Thursday, 11 February 2010

A Ghost Walk around Ditchling, Sussex

This bracing trek takes the walker up on to the highest parts of the South Downs, offering magnificent views to the north over the Weald, and south over the Downs themselves toward the distant seas. The ghosts are a mixed bunch ranging from the inoffensive and the odd to the truly terrifying.



The Walk

1) Find your way to the church that lies at the crossroads in the centre of Ditchling village. Walk east along the B2116. One of the cottages on this road belonged to a witch in the mid-19th century.

This was one of those witches who both helped the villagers and engaged in petty blackmail. She would prepare healing potions and drive away bad luck for a fee, but would also ask for donations of food or drink from her neighbours, threatening to blight their crops and bring sickness to their cattle if they refused. Whether or not these witches were able to carry out their threats, they were fairly widespread across England right up to the 1920s. This particular witch had the power to halt farm carts in their tracks. No matter how much the carter beat his horse, or pulled on the wagon, it would not move until the witch allowed it to do so. Usually this was achieved by giving the witch something from the cart.

One local farmer got so fed up with the witch’s exactions that he took himself off to Stedham to consult the most powerful witch in all Sussex. For a suitable fee, she told him how to break the spell. Next time this farmer was passing down this lane with a cart loaded down with succulent apples, the old witch cast her spell to halt his cart. As so often before, the farmer jumped down. This time he did not lash his horse, but took out his pocket knife. He then proceeded to cut a series of notches into the spokes of the front right wheel of the cart in the magical pattern shown him by the witch of Stedham.

Instantly the cackling laughter coming from the witch’s cottage turned to shrieks of pain and rage. The old woman came hurtling out of the cottage, blood pouring from her hands. For every cut on the wheel, there was a cut on her hands. She did not try that particular trick again.

2) Turn right along Shirley’s Close, signposted as a private road. Join the footpath bearing right between two house driveways: No.14 and No.16. The path runs between two hedges, but is clearly signposted as a public footpath. Emerging from between the back gardens of the houses in Shirley’s Close, the path strikes off across open farmland, heading slightly uphill. Just before the path reaches the brick-built Westmeston Place, it diverts to the right, then emerges on to a lane.

3) At the lane, turn right and uphill to enter Westmeston.

This lane is the haunt of a great shaggy black dog who patrols the lane from Westmeston to Ditchling. The tree-crowned hill to the north is known locally as Black Dog Hill. No particular story is attached to this phantom hound, though it may be linked to the Wish Hounds that will be met later in the walk.

The lane turns sharp left at what is in reality a crossroads in the centre of the village. Enter the churchyard through the lychgate on your left.

The ghost here is a quiet and serene figure. She walks out of the church and along the path to the lych gate. Once through the gate, she turns to the right crosses the road and vanishes beside what was once the village well. She is usually said to be a ghostly nun. One witness who saw this phantom in the 1990s confirmed that she wore a long darkish coloured robe which came up over her head into a hood. This certainly sounds like a nun, but no convent is known to have stood here.

The church itself is charming enough and well worth a visit. Parts of the nave date back to Norman times, but the structure has been much altered over the years and most of what stands today is 14th century.

4) From the church, retrace your steps to the crossroads at the centre of Westmeston. Turn south along The Street towards Westmeston Farm. At the end of this short lane is the entrance to the farm on the right, while straight ahead is a gate that gives access to a bridleway. This route is much used by riders. The horses’ hooves stir up the ground so that after rain the chalky mud becomes a morass several inches deep. Care, or waterproof boots, are needed for the first 20 yards or so of the bridle path. The path climbs steeply up through some trees before emerging on to the open grassland of the South Downs. Continue to follow the bridle path up the steep hill until it reaches the junction of the well-signposted South Downs Way near the crest of the hill.

5) At the junction with the South Downs Way, turn right.

It is here that the dangerous and terrifying spectres of Sussex are to be encountered. On windy days, as the gloom of dusk draws in over the Sussex countryside, the Devil himself appears here on the heights of Ditchling Beacon. He scans the vast panorama laid out before him, searching for dying humans whose lives have been wicked enough to earn themselves a trip to Hell. Around his feet prowl the dreaded Wish Hounds, the gigantic black dogs that the Devil brings with him when he hunts the souls of the damned.

