29 April 2012

Winchelsea and Rye

In and around the Cinque Ports

I’m woken by what sounds like four and twenty blackbirds calling out for help, and yet, on further investigation, it is perhaps only one, pouring out its soul from the yew tree on the corner.  It’s a perfect spring morning in East Sussex, and through my window I can see Spike Milligan sleeping in St Thomas the Martyr’s graveyard (“I told you I was ill”), then the church, then gleaming white weather boarded houses, and then, in the distance, the shadows of Dungeness nuclear power station.

The church, built in the early fourteenth century when the whole town was reconstructed by order of Edward I, after devastating floods had destroyed the original settlement, is not quite what it once was, but is a fitting centrepiece to this peaceful and pretty town.  John Everett Millais, who had been introduced to the area by Edward Lear, filled in the background to his “The Blind Girl” (who was actually painted in Scotland) with Strand Hill in 1854, and he also used one of the tombs in the church for “The Random Shot” (also know as “L’Enfant du Regiment”).  His family later settled here, and he may have invited Thackeray (who set his novel “Denis Duval” in Winchelsea).  Another Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, visited in 1866 to escape the torpor of Cheyne Walk, and he stayed at the New Inn, where Pat now stokes the log fire, while I breathe the air of yesteryear.  Ford Madox Ford, a very influential literary figure in the early 20th century, lived in Friars Road, and Joseph Conrad rented a cottage opposite his.  At a certain point it must have been the place to be, with Henry James scooting over from Rye on his bike, Elgar dropping in, Beatrix Potter sojourning, and even H G Wells passing by.  The painter, Edward Burra, was a sometime resident, as was his friend Conrad Aitken, and they knew the place as "Tinkerbell Town."

Now it is quiet, apart from the strident blackbirds, and the visitors stroll about looking for the Milligan epitaph (it’s in Gaelic) or visiting the town museum, or touring the medieval vaulted wine cellars (an extraordinary feature of the town, dating back to its days as an important port with strong links with Gascony). 

Iham Hill, on which the town sits, is at the eastern edge of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the views all round are spectacular, with the Brede Valley to the west, the Royal Military Canal passing below on the eastern side, and Rye perched above the Rother to the north.  Queen Elizabeth I sailed here and for this year’s jubilee no doubt a beacon will be lit for Elizabeth II.  Otherwise the A259, like time itself, streams past, avoiding the narrow gates of this ancient town.

I have an appointment with the birds on Dungeness, but first I climb the tower of the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin in Rye.  On the way up, having squeezed through the narrowest passage, and struggled panting up steep ladders, I pass the oldest working turret clock in the country (dating from 1561) and a set of scarily loud bells, before emerging onto the leads with a stunning panorama of the town and scenery around. 

I can see Henry James’s front door, the Rye Castle museum, the silty, meandering Rother and the harbour.  To the east the wind farm by Little Cheyne Court flashes in the sun, and beyond Denge Marsh loom the Dungeness reactors, glowing in the distant haze.

Rye is a bustling, busy place, awash with tourists, but justifiably so.  The medieval streets around the centre and the genuine antique Town Crier make for an imaginative day out (or a good two hours if you park in Budgen’s!)  But I seek peace, and speed over East Guldeford levels (where salt was once produced), across the Kent Ditch, onto Walland Marsh (where the sheep are ready salted) and into the fourteenth century Woolpack Inn for some scallops and a pint of Shepherd Neame’s Early Bird, an ideal thirst quencher for an amateur twitcher like me!  I love this pub, with its vast inglenook, painfully low beams and funny little rooms. And I love the expanse of Romney Marsh, where the skies, even when wet, stretch out forever.

It’s not far from here, down through Lydd, which now has a pretentious airport, perhaps because of one Samuel F Cody who pioneered man-lifting kites here in the early 20th century.  He was also the man who, in October 1908, made the very first aeroplane flight (for 27 seconds, at Farnborough) in Britain.  We now see the airport advertising itself as “London Ashford Airport – the future of aviation in the south-east of England” and as it proclaims on its website, “the Airport is awaiting the Public Inquiry decision on its application to extend the runway by 294m with a 150m starter extension as well as a new terminal building capable of processing a maximum of 500,000 passengers per year.”  What my feathered friends on Denge Marsh, let alone the inhabitants of Greatstone-on-Sea etc, are going to make of this, can only be imagined, though of course it will, no doubt, bring immeasurable prosperity and opportunity to the area.  Rather like smuggling did in days of yore…..

