The mysteries of Romney Marsh

When they are sizzling under a summer sun blazing down from huge skies, England’s flat marshlands seem to be alive with the sounds and smells of nature at its bountiful best. But at other times they can be cold, lonely places, with a very odd feel about them, writes Robin Mead.

None odder, perhaps, than Romney Marsh, 100 square miles of apparently empty land, most of it below sea level hugging the Kent coast between Rye and Hythe. On the map, Romney Marsh looks like any other stretch of the south coast, and one imagines it to be the same sort of combination of tidy towns and fruitful fields, leading down towards sandy holiday beaches. The reality is rather different – and doubly so on a misty day outside the main tourist season.

Brown roadside signs advertise ‘tourist routes’ through the marshes, but from the moment you turn off the main A259, running along the south coast, you find yourself in a strange, and even inhospitable land.

It is bound to feel strange, because this is land won back from the sea. The evidence is all around you in the shape of deep drainage ditches which also serve as hedgerows in these parts. But unlike, say, the Fens, where centuries of engineering projects have resulted in rich farmland and a feeling of permanence, there have been times when nature seems to have been winning the battle for Romney Marsh.

Take Winchelsea, for example. As a channel port, Winchelsea was as important as Rye in the 12th century. Now, it is somewhere beneath the waters of the English Channnel, and the hilltop town, well inland, which bears its name is more correctly New Winchelsea – built, in a place of safety, by people who were doubtless fed up with the havoc wrought by Channel storms and the more insidious shifting of huge banks of shingle like those which created the headland of Dungeness.

Today, that headland is crowned by the eyesore of a nuclear power station: modern man’s contribution to the architecture of the region. Our forefathers – perhaps growing wealthy on the wool that is still a marshland staple – made a rather more pleasing contribution in the shape of some wonderful churches.

One guidebook refers, mysteriously, to “more than” 13 medieval churches on Romney Marsh. A free guide to the Romney Marsh Heritage Trail, published by the local tourism authorities, details exactly a baker’s dozen, and touring them is as interesting a way as any of learning more about the marsh.

For folklore, one could hardly better the contribution of the Rev Richard Barham, who was vicar of St Dunstan’s, Snargate, in the early part of the 19th century. He was moved to write the humorous Ingoldsby Legends, which declared “the world’s divided into five parts, namely Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh”.

While the reverend Richard was enjoying literary laughs at his home in Warehorne, some of his parishioners were engaged in rather more serious business. Smuggling was rife on Romney Marsh, and in Snargate an absentee vicar meant that the church could be used for various communal purposes not normally associated with weekend worship. Thus, St Dunstan’s became a storage centre for contraband during the week, as well as the scene of some riotous parties.

The other churches all seem to have interesting stories attached to them – some of them romantic, others bizarre. Particularly noteworthy are St Clement’s in Old Romney, where the pews are painted bright pink (a leftover from the filming of the smuggling adventure, Dr Syn); the secret smugglers’ tunnels said to connect St George’s, in Ivychurch, with the local pub; the lonely marshland church of St Thomas a Becket in Fairfield, standing next to a water-filled dyke; and the oddly-shaped wooden belltower standing beside St Augustine’s, Brookland, which is believed to have been constructed from the timbers of local shipwrecks.

But my favourite has to be St Mary the Virgin’s Church, in St-Mary-in-the-Marsh, where one can visit the grave of E Nesbit, author of The Railway Children. Nesbit’s final resting place is a quiet one, but it was not always so because at some time the locals have used the ball supporting the weather vane, on top of the steeple, for rifle practice. When it was taken down for restoration it was found to be peppered with bullet holes. What is more, a colony of busy marshland bees had set up home in the ball, and honey was oozing out of the holes.

At the 15th-century Star Inn, opposite the church, locals may regale you with tales of exotic local flora and fauna. Don’t mock: the area is home to the giant Marsh Frog, at 13cm long the largest in Europe, as well as its own breed of hardy sheep.

A more entertaining way of exploring the marshlands than church-spotting perhaps, especially for youngsters, is by going train-spotting. Visitors can cross the wide open spaces on the area’s own unique Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. Everything is one-third full size, but the steam engines – lovingly maintained and operated by a handful of enthusiasts – pull packed trainloads of wooden carriages for 13.5 miles across Romney Marsh for most of the year.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for the less mobile residents of one final church, St Leonard’s parish church, in Hythe. Standing high above the town, St Leonard’s is a beautiful building, full of history, which – thanks to its magnificent organ – has become something of a regional venue for musical performances of all kinds.

St Leonard’s started out as a Saxon chapel, but has grown over time. As it grew, its graveyard – already packed because of fierce battles between Saxons and Danes out on Romney Marsh in 894AD – had to become a building site.

The inhabitants of that graveyard, or at least their skulls and thigh bones, are still around, however. They are packed tidily away in the crypt of St Leonard’s: the remains of at least 4000 souls which have become one of Britain’s oddest, and most gruesome, tourist attractions.

But the church with the bones isn’t creepy at all. It feels like a friendly spot, and even on a chilly grey day, the ossuary doesn’t seem out of place. I like to think that when they finally came to rest in St Leonard’s Church the earliest marshland folk felt as though they were coming home.

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