July 15 was Hampshire Day – the annual celebration of the county’s rich history, traditions and culture.
To mark the occasion Dawn Nelson, a storyteller and interpretation officer for the South Downs National Park, shared her favourite pieces of folklore from the county.
Dawn said: “Hampshire is such an important part of the national park and very much has its own unique charm and landscape features.”
She recorded her stories at the Giant’s Head in Queen Elizabeth Country Park, near Petersfield. The elaborate sculpture, constructed by internationally-acclaimed artist Mark Antony Haden Ford, pays homage to the menacing Hampshire giant Ascapart who features in the tale of The Betrayal of Sir Bevis.
Dawn continued: “The mythology of Britain tells us that many thousands of years ago this land was created by giants. They forged new paths and riverbeds, and shaped the cliffs, mountains and valleys.
“Over time these giants have been referred to by many different names and one of the giants thought to be responsible for forming the landscape here in Hampshire was called Ascapart.
“Ascapart was a small giant compared to those of his day and stood a mere 30ft tall. Nevertheless, he was more than capable of terrifying the local villages around Southampton.
“When Sir Bevis and his horse Hirundelle returned from their travels, Bevis heard of this terrible being and sought to rid the area of this menace. Sir Bevis was a skilled knight with a swift horse, as its name suggests, and he quickly overcame the giant.
“The only reason Ascapart survived, some say, was because Josain, Bevis’ wife, persuaded Bevis to spare his life.
“Sir Bevis was worried the giant would eventually betray them, but he respected his wife’s wishes and, in exchange for his life, Ascapart served Bevis.
“But in a twist to the tale, some records recall Ascapart did indeed betray Bevis and kidnapped Bevis’ wife, holding her prisoner.
“For that, Ascapart met his death at the hands of Bevis’ supporters and where he fell, his body became a part of the Downs.”
Another story relates to Countless Stones.
Dawn said: “Stone circles are a unique feature of the British landscape. There are more than 1,000 in Britain, many of them much further north than the South Downs but there are still some to be found in the downland of Hampshire. Ancient and without a definitive explanation as to why they were built, stone circles have given rise to many stories and local legends.
“At Bramdean, beside the A272, there is a stone circle that is thought to be one of those you simply cannot count. Try as you might you will not get the same number of stones each time you try. This motif is known as countless stones.
“The circle is thought to have been built at some point in the 1800s, as a monument to a horse that once belonged to Colonel George Greenwood. Other legends tell of how it is the resting place of those soldiers who died in the battle of Cheriton in 1644.
“Across the country there are tales of countless stones and what will happen if you do indeed manage to count them. You may raise the devil, you may lift a curse or, who knows, in this case, you may get to meet Colonel Greenwood’s horse.”
Hampshire Day was inaugurated in 2019. The date of July 15 was chosen since it is also the feast day of St Swithun, the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral.