conquest, discovery, innovation, rebellion and romance.

From the 5th century, this beautiful land was its very own Kingdom and had a succession of rulers until submitting to Egbert of Wessex in the 9th century.

Today this enchanting county makes up two thirds of the South Downs National Park. Its heritage is etched into the breathtaking landscape with its forts, castles, chocolate-box villages, forests, cliffs and river valleys.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that there are some weird and wonderful tales that have been passed down the generations, some including dragons, witches and fairies!

For Sussex Day, Dawn Nelson (pictured above at Stansted Forest), Place and Interpretation Officer for the National Park, shares three of her favourite stories of old…

Knucker Dragon – Lyminster

In Lyminster, near the church, there is a tranquil pool referred to locally as a Knucker Hole. Deep beneath the waters there once lived a fearsome beast named, The Knucker Dragon. Its name is thought to have been derived from the Old Saxon word ‘nicor’ meaning ‘water monster’ and this particular beast became the subject of legend when it began a reign of terror over the villagers of Lyminster.

In some versions of this tale, it is said that the dragon within the pool had slept for many hundreds of years until the men of Lyminster, curious as to how deep the water hole really was, dropped a bell into it to see how long it would ring for. Some say it is still ringing now but either way it definitely woke the dragon that slept there and thus it began rising from the pool each night to eat cattle and even villagers in order to sustain itself.

No one could rid the village of this plague until a wily young chap made a particularly toxic mushroom pie, lured the Knucker out of the hole and convinced it to eat the pie instead of him. Some say that the young man met his fate soon after when celebrating his victory in the local inn. After drinking his pint, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and quickly discovered he should have washed them after he had picked the toxic mushrooms.

St Cuthman of Steyning

In another tale featuring a church, it is thought that the church at Steyning was the result of an arduous journey by St Cuthman. Even as a child St Cuthman was saintly. It was observed that whilst watching the sheep on the hill he could draw a ring around them and call on Jesus to help him keep them safe. As he became a young man his parents naturally grew older too and after the death of his father, he and his mother were left destitute and his mother unable to walk. Seeking food and shelter, Cuthman roped himself to a large wheelbarrow and began his journey across Sussex, with his mother in the wheelbarrow. His intention? To find a place to settle and build a church

When the rope on the barrow broke, some farmers in the fields they were walking through took entertainment from the makeshift rope Cuthman had made from hazel and willow twigs. It is said that Cuthman continued on his way unhindered but the farmers’ fields were ruin by unseasonal rainfall that same day.

The next time the rope broke, the wheelbarrow was upturned and his mother deposited on the ground and so it was that the church was built on that very spot and that very spot was Steyning.

The Fae Folk Of Beeding Hill

In Beeding the fairies foiled two men’s attempt to steal a pig. Whilst they were making their way back across the fields the pig’s kicking in the sack they had caught it in had become tiresome and so they stopped for a breather on the hill. What they did not know was that the hill they stopped on was Beeding Hill and famous as the home of the fae folk.

Rested, they picked up the sack with the pig and began on their way once more. They had barely set one foot in front of the other when they heard a tiny voice shouting behind them ‘Jim where are you?’ The two robbers scratched their heads and looked around for where the voice had come from when to their horror a voice replied, ‘I’m here in the sack on his back,’. A talking pig was too much for the pair and they dropped the sack and ran. Of course, it was one of the wee folk that had accidentally ended up on the sack with the pig and thankfully he returned home to his family and the pig ran all the way home too.