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Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)


<b>Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)</b>Posted by A R CaneImage © A R Cane
Also known as:
  • Poor Man's Wall

Nearest Town:Hove (7km SE)
OS Ref (GB):   TQ263110 / Sheet: 198
Latitude:50° 53' 2.67" N
Longitude:   0° 12' 15.53" W

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<b>Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)</b>Posted by A R Cane <b>Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)</b>Posted by A R Cane <b>Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)</b>Posted by A R Cane <b>Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)</b>Posted by A R Cane <b>Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)</b>Posted by danielspaniel <b>Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)</b>Posted by Cursuswalker <b>Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)</b>Posted by Cursuswalker


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[Hilaire Belloc told the story] of how St Dunstan pulled the Devil's nose with red-hot tongs at Mayfield, making this a sequel to the [Devil's Dyke story below]. I have also recently heard a friend of mine associate the two tales, but in the reverse order; according to him, when the Devil felt the hot tongs at Mayfield, he leapt into the air and hurtled out to sea to cool his nose, kicking the Downs with his hoof as he passed overhead. The Dyke is the mark left by his kick. My informant thinks he learnt this unusual variant at Mayfield, not in the neighbourhood of the Dyke itself.
p210 of
Sussex Local Legends
Jacqueline Simpson
Folklore, Vol. 84, No. 3. (Autumn, 1973), pp. 206-223.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
18th December 2006ce

[The Devil's Dyke] is a deep, narrow cleft in the north face of the Downs, beginning near Poynings and pointing southwest towards the sea. The hill above it is a famous beauty-spot with a superb view - and also with a cafe and souvenir shop which energetically exploit the legend. But in spite of this commercialisation, it is interesting to see what a number of variations exist in written and oral sources, and how many landscape features have been swept into the orbit of this ever-popular tale. It is far from being as stereotyped as I used to assume it was.

All but one of the versions I know agree that the Devil dug the Dyke because he was furious at the piety of villages to the north of the Downs, and wanted to let in the sea to drown them. He started near Poynings and dug vigorously, having sworn to finish the job in a single night, until something occurred to stop him -- but what? Here versions differ.

The most popular variant, which can be traced back as far as the late eighteenth century, says that during the night an old woman was woken by the noise, and guessed what the Devil was up to. So she lit a candle and put it in her window with a sieve in front of it, so that it made a dim globe of light. The Devil looked round, and thought this was the sun rising; he could hardly believe his eyes, but then he heard a cock crow -- for the old woman, just to make sure, knocked her cockerel off his perch. So off he flew, leaving the job half done.

This version still circulates orally, as well as in guidebooks, and is often enlivened by extra topographical details, as that the Devil as he dug sent huge clods of earth hurtling through the air, which became the Caburn, or Chanctonbury, or various other hills.

Some say that when he flew off he went out over the Channel where a lump of clay fell from his hoof and became the Isle of Wight; others, that he bounded northwards into Surrey, where the impact of his landing formed the Devil's Punchbowl.

On the other hand, there are versions which ignore the old woman and say the Weald was saved by a saint, though they disagree on which one should have the credit: an unnamed hermit weilding a Cross, said the Penny Post in 1837; or St Cuthman, helped by a nun whose prayers gave the Devil cramp and whose blessed candle tricked him, said Harrison Ainsworth in Ovingdean Grange in 1879, followed by the official guide-book on sale at the Dyke; or St Dunstan, as Hillaire Belloc maintained in a lively retelling in The Four Men in 1912..
From p209/210 in
Sussex Local Legends
Jacqueline Simpson
Folklore, Vol. 84, No. 3. (Autumn, 1973), pp. 206-223.
Her sources in the latter part of the text were local people in the 1960s/70s.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
18th December 2006ce

As a writer to Notes and Queries in October 1884 explained, the fort was also known as 'Poor Man's Wall' - in Sussex the Poor Man was a euphemism for the Devil. Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
11th September 2006ce

A deep channel in the hillside was said to have been dug by the Devil, who was trying to drown the local people in anger at their religious enthusiasm. He was hurrying to dig as far as the sea before daybreak, but a cock crowed - the Devil, hearing that sound and seeing an old woman’s candle, thought the sun was rising and abandoned his task. He is said to be buried along with his wife in two mounds on the hill. Apparently this is rare because the Devil’s wife rarely appears in British legend! Interesting marriage.

Note earthworks, fort, barrows etc in the general area.
pure joy Posted by pure joy
21st March 2003ce


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The name 'Devils Dyke' was originally applied to the earthworks, but it is now used to cover the deep, natural valley shown on the bottom of the black and white aerial photo above. danielspaniel Posted by danielspaniel
20th May 2005ce

The hillfort sounds like a Prehistory Themepark for the Victorian era. A special railway from Brighton deposited you at the foot of the hill, from where you could get another steep railway up the fort. Up to 30,000 people visited a DAY in its heyday. Attractions also included two bandstands, an observatory, a camera obscura, fairground rides, a switchback railway, and an aerial cableway across the combe.

There's still a carpark, toilets, a hotel?? and undoubtedly somewhere to buy an icecream.

Despite being extensively messed about, as a large univallate hillfort it's still 'of national importance' according to the NMR.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
30th October 2003ce
Edited 18th December 2006ce


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A good aerial view of the Devil's Dyke dry valley and the Hillfort on the spur to its north west.
Cursuswalker Posted by Cursuswalker
18th February 2004ce