Escape to Romney Marsh
This strange, haunting landscape on the coastal borders of Kent and East Sussex is a last outpost of English wilderness, where remote churches stand silhouetted against the open marshland and flocks of birds wheel and turn in the vast, open skies. By Joanna Simmons
Few people would describe Romney Marsh as pretty. Eerie, yes. Unusual, certainly. Put aside all conventional notions of rural beauty before visiting and instead prepare for something more peculiar. One of the few wildernesses of the south-east, it's a vast, flat landscape on the East Sussex and Kent borders, crisscrossed by reed-choked ditches and punctuated by ancient willow trees and lonely churches. This was a haven for smugglers from the 17th to 19th centuries, and you can easily see why.
Much of the marsh was reclaimed, or ‘inned', as early as the 13th century, and the man-made drainage ditches and larger Royal Military Canal, which follows its inland boundary and was intended to repulse Napoleon should he get past the British Navy, are home to swans and herons, rare marsh frogs and water voles. You'll still see the famous Romney Marsh sheep nibbling the sward, too, but much of their pasture has been ploughed for arable land and now huge cereal fields stretch into the distance where stock would have grazed.
This is by no means an unspoiled landscape. Evidence of man's presence is everywhere, from the wind farm near Camber to the pylons that march towards the nuclear power station at Dungeness. The area's wartime significance is reflected in the Martello Towers that stand to attention along the coastline. In the event of invasion during the Second World War, the land was to be flooded, then covered with oil, ready to be set alight. Happily, this was never necessary, but such a dramatic twist in this region's history seems very fitting. The marsh is not a gentle landscape, after all. It has a haunting, forbidding individuality, and winter is a wonderful time for its strange beauty.
Explore ancient churches
Some 14 churches can be found on the marsh. The jewel in the crown has to be St Thomas a Becket at Fairfield, marooned amid the marshland, with only sheep and gulls and lapwings for company. It's all that's left of an historic village, and uniquely has no graveyard or boundary. Park on the road and follow the causeway to the church; a key is available at a nearby farmhouse. At Brookland, you'll find the church of St Augustine, with its extraordinary detached wooden bell tower. Wander through the graveyard of St Mary in the Marsh to hunt out the grave of E. Nesbit, author of 'The Railway Children'. And don't miss the largest church in Kent, All Saints at Lydd, known as the ‘Cathedral of the Marsh'. For details, visit www.romneychurches.net.
Walk this way
It's only by getting out of the car and penetrating this flat, deserted landscape that you can appreciate the marsh. Pause to watch an egret land by a ditch or a flock of starlings wheel over the lands, or simply to soak up the peace. There are many public footpaths, and you might like to get on your bike, too. National Cycle Route 2 passes through the area, with the section between Rye and Lydd mostly off-road. Visit East Sussex County Council's website for routes and maps (www.eastsussex.gov. uk), or contact The Romney Marsh Countryside Project for a pack of five cycle trails and nine walks (www.rmcp.co.uk).
This triangular peninsula is one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world. A vast, dry area, it supports rare plants and wildlife, including medicinal leeches and great crested newts. All this natural beauty is offset by the presence of two nuclear power stations (one still operational), two lighthouses and a scattering of unusual homes, some converted from old railway carriages. Prettiest of them all is the late film director Derek Jarman's former home, Prospect Cottage with its beautiful garden. You can also climb the 169 steps of the Old Lighthouse (www.dungenesslighthouse.com), and warm up in The Light Railway Café.
Enjoy winter pleasures
If you're visiting in the depths of winter, you might be surprised by how still and pleasant the weather is, but head towards the coast and the wind can be strong and cold. To get a flavour of the landscape, board the tiny trains of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway - the world's smallest public railway that runs from Dungeness to Hythe. Find timetables at www.rhdr.org.uk. Or retreat to the shelter of ancient Rye's narrow cobbled lanes to refuel in one of its cafés or pubs (The Mermaid Inn has a welcoming fire), before browsing its shops and antiques yards. For history (and views), head to Ypres Tower, dating from 1249 and one of the town's oldest fortifications (weekends only in winter) or climb the tower of St Mary's Church (open 10.30am-3.30pm in winter).
Watch the sky
The unique habitat of the marsh and its coastline supports and attracts a great variety of birds. In winter, the tidal salt marshes around Rye and the gravel pits of Dungeness are home to hundreds of ducks and geese, including pintails, goldeneyes, pochards and odd-looking shovelers with their spade-like bills. It's also one of the best places in the UK for smews. Bitterns and bearded tits are among other winter highlights, and you will come across huge flocks of lapwings and starlings. The RSPB has visitor centres at Rye Harbour and Dungeness (www.rspb.org.uk).
Where to stay
The George in Rye, Rye, East Sussex (01797 222114; www.thegeorgeinrye.com). A beautifully restored 16th-century coaching inn in the heart of Rye furnished with both antique and contemporary pieces. There's an excellent restaurant and bar with local ales. From £135.
The Old Vicarage, Icklesham, East Sussex B&B (01424 813324; www.icklesham-bed-and-breakfast.co.uk). Two beautiful rooms overlook mulberry and medlar trees, apple orchards and the village church in this quiet country retreat just a few miles from Rye. An easy 40-minute walk will take you past Paul McCartney's recording studios in a converted windmill on Hog Hill. From £85.
The Gallivant Hotel, Camber, East Sussex (01797 225057; www.thegallivanthotel.com). A popular beach-house hotel and café with views over the dunes of Camber Sands and the sea. The 18 rooms have a contemporary, coastal feel and there are self-catering cottages, too.
The Royal Oak, Brookland, Kent (01797 344215; www.royaloakbrookland.co.uk), from £75. Owners David and Zara Rhys-Jones have converted two rooms above their pub to a very high standard, with original panelling, elegant furniture and views of the marsh. From £75.
Places to eat
Miss Mollett's High Class Tea Room, Appledore, Kent (01233 758555). A quaint, old-fashioned tearoom run by two sisters offering light lunches, scones with honey butter, flower-scented meringues and full high teas with local brews such as Kentish Apple and Blue Lady. Hampers are also available.
The Royal Oak, Brookland, Kent (01797 344215; www.royaloakbrookland.co.uk). A cracking country pub with seasonal food, sourced locally - fresh-off-the-boat crab, lobster and Dover sole and eggs from the pub's own flock. On Wednesday evenings, owner David fires up the spit roast for Romney Marsh lamb and a loin of pork.
The Tuscan Kitchen, Rye, East Sussex (01797 223269; www.tuscankitchenrye.co.uk). This authentic Italian trattoria is run by Florentine chef Franco and his English wife Jen. The menu is fresh and local (game, mushrooms, Rye Bay scallops), with ham, cheese and Tuscan wine from Franco's brothers.
Winchelsea Farm Kitchen, Winchelsea, East Sussex (01797 226287; www.winchelseafarmkitchen.co.uk). Just off the marsh, you'll find this delicatessen, wine cellar and coffee shop. Indulge in artisan cheeses such as Sussex Crumble, quiches, juices, local ice cream and traditional breads.