Rye and Romney Marsh: Landscape of Mystery

There are some areas of the country, which appear as though they’ve been there forever. Rye and it’s surrounding area in the South of England, feels such a place, unchanged for a 1000 years. Of course, this is just an illusion, as the town and the surrounding landscape have always been in a state of flux.

As you approach Rye by road, the town can be seen perched on a hillside, topped by the famous medieval church of St. Marys, an oasis in the midst of a flat, man-made, landscape. It was not always thus, go back in time a few hundred years and Rye was once a thriving seaport and an island, you moored your boat and climbed the narrow, winding streets up to centre of the town, through one of the four land-gates built in the early fourteenth century, of which only one still stands today, built to fortify the town again the French invaders.

When Queen Elizabeth the First visited Rye in 1573, she stayed overnight at the famous Mermaid Inn, which at that time was already 150 years old. She might well have sailed over from Tenterden, which at that time had access to the sea and was famed for its ship building.

A map from the 15th century shows how the landscape has changed over the centuries, the area was once an inland waterway of rivers and inlets, with Rye and Winchelsea small islands cut off from the mainland. Over the centuries, the land has been slowly reclaimed, with additional coastline being formed by the formation of shingle beaches as a result of longshore drift. 2

There is no question that Romney Marsh is one of the most distinctive and unique landscapes in the country, an area so strange that it has been called the Fifth Continent.  In the words of The Ingoldsby Legends, a book of 19th century ghost stories and the supernatural, written by country parson, Richard Barham3:-

“The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh”

Wikipedia refers to Romney Marsh as a sparsely populated wetland area in the counties of Kent and East Sussex in the south-east of England. It covers about 100 square miles (260 km2). The Marsh has been in use for centuries, though its inhabitants commonly suffered from malaria until the 18th century. Due to its location, geography and isolation, it was a smuggler’s paradise between the 1600s and 1800s. The area has long been used for sheep pasture: Romney Marsh sheep are considered one of the most successful and important sheep breeds. Criss-crossed with numerous waterways, and with some areas lying below sea level, the Marsh has over time sustained a gradual level of reclamation, both through natural causes and by human intervention.

This rather mundane description belies the beauty and strangeness of the place. As the mist comes down, as it does so often in the marshes, you feel yourself pulled back to earlier times with tales of sheep stealing, murder, witchcraft and smuggling. This is truly an eerie and wonderful landscape.

And, of course there are the churches. Today fourteen remote churches are scattered across the marshes, but at one time there were, at least twenty four, one for every small hamlet, often consisting of only a few families. For me, the jewel in the crown of these churches is St. Thomas Becket in Fairfield, sitting alone and forlorn in the middle of the marsh, surrounded by grazing sheep, often cut off in winter, accessible only by a narrow raised bank.

St Thomas Becket, Fairfield

It is well known that John Piper, that quintessential Neo-Romantic artist, had a love of old churches and the wild countryside, so it’s not surprising that he painted most of the churches on Romney marsh and even produced an illustrated book about the area for King Penguin. This is his atmospheric and romantic painting of St. Eanswythe in the hamlet of Brenzett; compare it to an ordinary photograph of the same view and it reminds you of how great art can transform the rather ordinary into something extraordinary.

John Piper – St Eanswythe, Brenzett
Recent photograph of St. Eanswythe largely unchanged since Piper’s painting

Another iconic church well worth the visit is the Church of St Augustine in the hamlet of Brookland. On arrival, the first thing that strikes you, is the extraordinary sight of a large timber bell tower detached from the main structure of the church. What is going on here? As can be imagined, by its very nature, marshland is inherently unstable and a decision was made in the 13th century to build the bell tower, and in 1450 it was clad in timber for the first time. The present cedar cladding dates from 1936. Inside the church there is an intricate mechanism, connected to the bell tower, to enable the ringing of the church bells.

Ancient Bell Tower, St.Augustine, Brookland

As you enter the church, you realise that the separation of the bell tower and the church was all in vain, the internal and external walls are leaning at a precarious and frankly frightening angle, leaving you feeling slightly queasy. The only thing that is preventing the church from collapsing altogether are the massive buttresses, which have been constructed to the outside of the building.

