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Folklore of Sussex
By Jacqueline Simpson
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Jacqueline Simpson
All rights reserved.
Churches, Bells and Treasures
One would expect that churches, by virtue of their prominent place in the landscape and in village life, would be the subjects of many and various types of legend; in fact, however, stories about them are predominantly of one type only, the 'foundation legend' – that is, a tale which purports to explain some peculiarity in the siting or structure of the church.
One such is at Alfriston; it is a cruciform building dating from around 1360, and it stands at some little distance from the houses, on what is probably an ancient Saxon mound, on the Tye, the village green. The real reason for the choice of this site may very well have been its comparative safety from flooding in a rather low-lying area, but legend ascribes it to supernatural guidance. The foundations were first laid, so the story goes, in a field just west of the village street, but the work made no progress, since every morning the builders found that all the stones they had laid the previous day had been uprooted, whirled through the air, and flung onto the mound on the Tye. They were puzzled and anxious, not knowing whether the supernatural force at work was a heavenly one, to be obeyed, or diabolical, to be resisted. But after some days of this, a wise man noticed four oxen lying on the Tye with their rumps touching, so as to form an equal-armed cross. The sacred sign formed by these innocent beasts was taken as settling the matter, and accordingly a church, cruciform in construction, was built upon the Tye.
There is a similar tale about Udimore Church, though here it is the name, rather than the site, which provoked the legend. It is said that the site originally chosen was on the opposite side of the river Ree to that on which the church stands now, but every night the stones were miraculously shifted across, while a voice was heard calling out; 'O'er the mere! O'er the mere!' Hence the present site was chosen, and hence the name of the village arose. The explanation of the name is not in fact correct (it actually comes from 'Uda's Mere'), but at any rate it becomes a trifle less implausible when one remembers that in broad Sussex dialect the sound 'th' becomes 'd'.
At Hollington, on the other hand, it was the Devil who was held responsible for the curious site of the church, on the outskirts of Hastings, quite a distance from any centre of population, and surrounded by thick woods. There are two slightly divergent accounts, both dating from the 1840s. Both start by telling how, when men of a nearby village tried to build a church, each day's work was undone during the night. According to the first, all the building materials used simply to vanish into thin air, and this continued until the day when 'a countryman, happening to pass through an unfrequented wood, found there, to his no small surprise, a church newly built; the Evil One having contrived, since he could not utterly prevent the erection, to get it placed where no one could easily approach it'.
According to the other account, the angry workmen resorted to exorcism when they found their work spoilt:
Priests were summoned to lay the fiend, and they had prepared to commence their potent conjurements, when a voice was heard offering to desist from opposition if the building were erected on the spot which he should indicate. The offer was accepted. The church was raised, and then there sprung up around it a thick wood, concealing it from the general gaze.
Yet another variant on this theme is the legend attached to Battle Abbey Church, built by William the Conqueror in thanksgiving for his victory. It is said that he dreamed that his descendants would rule England for as many years as the nave of the church he was planning would have feet in its length. He therefore ordered the foundations to be marked out at 500 feet, but every night they were miraculously cut back to 315 feet, till the proud king accepted the verdict of Heaven, and allowed building to proceed on this reduced scale. Actually, this legend is rather unsatisfactory, for the date it indicates, 1381, is not particularly significant in our dynastic history. Perhaps the story really belongs to some other church with different dimensions, and has only become transferred to Battle Abbey by accidental confusion.
The founding of a church may also be a major point in a saint's legend. Everyone who has visited Steyning probably knows how St Cuthman pushed his mother in a wheelbarrow from Devon to Sussex, waiting for some sign from Heaven to show him where he should settle and build a church. As he came into Steyning, the barrow broke, and he cut some withies from a hedge to make a rope to mend it. Haymakers working in Penfold Field (which is still also sometimes known as Cuthman's Field) burst out laughing at his stupidity. 'Laugh man, weep Heaven,' answered Cuthman, and at once a heavy cloudburst drenched that field, and that field only. From that day to this, it always rains on that one meadow in haymaking time; indeed, some call it 'the Accursed Field', and declare that nothing will grow upon it. Meanwhile, St Cuthman had struggled a little further on his way, but again the barrow broke, this time beyond repair. Suddenly he realised that this was the sign he had been waiting for, and on this spot he later built the first church at Steyning, a timber one. It said that Christ Himself appeared in the guise of a travelling carpenter, and helped Cuthman to raise a roof-beam which was more than his own skill could manage.
