YESTERDAY, I awoke at an ungodly hour and thought back to this time last year, when I was surrounded by friends and family, all dressed as pirates on a boat on the Thames. This year I opted to be more downscale and spent the day ambling about on my own. When I wasn’t unexpectedly recumbent in several inches of mud, that is…
If I had to sum up today’s walk in one word, that word would have to be ‘windswept’. And ‘muddy’. My two words would be ‘windswept’ and ‘muddy’. And ‘grey’. I’ll start again…
It was blowing a gale, or so it felt, when I arrived in Rye. The weather forecast promised cloud and lots of it, and the sky was certainly living up to expectations. The galloping wind had no effect on Rye Windmill though, its sails having long since been reduced to mere spars. Rye Windmill is a Grade II listed building, which currently serves as a hotel.
One of the oldest buildings in Rye is Ypres Tower, which was built in 1249. Sadly, I never got to see it. Instead, I followed the road out of Rye towards Rye Harbour, which is actually a separate village, some two miles downstream.
The road followed the River Rother fairly closely, although it wasn’t actually visible. I took one last look at Rye itself before the road became a series of more industrial parks and factories than I could shake a stick at. Not that I had a stick with me.
Eventually the road arrived at the village of Rye Harbour, which appeared to consist of a small number of houses, a telephone booth and a shop. And a Martello Tower, what self-respecting South Coast settlement would be caught without one of those?
Although Rye Harbour didn’t look very impressive at first sight, the village is actually two hundred years old, having grown up after the establishment of the Martello Tower garrison. The village is mostly built on shingle, but as it lacks a nuclear power station I don’t plan to get all exercised about it.
I will admit that my heart sank a little when I followed the path from Rye Harbour to the mouth of the River Rother and realised that I was about to traverse a good three miles of Dungeness-style shingle which even the information signage described as ‘windswept’.
Windswept’ was a serious understatement. ‘Scoured’ might have been a better term.
What made the shingle all the more galling was that from the mouth of the Rother I could see that, on the other side of that river, Camber Sands curved away into the distance. Although by ‘see’, I actually mean peer into the poor-visibility caused by mist and sea spray while screwing my eyes up against the wind. Did I mention the wind?
An epic trek of grim determination followed, as all warmth was ripped from my body, which was tragically unprotected in that flat, forbidding terrain. The sea, proving that it is indeed capricious, was manifesting much smaller waves than last week as if to taunt me for being a bit wind-shy.
I can do this, I thought, and strode onwards. In truth, I was rather enjoying it. And then I came across a large hut, the story of which is a grim reminder of just how severe the weather can be on occasion:
RNLB Mary Stanford
On the 15th of November 1928, the Latvian steamer Alice of Riga struck a German ship, Smyrna, in the English Channel during a severe gale with heavy rain squalls. Alice of Riga was holed and taking on water and attempts by Smyrna to rescue her crew were thwarted by the conditions. Rye Harbour’s lifeboat, RNLB Mary Stanford, was launched to assist Alice of Riga.
Tragically, just after the launch, news came in that Smyrna had finally managed to rescue Alice’s crew. Recall flares were launched but, in the awful conditions, the lifeboat crew didn’t see them. Mary Stanford subsequently capsized and all 17 crewmembers died, a devastating loss for Rye Harbour village.
It is worth stating here I think just how much I wholeheartedly admire the volunteers who man Britain’s lifeboats. The RNLI is a strange beast, when you consider it — that our lifeboats should be run by a registered charity rather than a public body like our other emergency services. When you further consider that most lifeboat crewmen are unpaid volunteers, performing this service on top of their everyday lives, I find it incredible. And rather humbling.
It was in a somewhat different state of mind that I traipsed away from the Mary Stanford boathouse towards Winchelsea Beach.
Winchelsea Beach is a small village about a mile and a half south east of Winchelsea and, as its name suggests, it has a beach. A beach of shingle.
Actually, that’s not quite fair. The upper part of the beach is all shingle but at low tide an expanse of mud and sand is revealed. The tide was on its way out as I arrived and the mud had yet to appear.
Winchelsea Beach housed a café that was open but appeared to have no staff (a shame as I’d have liked a cup of coffee had someone actually appeared to sell me one). After waiting forlornly and calling out in vain, I gave up and continued, my thirst unquenched.