The sloping internal walls of the church

Massive buttresses preventing the church wall collapsing

Before taking leave of the church, it is worth mentioning the massive lead font, which was made about 1200. This impressive vessel is decorated with a series of images, the upper course shows the signs of the zodiac, and on the lower course the agricultural labours appropriate to each month of the year are depicted. It is extraordinary to imagine this being cast over 800 years ago and looking almost as good as the day it was made.

Smuggling was rife along the whole of the South coast, but the remoteness of Romney Marsh made it a prime target for the smugglers during the 18th century and the ideal place to hide their booty were the many isolated churches across the marsh. Many a country parson turned a blind eye to the contraband stored away in their church, either willingly or unwillingly.

As the final verse of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘A Smugglers Song’ states:-

“Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie –
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by !”

This is just a taste of the marvellous churches on the marsh, but for those who want to investigate further, there is a wealth of information about churches and all things Romney Marsh on the History of Romney Marsh website.

Before leaving Romney Marsh, a special mention should be made of one of the jewels in the crown of the marsh, the desert that is Dungeness. Although, referred to as a desert, Dungeness is not a true desert in the meteorological sense, but in all other senses it has strong similarities with a desert landscape, being an arid area with large desolate tracts of shingle beach.

This is a place of singular beauty with scattered cottages, abandoned and decaying boats. a pub, two lighthouses and not forgetting the forbidding presence of the Nuclear power station, which is in the process of being de-commissioned. The area has also been designated as a site of special scientific interest, being home to 600 species of plants, a third of all types found in the UK. At certain times of the year, the beach is covered in a carpet of wild flowers, in every colour imaginable. The wild beauty of Dungeness can be seen in the pictures below, but only a visit can capture the true atmosphere of Dungeness.

The ghostly and ominous presence of Dungeness Power Station taken from Hastings Country Park

The icing on the cake of all these wonders is Prospect Cottage, home and last resting place of that all round renaissance man Derek Jarman, artist, poet, writer, filmmaker and latterly gardener, where he created his world famous garden. On the side of the cottage, Jarman had part of John Donne’s famous poem ‘The Sun Rising’ inscribed.

“Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.”

Following the death of Jarman in 1994, his partner, who inherited Prospect cottage, continued to cherish the house and garden until his own death in 2018, when it was put on the market, its future uncertain.

However, following a fundraising campaign, the cottage has now been saved for the nation and future generations can now continue to enjoy its beauty and charm, yet one more reason to visit the wilderness of Dungeness.

Prospect Cottage in full bloom

There has always been a close connection between the marsh and Rye and the link has often been the smuggling trade, as previously mentioned. The most notorious of the smuggling gangs in the area was the Hawkhurst gang, who operated all along the South Coast from Kent to Dorset between 1736 and 1749 terrorising and murdering people along the way. They spent many evenings holed up in the Mermaid Inn in Mermaid Street, pistols cocked ready for any sort of trouble, the 18th century equivalent of the Kray brothers.

Their murderous activities, protected by the fear of the local community, eventually went too far, after they murdered a customs officer, William Galley and a shoemaker, Daniel Chater who had betrayed the gang. They killed the two men in the most brutal manner, firstly burying William Galley alive and then throwing Chater down a well and dropping large stones onto him. The ringleaders were tried in Chichester and hanged and by the end of their reign more than 75 of the gang were either executed or transported to Australia. So ended the grim stranglehold of one of the worst smuggling gangs in British history.

The dreadful end of William Galley as portrayed in one of the broadsheets of the time

You can’t talk about Rye and its surroundings without mentioning the artists who were inspired by the landscape and architecture of the area. We have already discussed John Piper’s fascination for the marsh and the great First World War artist Paul Nash spent many years after the war in the region, recovering from the horrors that he had seen and finding solace in the landscape of the marsh.

