Romney Marsh

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View across the marsh from Rye

Romney Marsh is a sparsely populated wetland area in the counties of Kent and Sussex. It covers about 100 square miles.

William Camden wrote of the marsh:

As Egypt was the gift of the Nile, this level tract ... has by the bounty of the sea been by degrees added to the land, so that I may not without reason call it the Gift of the Sea.[1]

The Reverend Richard Harris Barham, Rector of Snargate, wrote:

The world according to the best geographers is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh.[2]

Areas of Romney Marsh

St Mary in the Marsh in Romney Marsh

Romney Marsh is flat and low-lying, with parts below sea-level. It consists of several areas:

  • the Romney Marsh proper, lying north of a line between New Romney and Appledore;
  • the Walland Marsh, south of that line to approximately the Kent-Sussex border;
  • the East Guldeford Level, south again to Rye (Sussex);
  • the Denge Marsh, south-east of Lydd, which now includes Dungeness;
  • the Rother Levels, which, with various ditches, lie around the Isle of Oxney; and
  • the Rye, Winchelsea and Pett Levels.

The creation of the Marsh

The Marsh became the property of the Priory of Canterbury in the 9th century, who granted the first tenancy on the land to a man called Baldwin, sometime between 1152 and 1167, for "as much land as Baldwin himself can enclose and drain against the sea"; Baldwin's Sewer (drainage ditch) remains in use. The marsh has since become covered by a dense network of drainage ditches and once supported large farming communities. These watercourses are maintained and managed for sustainable water levels by the Romney Marsh Area Internal Drainage Board[3]

The River Rother today flows into the sea below Rye; but until 1287 its mouth lay between Romney and Lydd. It was tidal far upstream, almost to Bodiam. The river mouth was wide with a huge lagoon, making Rye a port at its western end. That lagoon lay behind a large island, which now makes up a large part of the Denge Marsh, on which stood the ports of Lydd and the old Winchelsea. All these ports were affiliated the Cinque Ports as "limbs".

The Romney Marsh has been gradually built up over the centuries by the silting of channels and by the deliberate reclaimation of land. For a time though the extension of coast was resisted as it was a threat to the harbours which were in time to be left inland by the retreating sea.

The most significant feature of the Marsh is the Rhee wall ("rhee" being a word for river), forming a prominent ridge. This feature was extended as a waterway in three stages from Appledore to New Romney in the 13th century. Sluices controlled the flow of water, which was then released to flush silt from the harbour at New Romney. Ultimately, the battle was lost; the harbour silted up and New Romney declined in importance. The Rhee kept part of the old port open until the 15th century, but it is now a mile or more inland. The wall at Dymchurch was built around the same time; storms had breached the shingle barrier, which had protected it until that time. It is a common belief that both these structures were built by the Romans, but this is a misconception; they are mediæval.

In 1250 and in the following years, a series of violent storms broke through the coastal shingle banks, flooding significant areas and returning it to marsh, and destroying the harbour at New Romney. In 1287 water destroyed the port town of Old Winchelsea (now found some 2 miles out in Rye bay), which had been under threat from the sea since at least 1236. Winchelsea, the third largest port in England and a major importer of wine, was relocated onto higher land, with a harbour consisting of 82 wharves.

Those same storms, however, helped to build up more shingle: such beaches now ran along practically the whole seaward side of the marshland.

By the 14th century, much of the Walland and Denge Marshes had been reclaimed by "innings", the process of throwing up an embankment around the sea-marsh and using the low-tide to let it run dry by means of one-way drains set into the new seawall, running off into a network of dykes called locally "sewers"

In 1462, the Romney Marsh Corporation was established to install drainage and sea defences for the marsh, which it continued to build into the 16th century.

By the 16th century, the course of the Rother had been changed to its channel today; most of the remainder of the area had now been reclaimed from the sea.

The shingle continues to be deposited. As a result, all the original Cinque Ports of the Marsh are now far from the sea. Dungeness Point is still being added to, although (especially near Dungeness and Hythe) a daily operation is in place to counter the reshaping of the shingle banks, using boats to dredge and move the drifting shingle.

Across the marsh from just outside Dymchurch

Farming and land use

Romney Marsh is adjacent to the High Weald, an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", which is less developed than many other areas in Kent and Sussex. The decline in sheep prices meant that even the local stock (sold around the world for breeding for over two centuries) became unsustainable.

Turfing had always been a lesser practice due to the grassland kept short by the sheep reared upon it, but farms are increasing in size to compensate for the decline in sustainable livestock farming. Some view this as unsustainable due to the damage to soil ecology of the Marsh. The only other alternative, since 1946, has been for farmers to turn to arable farming, changing the landscape from a patchwork of small family farms to a few extensive arable units.