There the Devil stands until he spies a soul departing this mortal life. If the soul is damned, the Devil gives a malicious grin and looses his pack of Wish hounds. Leaping on to the back of a mighty black stallion, the Devil rides off on the heels of his pack of hunting dogs. Over the landscape they race, the hooves of the black stallion pounding the ground as loudly as the baying of the hounds echoes through the sky.

It is a terrible thing to hear, and a worse one to see for who knows when the Devil may turn aside from his legitimate quarry to hunt down anyone unwise enough as to interrupt his sport. It is no wonder that the locals tend to avoid the hills on windy evenings.

6) Follow the South Downs Way along the crest of the ridge. At Ditchling Beacon, the highest point on the walk it crosses a lane and passes through a car park before continuing straight on to the west. Follow the path almost to the Clayton Windmills. Just before the windmills, follow the South Downs Way as it turns left along a track, then right down the hill to the main A273 in the valley below.

This stretch of road is haunted by a woman wearing a pale-coloured raincoat and a headscarf. She is seen by motorists as they drive south toward Brighton. This lady stands beside the road, but as the car approaches she steps forward and waves her arm as if to flag the car down. If the car stops, however, the lady vanishes into thin air. One or two people each year fear that they have run over the woman and report an accident to the police. Who she might be is a mystery, for no fatal accident is recorded as having happened here that would have caused such a phantom.

7) Cross the main road with care.  Follow the lane into Pyecombe to the church.

The ghost of Pyecombe is by way of being a celebration as much as haunting. In days gone by a particularly powerful and malevolent witch lived here. Folk from all around blamed her for their misfortunes, and she made a tidy living out of blackmailing the people. It was noticeable, however, that the village blacksmith was always left alone by the old crone. The honest folk of Pyecombe asked the blacksmith how he evaded the witch’s curses, but he was as puzzled as the rest of them.

On 23 November, a night long to be remembered in Pyecombe, the witch was walking past the church to the village crossroads about her wicked business. The blacksmith, who had his smithy there, decided to confront the old lady. He stepped into her path, only for her to shrink back in horror. Laying hands on the witch, the man caused her to shriek and scream in terror and obvious pain. As the villagers gathered, the blacksmith dragged the woman to his smithy. As soon as she was hauled over the threshold, she erupted into flames and collapsed to ashes.

The spectral scene of the old witch being summarily consigned to oblivion is seen each year on the night of 23 November. The date is still celebrated in the village.

8) From the crossroads in the centre of Pyecombe church head north along The Wyshe. At the end of the lane a gate gives access to a footpath. This path climbs up over the shoulder of Wolstonbury Hill, with the main crest of the hill away to the right. Where it reaches some woodland the path bears right along the edge of the wood before entering the woodland as it turns downhill. Beyond the wood, the path crosses more open land before reaching a lane.

9) Where the path meets a lane, turn right to the A273. Recross the main road with care, bearing right  to enter the village of Clayton. Ignore the B2112 signed to Ditchling and instead bear right past the church to follow the lane as it bends first right, then left to run along the foot of the hill, heading east.

This hill is said to be the burial place of a life sized statue of a calf, made from solid gold. Traditionally this is said to be the calf made by Aaron, as recorded in the Bible. It was brought here by the Devil after God sent Moses to banish the worship of the golden calf. The Devil put it into the hillside and set a demon to guard it. The story goes that local men decided to dig up the calf for the value of its gold. Reasoning that Easter Sunday would be a suitably holy day on which to confront any demon that might be about, they climbed the hill and set to work with their shovels. After some hours of hot work, they struck something solid. Scraping the earth away, they saw the shape of a calf’s shoulder made of gold emerging from the earth.

Suddenly there was a deafening clap of thunder from the cloudless sky. A ball of fire came tumbling down the hill emitting sparks and flame. The men, understandably, fled back down to Clayton church where they hid until the flaming demon had gone. Climbing back up the hill, they found their shovels where they had abandoned them, but there was no hole to be seen - just the unbroken turf of the hillside. They gave up the idea of cashing in on the gold, which was probably wise.

10) The narrow lane runs for almost a mile, often between high hedges or trees. Ignore the first turning on the left. Just before a crossroads with a second lane a footpath to Ditchling branches off over a style to the left. This path may be taken if wished, but the ground here can be muddy after rain. If the ground is wet, continue to the crossroads and turn left to follow this lane back to Ditchling village.

This is an extract from Ghost Hunter Walks in Sussex by Rupert Matthews.

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