Misty marshes, giant dunes and a shingle head where gulls breed
Strong currents sweep shingle eastwards to the promontory of Dungeness, where lighthouses, fishing boats, shanty huts and a pair of nuclear power stations form a striking blend of old and new. Behind is the mysterious flatland of Romney Marsh, which has been gradually reclaimed from the sea since Roman times. Today the marsh is a land of tiny villages set among water-meadows where the Romney Marsh sheep graze.
Rye is everybody’s idea of what a medieval town should be like. It is entered through a powerful stone gateway, and has narrow streets, many of them still cobbled, which rise to a fine old church on the summit of the ridge on which the town is built. With Winchelsea it was one of the two ‘Ancient Towns’ that in the Middle Ages were given equal status with the Cinque Ports. Rye never suffered Winchelsea’s fate of complete decline, and nowadays is full of the tourist bustle that has passed Winchelsea by.
Originally the sea flowed right up to the south side of Rye, and though the sea is now 2 miles away, the town is still surro..nded by water on three of its sides -the River Rother to the east, the Tillingham to the west, and the Royal Military Canal to the south.
During the Middle Ages Rye contributed five ships to the royal fleet, so earning the right to supply fish direct to the king’s table. It still has a small fishing fleet, and there are usually several fishing boats moored in the Rother, downstream from the road to Folkestone.
Like the Cinque Ports, Rye was constantly under attack by the French, and in 1377 it was almost completely destroyed. A reminder of those early days still exists in the Gun Garden, where a battery of cannons once guarded the approaches to Rye. The three cannons that now point menacingly towards the distant sea were made as recently as 1980, to commemorate the 80th birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
St Mary’s Church still has much of its original Norman stonework, but it is visited mainly for its gilded ‘quarterboys’ – cherubs which strike the bells on the tower clock at the quarters. Inside the tower the mechanism of the clock, made in 1560, can be seen, and from the top of the tower there are wide views across Romney Marsh and out to sea.
Near the church is Lamb House, named after a former mayor of Rye, where the American author Henry James lived from 1897 to 1914. It is owned by the National Trust and open to the public. There is a small museum in the medieval Ypres Tower.
In the 18th century Rye was a great smuggling centre. The town’s most famous pub, the Mermaid Inn, was one of the smugglers’ favourite haunts. Many of the houses still have interconnecting attics, through which the smugglers could dodge from house to house to escape the excisemen.
A mile and a half from Rye, and quite distinct from it, Rye Harbour is a small cluster of cottages at the mouth of the Rother. The river dries out almost completely at low water. There is a concrete slipway, but the tidal rise and fall is so great that at low tide there is a drop of 4 ft or more from the end of the slipway to the river level. Most of the triangle bounded by the Rother, the sea, and the Rye-Winchelsea road has been designated a site of special scientific interest, covering 1,800 acres. An 880 acre strip inland from the foreshore is a local nature reserve, with hides from which visitors can watch the rich variety of birds, including terns, which flock to the water of a series of disused grave! pits. Footpaths lead across the reserve and along the coast to Winchelsea Beach.
The coast road zigzags past gravel pits and across golf links to this seaside village, which consists of chalets, caravan parks, and a large holiday camp. The vast sand dunes that loom over Camber have been so badly eroded in recent years that they are largely fenced off for replanting with marram grass and shrubs.
There are several car parks, from which footpaths lead across the dunes to the expanse of Camber Sands, where the sea goes out for half a mile at low tide. Swimming is safe, but bathers should beware of the danger of being cut off by the incoming tide.
East of Camber the road runs along the foreshore, where the dunes of Camber give way to the shingle of Dungeness. At Jury’s Gut Sewer the road turns inland, skirting the Ministry of Defence firing range; red flags mean that firing is in progress, and access to the foreshore is then forbidden. Swimming gets progressively more dangerous towards Dungeness, since the currents grow stronger and the beach more steeply shelving.
Lydd’s magnificent church of All Saints is known as the ‘Cathedral of Romney Marsh’ because of its size and splendour. Its west tower, built in the 1440s, is 132 ft high, and the building is nearly 200 ft long – far too big for the village that clusters round it today, but a reminder of the medieval importance of Lydd.
