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Ghostly goings-on in the forest and beyond

By Sussex Courier  |  Posted: December 23, 2011

SPECTRAL SCENE: The view from Church Hill, where the ghost of a smuggler was said to search with a lantern for his lost contraband, looking at the trees of Five Hundred Acre Wood on the long climb to the high plateau of Ashdown Forest

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CHURCH HILL climbs from Friar's Gate towards King's Standing and the high plateau of Ashdown Forest, revealing the deep valley of Crowborough Warren as height is gained, until the road succumbs to the all-embracing shade of Five Hundred Acre Wood.

By day, it is a view to remember.

By night, the lights of Crowborough seem far distant and for those who have read Boys Firmin's first guide to the district, published well over a century ago, another memory may surface.

Mr Firmin was a hard-headed barrister, but he could not resist including some of the legends he heard from old inhabitants.

Among them was the tale of the smuggler who literally lost his head in an encounter with gamekeepers of the Warren.

His headless ghost was said to haunt Church Hill by night, vainly searching for his lost contraband by the light of a lantern.

There may be a link with another eerie tale, that of a headless horseman who gallops down the hill through Friar's Gate and Lye Green – and vanishes.

Mr Firmin suggested that marsh gas, or ignus fatuus, might account for the ghostly lights seen on Church Hill.

But he offered no explanation for a most unlikely spectre, a bag of soot which was said to haunt hilly Walshes Road at Jarvis Brook and which would chase anyone it encountered.

A blacksmith boasted in one of the village pubs that he was not afraid, and set off up the hill.

Mr Firmin said that very soon he was seen running at full speed back down the hill pursued by the bag of soot.

Perhaps with his legal tongue firmly in his cheek, Mr Firmin let the facts speak for themselves, other than to suggest that the ghost may have been the phantom of a deceased chimney sweep incensed by the local practice of setting chimneys on fire instead of calling for his services.

There was the Boars Head ghost, whose appearances were confined to flitting to and fro across the road to Tunbridge Wells – an occupation not to be encouraged on the modern A26.

Another phantom persistently haunted a local man when he retired for the night until at last he followed its insistent beckoning and followed it outside.

The ghost pointed down to the roots of a tree and vanished. The man, mystified, fetched a spade and dug – unearthing a hoard of gold coins.

Walshes Road had another ghost.

This was a woman – the departed chimney sweep's wife? – who appeared by a gateway on the drive to Walsh Manor.

A man who encountered her took a swipe at her with his stick.

To his horror, the stick passed right through her, and he, like the valiant blacksmith, took to his heels.

Smugglers who utilised Herstmonceux Castle, then largely ruined, as a hiding place for "brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk" invented a ghost of their own to keep inquisitive villagers away. They circulated a story of a phantom drummer nine feet high who paraded the battlements nightly, beating a tattoo.

Those who heard the distant sound of the drum promptly hid under the bedclothes and the smugglers went about their unlawful business.

Churchyards offered opportunities for practical jokers.

An old Mayfield man who had drunk his fill in one or more of the three pubs in the High Street at that time, decided to sleep it off beside a grave.

One of his drinking companions followed him, and after an interval began to moan: "I can't find my grave."

The old man woke with a start and muttered: "Shouldn't have lost it" – before going back to sleep.

A similar tale, versions of which have been heard elsewhere in Sussex, is told about Salehurst church.

It seems that an old man who spent his evenings at the nearby inn had to pass the churchyard on his slightly unsteady way home.

The lads of the village decided to give him a fright.

Accordingly, one of the boys wrapped himself in a white sheet.

He concealed himself by the churchyard until he heard the old man's footsteps approaching.

Then the "ghost" sprang out, wringing its hands and moaning: "I can't get in."

But the old man, far from being horror-struck, stopped, focused his bleary gaze, and brought his stick down across the shoulders of the "ghost".

"Can't get in, you (unprintable epithet)!" he roared.

"You've got no (sanguinary) business to be out!"

Whereupon the ghost vanished hurriedly, sheet and all.

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