In more recent times, the landscape artist Fred Cuming, another Neo-Romantic, painted the marshes obsessively, using his home in Rye as a base. But the Rye artist who I love the most is the great Edward Burra, who lived in and around Rye for all of his life. Burra struggled with ill health and pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis and a debilitating blood disease, which meant that he was unable to paint in a conventional manner and was forced to paint in watercolour on flat surfaces.

In his early years, he travelled widely to places such as Marseilles and Harlem, painting street scenes and the night life with humour and bawdiness, together with some surrealism thrown in for good measure. However, in later life, as his health deteriorated, he began a second career as a wonderful landscape artist, painting scenes of great beauty, but always rather menacing, giving off an air of discomfort and uneasiness.

Burra had an ambivalent relationship with Rye throughout his life, which he called ‘Tinkerbelle Town’ and he disliked it’s tendency to tweeness. However, he stayed there all his life and I think he also saw another darker side of Rye, with its tales of ghosts and murderous smugglers. This seemed to come out in some of his art. One of my favourite paintings of his is of the churchyard in Rye, and he has chosen to make this picturesque graveyard in the heart of Rye a rather sinister place full of foreboding, the sky is dark and stormy and the walking figures appear as some sort of ghostly presence with the two seated figures look like revenants that have just risen out of the graves. This is not the cosy Rye that most people know and love.

To read more about some of the supernatural happenings in Rye, reference is made to a previous article of mine The Ghosts of Lamb House

The Churchyard, Rye – Edward Burra (1959-61) copyright Jerwood Collection
A more recent view of the churchyard with not a ghost in sight

I realise that my personal impressions of Rye and Romney marsh have barely scratched the surface of the history, geography and wildlife of this extraordinary corner of England. I have made no mention of the towns of Hyde, New Romney, Dymchurch, Lympne, Camber and the area of Jury’s Gap, which harbours a dark history. These and other tales will have to wait for another time.


1. The featured image at the start of the article is a painting by John Piper ‘The Marsh near Appledore’ featured in the King Penguin Book – Romney Marsh published in 1950.

2. Longshore Drift – Longshore drift from longshore current is a geological process that consists of the transportation of sediments (clay, silt, pebbles, sand, shingle) along a coast parallel to the shoreline, which is dependent on the angle incoming wave direction. Oblique incoming wind squeezes water along the coast, and so generates a water current which moves parallel to the coast. Longshore drift is simply the sediment moved by the longshore current. (from Wikipedia)

3. Although almost unknown today, the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’ were written by a so-called Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor, who later turned out to be a clergyman called Richard Barham and they were published in magazine form form 1837, eventually being compiled into one volume, where it became immensely popular. out of the stories and poems were based on legends and myths from Romney Marsh and the surrounding areas.

Adventures of a Hasting’s Flâneur

The title of this article is ‘Adventures of a Hasting’s Flâneur‘, but what do I mean by a Flâneur?

Luckily, there are as many definitions as there are dictionaries, some state that it is ‘a man who saunters around observing society.’ another states that ‘A flâneur is, quite simply, a leisurely wanderer, a worldly explorer, a connoisseur of life. The word, hailing from 19th-century France, captures the idea that the mind functions best at a slow pace, and that curiosity can uncover a life of significance.’

The word is, of course, French and in its literal use means an ‘idler’ ‘saunterer’ or ‘loafer’. I’ve no doubt that I have been guilty of all of these at times and so I don’t feel embarrassed using the term.

My personal preference is for the second definition above and so I will try and define my understanding of what it means to be a Flâneur in 21st century Hastings and St Leonards:-

“A person who wanders around their home town in a leisurely way, looking for things that pique their interest, which are perhaps unusual or strange, and may then lead them on a journey of discovery of people, places and anything else that might fire their imagination”

These then are some of the stories that I have discovered, as a Flâneur in Hastings and St Leonards, in the course of my leisurely wanderings, together with my trusty camera.

One day my wandering took me to Silchester Road, in the backstreets of St Leonards, and, in a row of small terraced houses, I spied a blue plaque. These have always interested me and can often be the start of a new journey. We know that many plaques honour the great and the good, but often you see a plaque for someone relatively unknown to the public at large. This was the case here, as I had never come across Elsie Bowerman before.

