Ditchling people have had a lot to put up with down the years. There was the witch who lived out on the Common in a house called Jack o’Spades who held up work on the farms by stopping waggons as they rolled past. Like all witches, she had the power to transform herself into a hare. One night the waggoners decided to get their revenge and lay in wait for her with dogs. The next day the witch summoned assistance in binding up a bite on the leg where one of the dogs had caught her as she jumped through the window in hare form.
Then there were the witch hounds which roamed by night on the highest point in East Sussex at Ditchling Beacon. This supernatural pack was credited with unpleasant powers, and as late as 1935 it was reported that their baying had been heard on the Downs.
Closer to home was the ghost that haunted the cellars of one of the village shops, and the very real chance of being Swallowed-up by the ground: there are a variety of village stories of the earth suddenly giving way and people tumbling into deep holes which were old forgotten wells, of which Ditchling had more than its fair share.
Locals were not the only ones to endure trial and tribulation. Rivalry between Ditchling and its neighbour Keymer was so fierce and the desire to keep the two villages apart so strong that many bitter struggles were fought on the fields that separate them. Within living memory a Keymer youth who came courting a Ditchling girl risked being ducked in the water butt outside The Bull Inn or even worse being tossed into the village pond.
Happily for ardent suitors who wanted to stay dry the revision of the county boundary put Keymer over the border in West Sussex and ensured that never the twain would meet. Ditchling liked to be known as a ‘royal and ancient town’, an exalted title with slender links. The Manor of Ditchling was the property of King Alfred and it later belonged to Edward the Confessor. Edward II kept a stud of horses here when he was Prince of Wales for hunting in the royal park and in 1312 he gave permission for a weekly market to be held on Tuesdays. He also granted a charter for a fair on the Eve, Feast and Morrow of St Margaret of Antioch, now long disappeared and forgotten but replaced by the celebrated Ditchling Gooseberry and Copper Kettle Fair which has been held in the Star Field since 1822.
It began life with the formation of Ditchling Horticultural Society and gloried in the full title of Gooseberry and Currant Show, Stoolball Match and Kettle Feast. In the first year prizes were offered for the best faggot stack, the cleanest cottage and the best pig in a sty. The copper kettle was the prize for the heaviest pint of gooseberries. Ditchling’s superb setting under the hills has made it a popular place with the famous. They range from artists like Sir Frank Brangwyn, the sculptor Eric Gill, poetess Mrs Meynell and actress Dame Ellen Terry. In our own times Dame Vera Lynn and cartoonist Rowland Emmett have been drawn to the place.
The calligrapher Edward Johnston came in 1912 and displayed new talents for transforming everyday objects into little works of art, like making a miniature saucepan out of a tobacco tin and cooking in it new potatoes the size of peas. His friend Gerard Meynell, founder of the Westminster Press, was stretching things a bit when he sent Johnston two sardine tins with a note stating ‘please make me a motor bicycle and a telescope.’
The church choir were smugglers to a man 200 years ago and the Common was a notorious haunt of thieves, so in the face of this lawlessness in the days before speelers’ there was formed a remarkable society of amateur policemen. The Ditchling Society consisted of property owners and one of the principal objects was to raise funds for ‘prosecuting thieves, etc’. It was established in 1784 and flourished until at least 1834 with an annual meeting at The Bull where, according to the rules, dinner was to be on the table at two o’clock in the afternoon and each member was to pay three shillings to defray the expenses thereof’.
Today’s upholders of the law would be round like a shot to the old toll house to the north of the village, where in the 18th century there lived an old lady whose recreation was smoking opium, the local shop feeding her addiction with no restriction on sales in those days.
The simplicity of the rustic natives seems to have been given more attention here by writers than in other villages. Like the old lady from Ditchling in the early years of the 19th century who was about to travel to London for the first time in her life from a place where the one excitement to disturb a dog asleep at the crossways would be the rattling of a coach down the High Street. Her friends asked what kind of place she expected the great metropolis to be.
‘I cannot exactly tell,’ she said. But I reckon it must be very like the busy end of Ditchling High Street.’
Or the man who was reading aloud the notice of the death of a resident: ‘The deceased (which the vokel pronounced diseased) came to Ditchling a decade (decayed) back’. All was revealed to the reader: ‘Ah. I rac’n’d ‘eed got summat a matter wid ‘im, but I did’n allow as ‘twer ‘is back.’
Old Tom Weller, the wooden-legged cattle tender on Ditchling Common, swore by a pair of mole’s feet as a cure for toothache. He apparently sold scores of them at sixpence a pair. It sounds nearly as unpleasant as sitting in the dentist’s chair.