As we entered the small town of Pulborough my wife muttered from behind the steering wheel, “There’s something weird about Sussex”.
I had to confess that the same thought had troubled me before. But on this occasion I was enjoying the journey down to the south coast and felt inclined to defend my home county. Anyway, she’s a Yorkshire lass. Compared to the majesty of the Dales, one could hardly expect her to appreciate the fey curves of the Downs.
“Ah, come on,” I said. Pulborough glowed in the early summer dusk. “It’s a beautiful county. Weird? No, no, I won’t have that.”
“Then why does everyone here fly a bloody Union Jack?”
“We’ve only seen two. Maybe three. I mean, can’t a chap fly the colours of this great nation in his back yard without being judged “weird”?”
“No. And I’m telling you, there’s something odd about the place.”
She braked at a set of traffic lights outside a chip shop. We still had a way to drive and I figured a north vs. south argument would pass the time. I geared up with my most insufferably plummy drawl. “Anyway, I really don’t think that the county of “ferret-whipping” and “flat caps” is in a position to lecture anyone on…”
At that moment the chip shop door burst open. Two men fell out onto the street, shouting. They were bleeding and punching each other in the face. Both were dressed in tabards and medieval guildsmen’s costumes, with matching belts, leggings and leather shoes with massive silver buckles. One man smashed his fist hard into the other’s mouth, causing a tooth to fly.
The lights changed to green and Sarah pulled smartly away. We drove on in silence for a mile or two.
“Alright. Sussex is weird,” I said quietly.
I never set out to write about myself and certainly not about my time in straight-laced Sussex. When you think about your life, which bits seem to offer the most potential for memoirs? I spent many years in a hard drinking industrial rock band and on the idle occasions before The Sussex Devils that I considered this question I suppose I contemplated some lurid compendium of tales from the road. It turned out I was looking in the wrong place.
Actually, Sussex has a brutish, pagan past. It was the last Saxon county to be converted to Christianity. No one even tried until St Wilfrid in the 680’s, and the new religion remained unpopular in the county for centuries to come (laws to stamp out paganism were still being passed by William the Conqueror). The area’s unsavoury reputation persisted until at least the 16th century. Escaped criminals, highwaymen and general undesirables used the vast forests that covered the Weald as a hide out before Tudor and Stuart militarization unleashed a programme of savage deforestation; the trees were felled to smelt iron and build ships. From the late 18th century, Brighton became a fashionable spa town, thanks to the patronage of the Prince Regent (later George IV). Catholicism in the county was always weak, and non-conformism never as strong as the Church of England. These days Sussex is rich, protestant and respectable. But beneath this polite veneer the old gods still writhe.
Take for example, the case of the Long Man of Wilmington.
The Long Man is a 70 metre high hill figure carved into the chalk slopes of Windover Hill in East Sussex. The exact origins of the lines are unknown, but the site excites occultists of various stripes who hold rituals there on the major festivals of the year.
It is thought that Long Man’s genitalia were erased during the 19th century for reasons of Victorian prudery. Then, overnight in June 2010 during Beltane, a phallus mysteriously reappeared. Suddenly the Long Man once again sported a 7 metre cock and balls. Some pagan groups were delighted at the “desecration” – others were outraged. Kevin Carlyon, head of the British Coven of White Witches said he was, "Up in arms," because, "I have always said that the Long Man was a woman". The upset wizard complained, "I take chaps with problems to the Long Man at Wilmington and women to Cerne Abbas, but this makes a mockery of that." Henry Warner, director of the Sussex Archaeological Society said, "It could have been something to do with the Beltane Festival. Alternatively it could have been a fertility ritual… whoever did this, we never condone vandalism at the Long Man."
Pooterism, prudery, and paganism: it is a very Sussexian mix.
By the 1970’s Sussex had some fresh occult associations, such as the Clapham Woods mystery. Stories first began to circulate about the area in the west of the county in the sixties, when reports were made of unusual lights. The area soon became infested with UFO investigators. Some claimed that upon entering the wood “Invisible forces” pushed them among the trees. Many reported the sudden appearance of small clouds of dense fog on the pathways, which on occasion took recognisable shapes. Others simply had the uncomfortable premonition of being followed. The stories were generally dismissed as hokum.
Then strange things really did start happening in Clapham Wood. Someone or something appeared to be abducting pets from the area. Cats vanished, dogs disappeared. Clapham became the centre of a minor mystery.
