IT’S been a few months since my last coastal perambulation and several things got in the way, not least of which were snow and Christmas. I’ve realised though that I’m spending too much time sat on my sofa in front of my computer. Thoughts along these lines were then greatly exacerbated by two visitations of pain, likely related:
Firstly, I did something to the muscles in my spine, an unpleasant development probably not unconnected with the fact that my battered old sofa has become less an item of furniture and more a torture device.
I followed this up with an excruciating chest pain, which caused me some serious concern. I spent a largely sleepless night trying to decide if the pain was in my intercostal muscles or my internal organs, initially with little success because it seemed to be all-consuming. I eventually decided that I wasn’t enjoying a collapsed lung or heart attack out of the blue but that I had, somehow, sent all my intercostal muscles into one long cramp-like spasm. Probably by adopting a funny posture to ease the back pain. A very funny posture — laugh? I almost cried.
Return to Dungeness
A-Walking I Will Go
Enough is enough, I thought. I need to get up and about and brave the great outdoors et cetera. In fact, I’ll do it tomorrow, that being Saturday. I’ll just go to bed early and rise to catch the crazy-o’clock-in-the-morning train. I’ll even set my alarm, how hard can it be?
As it happened, pain, more pain and the loudest effing foxes in the history of the world ensured that I only got about forty-five minutes’ sleep on Friday night. Which on top of only a couple of hours’ sleep the night before, meant I was clearly in no state to attempt simple tasks like standing unaided or not drooling, let alone walking another twelve miles of Kent. No, whether I liked it or not, the Kent coast would just have to wait.
Oh right, as if…
And so, with only the briefest of catnaps to sustain me, I boarded the five-something London train and began my next thrilling adventure….
To be honest most of the actual adventure was involved in trying to get back to Dungeness in the first place. It took me two trains, a bus and a ride on the third-scale steam railway to accomplish it.
This time, I foolishly hoped not to miss most of the latter by dozing as it made its way to Dungeness. Naturally this was an epic slumber failure, although it did mean that I snatched a further half hour’s catnap. Huzzah! On sleep such as this shall I conquer the marshes…
Upon arriving in Dungeness, I was deeply alarmed to find that all flags, wheresoever they flew, were at half-mast. At first, I wondered if I’d missed some nationally important snippet of news, such as our having a King all of a sudden. It turned out to be a gesture of respect for an important local personage who had passed away shortly before Christmas
Nuclear Power Station
Ah, Dungeness. What can I say about it that has not already been said? Flat, dull, covered in shingle, and possibly the maddest place to build a nuclear power station short of on top of an active volcano. Indeed, it’s quite possible that had Kent possessed an active volcano Dungeness A would never have seen its slowly migrating location but would instead be nestling cosily inside a gas-venting caldera.
Fortunately, the power station has put up a helpful sign in case things go awry:
Immediately after I took this picture, I dropped my phone, which separated into phone body, battery cover and battery upon impact. Do you have any idea how hard it is to spot small objects like a phone battery, lying in shingle?
Thanks to the nuclear power stations and a large army firing range — right next to each other, which sounds like the premise of a disaster movie — an inland detour is pretty much required from Dungeness. Assuming one can have ‘inland’ when the ‘land’ is shingle all the way down.
I would consider describing the road I followed as ‘uninteresting’ but that hardly elicits the kind of skull-crushing tedium that set in after the first mile. It’s not that I don’t like the scenery, because I do, it’s just that it all looks exactly the same…
Continuing through Kent
Four miles of identical, flat scenery later, the small town of Lydd loomed out of the mist and wind-blown drizzle. The most southerly town in Kent, Lydd is a dinky little place and yet still one of the larger towns in the marshes. It actually sits in Denge Marsh, which shades into Romney Marsh in a ‘we’re all South Kent Marshes together’ sort of way.
