Ditchling is a East Sussex village with witches, ghosts, smugglers, black dogs – something spooky for everyone, says PETULA MITCHELL
Ditchling is a charming and unspoilt village in East Sussex north of Brighton. It has long fought off the desires of developers and keeps a stock of buildings from the Tudor, Stewart and Jacobean periods of history.
The village goes back even further than this though and has Anglo-Saxon roots. Ditchling Beacon, the highest point on the Downs, has evidence of an Iron Age hill fort. As you can understand, all these layers of history and occupation have left a rich seam of stories and folklore behind them.
Witches in Ditchling
The most widely told story about witches in Ditchling concerns a woman who lived on the Common in the Jack O’Spades Cottage. She had the power to turn herself into a hare and it was a widely held belief that only witches could do this.
One night, while transformed, a local man set his dogs on the hare. It jumped out of a window and escaped, but the next day the woman in question was found looking for help to bind a bite wound on her leg.
The witch incurred the wrath of the local people by casting a spell on passing wagons so that they would become stuck fast. She could be heard laughing at the waggoner in his fruitless attempts to get going again.
One man, determined to teach her a lesson, let himself get stalled outside her cottage. His horses heaved and pulled, all the time he could hear the woman jeering and laughing from inside the cottage.
He took a sharp knife and started to score the spokes of the wheels with it. The laughing turned to screams as every notch on the wooden spoke became a wound on the witches fingers.
There is a wonderful telling of the story in the old Sussex vernacular.
“The men ‘ud beat the hosses an’ they’d pull an’ they’d tug, but the waggon wouldn’t move, an’ the ol’ witch ‘ud come out a-laughin’ an’ a-jeerin’ at ’em, an’ they couldn’t get on till she let ’em. But there wor a carter wot knew, an’ he guessed he’d be even wid the ol’ witch, so he druv he’s waggon before her door, an’ then it stopped, an’ the horses they tugged, an’ they pulled, an’ they couldn’t move it nohow, an’ he heard this ol’ witch a-laughin’ in the cottage. Then this carter what knew, he took out a large knife an’ he cuts notches on the spokes, an’ there wor a screechin’ an’ a hollerin’ inside, an’ out come the ol’ witch a-yellin’ an’ sloppin’ blood, an’ for every notch on the spokes there wor a cut on her fingers.”
A bloody revenge for her pranks.
Ditchling’s Ghostly Gibbet
Ditchling Common, just north of the village itself was the site of the local gibbet. Known now as Jacobs Post, in 1734 one Jacob Harris (a peddlar) was hung for the murder of a local man. He is alleged to haunt this part of the common, but also the post itself was believed to have healing properties.
Among the cures it was supposed to achieve, having a piece of the post would see off the ague, toothache and neuralgia. There is still a substantial post in situ on the common.
This is not the only spectre in residence in the village and surroundings though. The village has a ghost inhabiting the cellar of one of the shops.
By the local church, St Margaret’s, there stands a collection of Sarcen stones indicating that the area had a strong pagan importance in the pre-Christian era.
On one of the surrounding hills, Black Dog Hill an Anglo-Saxon chieftain has been seen looking out over his domain.
The Black Dog legend has variations in many regions of the country and they are associated with protecting the souls of the dead. As an old coffin road crosses the hill and comes down into the church it is no surprise that a headless black dog has been reported there in the past. Even as late as the 1930s it was said that dogs could be heard howling on the hill.
Ditchling also has connections with medieval royalty. As early as 769 AD it was recorded as a hunting park for King Alduuf, passed through the hands of King Alfred and Henry Vlll gave it to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement. Although she never lived there, no doubt the rents and taxes helped to keep her in comfort.
Smuggling in Ditchling
Avoiding taxes, however, was a way of life in the 18th century and Ditchling. Lik so many Sussex villages, Ditchling had a healthy hand in smuggling. At one point it was said that the church choir were all smugglers!
On one occasion in 1774, 200 pack horses and 400 men were seen carrying goods north towards London. The smuggling was stamped out some six years later when the operation was infiltrated by spies.
So this village has a rich history, some of it dark and full of superstition. It has legends of witches and resident ghosts. The surrounding hills are full of stories and fantastic views across the Weald. A perfect day out for a seeker of the Spooky!
As a footnote it has given rise to a song , The Witch of Ditchling, by a band called Old Forest. Inspired by the Sussex countryside and stories it is on their album Tales of the Sussex Weald. Very atmospheric!
Tell us in the comments below if you’ve ever witnessed anything spooky in Ditchling, East Sussex!