Just from the few words written on the plaque, I knew there was a story here, but once I started my research, I realised that this remarkable women had led an extraordinary life which included a high profile role in the Woman’s Suffrage movement, a survivor of the most famous shipwreck disaster of the 20th century, an active participant in the First World War, a witness to the Russian Revolution, becoming one of the earliest female barristers in the UK and, last but not least, having an important role in the formation of the United Nations.

I have found very few photographs of Elsie, but this one below seems to capture her personality, and which shows her at the age of about 20, staring straight into the camera with a look of resolve and strength; a person determined to make their mark on the world.

To find out more about Elsie Bowerman, there is an excellent article by local author, Helena Wojtczak in her book ‘Notable Women of Victorian Hastings’

Just a few steps down and there is yet another enigmatic plaque for one George Bristow, a taxidermist and a central figure in the Hastings Rarities affair. This was definitely a mystery that needed further investigation by the Hastings Flâneur.

When in doubt, consult Wikipedia and, as always, it did not disappoint. It states that “The Hastings Rarities affair is a case of statistically demonstrated ornithological fraud that misled the bird world for decades in the 20th century. The discovery of the long-running hoax shocked ornithologists.”

I have this unsettling vision of traumatised ornithologists walking around in dazed shock following this revelation.

It emerged in 1962, after statistical analysis, and many years after his death, that George Bristow, a taxidermist and gunsmith, was the perpetrator of a series of frauds, carried out from the 1890s to at least 1930, by importing bird specimens from outside the British Isles, but claiming them to have been found and shot in the Hastings area. He then went on to sell these specimens to wealthy ornithologists.

As a result of the scandal, 29 bird species or subspecies were dropped from the British List of birds in Britain, although some of the species dropped have now been readmitted to the list on the basis of reliable subsequent records. The white winged snow finch below was not one of them and has never been seen in the British Isles.

The moral of the story seems to be never trust a taxidermist with a gun. A great exception should, of course, be made for Hasting’s own wonderful Ethical Taxidermist, Jasmine Miles-Long who turns her creations into beautiful works of art, all made using animals that have died from natural causes.

Plaques seem to congregate into groups and just a few streets away in North Street was the last resting place of a much more recent, well loved figure and cultural icon called Marianne Joan Elliott-Said. If that doesn’t mean much to most people, perhaps her stage name of ‘Poly Styrene’ is more familiar. In 1977, Poly Styrene was at the forefront of the punk movement in UK with her band ‘X-Ray Spex’ singing such punk anthems such as ‘Oh Bondage, Up yours’, a cry of rage and defiance against male domination.

Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard
But I think “oh bondage, up yours!”

Poly Styrene in her glory days with X-Ray Spec circa 1977

When Poly Styrene left her punk days behind her, she settled in St. Leonards and was about to relaunch her career, with the release of a solo album, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer which had metastasised to her spine. She died on the 25 April 2011, at the tragically young age of 53, at St. Michael’s Hospice in St. Leonards. She was, by all accounts, a gentle soul who left this earth far too young.

A source of great pleasure and interest for the leisurely wanderer like myself are churches and churchyards. Many people who have read some of my previous posts will be aware of this, as I have written extensively about two well known Hasting’s churches, The Church in the Wood and Old St. Helen’s Church

Ancient Graves in Old St. Helen’s Church covered in beautiful lichen
The beautiful churchyard of Church in the Wood

It’s difficult to pinpoint why I love churches and churchyards so much, especially as I am not a particularly religious person. I have difficulty explaining it, but without wishing to sound pretentious, it seems to me that these places are imbued with the spirit of the people that have worshipped and died there, leaving a collective atmosphere that can somehow be picked up on.

Whatever the reason, there is always a new treasure and discovery to be made every time I visit my favourite churchyards. In my previous post about Church in the Wood, I told the story of Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther who sailed to the Far East and the Pacific Islands in the mid 19th century, and all the while was sketching and painting the landscapes, houses and the indigenous people, recording a world that has now totally vanished. His sketchbooks eventually surfaced in 2020 and were a sensation.

