NOSTALGIA: Book sifts fantasy from fact in Sussex folklore

Eastbourne fishermen off Beachy Head
Eastbourne fishermen off Beachy Head

Once upon a time there lived a dragon in a deep, dark pool that terrorised the local community until it was killed by a brave farm lad armed only with a poisoned pudding!

Once upon a time a mill once used by a smuggler collapsed in a storm, sending a millstone hurtling down the hill until it hit and crushed to death a man.

Once upon a time great supernatural horses appeared in a shimmering mist to the terror of lonely travellers.

Once upon a time the ghost of an executed highwayman haunted his own gibbet high up on the Downs.

‘Once upon a time,’ is the starting point of many folk stories and recalls an age when the lines between fact and fantasy were far more blurred than today.

People accepted that strange, inexplicable things happened and put it down to the activity of unseen forces. In his new book, historian Chris Hare delves into the world of folklore in Sussex and Hampshire and attempts to separate historical fact from fantasy.

This new book, The Secret Shore: tales of folklore and smuggling from Sussex and Hampshire, is published by the South Downs Society, and is a result of a two-year Heritage Lottery Fund project.

It is a companion to the previously released CD, South Coast Songs and Shanties.

Chris led a team of volunteer researchers during the summer and autumn of 2015, who interviewed people living on the Sussex and Hampshire coast about the folk tales and superstitions that still exist amongst our modern coastal communities.

The results of this survey were set against the ground breaking research undertaken in Sussex by pioneering folklorist Charlotte Latham in the 1860s.

In his book, Chris is able to show how many old beliefs that Charlotte Latham thought were dying out in her day, still survive in our own times.

Many people still wish magpies a good day for fear of inviting bad luck if they omit to do so.

There are numerous stories still in circulation about mysterious tunnels, just as there were 160 years ago.

Some of our local residents still smash their spoons through their empty egg shells for fear that witches will put to sea in them if they fail to do so!

Chris begins his book by looking at the life of Charlotte Latham and explains why she is so important to the study of folklore.

Her work on West Sussex superstitions was the first paper to be published by the newly-formed Folklore Society in 1878.

She was born at Ashington and spent much of her adult life at Fittleworth, where her husband was the local vicar.

Her guesses and assumptions as to the origin and purpose of local folklore have often been borne out by modern research.

Chris next goes on to look at smuggling on the south coast – a subject, more than any other, where the distinction between historical fact, legend and sheer nonsense are very hard to unpick.

Using historical sources, including contemporary accounts, Chris offers the reader a glimpse into the real world of 18th and 19th century smugglers.

He details many a bloody battle between smugglers and coastguards and the reasons why this criminal endeavour endured for so long.

Having looked at the facts, he then considers the folklore and explains how and why fantastical stories about smugglers arose in the years after the ‘wicked trade’ was finally suppressed.

Even today, some 180 years after the last ‘run’ of contraband brandy on the Sussex coast, people will still point out an old cottage, a graveyard or a dark wood, where, they assure you, smugglers once operated or from where the entrance to long lost tunnels wait to be rediscovered.

Chris goes on to look at many diverse areas of folklore, including ghost stories, witchcraft, omens, old remedies for illness and charms to ward off the effects of evil.

It would seem that no group of people were more superstitious than fishermen, who spent much of their working life either invoking good luck or seeking to avoid bad luck.

Worthing fishermen had such a superstitious dread of seeing a pig before they set sail that they were known as ‘porkbolters.’

It was considered the height of bad luck to say the word ‘rabbits’ on board, so fishermen would refer to them instead as ‘Bexhill bunnies.’

It would seem that this last curious belief was itself linked to the days of smuggling, as Chris explains in the book.

Fishermen never used their real names when at sea but called each other special sea names. Two burly seafarers from Brighton were known as ‘Rachel’ and ‘Goggles’ when under sail.

Few people today believe in the race of supernatural beings, or fairies that inhabited the world of our ancient ancestors. Who today would claim to have been abducted by the fairies and taken down into their underworld kingdom? Yet, there are those today who claim to have been abducted by ‘aliens.’

Our modern folk no longer report encounters with ghostly animals of the night–that suddenly appear and then just as suddenly disappear – moving at unimaginable speed.

Yet, plenty of people make similar claims today for ‘UFOs’. The old folklore of the countryside has given way to the new folklore of space and far away planets.

Chris Hare’s book includes some wonderful illustrations from the time of smuggling and the days of Charlotte Latham’s research, including two specially-commissioned illustrations drawn by Worthing artist Richard Snaith.

The Secret Shore: tales of folklore and smuggling from Sussex and Hampshire, is available for £10 from the South Downs Society’s website and click on shop.

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