Romney Marsh – Smugglers’ Retreat

Fortunately for us the day chosen to drop two of the grandchildren off with their other grandmother in Rye was dry and sunny; something of a special prize at this time of year, especially given all the recent rainfall. The small town of Rye sits on a promontory overlooking the Romney Marsh: that flat, other-worldly land of rumour and legend, familiar and yet still mysterious to me since the days of my early childhood.

Writers and painters have celebrated the strange beauty this windswept stretch of moveable coastline for generations, so I struggle to find the appropriate words to describe our brief visit. The verdant marshland was positively fecund with sheep so pregnant that they looked like great fluffy footstools with a small leg at each corner. We found Rye itself so impossibly pretty in the Winter sunshine that we took a stroll up through the cobbled streets and half-timbered houses to take in some history at the castle museum.

It was only in the later Victorian period, long after their heyday, that the smugglers of Rye took on a romantic aspect. This may have had something to do with images of tricorn hats, frilly shirts and other flatteringly rakish items of 18th century gentlemen’s attire but in reality they probably had more in common with notorious London gangsters, the Kray twins. For many decades the same murderous families imposed a code of silence upon the local people of this region and their final demise in the early 1800s was due more to the abolition of import duties by the government of the day than to any local law enforcement.

Now, as pretty as Rye is, it is nonetheless undeniably touristy and so I decided to take Grahame to the other “ancient town” of nearby Winchelsea for lunch. Here there is such a stark absence of gift shops, cafes or restaurants that you might struggle to find somewhere to buy a pint of milk or a postage stamp. Fortunately there is one pub that serves good food but otherwise the residents seem to have campaigned ferociously to keep the adaptations of the centuries at bay. Of course, it doesn’t really resemble the proud, prosperous town built at the behest of Edward I in 1288; its tidy streets have more in common with an idealised representation of village life in 1950’s England but I can forgive any such anachronism for a historical treasure like St Thomas the Martyr.

This is a huge gothic church, built to the finest specifications of the time by the aforementioned King Edward to inaugurate the “new” town of Winchelsea after the old one had been destroyed by a great storm. Such was the importance of the coastal defences and trade routes of the Cinque Ports that a grand visual statement and even grander financial investment was deemed necessary. The church is distinguished from many other masterpieces of early British ecclesiastical architecture by the fact that it was conceived as a parish church rather than a monastic institution and by the amazing state of preservation of its interior.

The chantry and tomb of Gervase Alard, endowed in 1310, is a masterpiece of the stonemason’s art as befits a baron whose title was “Admiral of the Western Fleet” and under whose command sailed all vessels in service as far West as Cornwall. But however exalted he may have seemed to his immediate descendants, history moves in strange ways and within less than a century the importance of Winchelsea had waned. And so he lies, sword at his side, lion at his feet, with the intricate details of his armour all as freshly carved as if they had been completed yesterday. Exquisitely executed foliage emerges from the mouth of a green man carved above him while contemporary portraits of the King and Queen look on. Such is the immediacy of his monument that I always try to pay him a visit when I am in the neighbourhood.

As I attempted to explain to Grahame (and to recall for myself) how the towns of Winchelsea and Rye came to be added to the original Cinque (five) Ports some thousand years ago, we headed out along the Camber Sands and took one of the roads built upon the ancient causeways which provided the only safe way across the marsh to its furthermost point at Dungeness. Since filmmaker and cause-celebre, Derek Jarman, moved there some twenty years ago, Dungeness has become possessed of a certain cache but please don’t be fooled by the occasional piece in the Sunday Newspapers. Fashionable it is not.

I have loved this peculiar, post-apocalyptic landscape for more than fifty years. For reasons that have long eluded collective family memories, our parents chose to eschew the sandy beaches to the North or the rolling green hills to the West and selected this forgotten, pebbled spit of land for holiday excursions. It hasn’t changed much. The bleached skeletons of ancient fishing boats stand out against a scarcely discernible grey-white horizon, old shipping containers punctuate the shingle banks while the occasional washing line attests to some sort of human habitation. Whoever it is who presides over the local planning department, they clearly never venture this far. Ramshackle homes are constructed from every imaginable type of building material and not a few unimaginable ones as well; here an outhouse made up from what looked distinctly like asbestos sheeting and there an abandoned airstream caravan.

Grahame has sailed around this point of land many times but it was his first time seeing it from the landward side. We made our way home to Thanet along the higgledy piggledy history one of the most complicated stretches of coastline in the world. We passed Roman forts, Saxon towns, Tudor castles, Georgian mansions, Napoleonic fortifications and remarked, yet again, on the fact that the Battle of Britain memorial is situated in the French named village of Capel-le-Ferne. Perhaps it is not so surprising that I grew up disliking the study of history at school. Nothing that any teacher could offer could possibly compete with the very air that I breathed in this part of Kent.

Categories: Britain, East of England

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