Historically, a limb of the Cinque Port of Romney, Lydd’s name derives via Hlyda from Litus, Latin for ‘shore’. Quite noticeable in the 21st century is that it no longer has one, being landlocked by the marsh (for a certain value of land). Way back when the settlement was first named, however, it was situated on a sandy island in what was then a marshy bay.
Lydd was okay as villages go. It had some old cottages and a rather nice church and could have been pretty although its high street was marred by a branch of Spar, which had made no attempt whatsoever to blend with its surroundings.
Highways and Byways
My walk into Lydd had been upon the highway, keeping precariously to the edge and noting how some drivers will swerve right out into the opposite lane to avoid a pedestrian, some indicate when so doing, and some just don’t move over at all, which is terrifying. I’m looking at you, Mrs I-have-a-Range-Rover-full-of-kids-and-therefore-I-own-all-the-roads! If a bloody great goods lorry can shift over a couple of metres, so can you.
For the walk out, by contrast, a separate footpath/cycle path (and in some parts, bridleway) had been provided, freeing me from the terror of the road.
Not only was this stretch safer but it was marginally more interesting. I still had the army base on one side but now I had a series of ponds on the other, dotted with those few avian organisms that don’t spend their winter in Africa, dodging crocodiles in the warm.
Entering East Sussex
It was as I traversed the path out of Lydd, returning southwards to the coast, that I crossed my first county border, passing into East Sussex. Sadly, I didn’t notice at the time since, though there was doubtless a sign on the actual road, no one had thought to erect one on the cycle route. I only realised when I next looked at my map. Even so… a new county! For some reason, that felt like real progress.
The road reached the coast at a place called Jury’s Gap, which is where a small stream (Jury’s Gut), which was also the outflow from the ponds, met the sea via a sluice gate. Jury’s Gap marked the end of the army base, and also of the separate foot and cycle path, but that was okay because now I could walk upon the sea wall.
Eagerly, I climbed atop the sea defences and stopped dead in my tracks. The sea was awesome. Seriously awesome. Too awesome for my phone to capture, it annoyingly turns out (note to self – do not let fingers get in the way, no matter how numb they are).
The Met Office forecast for the day had been rain in the early hours followed by cloud, then intermittent sunshine and then finally brilliant sun for the late afternoon. What actually transpired was the rain, as predicted, followed by low cloud and intermittent drizzle for most of the afternoon.
The sun just started to break through the clouds at sunset, bringing clear skies just in time to cause a frosty night. The upshot of this is that when I reached Jury’s Gap, the clouds were low and the wind was howling in off the sea at some knots. And oh God, the sea.
The Mighty Sea
The waves were huge, grey walls of water, crashing into the shingle beach with tremendous force, where they instantly transformed to white foam. I had just missed high tide, which to judge from the puddles, hadn’t been all that respecting of the sea wall, and I walked down — with some trepidation — to near the water’s edge.
This doesn’t sound very daunting, does it? Standing at the edge of the sea? Except the beach was so steep that I wasn’t entirely sure that I could clamber back up it and the waves were a bit on the large side. How large, you ask? Let me just say that when you stand on a beach and stare at the crest of an incoming wave, you should not have to look up.
As it turned out, the beach, which was more a wall of shingle, was too steep to climb up again and I had to trek along to a groyne and use that to clamber up to the wall. Atop the sea defences, it seemed that the sea was doing its best to provide some seasonal snow effects… sea foam was absolutely everywhere.
Along the Sea Wall
Bracing myself against a wind that threatened to hurl me down a foam-spattered slope to the road below, I turned my back on the half dozen houses that made up Jury’s Gap and pressed on towards Camber.
As typically happens with walks in the winter, where there is limited daylight, I had a timetable to follow if I wanted to reach Rye before sunset at quarter past four. Unfortunately, I had been fifteen minutes late right from the start, thanks to the steam train arriving late in Dungeness. As I strode along the sea wall however, I felt my pace quicken.
