A harvest circle – Saxon echoes in a West Sussex village

The village can feel a magical, cut-off place. There are outward ways and horizons, but there are boundaries, too. Some are guarded by mythical creatures.

Loop down to the luck-cradle of the horseshoe that is Binsted Lane, and you’ll find a holloway footpath named Hoe Lane. Sunk in marshy ground close by is a knuckerhole: a dangerous, self-filling, ‘bottomless’ round pond. It is the purported lair of a Sussex serpent – the Knucker itself – a dragon related to the nixie, water-spirit of German folklore.

Binsted’s knucker likely swam here with the Anglo-Saxons and has threatened to eat the unwary ever since.

Anglo-Saxon echoes reverberate here. Sussex, of course, is named for the ‘South Saxons’. They appear to have made a meeting place at the head of Binsted valley. ‘Hoe Lane’ recalls Hoesland, a former name for this place, from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘heal of land’.

Surrounded by marshland, medieval Binsted leant itself to one long lane of houses, looping around farmland. It eschews the tidy clustering of a traditional ‘nucleated’ village, its network of ancient footpaths the surest way to visit a neighbour.

The village weaves through field and woodland, its stories weave through time, its people weave into the world and back. A closely-woven place of connectivity and continuity.

The Anglo-Saxon name Binsted denotes a settlement where beans were grown. Corn was still grown here in the 14th Century; wheat and maize are grown here today.

Years come and go, but some things in Binsted stay the same. Sometimes, when you visit, something occurs that will pin you down for a moment in concert with the long meanderings of this place …

Last Friday – the day of Frige, spinningwheel Goddess of the sky – last Friday, 13th, at nightfall, I was lucky to find myself in the realm of the Spinningwheel Oak, right at Binsted’s heart.

Having trodden darkening woodland footpaths with a tawny owl’s low whistle for company, I emerged into the wide clearing of Binsted Park. At its edge I could see lights, a warm reminder that beyond the dark band of trees a village of houses encircled me.

The sun, just set, lit a tangerine strip of sky above the last shadowy copse I’d have to pass. As I started out towards it, a strange, quick mist rose from the wide ground, then swept itself aside, settling downslope.

Further up the field, two deer and their youngster stood in the half light, regarding my interloping form. Or perhaps, behind me, they had seen what I now turned to see.

Magically, impossibly, a twilight sun had risen in the East. A dawning at dusk, against timeless millennia of knowing; a rich, burnished orange disc, slowly lifting into the deep velvet blue beyond a silhouette of conifer and broadleaf.

The deer family turned, lolloped on, as I wondered at the thing in the sky. It was a circle of the sun’s golden light, reflected, scattered. The moon. The harvest moon: huge, full, its calm ascent soothing. A boon to crop-gatherers for centuries past, it was all I needed to see my way back to the house.

Luckless, I realised as I walked that I was a few evenings late for one of those special nights a year when the people of Binsted cease their comings and goings for long enough to gather.

Each September, villagers come together in the old flint barn. The walls are strung with lights, someone cooks; everyone brings plates and cutlery. This is the Harvest Supper. Speeches are made, songs are sung, the year past is remembered, the year ahead discussed – with urgency, in these times – and little ones weave whirlingly between the long tables laid out for eating.

We missed it this year. If we’re lucky, we’ll catch it next, this echo of a communing we once thought we knew only in the oldest of songs.

Further reading / references

An in-depth study of Binsted’s history: here

More on the Knucker and Binsted folklore: here

What makes Binsted special: here

Images: The knuckerhole at Binsted by Michael O’Leary / One of Binsted’s criss-cross of footpaths / The Saxon Goddess, Frige / The path to Tortington Common / Kent Cottage by Michael Wishart

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