A church may also become a bone of contention between a saint and the Devil. It is said that Satan, furious at certain humiliating defeats he had suffered at the hands of St Dunstan (see pp. 61–2) bided his time until the saint embarked on building a wooden church at Mayfield. Then he came in the night and gave the whole church such a thrust that it leaned all askew; but next day St Dunstan, who was of more than human size and strength, set it upright again with a single heave of his shoulder. Once more, Satan waited for his revenge – indeed, having grown wiser, he waited until the saint was dead. Then, when men of a later generation wished to build a new stone church, he undid their day's work each night, and also pestered the stonemasons in their quarry, where the mark of his hoofs was long pointed out. How he was foiled the story does not say, but foiled he must have been, for Mayfield Church, dedicated to St Dunstan, now stands completed and in its rightful place.
A grim story is told concerning the church spire at West Tarring (once an independent village, now absorbed into Worthing). This is slightly crooked, a flaw which allegedly caused the architect such shame and despair that he killed himself by jumping from the spire, or hanging himself from it, or jumping from the cliffs at Beachy Head, according to different local informants. In fact, the distortion only became gradually apparent after the roof was reshingled late in the nineteenth century with slabs too heavy for its timbers, so the original architect was not to blame. Legends featuring suicidal or murderous architects are fairly widespread, and a story conforming to the pattern presumably began to be told in Tarring early in the twentieth century.
If churches attract legends, so too do their bells. Indeed, bells hold a great fascination for the imagination, because of their holiness and beauty, their power against evil spirits, and the slightly eerie sense of mystery which surrounds them. Particularly memorable are the legends of lost church bells, and Sussex has its full share of these. The most famous, undoubtedly, is that of the Bosham bell, which first appeared in print in the late nineteenth century, but must certainly be far older. There are some variations of detail, but the main outline of the tale is this:
In the days of Alfred the Great, Bosham was a flourishing port, with a fine church and rich monastery; but in those days, also, the Sussex coast was frequently attacked by bands of Viking raiders. One day a Viking ship was sighted making for Bosham harbour, and at this not only the farmers and fishermen but even the priests and monks fled inland, taking with them whatever valuables they could carry away, and abandoning the rest of their goods to fate. So it happened that when the raiders landed they found the church undefended, and were able to carry off the great tenor bell, the finest in the whole peal. They lashed it to the cross-benches of their ship, and set sail, delighted with their prize.
Meanwhile, the monks crept back to their plundered church. When they saw the enemy making for the open sea, they rang the remaining bells – some say, in thanksgiving for their own safety, but some say, in a backwards peal, as a solemn curse on the sacrilegious Danes. The ship was nearing the mouth of the estuary when this peal came ringing across the water, and at the sound the stolen bell broke loose from its moorings and replied, in a single loud note; then it crashed through the ship's hull, so that bell and ship and men all vanished beneath the waves. There are some, however, who deny that the ship sank; they say its shattered planking closed again at once, and not one drop came in – a miracle which converted the heathen Danes on the spot. But all agree that the bell itself disappeared into the depths, at the spot which is now called Bosham Deep, but was formerly known as Bell Hole. And all agree that whenever the bells ring from Bosham Church, the sunken one still answers from beneath the waves.
Now the men of Bosham grieved for their lost bell, and many times they tried to recover it, but could never do so. At length, centuries after it had first been lost, a man who was knowledgeable about such matters told them that there was one way to raise it, but only one. They must find a team of pure white oxen (or, some say, white horses), harness them to the bell, and so draw it up on shore. The team was assembled, after much searching; a rope was fastened to the bell, and the oxen began to haul. All went well; the huge shape of the bell could be glimpsed as it was gradually drawn into shallow water; then all at once, when it had almost touched land, the rope snapped, and the bell rolled back into the depths – for, though nobody had noticed this, on one of the oxen there was a single black hair.
Some people, however, say that the failure of this rescue attempt was due to the foolishness of a woman. The parson who was supervising the operation had given strict orders that no female voice must be heard while it was in progress, but one woman could not restrain her excitement as she ran along the bank to watch; just at the critical moment when the bell broke the surface, she joyfully screeched, 'Oop she comes!' – and down she went again, for ever. It is surely no coincidence that this version comes from a harbourmaster, for sailors have a deep mistrust of the ill-luck women can bring. Whichever version one accepts, the Bosham Bell was lost again, this time for good, and only its answering note is ever heard.
It has more than once been suggested that the 'answer' is in fact an echo thrown back across the harbour from woods on the opposite shore, though I have not come on any first-hand account from anyone claiming to have heard such an echo himself. But the legend itself is locally very well known, and there is sometimes added to it a little rhyme, the call of the lost bell:
Ye bells of Bosham, ring for me,
For as ye ring, I ring wi' ye.
