Toby Lamborn, photographer, and Oliver Rimmer, writer, are collaborators on an ongoing collective project titled ‘Silly’ (a nickname for Sussex derived from the Saxon word for blessed: sælig). The work explores the folk tales of the ‘Knucker’, a livestock-terrorising dragon that dwells in deep waters, capturing the essence of myth intertwined with the rolling downland of the Sussex Weald. 

Toby and Oliver explain their collaboration and its ongoing development:

The low, languorous swells and heaves of the downs, they conceal wishes too. The body takes up a strange rhythm with the effort uphill and downhill. The mind also wanders. An ideal state for dreaming on your feet, emanating upwards from the ground below, as if channelled through the chalky earth itself.

'Silly', by Toby Lamborn and Oliver Rimmer

WT: Could you explain the premise of your project, 'Silly'?

OR: “Silly” is an old nickname for Sussex, it derives from the Old English ‘wordsælig’, which means “blessed.” We enjoyed this polysemy and found that it reflected the sense of ambiguity behind a lot of folk tales, the sense that there are multiple ways of engaging with and interpreting them. A surface level of triviality often masks something much more profound, maybe something sublime, maybe something tragic. Photographs may represent something beyond their original context however it is still a physical record of the light on that particular day, at that particular moment. Time and light nestled within the negative’s emulsion. We ask to what extent a folk tale likewise contains traces of some distant past. At the same time, many folk tales are passed down orally. They are a living tradition; there is no static, single, “correct” source for them, but they gather and lose specific meanings as time unfolds. The Knucker has been our main focus recently. As a folk tale, it perfectly captures this sense of compounded time. The Knucker is said to reside in a bottomless pool, or a “Knuckerhole,” terrorising the locals and devouring livestock. There are a number of these reputedly “bottomless pools” dotted around Sussex, each being fed by deep, underground springs, and each having its resident Knuckers. There’s one in Lyminster, one near Lancing, Binstead and Sompting, with more likely to be hidden amongst the landscape. Sussex has a fair amount of dragon and serpent lore, but what makes the Knucker stand out for us is that it is primarily an oral folktale, and there is no written description of what it looks like. The word “Knucker'' comes from the Anglo-Saxon nicor, a water beast which famously appears in Beowulf, but it also shares the same root as “Nixie,” a shape-shifting water spirit also found in Germanic folklore. At the church in Lyminster, it is depicted quite specifically as a red dragon, drawing parallels to the book of Revelation. What appears at first as a fairly static, unchanging tale is a vast, shifting web of associations – an open-ended process that is still ongoing.

WT: How did the collaboration between you both, Toby as photographer and Oliver as writer, begin?

TL: Silly started from fairly humble beginnings. Both of us were big fans of the South Downs and were regularly walking together. It got to the point where we were using research and folklore to find new places to explore. At this point, we always brought a camera and would usually be talking about this research as we walked. As this continued and we started collecting more photographs and ideas we had enough to connect the dots between the folklore and the landscape. Once releasing this it then gave a great platform and direction to pursue this further. With Ollie having a writing background and me being a photographer we became excited by the creative challenge of using text and image together. Particularly in how one interacts with and conditions one’s reading of the other. So what we’re still exploring now is if this marriage between two formats abstracts or clarifies the context of the work. I guess it may even be able to do both.

'Silly', by Toby Lamborn and Oliver Rimmer

One Sussex priest proposed there was never any dragon in the deep pool at Lyminster. Instead, he said, it was a concentration of evil energy. Psychical traces of past misfortunes which beget present misfortune. For him, the real dragon was a repetition in time of persons with no other options left, perhaps unavoidable, eternal as long as the land keeps its shape.

WT: How did your collective interest in folklore, particularly that associated with Sussex, develop into the ongoing work?

OR: I think as our research has progressed and we have found all these different ways that folk tales are retold, we have started seeing it as something of a lens on the landscape. Folk tales add magic to the mundane, they are a hinge between fantasy and reality. But fantasy is always from somewhere – be that a geographical somewhere or an emotional somewhere. One theory about the Knuckerhole suggests that it gained its reputation after someone drowned themselves in it. Whether or not this is true, you can see how a fairly innocuous-looking pool that is twenty metres deep could be poetically reconstrued as the dwelling place of a fearsome monster.

