A vane effort to solve this very fishy story

Southover Church in Lewes has a highly unusual weather vane, in the shape of a basking shark.

The vane on top of Piddinghoe Church
The vane on top of Piddinghoe Church

The copper vane is said to commemorate such a creature that was washed up on Brighton beach in 1813 and which yielded 100 gallons of liver oil, a rather valuable commodity in those days.

Go back nearly a century from now and the identity of the large fish as a basking shark is nowhere near as clear-cut. In the “Downland Post” newsletter of 1st December 1924 correspondent Harriet E. Ansell ventures her opinion: “Personally I have always thought that the vane on Southover Church depicted a conventional fish and have been asked at various times why a fish should be chosen at all for a weathervane.

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“Allow me to elucidate. The fish was the earliest amulet of the first Christians and was chosen because of the Greek ‘ichthys’, meaning a fish. The Greek initials of the words, ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour,’ spell out ‘ichthys’.

“The fish, with the sign of the Cross and other markings, is found in the catacombs of Rome, which were the secret haunts of the brethren in times of persecution. Among the charms and trinkets of modern gold and silver the little fish is still found, and worn when such things are fashionable.”

Harriet Ansell was responding to previous letters in the “Downland Post” concerning Ouse Valley weather vanes at Piddinghoe as well as Southover churches. The month before Mr. A.G. Wade of Henfield had written: “A discussion has arisen once more as to the true nature of the beast swinging over Piddinghoe Church. (Rudyard) Kipling describes it as a ‘begilded dolphin’. Three years ago it was referred to in the ‘Post’ as being representative of an Ouse salmon. Mr. Royle of Streatham Hill in South London thought it was a haddock! He did add that locally it is believed to be a salmon trout.

“That eminent Sussex historian Horsfield leaves the subject severely alone and dismisses Piddinghoe Church as containing nothing of interest. I myself suggest that as the benefice was once held by the monks of Saint Pancras in Lewes, the fish is actually a golden carp, a favourite of monasteries.”

The editorial team of the “Post” pondered long and hard and consulted many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten Sussex folklore: “We also studied more than one photograph and drawing of the Piddinghoe fish and truly could discern no resemblance of a dolphin”.

Their diligence in the search was rewarded with the discovery of a report in the “Sussex County Herald” from a date unknown: “Many have sought to solve the mystery of the fish which acts as a weathervane at the top of the Piddinghoe steeple. Some have held it to be representative of an Ouse salmon. Others say it is a bass.“

The “Herald” seems to go on to conclusively settle the matter with proof that the weathervane is definitely a salmon. They tracked down the man who actually fashioned the fish in 1882, when the church was restored: “The fish was made by Mr. Edward Lewis Blaber who is still working as an employee of Messrs. Whiteman & Parrish, ironmongers of High Street, Lewes.

“Seen by a ‘Herald’ representative, Mr. Blaber said he was 27 years of age when his firm received an order for a representation of a salmon to be placed on the vane of Piddinghoe Church. The order came from Mr. Geoffrey Baker, blacksmith, of Rodmell. The work was given to Mr Blaber to execute. To ensure realism Mr.Blaber went with his foreman, the late Mr. Thomas Corner, to Messrs. Coppard and Likeman’s fish shop in Lewes High Street and there took the necessary measurements from a real salmon.

“Asked if he could give the reason for placing a representation of a salmon as a weathervane on Piddinghoe Church, Mr. Blaber said that he could not, but pointed out that Southover Church, Lewes, also has a fish as weathervane. Perhaps someone will solve the identity of that fish which is no less than eight feet long?”

Mr. Blaber’s testimony must surely establish beyond doubt that Piddinghoe’s fish is a salmon, even though it is a pity he hadn’t enquired as to why it was chosen. Yet confusion still persists; the usually authoritative website “Sussex Parish Churches” currently describes the weathervane in question thus: “Large and shaped like a fish. It is probably 18th Century. Kipling described it as a dolphin but on page 154 of the Shell Guide it is identified as a sea trout.”

OK – they are well out with the date but have got the fish bit right so credit where credit’s due. To be fair there is not much difference to the layman’s eye between a true salmon and a large sea trout. The Ouse is mainly a haunt of sea trout – some of which can be bigger than salmon – but I understand a few of the latter do occasionally come upriver. Maybe they were once much more common and an important source of food deserving of recognition with an honoured perch (no pun intended!) on the church steeple high above the river.

Incidentally, the earliest known weathervane paid homage to the Greek sea god Triton from the top of the Tower of the Winds in Athens in 48BC. It featured a figure with the head and torso of a man but the tail of a … fish! A veritable ancient merman.

As another aside, Kipling’s dolphin description occurs in his celebrated poem “Sussex” penned by the writer in 1902. This was the same year he moved from Rottingdean to the quiet village of Burwash on the High Weald of East Sussex where he took up residence in Batemans, a house dating back to 1634. Here’s the verse from the poem that concerns the dolphin:

“… Or south where windy Piddinghoe’s

Begilded dolphin veers

And red beside wide-banked Ouse

Lie down our Sussex steers.”

The poem is full of wonderful phrases such as “Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs” and “The wise turf cloaks the white cliff edge as when the Romans came”. Here is the final verse with some familiar and now immortal words right at the end:

“God gives all men all earth to love,

But since man’s heart is small,

Ordains for each one spot to prove

Beloved over all.

Each to his choice, and I rejoice

The lot has fallen to me

In a fair ground - in a fair ground –

Yea, Sussex by the Sea!

In closing here’s a piece of intriguing local folklore: A saying goes: “Piddinghoe people shoe their magpies.” It sounds like nonsense but in fact the magpies in question are not the bird variety but are oxen who were once common domesticated animals on Downland farms. They were strong and hardy enough to haul ploughs and drag heavy loads through the notoriously gelatinous Sussex mud. Like the county’s cattle, oxen could be black and white and were usually shoed by blacksmiths to give their cloven hooves better purchase in the fields and on rutted tracks.