Wind farm

Little Cheyne Court wind farm, close to power lines running to Dungeness Nuclear Power Station

A wind farm has been developed at Little Cheyne Court, 5 miles west of Lydd. The 26 wind turbines, are distributed over an area of 988 acres, with peak generation of 59.8 MW. The has site has proven controversial and was opposed by parish, district and county councils, the local MP and other groups as detrimental to the visual appearance of the Marsh and a threat to wildlife, but Central Government overruled them, and the turbines were erected in 2008.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Campaign to Protect Rural England Kent and English Nature all objected to the use of this particular site as a wind farm on environmental grounds. The proximity of the site to the internationally important RSPB reserve and the land's status as an "Site of Special Scientific Interest" were particularly controversial.

Romney Marsh sheep

The economy and landscape of Romney Marsh in the 19th Century was dominated by sheep. Improved methods of pasture management and husbandry meant the marsh could sustain a stock density greater than anywhere else in the world. The Romney Marsh sheep became one of the most successful and important breeds of sheep. Their main characteristic is an ability to feed in wet situations; they are considered to be more resistant to foot rot and internal parasites than any other breed. Romney sheep have been exported globally, in particular to Australia, to where they were first exported in 1872.

Malaria

From 1564 the health of the marsh population suffered from malaria, then known as ague or marsh fever, which caused high mortality rates until the 1730s. It remained a major problem until the completion of the Royal Military Canal in 1806, which greatly improved the drainage of the area.

This disease probably arrived here as soon as the weather became warm enough; the strain responsible was most probably Plasmodium vivax, as records and texts describe agues or fevers at three or four-day intervals. Prior Anselm, of nearby Canterbury, recorded in 1070s and 1080s a case that had every appearance of malaria.[4]

With five indigenous mosquitoes capable of being hosts for the malarial parasite, only the Anopheles atroparvus species breeds in sufficient numbers here to act as an efficient vector. However, P. vivax likes brackish waters and with the recreation of the old coastal wetlands coming into favour, this could expand the future malarial parasite host reserve still further. Therefore, together with this and the average temperatures in southern Britain increasing again, it may be that malaria will haunt the marshes once again.[5]

Crossing the marsh

Roads across the Marsh have always been narrow and winding. This is partly because of the hundreds of sewers and smaller drainage ditches, and because the grazing land is far more important than the roads. The lack of road signs and few villages can make navigating across the marsh very confusing for the unwary. Several minor roads have no finger posts at junctions at all and at others, it is possible to find two or three lanes apparently leading to the same village.

Many of these lanes are built on the remains of enclosures used to "in" the Marsh. There is a dramatic section near Brookland, where a lane linking the Woolpack pub to Lydd is perched 6 to 10 feet above the surrounding farmland, on the "Hook" wall. The section of road between Brenzett and Lydd Lane end is built on the Rhee wall, a mediæval canal that brought water from higher up the river Rother.

National Cycle Network signpost

The main road is the A259 from Rye, which is narrow and winding to Brookland and Brenzett, where it splits in two. One arm becomes the A2070 and runs parallel to the railway to link the Marsh to Hamstreet, Ashford and the wider world. The other, still the A259, is good only as far as the junction with Lydd Lane (B2075) and leads to New Romney, Dymchurch, Hythe and eventually, Folkestone.

The best way to see the Marsh is by bicycle. The almost flat terrain, the narrow almost deserted lanes, make it ideal for family jaunts. National Cycle Route 2 passes through the area; the section between Rye and Lydd is mostly off road. It then uses quiet lanes from Lydd to Hythe, where it is possible to cycle along the sea wall to Folkestone and ultimately (off road) to reach Dover.

Walks

The Saxon Shore Way starts at Gravesend, Kent and traces the coast as it was in Roman times as far as Hastings, Sussex, 163 miles in total, crossing the Marsh.

The Marsh at war

Throughout its history, the proximity of the marsh to the European mainland has meant that the area has been in the front line whenever invasion has threatened. In 892, one such invasion was successful. The Danish fleet of 250 ships sailed right into the Rother and took the fortress at Appledore (allegedly built by King Arthur), which they destroyed.

The Cinque Ports were estanlished as a federation of port towns for defence of the coast; their strategic situation is opposite the narrowest part of the English Channel. Within the Romney Marsh, Romney and Hythe were two of the ports; Rye and Winchelsea were later added as “Antient Towns”.

Military emplacements

The Royal Military Canal stretches for 28 miles hugging the old cliff line that borders the Romney Marsh from Hythe in the north east to Cliff End in the south west. It was completed in April 1809.

Martello Towers are fortifications that were built by the Army for coastal defence during the Napoleonic Wars. Seventy-four towers were built along the south coast; Tower 1 was at Folkestone, overlooking the harbour, and Tower 74 guarded the beach at Seaford, Sussex. They were built between 1805 and 1808.