From the far side of Winchelsea Beach, the road was long and straight. I strode along a path atop the sea defences, with flat Sussex countryside on one side and the sea on the other. Ahead of me lay the village of Pett Level, named for the marshes that once covered this area. The part of Pett Level directly abutting the coast is called Cliff End, and it soon became clear exactly how that got its name
I lost about half an hour in Cliff End getting increasingly irritated because the footpath I wanted to take didn’t seem to exist in real life, for all that it was on the map. And then, as if by magic, there it was, right in front of me the whole time. It was also ankle deep in mud, which set the tone for pretty much the next five miles. If the sucking squelch of thick mud counts as a tone.
The cliffs that Cliff End ends are predominantly sandstone and mark the edge of the huge sandstone shield that lies beneath the Sussex Weald. When I finally climbed to the top the view was pretty good though.
Wind and Mud
If it had been windy at ground level, that was nothing compared to the cliff top and I was thankful that the wind was blowing inland. As it was, the omnipresent mud threatened to take my feet out from under me, almost as if these cliffs had heard about the attempt on my life by the White Cliffs of Dover and wanted to have a go too.
Well, the Sussex sandstone cliffs get full marks for their efforts with respect to slippery mud but lose several points for never actually threatening to tip me over the cliff edge. I spent quite a lot of effort myself on remaining upright and trying not to get too muddy; it was doomed, really
Inevitably, I found myself lying in ankle deep mud at one point, wondering if technically it was now elbow and bum cheek deep instead. At least, I thought, it was a soft landing, even if I still have some miles to go, now caked in mud. I like to think of it that Sussex tried to give me the bumps but stopped at one, on account of how much I was absolutely not playing that game.
A little while before my ignominious mud dive, I found myself approaching Fairlight Cove. I knew that’s where I was going because I stopped to consult my map, wrestling with it in the wind. Suddenly and to my almost heart-stopping surprise, an excitable and curious dog appeared on the bench beside me and stuck its head in my map to see if it could help. The dog’s owner was both apologetic and very pretty and so was instantly forgiven.
Besides, the dog made an excellent windbreak.
may have got the wrong impression of Fairlight Cove but it seemed to me to be an expanse of staggeringly well-maintained nice little houses, comprising the sort of seaside suburbia to which pensioners like to retire. What it didn’t seem to have, at least in the bits I walked through, was anywhere I could get some lunch. I do know that it has suffered badly from coastal erosion and a number of houses have some very good views of the sea.
Past Fairlight Cove, it was all up and down, as the cliffs undulated and looked all dramatic, while various streams cut valleys through to the sea. The valleys are charmingly all referred to as glens — such as Warren Glen, Fairlight Glen and Ecclesbourne Glen, which had a little waterfall in it.
It was on this stretch that I decided to test the impact absorption qualities of semi-liquid mud. It was also just past Fairlight that I couldn’t help but notice a bloody great radar tower:
Tired, hungry and mud-spattered, I was quite cheered when I found myself looking down upon Hastings.
Hastings has long been a fishing port and remains so to this day. In fact, Hastings Old Town houses the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in Britain. It also houses a number of weirdly tall, black huts known as ‘net shops’.
The net shops are not retail establishments however but are dry storage huts for nets and other fishing tackle, which would rot if wet before the advent of synthetic materials. They are tall and thin because when they were initially built, the beach wasn’t very large (it has grown since through deposition of shingle) and space was therefore limited. So, they built up.
Hastings is, of course, old. It’s also famous for a certain battle in 1066.
It wasn’t quite where William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson — which was at Battle, a couple of miles away — but it was a thriving port at the time. William had a wooden motte and bailey castle built here within days, which was then rebuilt in stone in 1070.
While Hastings’ name is Anglo-Saxon — from Hæstingas, meaning ‘Hæsta’s people’ — the town predates them too, having already been a port when Gaius Julius Caesar arrived in 55. In fact, there is evidence of settlement dating back to the Bronze Age.
Thoughts and Plans
I rather like Hastings.
It seems to have a mad number of little alleyways and steps, which add charm, mystery and endemic knee strain to a town. It retains its fishing heritage, while being modern, and is proud of being an ancient Cinque Port without clutching to that as its only claim to fame.
I’d go back again, certainly
In fact, I’ll have to, if I want to resume my coastal walk, which will be in a fortnight’s time, most likely. Hastings marks the end of the Saxon Shore Way, although as I haven’t actually followed that since Hythe, I don’t think it will make that much difference.
This time: 14 miles
Total since Gravesend: 165 miles