How glaciers make homes for West Sussex water serpents

A short stroll in Binsted can lead you through deep connections in time. You might, as we recently did, walk a medieval track to find an Anglo-Saxon water serpent living in a hole from the ice age.

Sunken lanes, or holloways (from Old English hola weg: sunken way) are thought to have been shaped by centuries of foot traffic. Binsted has a few, such as the magical Hoe Lane. Coppiced trees on its banks likely go back centuries. Today it leads to footpaths that take you out to the sea, or east towards Tortington and Arundel.

Or, if you’re not careful, straight into the jaws of a water dragon.

‘Hoe’ is an Old English name meaning heal of land. Binsted’s serpent is probably an Anglo-Saxon remnant too. The water spirit’s name, Knucker, is echoed in the German nixie and Norwegian nøkken. The word nicor is used for the marshland monster in Beowulf.

But the Knucker is very localised folklore. This breed of dragon, and the deep watery lair it lives in, is seemingly unique to West Sussex. The most famous knuckerhole is just across the Arun valley from Binsted, at Lyminster. A folk tale tells that the villagers were saved from their troublesome serpent when a farmer’s boy tricked it into eating a poisoned pie.

Binsted’s Knucker, like other water-dwelling creatures in folklore, may have roots in the desire to keep the dangers of water close in the minds of the community. The knuckerhole is a deep round pond lying in a treacherously marshy field, surrounded by long grass and creeping jenny (which calls to mind that vicious water spirit, Jenny Greenteeth).

But what of the sceptic’s explanation for its being there? A geologist might term it a ‘kettle hole’. As the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, blocks of ice were deposited on the coastal plain. Sediment from the glacial outwash filled in the land around them, so that when the blocks finally melted a watery hole was left.

Thousands of years later a water dragon said, thank you very much.


Thanks as ever to the boundless Binsted knowledge of Mike and Emma Tristram

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