There are traditions too, though less widely known than this one, about the bells of churches that have been covered by the sea as a result of coastal erosion. At Bulverhythe, where much of the old village has been destroyed in this way, local fishermen say they 'can hear the bells of Bulverhythe' whenever the waves make a loud raking sound on the shingle, and that this means either bad weather or an approaching thaw. The saying was first recorded in 1884, and is still sometimes heard. Similarly, men who fished the shallow banks of Selsey Bill, where the old town of Selsey stood, used to believe that at very low tides they could sometimes hear the bells of the sunken cathedral of St Wilfred sounding underwater, out by the Owers Light. This tradition is remembered still, as are others of the same type about a lost village and its bell off Kingston Gorse, near Ferring, and off Pett Level, near Hastings.
Inland churches have their lost bells too. Near Isfield, at the junction of the Ouse and the Iron River, it is said that a bell was hurled into the river by over-zealous Puritans, at a spot called Bell Hole Brook; while at Etchingham, whose church was formerly surrounded by a moat, it is said that a bell lies hidden underground where the moat once was, and that it can never be raised again unless six white oxen drag it out. Both these legends were first mentioned in print in 1861 and are still current; similar tales were told of Hurstmonceux and Arlington, in the latter case associated with another 'Bell Hole', a deep pool in the Cuckmere River.
Very much alive, even now, is the tale of the Alfoldean Bell (also sometimes referred to as the Slinfold, Rudgwick, or Nowhurst Bell). Alfoldean is a bridge spanning the Arun about a mile and a half north of Slinfold, near the point where the old Roman road called Stane Street (now the A29 from Pulborough) joins the A281 from Horsham to Guildford; the spot is also known as Roman Gate. The ground thereabouts was, until recent times, very swampy.
There has long been a tradition in and around the villages of Slinfold and Rudgwick (traceable far back into the nineteenth century, and surely older still) that a bell was once lost in a bog at this spot. According to Harry Burstow, a Horsham bell-ringer who was born in 1826, this took place in the times of the Roman occupation – by which he may perhaps have meant the days when England was a Roman Catholic land. The bell, he said, had been cast in Rome itself, and was being taken up Stane Street from Chichester on its way to York, where it was to be hung in York Minster. But according to John Pullen, also a bell-ringer and a Rudgwick man, it was near the end of its journey, being destined for Rudgwick Church, only a few miles away. But both agree that it fell from the wagon and rolled into the swamp at Alfoldean, where it remains to this day, despite an attempt to raise it with a team of white oxen or heifers.
The story of this attempt is best told in the words of Stephen Peacock of Slinfold, who heard the tale from his father of the same name, who was born in 1829 and died in 1911; the elder Peacock had himself learnt the story from an old carter named Pete Greenfield, who worked on Dedisham Manor Farm, the estate nearest to Alfoldean Bridge:
They went to a cunning 'ooman [i.e. a white witch], and she told them that if they got twelve white oxen and went to the spot at midnight, they could raise the bell. But no one was to say a word, or speak. So, the story goes, one night they went with twelve white oxen which they hooked on to the bell in the bog. Then, just as the oxen drew the old bell to the top of the bog, one of the men shouted out:
We've got the Alfoldean gurt bell,
In spite of all the devils in hell!
At that moment the chain which held it broke, the bell slipped back, and they never got it after all.
So strong is this tradition, and so precise the information it gives as to the site of the lost bell, that in 1971 a dowser was called in to locate it; his report was encouraging, and an excavation was carried out at the spot he indicated, but nothing was found.
Even more convincing are tales that claim that a sum of money, or a plot of land, was donated to a church to pay for a curfew bell to be rung there at nightfall in perpetuity, the donor being a man who once lost his way on the hills and was guided towards safety by the distant sound of church bells. This is said to have happened at Midhurst, and also at Storrington, where the tale is associated with a certain 'Bell Field'. At Rodmell, they say, there was a miller who hated the sound of church bells so bitterly that one day, being disturbed by the sound of a peal, he cursed the bells, the smith who made them and the church itself. Rather surprisingly, no immediate punishment befell him. But years later, at a time when the district was severely flooded, he lost his way and was struggling desperately across the waterlogged fields when he heard the Rodmell bells ringing in the distance. Their sound guided him home, and in gratitude for this deliverance he acknowledged how wrong he had been and paid for a set of new bells for the church. Such tales are well within the bounds of possibility, but the fact that they are told in many places across England means that they should be seen as legends, not as historically factual memories.
I do not know whether dowsers have ever tried their skills at finding the various traditional treasures allegedly buried on the Sussex Downs, but if they should wish to, there is no lack of such sites – all prominent hills, and, in almost every case, crowned with Iron Age forts. Such earthworks are mysterious enough in themselves to attract stories, and the excavations of archaeologists, the purpose of which certainly puzzled some local people considerably, must have reinforced the existing traditions.
Excerpted from Folklore of Sussex by Jacqueline Simpson. Copyright © 2013 Jacqueline Simpson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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