I love the sea at the best of time and these monster waves were exhilarating. It was a shame that I only had about a mile or so of the sea wall to traverse and, even in that short space of time, the wind dropped and the sea conditions visibly calmed. Oh, and the drizzle came back. Thank you, weather.
I soon arrived in the village of Camber, home to Camber Sands, the only system of sand dunes in the county.
Camber Sands is a bunch of yellow sand dunes, not unlike those in other parts of the southern English coast but it is in stark contrast to the shingle that dominates elsewhere that East Sussex meets the sea. I knew that I wouldn’t actually get to wander over the sands, as they began on the far side of Camber, where I intended to turn slightly inland again and follow the road to Rye.
With these thoughts in my head, I looked sadly at the expanse of shingle to my left and spotted a number of scallop shells strewn amongst the stones. Immediately my brain rebelled, summoning up a tune…
Shingle, shells / Shingle, shells / Shingle all the way / Oh what fun it is to stride through the foaming ocean spray…
No one in Camber approached to ask why I was giggling to myself; no, they wisely kept away.
Camber takes its name from the Norman French le Chambre, referring to a large embayment that once dominated this part of the coastline but now constitutes the marsh. Henry VIII had a castle built near here to protect the Camber’s entrance. I didn’t actually see the castle because, like the sands, I turned away from the coast just before I got to it. Oh well.
I headed out of Camber, feeling fairly pleased with myself that I’d managed to catch up to my timetable, a development I put down to walking quickly. And then I realised that all estimations of time were quite spurious, since I’d obviously fallen through an interstitial anomaly and ended up somewhen in the 1950s.
It was the only explanation.
Alarmed as I was to discover my unintended time travel, I was brought jarringly back to the present by two loud, chav-tastic teenagers, chatting to each other at maximum volume as they passed me in the street. One girl in particular impressed me — if that’s the right word, which it may not be — with her long, drawn out, multisyllabic rendering of the word ‘you’ in which she appeared to hit all possible vowels except the one I would have used.
I pressed on to the edge of the village, where another separate footpath/cycle route waited.
The sun was low in the sky as I made my way towards Rye, just three miles away. Along the way I passed a small stretch of water that held more coots than I think I have ever seen in one place, which amused me greatly as I love coots, they are somehow just inherently comical. I tried to take a picture but failing light and poor camera resolution, not to mention my own incompetence, conspired to render a picture of black dots that might have been anything.
Reluctantly, I left the coots behind and ventured onwards, finding as Rye drew closer that the fields were full of what appeared to be baby clouds on stilts. These were the famous Romney Marsh sheep, an English long-wool breed that treated my passing by with absolute indifference. One particularly unfazed ewe looked up as I drew near, looked back down at the ground and then turned around to face the other way. Sheep being sheep, some of her neighbours did likewise.
The sheep point their bottoms in my general direction, I noted; that says it all, really. Newly aware of my place in the grand scheme things, I stumbled onwards into Rye.
History of Rye
Rye is one of the Antient Towns of the Cinque Ports confederation. It now stands, two miles inland, at the confluence of the Rivers Rother, Tillingham and Brede. Once upon a time, it stood at the head of the Camber embayment, almost surrounded by the sea. Indeed, its very name relates to the sea, deriving from Norman French la Rie, meaning ‘the bank’.
Rye is an ancient and rather pretty town. It was chartered by King Edward I in 1289, receiving privileges and tax exemptions in return for ship service (this being the main purpose behind the Cinque Ports).
In order to enter the town centre en route to the station I found it necessary to pass through a marvellous old gateway, the Landgate, which turns out to date back to 1329, the only survivor of four fortified entrances to Rye.
I reached Rye Station slightly footsore and very tired indeed. It was not long before a train arrived to whisk me homewards, where food and bed beckoned with equal allure. I think the walk did me a power of good for I slept like a log for eleven hours (I normally only sleep six) and awoke with only a minor twinge in my back. I’ll try not to leave it several months until the next one…
This time: 12 miles
Total since Gravesend: 151 miles