sussex folk“When I was asked to tell stories at a place called Gumber Bothy, I thought it must be somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.”

I suppose that most people have a fondness for wherever they were brought up. Or, at the least, a fondness that means they can insult it but heaven help an outsider who tries. I happen to hail from Sussex, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful and interesting county (or rather, pair of counties, as it is divided into East and West) in the British Isles. Home to Rudyard Kipling, Simon Cowell, Virginia Woolf, Sir Patrick Moore among others, it also holds the claim to originating thirty variety of apple, and being the last place Lord Lucan was seen before he disappeared.

But Sussex is old, being one of the first places colonised in the British Isles as it used to be linked to the continent. It’s where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 (near the town of Battle, not Hastings), and where the Home Guard of Dad’s Army were ready to fight on the beaches in World War Two. It has had a long history of mystery, magic and a fair bit of smuggling. Over time, stories have laced the landscape, from Gatwick Airport in the north and Brighton in the south, from West Wittering in the west, to Rye in the east. This book fills us in on those stories.

Moving around the county in a widdershins direction (anti-clockwise), O’Leary tells us many strange legends and myths. He is a professional storyteller by trade and argues that he’s not a folklorist, so cannot give explanations for anything that happens; he’s just interested in the stories themselves. He’s clearly passionate about his subject too, and constantly professes to us that he isn’t lying, because what would he have to gain from that? I’m prepared to accept all the stories as true.

It’s hard to say how many of them are well known to the wider world, but being from around here, I knew of a few of them. There’s Devil’s Dyke, a valley dug by Satan himself in an attempt to flood the county’s churches. He was bested by Old Nan, an elderly woman who lived in Amberley Swamp and turns up in numerous tales. She tricked him into fleeing before he’d finished, leaving behind an unfinished furrow and clods of Earth that became the South Downs and the Isle of Wight. Old Nan was known to be too, as I live near Nan Tuck’s Lane, a forested road where her shade still haunts and there’s a patch of ground among the trees where nothing ever grows. I was also aware of the Piltdown Man, who is not only a famous archaeological hoax, but also a strange Frankenstein-like creature who can catch you unawares as you drive through the village of Piltdown.

But there were so many other stories I had no knowledge of. There’s Lord Moon, the creepy moonlight trickster who leads people to their doom; Elynge Ellet, the frog-like demon who lives in marshland and steals your favoured possessions; Daniel Ratcliffe, the King of the Cats who walks on his hind legs and has no time for humans who are stunned by his ability to speak. And that’s before we get into the numerous knuckers (dragons) and pharisees (fairies) that seem to populate every lake and hill respectively within the county borders.

O’Leary also gives details on other stories that are well known but perhaps not usually linked to Sussex. The legend of the Flying Dutchman, the ship doomed to never arrive at shore, begins in Sussex when a man who killed his brother is sent to sea for penance, and Little Bo Peep is said to have originated somewhere in East Sussex. We learn why the Long Man of Wilmington is lacking in the private department (and why the Cerne Abbas Giant seems to be packing spare), what lives down in the Mixon Hole, and discover that folklore is still developing and growing with the new legend of Trevor’s Boots.

I may be biased, but when I stood last week looking out across the South Downs from atop the Seven Sisters cliffs (they’re probably the ones you mistakenly think of when you think of the White Cliffs of Dover) I find it impossible to not love Sussex, and this book brings home some of the magic therein. I’ve you’ve not been before, pop down and have a look round. I’ll get the beers in.

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