Anyway, I pitch up at the RSPB nature reserve, which tells me, “There’s nowhere quite like it!”  As they say on the website, “if you haven’t been to Dungeness, nothing can quite prepare you for the landscape – mile after mile of shingle….”  But it is far more than this.  It is the RSPB’s oldest nature reserve; it covers nearly 1,000 hectares and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  Apart from pools, shingle and reed beds for the waterfowl and seabirds, there are fields and ditches for geese and duck, and gorse and willow scrub for all kinds of warblers, tits and insects.  On this visit I was treated to a fine display by a Wheatear, who fluttered and posed for me, and a Willow Warbler, who sang his heart out on a bramble obligingly close to my camera.  In flight I caught the sleek black bomber shape of a Cormorant, but also the aerial virtuosity of Marsh Harriers. 

There are well marked trails, and a number of hides, but for a moment I am thrown by the sign that prohibits dogs, “Except Guide Dogs.”  With na├»ve prejudice I wonder why anyone with a guide dog would be bird watching, but I immediately realise my mistake and foolishly close my eyes to listen.  It is indeed easier to hear some birds than see them, and of course in many cases, as with the blackbird that woke me in the early hours, hearing their song is the best part of getting close to them.  In fact, one of the most exciting birds on the reserve at this time is a Bittern, and he is hardly seen at all, though his booming call is eerily unmistakable.

After a cup of tea in the visitor centre, admiring the equanimity of the ducks and divers who completely ignore the brooding powerhouse that hums behind them, I move on to the extremity of the peninsular.  Here, under the black tower of the old lighthouse, the white stripe of the new one, and the grey blocks of the generating station, lie shacks and cottages and railway carriages in what must be the most unusual village in England.  Boats are drawn up on the shingle ridges near the sea, and skeletons of old vessels and old huts litter the landscape,  And then there are the cottages, mostly black with pitch, and chained up tight, but some bear signs of life.

The Film Maker Derek Jarman’s cottage and garden is one of these.  He first came here in 1986 and continued to visit, and to develop his extraordinary garden, until his death in 1994.  He made the most of the horned poppies and sea kale that like it here, but he also introduced other species that took root in the shingle and survived the gales and salty spray.  I don’t know what Prospect Cottage cost when it was constructed eighty years before, or when he bought it, but it would seem to be worth in the region of £200,000 now. 

On January 1st 1989 Jarman wrote, in “Modern Nature”:
The view from my kitchen at the back of the house is bounded to the left by the old Dungeness lighthouse, and the iron grey bulk of the nuclear reactor – in front of which dark green broom and gorse, bright with yellow flowers, have formed little islands in the shingle, ending in a scrubby copse of sallow and ash dwarfed and blasted by the gales.

And on February 13th the same year he wrote:

to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
 no longer remembered as earth
 may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
 perform an archaeology of soul
 on these precious fragments
 all that remains of our vanished days
 here – at the sea’s edge
 I have planted a stony garden
 dragon tooth dolmen spring up
 to defend the porch
 steadfast warriors

I drive back down the Coast Road to New Romney, a violent storm towering over the hills inland, and then turn west, back through Rye and Winchelsea, and on into leafy Sussex, so different from the desolate stony shore behind me.

For a rest I take a walk into Fore Wood nature reserve at Crowhurst, a linear village not far from Battle.  This is another RSPB site, but of a very different nature.  The sandstone is pierced by steep ghylls, but otherwise it is gently sloping woodland, coppiced in places, carpeted by bluebells and wood anemones, and delicately green with the new leaves of Hornbeam.  I step quietly along the trail, a chattering of tits spiking the air around me, and suddenly I confront a fox.  He stands before me, magnificently sharp nosed and rufus.  His eyes pierce mine, and I am stone, memories of lawrentian snake and mountain lion invading me.  He looks at me as if he is a god, and slowly, with unconcern, he steps into the undergrowth, without a word.

I move forward, startling a blackbird, who wryly cackles off through the trees.

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