I’m often asked when I write articles such as this, what I think are the most haunted places in Sussex. Of course, numerous places are known for their ghostly reputations and yet spooky encounters connected to such locations seem scant. However, I have often been fond of stories attached to the coast-line of Sussex and would like to share a few of these tales with you. Haunted boats, phantom fisherman and the likes are very much the order of the day here; for instance there is an incredibly weird little tale of a spectral fisherman from East Sussex. At some point in the 1800s it was said that a fisherman resided in Hastings but he was not your average man. It is claimed that he sold his soul to Satan in order to gain supernatural powers. These powers would enable him to turn into wisps of smoke in order to enter a room via the keyhole! According to some the fisherman had disappeared from the area but was apparently found dead; washed ashore and yet for years afterwards locals claimed that after his deal with the Devil his tormented soul could be observed around the coast of Hastings; pleading with some to aid him in his quest for freedom.
From the 1930s until the 1970s a barge named Hygea (built in 1917) was moored at Gravesend in Kent. The name of the boat was rather apt – Hygea in Greek and Roman mythology being the name of the daughter of the god of medicine – because the boat acted as headquarters for a medical officer, treating sick and injured sailors arriving at London. When the boat was eventually retired she eventually moved on to Littlehampton, a seaside resort in West Sussex and was renamed Seahorse by the man who purchased her, a Mr Alan Becker. In 1984 the boat served as a pub – and like a majority of pubs, it had a ghost. One humid night a watchman employed to keep vigil over the barge was settling into his quarters when he was chilled by a sudden draught. He thought that an upstairs window must have been left ajar and so he ascended the steps only to find all the windows shut. He returned to his room, which was now quite cold, despite the muggy weather, and so he put a big coat on but then suddenly felt an overwhelming feeling of horror engulf him. With that, the night-watchman, who’d been used to spending many a night alone in dark places, felt the need to barricade the door from inside until over an hour or so later the feeling subsided and the chill seemed to fade. This wasn’t to be his only encounter however, because one night he saw hanging pot plants swing violently of their own accord despite the fact the barge was still. Then came his third and most terrifying experience, which again took place at night. Whilst sitting comfortably in front of the pub fire he was startled to see shadowy figures playing out on the wall before him, and this eerie play went on for some time until the watchman left the area. Of course, some would argue that if such experiences only concerned the security guard then maybe he was prone to hallucination, but someone in that type of job wouldn’t normally be of unsound mind, but thankfully for him, a Mandy Milson, a waitress on the Seahorse also reported a supernatural experience when one night she was sitting in the bar area with some friends when a door at the top of the stairs began to open and close of its own accord. An investigation ensued but there was no-one else to be found.
I’m also fond of strange stories concerning phantom sounds and buildings. Around the British coast there has long been legends of churches being swallowed by the sea; or buildings crumbling into the waves and yet years later witnesses describing seeing such sunken forms jutting out of the foaming water. At Bulverhythe – a suburb of Hastings – in East Sussex there is legend of church bells being heard beneath the waves which is also echoed at Bosham, in the west of the county. The noise could well be explained by the raking noise the sea makes as it combs the beach, but it has certainly spawned a degree of lore for it is said that when the bells are heard then bad weather is imminent. Of course, the rugged Sussex coast-lines have a long history of smuggling and so folklore is rife. At Seaford in East Sussex, legend claims that local people – once known as ‘cormorants’ or ‘shags’ – would lure ships onto the rocks by placing false lights on the cliffs and so such vessels would run aground, and smugglers would not only loot them but murder those who hadn’t already succumbed to drowning. Another legend states that if one was a witch and wanted to wreck a ship then all they had to do was stand on their head and chant, “Sweery, sweery, linkum-loo! Do to them as I now do…” Certainly far easier, some would say, than waiting for an age for a ship to be lured by a false light.