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Southern Secrets: England’s South Offers an Unusual Journey Among Fairies, Ghosts and Legends

By Lucy Eglington


For all its modernity, England is still a place of legends, treasure and ghosts -- you just have to know where to look. If you want to get off the beaten track and wander through an ancient landscape that still holds the memories of a different time, head south from London through the South Downs to Glastonbury.

SOUTH DOWNS

An hour south of London, the South Downs has been described as the most "quintessentially English" of all landscapes, and has been inspiring writers like Hillaire Belloc to Rudyard Kipling for centuries.

Rolling chalk hills undulate along England’s South coast from Winchester, the ancient capital, through to the white cliffs at Beachy Head, the whiteness of which gave England its ancient name -- Albion -- more than 2000 years ago.

Along their 100-mile span, the Downs encompass terrain from windswept grassland smoothed by centuries of grazing sheep to patches of ancient woodland carpeted with bluebells, Lily of the Valley (which traditionally mark the spots of spilt blood when knights were doing battle with dragons) and anemones. English wildflowers with names like Common Vetch, Lady’s Bedstraw, and Round-headed Rampion grow underfoot. The soft, chalky soil is prime real estate if you’re a wild rabbit, and thousands of these frisky hares run throughout the region.

H.G. Wells once said, "There is something in these Downland views, which like the sea cliffs, lifts a mind out to the skies." From the hilltops, you can see miles across the Atlantic or the British countryside. There are mysterious woods (such as the "East Hampshire Hangers"), literally hanging from the hillside, through whose groves you can catch glimpses of the endless views across the weald.

You’re more likely to meet locals here than tourists and traditional English stiffness stays at home -- yuppies on their horses, meditating hippie-types and mountain bikers rub elbows with politicians, walkers, dogs and even the odd celebrity!

SOUTH DOWNS WAY

If you have a few days to spare and you’re feeling energetic, walk the 100-mile South Downs Way. This bronze-age trade route — open again after Foot-and-Mouth closed all the trails -- takes you along well-marked footpaths and bridleways to Old Winchester Hill, the ramparts of a great iron-age fortress with magnificent views of the country in all directions.

Farmed since prehistoric times, the Downs are pocked with the ramparts of iron-age hill forts and the dimpled lumps of ancient burial barrows. Locally known as Devil’s Humps, it is thought that if you run around them several times without stopping the devil will appear.

In the shadow of the Downs, at the foot of the escarpment where clear, fresh water springs come out, lie chains of tiny villages with flint churches and working farms dating back to Saxon times. Running between them are cool rivers packed with some of the most legendary trout fishing in Europe. These villages are ideal starting points for day walks into the Downs, or pub meals and overnight B&B stays if you’re walking the South Downs Way.

These villages are epitomised in the tiny town of Alfriston. You’ll be pleased to know that England is no longer a gastronomic wasteland, mainly because the Brits have adopted other people’s cuisines, and pubs now offer traditional fare like Spotted Dick, Welsh Rarebit and Fish n’ Chips alongside Thai, French, and Indian food.

You can browse around the shops, and try some locally-made fudge. If you prefer something to keep in your home and not on your hips, there are umpteen galleries, antique and curio shops, packed with unusual paraphernalia from stuffed badgers to ships’ cannons. If you’d like a really unusual story, you could stay at Dean’s Place. This old clergy house is now a haunted hotel -- the ghost of a lady in blue sometimes appears, and she has been seen by several of the guests. The Lewes TIC (Tourist Information Centre) is at 187 High Street (Tel: 01273-483448) and can arrange bookings.

Lewes, nestled in the crook of the Downs between Alfriston and Brighton is the quintessential market town with a magnificent castle, coaching inns and merchant’s houses, with the river Ouse at its centre. One of the most beautiful small towns in England, it was described by William Morris in the late 19th century as "lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hills." Lewes is a tipplers’ Mecca, with more pubs than any other town its size and there are plenty of historic B&Bs and hotels, and eateries ranging from Chinese to Chips. The TIC (Tourist Information Centre) is at 187 High Street (Tel: 01273-483448) and has a local accommodation booking service.

THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA

The Downs area is the focus for many a superstition, and nearby Devil’s Dyke, one of the most popular and beautiful parts of the region, is not exempt. Legend has it that the devil was trying to drown all the little local churches in a single night by digging a huge trench for the sea to flow through and engulf them all. Whilst he was busy digging, he disturbed an old lady who lit a candle behind a round sieve in her window. The devil (not known for his intellectual prowess) mistook it for the rising sun and fled, unable to finish the job during daylight hours.