WT: The project combines imagery and prose to explore 'unseen' elements of the Sussex landscape. Were these spaces you were familiar with?

TL: We were familiar with the physical aspects of the spaces. However, through the process of writing and photography and what both these different mediums bring, it was a way of interacting with them on an emotional level. For example, routes we re-walk take on new meanings and perceptions when we understand the way previous people have interacted with them before. In the case of the Knucker, a body of water becomes a bottomless home and the film on top of a pond becomes its slimy back. The story of the Knucker becomes interesting, especially considering there’s no particular description of its appearance, as then the landscape becomes one of its key references.

'Silly', by Toby Lamborn and Oliver Rimmer


Sylva Anderida;

Coed Andred

WT: Your description of the work muses upon 'folklore's compounded framing of time, whereby stories mutate each time they are retold'. Do you enjoy the creative ambiguity that this affords?

TL: I think it’s the ambiguity that drew us into the project. As much as there’s so much we don’t know there is still tonnes of content to look through. Similar to something like W.G Sebald and his book ‘Rings of Saturn’, the landscape keeps throwing things your way that connect to past histories that spread all over Europe and sometimes further. To see this spread of influence all you have to do is look at the Sussex coat of arms. On it is not only a Saxon Crown, but also 6 martlets, a fictitious bird used around mediaeval Europe that takes on different styles and forms wherever it’s being used. One constant with their depiction however is that they don’t have legs. The bird has become so abstracted over time that it’s ended up losing them. Now people can only speculate what bird it may have originally been based on, with each country having its own spin on the same thing, it probably only confuses things further. Within Sussex, there’s the Germanic influence, that Ollie has mentioned, alongside later French influences with key figures such as St Leonard, a French priest who immigrated to England and became famous for killing a deadly serpent near Horsham. Named St. Leonard’s Forest after this tale, the influence of this story is easy to spot if you ever take a trip around it. So our creative role within this is to figure out what gaps to fill and which ones to widen. A balance that we’re still figuring out.

'Silly', by Toby Lamborn and Oliver Rimmer

WT: Is there a responsibility, with that creative ambiguity, to seek the truth?

TL: The concept of truth within folklore and photography share a similar attitude. Both sometimes like to present themselves as a fact but at the same time couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a real interplay between fact and fiction that depends on the subjectivity of the teller and reader. Even on an everyday level. For instance, how pictures from a night out on an Instagram story may not represent the true emotions of what actually occurred. The same with a story being retold may be developed differently through its retelling and its emotional response. Through this though there's a responsibility to keep it connected with its roots. You need to find the balance of adding to a story without completely disconnecting it from its history. This is why researching and experiencing the landscape itself is important as you need to add your own response to the tale, which is hard to do from only witnessing it from a screen. Through this, you may become close to the truth but what that truth is can be uncertain. For instance, a few of the known Knucker holes are closed off or have restricted access. What does this say about the treatment of these stories and the attitude towards the landscape? We think it’s both interesting and important in this respect to ask what form the Knucker takes on in the current state of late capitalism we are currently in.

WT: How do you see the project developing further?

TL: The more we do for this project the more interest we realise there is. We are starting to reach out to more people who engage with these tales. For example, we have recently chatted with The Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction based out of Chichester University who have a wealth of knowledge on local tales and history. By chatting to more people the aim is, in a sense, to attempt to replicate that oral tradition. Further down the line though we are aiming to exhibit this and put it into book form. In the meantime, more research means more walks, which means more photos and writing. A big part of this is promoting going out and engaging with the landscape yourself to contextualise the stories, so we aim to keep doing the same in that regard. So if you are someone who is reading this and is now inspired to go for a walk, we hope to bump into you soon.

'Silly', by Toby Lamborn and Oliver Rimmer

Reputedly bottomless, fed by a hidden underground spring, so that the waters are always cool, even when all around is otherwise encrusted with ice, and the waters are always a strange, greenish-blue.


With thanks to Toby Lamborn and Oliver Rimmer for sharing their ongoing work.


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