Then people started to die. In 1972 Peter Goldsmith, a 46-year-old ex-Royal Marine in perfect health disappeared while walking in the wood. His decomposed body was found in a bush six months later. In August 1975 pensioner Leon Foster's body was found three weeks after he disappeared, and this was followed in 1978 by former clergyman Harry Neil Snelling, who was last seen alive on his way home on Halloween. His remains were discovered hidden amongst the trees, three years later. In 1981, 37-year-old homeless schizophrenic Julian Matthews' body was found six weeks after her disappearance. She had been raped and strangled. In the other three instances, coroners were only able to return open verdicts on the cause of death due to the advanced state of decomposition in which the bodies were found.
In 1987, a sensationalist account of the mystery was given by local council worker turned supernatural sleuth, Charles Walker. In his book The Demonic Connection, Walker alleged that the murders and pet abductions were the work of a Satanic group called “The Friends of Hecate” - a shadowy group who had apparently revealed their existence to him in the woods one night as he was investigating the mystery. A messenger from the Friends crept up behind the author in the darkness and threatened him with death unless he ceased his enquiries. Walker claimed that he was too terrified to turn around during this exchange and that by the time he had plucked up courage the unseen stranger had vanished into the night.
Like most woodland in southern England, Clapham Wood was severely damaged later that year in the Great Storm of 1987. The sighting and mysteries ceased and Charles Walker went back to work for the council. But by the late 90’s he was out there again, watching the Sussex fields and cemeteries at night with a pair of UV sensitive binoculars. Perhaps a sequel may be expected. (Demonic Connection 2? Return of the Friends of Hecate?)
More recently, take this report from the regional Sussex paper The Argus, in January 2010:
Witchcraft could be behind a spate of mysterious plaits in horses’ manes, which has left police baffled. At least ten horse-owners in Sussex have reported finding plaits in their horses’ manes over the last two months. Police have received reports from places as far apart as Westergate in Chichester, Rother and East Grinstead.
They wheeled Mr. Carlyon out again. Being the senior witch in Sussex is clearly a full-time media relations role.
...the Hastings-based self-proclaimed High Priest of British White Witches, told The Argus some plaits or knots could be evidence of devil-worship or black magic to precede ritual mutilation of horses: “It still goes on unfortunately. If it is normal plaiting, like a girl’s hair, that is beneficial witchcraft. With more complex, more tightly knotted plaits, you’re looking down the darker side. It is like they are marking the horse to say, this is our chosen one.”
Police are urging people to contact police if their animals have been plaited, and to challenge strangers hanging around farms or places where horses are kept.
And what all that is about, who knows?
Sussex does seem to have a magnetic pull for cults. After all, the head office for the Church of Scientology has been located just outside of East Grinstead ever since L. Ron Hubbard bought Saint Hill Manor from the Maharajah of Jaipur in 1959. In my youth Saint Hill was a place of dread. “That’s where the Moonies live!” we would be warned as we passed by. In the 1970’s there were spates of mysterious suicides up at the Manor and there are certainly people who believe that L. Ron was a devil of some sort: his son, to name but one. “My father did not worship Satan,” Ron Jr. warned. “He thought he was Satan. He was one with Satan. He had a direct pipeline of communication with him.” (The next time you see your old man, do consider that things could be worse.)
I don’t know if L. Ron Hubbard was a Satanist. But it is true that that area to the south of East Grinstead (Forest Row, Birch Grove, Saint Hill) has always been regarded as some kind of locus for Devil worship. And so it is apt that it was in Forest Row in the summer of 1983 that the man who the tabloids later dubbed “Satan’s Son From Birth” first surfaces in my story.
Forest Row is a large village. In my day its main hostelry was the Chequers Inn Hotel on the main road. As pub hopping young drinkers in the 1980’s, we rarely gave the place much custom. The Chequers seemed a gloomy, staid place. I remember looking in just once in the summer of 1983, to buy some matches whilst en route to a party in East Grinstead. I didn’t stay long; I thought The Chequers was full of balding old losers. But at the time, propping up the bar and bragging of his sexual prowess, was a chap who called himself Derry Mainwaring Knight.
Sussex is like that - full of co-incidence, double take and portent. It doesn't look that way but actually, my wife was quite right. Sussex is kind of weird.
Join 187 other awesome people who subscribe to new posts on this blog.