As well as being a popular hangout for the devil, the Downs area is said to be a magnet for fairies, or farisees, as they were locally known. Traditionally dressed in green, they were described as "little folk not more than a foot high, uncommon fond of dancing."

Chanctonbury Ring is allegedly where fairies dance on Midsummer’s Eve, and can be seen by the human eye at midnight! The Downs are covered in "Fairy Rings" -- circles of greener, brighter grass, allegedly caused by the tread of tiny feet as the fairies dance the night away (it’s actually a type of fungus). Fairies still have their place in Downs culture and today, many older locals consider it bad luck to wear green because, like supermodels at a party, Downs fairies are said to be touchy little fellows when it comes to fashion.

Local place names also reflect their supernatural neighbours: Pook Hole, Faygate, Puck’s Church Parlour. Peculiar names are not restricted to places, either: a "slummock" is an untidy character, and when you wash your shirt with your red socks or your bra turns grey because of a renegade t-shirt, it has been "drented." A "scurrywinkle" is someone who moves about furtively (presumably the guilty party who drented your clothes). Some of these legendary expressions are still in use today such as "a month of Sundays" (a very, very long time) and "dull as ditchwater" (someone who is less than bright).

TREASURES AND SECRET PASSAGES

Every area has its mysterious tales of ghosts, smugglers, secret tunnels, and hoards of buried treasure. Treasure tales are not all fiction, and often precede a genuine find: the Cavaliers who came through here often left large hordes of treasure in their wake.

If you fancy snooping about with a metal detector, there is supposed to be a Roman in a gold coffin underneath the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk man carved into the hillside above Alfriston. Chanctonbury Ring and Cisbury Ring are well known as treasure areas, and a treasure-filled passage allegedly connects Cisbury Ring with Offington. A tale holds that researchers began digging for this many years ago, but were driven off, Indiana Jones—style, by large hissing snakes!

The old market town of Arundel has a huge French gothic cathedral, and an incredible castle that appears to have been beamed straight down from Disneyland. From the old castle’s drawing room, a false wall joins onto a tunnel-- nobody knows where it goes. A man once went in with his dog and he never came back, but the dog appeared several weeks later, five miles away.

BEYOND THE DOWNS

Other areas of southern England also offer secret legends and lore. From Brighton to Glastonbury, this is the land of big stones and big ghosts.

BRIGHTON PARTIES

Brighton is an up-and-coming, young trendy city. Connected to London by a high-speed rail link, it’s popular with commuting urbanites who reject the frenzied pace of London life. Among other attractions, it has great shopping, a marina, a theatre, cinemas, a wild nightlife and an infamous gay scene.

Brighton has always been something of a "party city," notably in 1783 when a young George, Prince of Wales, came and had a whale of a time splashing about in the sea, dancing the night away and theatre-going. He liked it so much, he moved in and built his famous Moorish mansion, the Brighton Pavilion. Groovy royal revellers came from all over England and life at the pavilion was quite a riot.

One of the guests wrote to her husband, "Oh! This wicked pavilion!…more wine than usual…the prince led all the party to the table where the maps lie, to see him shoot with an airgun at a target placed at the end of the room. He did it very skilfully, and wanted all the ladies to attempt it….Lady Downshire hit a fiddler in the dining room, Miss Johnstone a door and Bloomfield the ceiling…."

A secret tunnel still runs from the north end of the pavilion, under the lawn, beneath the stables and staff quarters, emerging into Church Street -- the Prince liked to sneak about in disguise among his people!

BRIGHTER GHOSTS

Why not mix your nightlife with the pursuit of the supernatural? Brighton’s 300- year old Stag Inn has a friendly ghost called Albert. A tall man wearing an apron and black armbands (a former landlord?), his favourite trick is turning off the keg beer. The Theatre Royal has the ghost of a grey lady (as does the Theatre Royal in Bath), who is seen outside dressing rooms, putting on make-up and hanging about in the wings.

If you really want to ghost-spot, pubs aren’t a bad place to start. They have the edge over stately homes and spooky forests because they’re warmer and full of beer and crisps. Plus if you don’t see anything initially, you certainly will after a few pints of the local brew!

George Gutsell, former landlord of the Queens Head in Icklesham, likes the place so much that he still turns up, despite the fact that he is dead. His favourite chair is kept ready for him, and a glass of whiskey sometimes placed alongside it.

