Folklore in Sussex

Tales of Folklore still survive, past down to young people and told with great relish and gusto

The 'stuff that legends are made from', is probably an apt description to describe many of the tales that are passed from generation to generation, some spanning many centuries. Around the world, stories are told about all manner of things and happenings. Some will be forever lost as time goes by, but others will go on and grow in stature as the tales are embellished by the story tellers.

Here then are some such stories, all from the Sussex area. The links on the left here will take you to some wonderful local Folklore stories and tales from yesteryear.

Below are some quaint customs and folklores that imbibed the Sussex folk with their own uniqueness. Some of these sayings and lore bridge county boundaries and are also used within other areas besides sussex. Where this is the case, the stories or lore usually have subtle differences which may be more pertinent to the local area.

But in all cases the lores still survive, at least until the present days. Perhaps this is the first century where these tales have been in danger of being lost forever in the mists of time. I amongst many other researchers will attempt to keep these lores from being lost by recording them again in the newest form of storage - the digital age............

'Red sky at night, shepherd's delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning.'

'Mackerrel sky, notlong dry. ' Not infrequently, Sussex folk score over the Meteorological Office with its satellites, spotter planes and advanced technical hardware.

George Attrill of Fittleworth. The shelves of his cottage held several home made cures, including an ointment made from Adder fat, which was good for ear-ache and several other complaints.

Many natural features are associated with the Devil and, in particular, his constant battle with local saints. Devil's Dyke. near Brighton, is said to be the unfinished attempt by the Devil to breach the Downs overnight and flood the Weald and all its churches. He was foiled in this enterprise by St. Cuthman, who made the cocks crow early, and an old lady who held up a candle behind a sieve to simulate the rising sun!

At Mayfield, Satan, disguised as a young woman, tried to tempt St.Dunstan, a blacksmith, who pinched the Devil's nose with red-hot tongs. With a mighty leap to Tunbridge Wells the devil cooled his nose in a spring which has tasted sulphurous ever since.

Sussex Smock showing the beautiful smocking which was worked on some of these garments.

Cuckoo Fair

In the days when simple folk were unaware of the migratory habits of birds, the people of East Sussex believed that all the cuckoos were collected by an old woman at the end of June and kept in a basket until the following April when a representative bird was released on the 14th. of that month at Heathfield's Cuckoo Fair, so signalling the arrival of spring.

The old ways are still adhered to in many of the truly rural communities, places untouched by the commercial world where the village fair is declared open by the squire's good lady, and there is not a Womble or telly personality in sight, where the village hall is reserved for jolly harvest suppers, jam and cake shows and country dancing, not for bingo and trendy barbecues. Long may it be so.

Several giants have lived in Sussex, including one at Brede who ate children. The Long Man of Wilmington is said by some to be the outline of a giant killed on this spot by a hammer thrown by another who lived at Firle, and the legendary Bevis of Hampton, the subject of a fourteenth-century poem, had connections with Sussex.

Ghosts are numerous. Many occur in relation to historical events such as King Harold at Battle. Others are more recent and were connected with the smuggling trade, for example the ghostly drummer at Herstmonceux Castle. Smugglers had a vested interest in keeping inquisitive eyes from certain places and many of the 'ghosts' were never seen again when the revenue men cleared up the smugglers.

Many of the old customs of the county are associated with religious holidays, or the agricultural year. When holidays were few and hours long, any excuse for a celebration was taken to relieve the monotony of everyday life.

Since the Second World War once widespread customs have disappeared, or occur only locally. A number have survived and continue to flourish and the revival of interest in past customs has resulted in some becoming re-established. Besides these traditional events, many more recently established ones have been added to the Sussex calendar. Many villages and towns have fetes and fairs, norris dancers, and so on.

'All folks as come to Sussex
Must follow Sussex wyas,
And when they've larned
to know us well
There's no place else
they'd wish to dwell
In all their blessed days.
There ant no place like Sussex
Until you goes Above,
But Sussex will be Sussex,
And Sussex won't be druv!

Cissbury was the scene of an elaborate story which circulated during the 1860s. It was said that a blocked-up tunnel ran underground from Offington Hall to Cissbury Ring (which is some 2 miles distant), and that at the far end of the tunnel there lay a treasure. The owner of the Hall 'had offered half the money to anyone who would clear out the subterranean passage, and several persons had begun digging, but all had been driven back by large snakes springing at them with open mouths and angry hisses'

The alleged existence of the tunnel is still remembered in Worthing, though Offington Hall has been demolished and the treasure and its guardians have slipped into the mists of time.


On St. Thomas's Day, December 21st. it was once the custom for the poorer women of the community to go out Goodening, that is to visit the better-heeled to gossip about the past over hot elderberry wine and plum cake, and to receive 'doles' either in money or materials to furnish home comforts for the celebration of Christmas festivities.

Fairies were said to reward hard-working girls by slipping a small silver coin into their shoes while they were asleep! Presumably it was their mistress who saw to it that this belief was kept up!


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