Chincha islands loading Guano
H.M. Dart, Marcus Lowther’s ship

When I revisited the grave recently, there were 4 beautifully painted stones laid on his gravestone, a poignant and beautiful homage to Admiral Lowther. But who made them and placed them there? Was it some local schoolchildren or maybe a distant relative or just an admirer? Whoever it was must have been familiar with his travels and the sketches. When I finished photographing them, I placed them back on the grave for the enjoyment of others.

Painted Pebbles on Marcus Lowther’s grave – Unknown artist

Ancient monuments and ruins are another obsession for this Flâneur and there are quite a few in Hastings. Old St Helen’s church is one such, tucked away behind a new development, glorious in its lonely isolation, only visited by the determined visitor and ‘ruin’ obsessive like me.

Romantic ruins of Old St. Helen’s Church

Also, if you travel a bit further afield, westwards, out of St. Leonards on the way towards Bexhill, there is an area called Bulverhythe. But where is it? There is a Bulverhythe beach, which is fascinating in its own right, but no sign of a hamlet or village that would denote a separate community. It turns out that Bulverhythe is one of thousands of medieval villages lost to history, as a result of changing circumstances. Many were lost to the bubonic plague and other disasters, but in the case of Bulverhythe it was the sea that caused its ultimate demise.

The village of Bulverhythe was a thriving port in the Middle Ages serving the people of Hastings and was once part of the Cinque Ports confederation, but by the 17th Century the village had been all but destroyed by constant storms and coastal erosion. The people, unable to survive without a seaport, upped sticks and left.

Today, there remain only two survivors of the old Bulverhythe, one being The Bull Inn, a friendly local pub, situated on the Bexhill Road. The other is the ruins of St Mary’s Chapel, dating back nearly 1,000 years and which was one of the first Norman churches built in England. This small and unique chapel is hidden away, incongruously, in a 1930s housing estate behind the main road, another gem that many people are not aware of, except, of course, the residents of the estate.

Of course, the most famous ruins in Hastings can be found in the town itself. The remains of Hastings Castle have stood alone and proud on the West Hill, overlooking the town for centuries, a romantic reminder of an earlier age and also a reminder, if one is needed, of 1066 and the Battle of Hastings.

Postcard of Hastings Castle from the early 20th century

However, this is not the oldest monument in Hastings, this honour goes to a feature that thousands of people might have walked across, on their way to visit the castle, without realising its significance. This unprepossessing area is called the “Ladies Parlour” and consists of a semi grass-banked enclosure to the north-east of Hastings Castle. This area was once a Stone Age hill fort and settlement.

On the web site ‘Ancient Monuments’ it states that:-

Hastings Castle, the Collegiate Church of St Mary and the Ladies’ Parlour includes the castle of Norman origin together with its rock-cut ditch, the remains of a Collegiate church and the earthworks and interior area of an enclosure known as the Ladies’ Parlour which has been identified as an Iron Age promontory fort.

The Ladies’ Parlour is part of a defensive enclosure which occupied the whole promontory although one half of its original area was subsequently taken over by the Norman castle. The crescent-shaped earthwork bank stands as high as 4m in places, but diminishes in height to both south and west. The ditch runs NW-SE between Castle Hill Road and the cliff edge above Burdett Place increasing in size to the south-east to a maximum of 2.4m deep and 20m wide.”

The name Ladies’ Parlour is thought to have derived from the story that the area had been a tilt yard, in the Middle Ages, where jousting tournaments were held, watched by ladies in their finery, but I have not come across any contemporary evidence of this, so it may well be yet another urban myth.

There is however material evidence that, in fact, this area had been settled for far longer than the Iron Age; an archaeological excavation from the site in the 1930s discovered an array of arrows, javelins and spear tips, typical of the Mesolithic Period (Middle Stone Age), possibly over 10,000 years old. Perhaps this ancient area was the birthplace of Hastings, a tantalising thought.

These are some of my adventures as a Flâneur in Hastings and St Leonards, I could tell you many other stories from my wanderings, but that will have to wait for another day.

