The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Devil's Dyke (West Sussex)



[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

Comments (0)

You must be logged in to add a comment