Before radar was invented at the opening of the Second World War, experiments to detect enemy aircraft with huge concrete acoustic mirrors were conducted at Denge. These were largely unsuccessful and the technology very quickly became obsolete with the invention of radar.

It was planned that in case of a German invasion the marsh would be flooded, then covered with oil, ready to be set alight as soon as the invaders arrived.

There are two military establishments on the Marsh: the Hythe and Lydd Ranges. The latter has a large danger area marked on maps south of Lydd towards the sea.

Lost villages of the Marsh

Midley Cottages
The ruins of All Saints Church, Hope

A number of villages once throve on the Marsh but are no longer to be found. These lost village are the result of the decline of the rural communities, the change in the marsh, the Black Death and the slow toll of the ague (malaria). Some disappeared in very recent times.

The lost villages include:

  • Buttdarts: Buttdart Bridge, over one of the larger marsh drains TR071296
  • Dengemarsh: south of Lydd, village closed when the Lydd ranges were opened in the Second World War. [approx. TR0417].
  • Eastbridge: Eastbridge House, on Dymchurch to Bonnington road: the road is named Eastbridge Road out of Dymchurch. Remains: large part of west wall of the tower, some other fragments. Village had a population of 21 in 1801. TR078319
  • Fairfield: NW of Brookland. TQ977270
  • Falconhurst: a house north of the Royal Military Canal six miles west of Hythe. TR076344
  • Galloways: south of Lydd, closed when the Lydd ranges were opened [not approx. TR0017]
  • Hope All Saints: Hope Farm, NW of New Romney. The remains of the church are marked on the map. TR049258
  • Midley: Midley Cottages, SW of Old Romney TR016237 This was once a small island in the Rother between the larger ones of Romney and Lydd, and the name means "middle island". In the 8th century there was a village on this site, and 23 people still lived here in 1801. Now, only the ruined west wall of the church remains. During the Second World War there was an RAF airfield here.
  • Orgarswick: Orgarswick Farm, NW of Dymchurch. TR090309
  • Shorne: no modern trace, although there are unnamed church remains NNW of New Romney near Chapel Land Farm. TR049258
  • Snave: The church still stands, it is used only once a year for a harvest festival service. TR015299

Smuggling

The flat, almost empty landscape made for a smuggler's paradise throughout the 17th, 18th and into the 19th centuries. The traffic was two-way, since wool was also smuggled to the Continent.

The Victorians made smugglers into romantic anti-heroes; in truth they were unscrupulous villains. The main gangs on the Marsh were the Hawkhurst Gang, the Mayfield Gang and the Aldington Gang, known also as the Blues.

Smugglers on the Marshes were known as Owlers - rumoured to be because of the owl-like sounds these made to communicate at night.

The Romney Marsh in literature

Romney Marsh has a distinguished literary history. Three authors who specifically used the marsh as settings for their works were E F Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia novels; Russell Thorndike, author of the Doctor Syn novels; and the children's writer Monica Edwards, author of the Romney Marsh books in which Rye Harbour becomes "Westling", Rye is renamed "Dunsford", and Winchelsea is known as "Winklesea". Rosemary Sutcliff's 1955 historical novel Outcast depicts Roman efforts to build the Rhee Wall and reclaim land from the sea.

The Rev Richard Harris Barnham was a curate hereabouts in the early nineteenth century, and the Marsh inspired some of the adventures and supernatural tales from his Ingoldsby Legends. He wrote in The Leech of Folkestone: Mrs. Botherby's Story:

The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh. In this, and fifth, quarter of the globe, a Witch may still be occasionally discovered in favourable i.e. stormy, seasons, weathering Dungeness Point in an eggshell, or careering on her broomstick over Dymchurch wall.

Many other well-known writers have been associated with the area: Henry James, who lived in Rye; Daphne du Maurier lived in Hythe for a few years during the War; H G Wells, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Radclyffe Hall, Noël Coward, Edith Nesbit, Rumer Godden, and Conrad Aiken. Rudyard Kipling and his Smugglers' Song are famous.

References

  1. William Camden: Britannia, 1590s
  2. from The Leech of Folkestone in the Ingoldsby Legends by Richard Barham
  3. Romney Marsh Area Internal Drainage Board Website Accessed 2008-05-26
  4. ‘A doctor in the house’? The context for Anselm of Canterbury’s interest in medicine with reference to a probable case of malaria. Journal of Mediæval History, Volume 30, Issue 3, September 2004, Pages 245-261
  5. Chin T; Welsby; P D (2004). Malaria in the UK: past, present, and future. History of medicine. Postgraduate Medical Journal 2004;80:663-666. Accessed 2007-08-14

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