The Mermaid Inn in Rye was a notorious smuggling inn, and has duelling ghosts that appear in the middle of the night. The Red Lion in Hooe and the Oak Inn in Ardingly are also both haunted. Evidently our translucent friends have quite a sense of humour too: at Brooker Hall, near Hove, a decorator was working in a deserted part of the house when someone pinched his bum!

WISE WINCHESTER

Winchester is England’s ancient capital. With its 1,000 year old cathedral, it can be something of a tourist trap, but its small, pedestrian-only town centre means it is still a treat to wander around. The huge cathedral contains the grave of Jane Austen and the sweeping green is a great place to people-watch and enjoy a picnic.

The crumbling old gravestones have some amusing epitaphs, including a cautionary tale about the danger of cider-drinking: the gentleman buried beneath met his demise after quaffing too much and falling down a hole!

After browsing around the town, walk along the river towards the Water Meadows. This unique habitat for birds and animals is irrigated by the traditional method of diverting the flow of the river with stone sluice gates. On the meadows is the St. Cross Hospital, where monks still give out sustenance to passing wayfarers (although these days it’s not free). After your horn of ale and crust of bread, cross the bypass and head up St. Catherine’s Hill, which is topped by an iron-age hill fort overlooking the town.

There is no shortage of eateries and places to stay here, most of which are in interesting old buildings. Even the youth hostel is in a lovely restored old water mill (City Mill, 1 Water Lane, tel: +44-1962-853723). The TIC (tel: +44-1962-840500) is situated in the Guildhall, near King Alfred’s statue at the bottom of town.

Winchester is perfect for a day trip from London, but it’s far better (and less expensive) to base yourself here for a few days. This part of the country boasts charming towns such as Alresford, an old market town about 5 miles away, the New Forest and ancient monuments like Stonehenge.

The New Forest is 145 square miles of spectacular forest and woodland, famed for its roaming wild ponies that wander through the forest villages. The locals maintain the forest using traditional methods and are fiercely proud of their area.

The best way to see it is on foot or by bicycle via a well-maintained network of paths and trails. Although hordes of locals come here in the summer, it’s quite possible to spend a day in relative solitude, as the area is so large and wild. The small towns of Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst are enchanting, and easily accessible from London. They both have numerous bicycle hire shops, pubs, pubs and more pubs, and B&B’s (Lyndhurst Visitor Centre, Tel: +44-23-8028-2269).

SEDUCTIVE SALISBURY

Salisbury Cathedral, with its elegant spire, is renowned as one of the most beautiful in England. Together with its fabled cathedral close, which stands on a beautiful green with cobbled streets surrounding it, it is an unparalleled example of Gothic England -- if you only see one cathedral town in England, let this be it.

Despite having such a fabled jewel in its crown, Salisbury is not a tourist trap at all. Rather, it is a busy, lively market town where you can really get a feel for life in the South of England. Salisbury also has England’s only medieval cinema and a twice-weekly market in the town centre which has been going for 600 years. The TIC on Fish Row (Tel:+44-1722-334956) can help with information on guided walks, museums and accommodation.

SECRET STONES

England is a living landscape, covered with interesting and ancient features -- and you will lose out if you stick to the obvious ones. Stonehenge is a wonderful monument, but it is expensive to enter, has a fence surrounding it so you can’t touch the stones, and was recently closed due to Foot-and-Mouth. Although it has become an icon for the tourist industry, it has completely lost its relationship to the landscape -- and therefore its significance as well.

Instead, go where the locals go -- Avebury. Just a short drive away from Stonehenge, it is equally impressive and far more atmospheric. It’s open to all, free to enter and is part of the natural landscape -- in fact, it’s in the middle of a village! Avebury is not accessible by train, but tours leave from Salisbury, or you can use public transport from Swindon, Devizes and Marlborough (bus enquiries tel: +44-1793-428428).

Just across the fields lies Silbury Hill, one of the largest man-made hills in Europe. No one knows why it was built and it is a focus for much speculation amongst historians and New Age folks. West Kennet Long Barrow, just South of Silbury hill, is England’s finest burial mound, built in around 3500 BC. Its massive stone entrance led archaeologists to 50 skeletons, which now rest in Devizes museum. Entering this dark, open tomb guarded by massive stone sarsens is a spine-chilling experience that is hard to forget.