From Lydd two roads, Galloways and Dengemarsh Road, lead to the Dungeness foreshore. Galloways is closed to traffic when firing is in progress, but Dengemarsh Road is outside the danger area. It runs for 3 miles across the shingle wasteland, ending at a beach popular with fishermen, and passing a windsurfing school on a disused gravel pit.
There has been a lighthouse on Dungeness since 1615, when it was stated that ‘1,000 persons perished there from want of light every year’. This windswept promontory, where the fog can fall in a thick blanket within minutes, where the shingle foreshore is constantly changing, and where even the toughest sea plants find it hard to survive, now has no fewer than three lighthouses, or what is left of them. Oldest is the base of Samuel Wyatt’s lighthouse of 1792, now used as lighthouse-keepers’ homes; and near by is the tall brick tower of 1904 which visitors can clamber up in summer to enjoy the spectacular views in every direction. A short distance away is the graceful modern structure, opened in 1961, which in clear weather throws its beam for 17 miles.
Looming in the background are the square blocks of the nuclear power stations, Dungeness ‘A’ and ‘B’. The ‘A’ station is open to the public on Wednesdays; but visitors are advised to telephone in advance. Children under the age of 12 are not admitted.
Apart from lighthouses and power stations, Dungeness has a lifeboat, the terminus of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, and an assortment of hutments scattered about the shingle, some of them made from old railway carriages. Fish swim in shoals round Dungeness, and freshly caught fish are sold locally.
The Dungeness bird reserve, administered by the RSPB, covers about 1,200 acres of shingle between the Lydd firing ranges and the power station. It is reached down a gravel track which starts at Boulderwall
Farm, by the Lydd-Dungeness road, and runs for 1 mile to a car park and visitor centre. Among the 270 species that have been recorded at Dungeness are little terns, firecrests and stone curlews.
Swimming is dangerous at Dungeness, as fast currents sweep round the point, and the shingle slopes very steeply.
COMMON GULL Despite its name, the common gull is in fact quite rare and Dungeness is its only regular breeding place in England.
A single ribbon of bungalows, huts and seaside cottages lies between the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway on one side and, on the other, the shingle and sea. The beach is wide and sandy below the shingle, with the tide running out for half a mile.
Even the local inhabitants are hard put to it to tell you where Greatstone-on-Sea ends and Littlestone-on-Sea begins. The two resorts form a straggling development which continues without a break from Lydd-on-Sea to Littlestone, where a row of tall Victorian houses faces a stretch of grass above the sea.
The names of Greatstone and Littlestone recall the days when New Romney had a harbour, which vessels entered between two different-sized spits of shingle. Today the shingle bank is continuous, and below it is the wide expanse of Romney Sands, where swimming is good and safe. Low tide exposes a sunken section of Mulberry Harbour – the harbour of concrete pontoons built for the invasion of Normandy in 1944 and towed across to France. There are a few car parks along the coast road, but elsewhere parking by the narrow road is difficult. There is a footpath along the sea-wall to St Mary’s Bay.
The ‘capital’ of Romney Marsh, and one of the five original Cinque Ports, New Romney is a quiet little town with a superb church, originally Norman but greatly enlarged in the 14th century. Until the great storms at the end of the 13th century, the Rother flowed into the sea at New Romney, and boats could moor below the churchyard wall. But the storms diverted the river mouth to Rye, and New Romney was cut off from the sea.
ST MARY’S BAY
Holiday cottages, amusements and a holiday camp occupy much of this village. At the south end the beach is shingle, leading down to pebbly sand; further north it is sandier, protected by many groynes.
During the summer, this old Romney Marsh township is engulfed by amusement arcades and funfairs, which form a lively holiday contrast with the dignified main street and warlike Martello towers. One of these (No. 24, in the centre of Dymchurch) has been restored, with displays illustrating England’s Napoleonic defences. The massively strong sea-wall, known as Dymchurch Wall, may date back to Roman times, and is highly necessary, as Dymchurch lies I ½ ft below high-tide level.
In past centuries the complex drainage system of Romney Marsh was run by the romantically named ‘Lords of the Level’, who operated from Dymchurch; their Court Room, in New Hall at the northern end of Dymchurch, can be visited. New Hall is now the office of the Romney Marsh Level Internal Drainage Board.
The beach is sand reached across shingle, and swimming is safe except at the south end, where notices warn of a deep outfall.