Frightening folk tales and spooky spirits in Crawley

Brewery Shades, Crawley
Brewery Shades, Crawley

‘Knuckerholes’, a haunted ASDA store and a mysterious fiery dragon spotted in the forest: Celebrating the weird and wonderful folklore of creepy Crawley to mark this Halloween season

Dancing fairies, jumping devils and all-female cuckoo clans – Sussex is home to some truly weird and wonderful beliefs, customs and tales.

The historic county’s folklore includes fairies, dragons, ghosts, and the devil, and is often inspired by the hills and forests of the landscape.

Sussex is home to Knuckers, a kind of water dragon which lives ‘knuckerholes’, which were said to be found all over Sussex, including Lyminster, Lancing, Shoreham and Worthing.

Fairies play a significant role in Sussex folklore. Hilaire Belloc, a writer and historian who grew up in Sussex, once recounted the story that the fairies would come out to dance in fairy rings on Halloween, and Rudyard Kipling wrote two stories about Sussex fairies.

Sussex has several landscape features named after the devil, including Devil’s Dyke, Devil’s Bog, Devil’s Book, the Devil’s Ditch, the Devil’s Humps, the Devil’s Jumps and the Devil’s Road.

In her 1878 work West Sussex Superstitions, Charlotte Lathan collected a list of the good and bad signs that the inhabitants of the weald and wold of Sussex still put their faith in.

This includes cutting one’s nails on a Monday morning without thinking of a fox’s tale in order to receive a present, looking for a lucky nine peas in the first pod you gather, and listening out for the cuckoo. Every cuckoo in Sussex is said to be female, and is will ‘bring good tidings and tell us no lies’.

Crawley’s fascinating folklore features Black Dogs, marble tournaments and poisonous dragons.

Ghosts feature prominently in the folklore of this area - the town’s ASDA was built on the site of an old church and graveyard, and staff have reported spooky spirits haunting the aisles, including a mysterious man in a black cape. The store stands on the location of the demolished Bethel Chapel. Six bodies from the chapel graveyard were identified and re-interred at Snell Hatch Cemetery, with headstones which were paid for by Asda. The rest of the remains were buried in a mass grave and a memorial placed on a tree in the Asda car park.

Sussex inns are often sites of reported hauntings, and Crawley’s Brewery Shades is no exception to the rule. A woman and a young boy is said to haunt a room in which a bed was once found alight for no reason, a man haunts the ladies’ toilet, and a doorbell is said to ring by itself during the night. The word ‘shade’ historically meant ‘ghost’, which is possibly the origin of the inn’s name.

The Friends Meeting House in Ifield is said to be haunted by two little children - although they were supposedly caught on camera, the picture has since been mysteriously lost. This Quaker meeting house is thought to be the site of a number of haunting manifestations, including a ghost of former sailor, and objects have been reported to move around the attic rooms.

The Hog’s Head is said to be haunted by a woman accompanied by a small child, and visitors to The George Hotel have spotted the shadowy outline of a man, supposedly the ghost of a night porter who was found dead after drinking a glass of poisoned wine left out to trap a thief. The Star Inn on Horsham Road, Rusper, was originally built in 1486 and is home to a ghoul who has been seen sitting on a stool at the bar on a number of occasions. Bar Med, a club which used to stand in Crawley High Street, was supposedly haunted by a mischievous little girl who liked to move things around and an aggressive ghost who hurled light bulbs at people. This building was formally Crawley’s Embassy Cinema, which was said to be haunted by a little girl who populated the lower part of the building. A projection room also experienced poltergeist like behaviour.

Balcombe tunnel is also thought to be the site of ghostly presences. The souls of three First World War soldiers killed by the London to Brighton express train are thought to linger on at this site.

They have been reported going into the railway tunnel there and then fading away when approached by a living being.

A woman is said to linger at the side of the road looking as if she needs a lift on the A23 near Handcross. When people have stopped to pick her up, she reportedly vanished into thin air.

The ghost of a man who is thought to have been murdered in the cellar of Smuggler’s Cottage in Copthorne is said to still haunt the house. Although some claim that Colin Godmans, or Colin Goodman, was killed in a watch tower in Danehill, his spirit is thought to linger in the cellar to this day. Opposite the cottage lies the A264, on which a large oak tree stands. This was apparently used to hang a smuggler who betrayed his fellow criminals.

The legend of St Leonards Forest says that St Leonard was injured in the forest, and Lilies of the Valley grow where his blood fell in an area still known as The Lily Beds. The saint requested that snakes be banished from the forest.

A nine foot long poisonous dragon was rumoured to have lived in St Leonard’s Forest, Horsham, in around 1614. Although this black beast had a red belly and killed men with flames of fury, it apparently preferred to eat rabbits and smaller creatures.

Several mysterious black creatures have been said to populate the area around Crawley, including a sleek black cat has been seen hiding between the trees of Tilgate Forest.

Sussex is also a place often associated with Black Dog ghosts. ‘Wish Hounds’ or ‘Witch Hounds’ were thought to be omens of death, but despite many sightings of Black Dog ghosts in the area, it was once a superstition in Sussex that when the ghosts of dogs walk abroad, they are only seen by other dogs. An old name for the lane that runs between the old Crawley High Street and West Green is Black Dog Lane, and Crawley still has a Black Dog Walk. Crawley has also had a The Black Dog pub and a Black Dog Cottage.

Tinsley Green in Crawley has long hosted the British and World Marbles Championships. Marble tournaments are part of Sussex’s folklore and were historically held on Good Friday. Because of this, Good Friday became known as Marble Day and Long Rope Day, and women were known to skip in groups while men took part in the marble tournaments in Battle, Brighton, Burgess Hill, Cuckfield, Ditchling, Seaford, Southwick and Streat.

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