BATH AND BEYOND

Bath is justifiably touristy, and even if you want to escape the crowds, it’s worth a day here as it has some unforgettable highlights. The entire city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s not hard to see why: Bath is a living, breathing example of an elegant Georgian town. The tall, slender buildings are all made from distinctive local stone and are stacked together up the sides of this hilly city in crescents, circles, and higgledy-piggledy rows, flanking lovely manicured parks and rose gardens.

As if this wasn’t enough, the Romans built a complex of baths and temples on the site of a Celtic hot spring, which still stand working today in a remarkable state of preservation. Until quite recently it was possible to bathe in them, but nowadays you are restricted to dipping your fingers in. The museum and exhibits are vividly laid out and it’s a fascinating look directly into Roman life.

Bath is a high-class, trendy town and adjoining the Roman Baths is the oh-so-chic Pump Room where string quartets play while you sip cups of Earl Grey and nibble on cream teas. It’s exorbitantly priced, but worth it for a one-off treat! During the summer, the Bath Festival gets into full swing (Tel: +44-1225 462231 for ticket enquiries) and the theatres, halls and parks are buzzing with drama and music.

Bath (especially in the summer) can be very expensive and overbooked, so if you want to stay here, it’s wise to book early. The TIC (Tel: +44-01225-462831) can help with accommodation enquiries.

BRADFORD-ON-AVON

Bradford-On-Avon is an alternative place to stay if you want to avoid the crowds of Bath whilst reaping all the benefits. Eight miles from Bath, the tiny town is filled with a mish-mash of buildings dating from 1100 to 1800, with the river Avon at its heart. The oft-photographed bridge in the town centre has a tiny stone lock-up overhanging the river, where the drunk and disorderly were left for the night!

The buildings are packed onto the sides of a hill, which rise very steeply from the old weaving factories flanking the river up to tiny alleyways with flower-covered cottages stacked virtually on top of one another. There are no modern buildings in Bradford’s centre, which also has elegant Georgian mansions, ancient stone churches and a huge tithe barn.

Despite its small size, Bradford has a wide range of restaurants and accommodation. The TIC (Tel: +44-1225 865797) can help. If you’re looking for somewhere unusual to stay, Bradford Old Windmill is an old converted windmill with three unique rooms. This and other unusual accommodations throughout the country can be found on the web at distinctlydifferent.co.uk

 

SECRET PUBS AND MONKISH MEAD

The ultimate hideaway in this area is Tucker’s Grave. This secret pub, so much so that many of the locals don’t know about it, lies between the villages of Falkland and Norton St. Philip. The regulars are to be found playing cards in front of the fire, with their wellies still on. It looks more like an old farmhouse kitchen than a pub, and indoor restrooms were only recently added. Locally—brewed Scrumpy is served straight from a keg under the table, so watch out! Scrumpy, basically cloudy cider, is VERY strong stuff.

The George Inn at Norton St. Philip used to belong to medieval monks. 800 years old and still going strong, it still has most of its original décor and serves delicious food and traditional drinks like mead, a strong fortified wine brewed from honey.

MYSTICAL GLASTONBURY

As well as being the nearest town to Glastonbury Festival (actually held down the road in a place called Pilton), Glastonbury is the UK capital of all things spiritual, and is full of shops selling digeridoos, crystal balls and homemade shoes. The town is a modern-day pilgrimage site because it is the focus of a heady combination of both Christian and Pagan legends. Glastonbury is thought to be the last resting place of the legendary King Arthur and Guinivere, and the Tor is said to be the ancient isle of Avalon.

In another time, the Tor was thought to guard a gateway to the underworld. Legend also holds that Jesus came here with Joseph of Arimathea, and Joseph may have visited with the chalice from the Last Supper. Ley lines, the lines of natural energy which cross the earth, all seem to converge on Glastonbury, making it the heart chakra of the UK. Whatever your beliefs, the town does have a certain mystical atmosphere which can’t be denied.

The Tor is a dramatic spike of a hill jutting 160m up from the valley floor. At the top stands a lonely tower, which depicts St. Michael weighing the souls of the dead. It’s a steep, lung-busting, 30-minute walk to the top but the fabulous views are worth the effort. In the town centre stand the ruins of an ancient abbey. There have been several churches on this site since the 7th century, and the supposed tomb of King Arthur and Guinivere is marked in the grass.

Being something of a modern-day pilgrimage site, Glastonbury has no shortage of accommodation from inexpensive campsites to swanky historical hotels. Call the TIC at (Tel: +44-1458-832954).

 

The Tower of London

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