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Serpents, knuckers and pharisees: my neighbours the mythical creatures

Yesterday, I read an article about the fabulous beasts of England and the novels they inspired. I knew giants lived nearby, and wondered who else.

Here be dragons

‘They do say, that a dunnamany years ago there was a gert dragon lived in that big pond there.’

Sussex is crawling with knuckers, or water monsters.

They live in knuckerholes, which'll be my word of the week. Knuckerholes are bottomless ponds, perpetually springing, with water cold all year but never freezing, giving off a vapour on frosty days. Some believe they go down to the other side of the world.

Knuckers eat anything that comes to claw: incautious villagers, blundering farm animals and the occasional fair maiden. If no tasty visitors call at their home, they do a bit of fly-by snacking. Their neighbours sometimes object. One knucker came to a violent end, having been tricked into eating too much pudding, which could happen to anyone.

Most of the famous knuckerholes have been poked about in by those logical people, and so proved to have bottoms and no inhabitants. I like to think that there are some secret knuckerholes out there they haven’t spoiled.

Sussex Serpents

'Monstrous serpents were seen in the country of the Southern Angles that is called Sussex.'

Serpents roam forests and guard treasure buried under hills, in case you didn't know. One of these guys, who lived near Horsham in the 1600s, was described as being nine feet long with ‘thickness in the middest’ and black scales:

'He is of Countenance very proud, and at the sight of men or cattel, will raise his necke upright, and seem to listen and looke about, with great arrogancy….

There is always in his tracke or path left a glutinous and slimie matter.... which is very corrupt and offensive to the scent.'

From which I conclude that trolling goes back at least as far as Jacobean pamphlets. Not a lucky spot for serpents, that. In the same forest, a thousand years earlier, a serpent had been killed by a Saint, who'd then arranged for all the adders to go deaf and for nightingales to be silent. Which was petty.


I don’t mean the fake ones, the men and women with long legs and bad habits who other people decide to call ogres. I mean the real ones, like those who scooped out all the coombes around Lewes, where I live.

They used to stand on the hilltops hereabout throwing boulders at each other. History does not record the nature of their dispute. Perhaps they did it for kicks. Anyhow, things got a bit out of hand and the Firle Giant killed the Long Man of Wilmington, whose huge white shape can still be seen on Windover Hill. We can only imagine how the Litlington giantess, who was romantically linked to Long Man, reacted. We might speculate that Gill, the giant who lived on nearby Mount Caburn, was involved, as he was fond of lobbing his hammer around.

Pharisees, pucks and Master Dobbs

‘It was de very hem of a place for Pharisees, and nobody didn't like to goo by it ahter dark for fear an um.’

These are the Sussex names for fairies.

Pharisees just love to dance, to the rhythm of the wind, or to the silence of moonlight, suggesting they're hard to embarrass. They like to throw their shapes up on the Downland grasses, making fairy circles, which fact-fans say are caused by a fungus, but lalala I’m not listening. Pharisees have been seen right here in Lewes; a scarecrow flew a boy inside Mount Caburn and the pharisees taught him to play his harmonica better.

They're always doing helpful stuff like that, but most often covertly, and only if they like you. Dobbs are fairies who help with household chores, as JK Rowling is no doubt aware. Whether pharisee or Master Dobbs, if you happen to spy them, pretend you haven’t. They’ll be offended if they see you watching, more so if you speak to them even more if you try to reward them. Then all sorts of bad stuff will happen ahead of your unexpected death. Bit testy, these pharisees.

The advice is to avoid fairy paths, those in deep cuts that the sun doesn’t touch, and don’t cross known fairy places. That's not easy, because pucks or pooks have been everywhere, going by the dozens of places named for them in Sussex. But I’ll certainly avoid certain hilltops at midsummer, when the main dance-off happens.

Some say that Sussex has more than its fair share of monsters and forbidden places because isolated spots stayed pagan. Others say it kept its stories as it kept its character, by turning its back on London and looking out to sea. Smugglers also gain the credit, for scaring people away from their hiding-places. I suspect that the more you look for magical beasts, the more you'll find.

Want more weird tales? Try:

Thanks to Tony Gaitskell for the monstrous image, featuring art by Earl Geier.

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