In the 17 years since this column started, An Eye on the Past has never recalled one of the county's most famous legends: that of the Great Bell of Bosham. There are variations on the tale, and an actual date is never given ('in the days of Alfred,' states one account), but all describe how the great tenor bell of Bosham church was stolen by marauding Viking pirates and the subsequent drama that ensued recovering it.

The story starts with widespread panic amongst the villagers as the dragon-headed ship entered the harbour, many fleeing for their lives, taking their most valuable possessions with them. This meant Bosham was almost deserted when the pirates landed. They broke into the church and, using ropes, lowered the biggest bell down from the tower and bundled it onto their ship. The villagers watched them leaving and rang the rest of the church bells in defiance. When the tenor bell should have sounded there wasn't a gap - it mysteriously rung out from the pirate's ship. The vibrating sound was so strong it caused the deck to shatter and the bell crashed through, sinking to the bottom of the harbour. The ship and its pirate crew were also lost.

In time, it was decided to recover the bell. For some reason, and it's never quite explained why, the mission could only be realised if a team of totally spotlessly white horses were employed to pull it up from the seabed. We're told centuries passed before such a group were assembled. When the great day arrived, the whole of Bosham turned out to see the bell retrieved. The seabed was dragged, ropes secured, and with much encouragement from the crowd, the bell finally broke the surface and was hoisted towards the shore. But then disaster! The ropes suddenly snapped, the bell broke free and was lost again. What had gone wrong? While the crowd speculated, someone made a close inspection of the horses. On one of them a single black hair was found. And that was the reason, it was concluded, why the plan to save the bell failed - one horse wasn't pure white.

It's a very curious Sussex legend, unlike any other, and how much of it is true or not can only be guessed at. They say the bell still lies down in the depths, some fancying - depending on the strength of the tide and when unusual currents meet and merge - the odd mournful chime or two still can be heard coming up from the old Bosham bell...