The Flâneur surveys his domain – Old Town Hastings

One thing I’ve slowly come to discover in my wanderings, is the ‘Art of Looking‘. Before my knees began to fail me, I used to run around the town barely having time to notice anything, other than my laboured breathing, but since I hung up my running shoes, I have more time to take in my surroundings and absorb everything around me.

I began to notice the cloud formations, the roofs of houses, the patterns in nature and of course the endless variety of the ocean and the waves. I can spend hours staring at the sea and, at these times, the only thing to do is put the camera away and live in the moment. In these troubled times, where we feel everything is outside our control, these moments offer a certain solace and give us some reason for hope .

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?-

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies – Leisure 1911

The Chalybeate Springs and Healing Waters of Hastings

Water, water, see the water flow
Glancing, dancing, see the water flow
Oh wizard of changes, water, water, water
Dark or silvery mother of life
Water, water, holy mystery, heavens daughter

God made a song when the world was new
Waters laughter sings it is true
Oh, wizard of changes, teach me the lesson of flowing

I love water, the taste, the sound, the look, the movement, the feel; it makes me happy and living at the seashore gives me the chance to experience water every day of my life.

There is something special about water, life on earth cannot exist without it. Human life evolved from the tetrapods, who in turn evolved from fish, 400 million years ago, as they made their tentative steps onto land and the rest is history, as they say. Our relationship with water goes back to the beginning of time.

The human body consists of 60% water and according to various experts, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, the lungs 83%, skin 64%, muscles and kidneys 79%, and even the bones are a watery 31%.

We are water, so it’s no wonder that the human race has obsessed over this element since time immemorial. All the major religions have water as a major element in their rituals:-

Water not only gives us life, it is the origin of life. Since the dawn of human consciousness our relationship with water has been profound and enriching. The history of philosophy and the rites of ancient cultures and religions confirm it: in all of them, water is a symbol of life, of purification and hope, values that are a common denominator that unites us and that we should take into account much more.2

Long before the Romans brought their water culture to Bath in Somerset, the Celtic Druids were worshipping water at countless holy wells throughout the British Isles. Then, in the Eighteenth century, a new fashion began to emerge, based on the healing properties of the water from naturally occurring mineral springs, containing all manner of salts, in varying degrees.

19th-century polycrom of the Great Bath at the Roman Baths, in Bath. The entire structure above the level of the pillar bases is a later construction and was not a feature of the building in Roman days.

As a result, Spa Resorts grew up throughout Europe, where the well-off in society could come to take the waters. Some towns even had geothermal springs, where people could bathe to ease all sorts of conditions like arthritis and, so it was claimed, cure diseases such as leprosy, scurvy, jaundice, and even smallpox. Famous Spa resorts in England such as Harrogate, Buxton, Matlock and, of course, Bath flourished during the Eighteenth century.

Some of the waters had extra amounts of iron salts in the water, making the water a deep rusty red, and hence the name Chalybeate Springs. But for the origin of this unusual word, it is necessary to go back to antiquity.

Chalybeate waters, also known as ferruginous waters, are mineral spring waters containing salts of iron.

The word “chalybeate” is derived from the Latin word for steel, Chalybs, which, in turn, is derived from the Chalybes, who were a people living in Anatolia over 2000 years ago and who were experts in iron working.

A brief note on pronunciation, the Americans would say the word exactly as it looks, which ends up sounding rather boring and flat; I much prefer the official version pronounced kuh-LIHB-ee-uht which adds a feeling of mystery and exoticism to the word.

It so happens that the Sandstone found in the High Weald, is the ideal landscape for a profusion of Chalybeate Wells. Probably the most famous in the South East is Tunbridge Wells, where in the 18th Century, the Pantiles, and its chalybeate spring, attracted tourists wishing to partake of the waters and drink the red water.

Hastings had always had aspirations to be a spa town and, therefore, there was always a certain amount of jealousy in Hastings in respect of its near neighbour Tunbridge Wells. With this in mind, the founder of Alexandra Park, Robert Marnock, utilised a natural fast flowing spring, with the idea that it would encourage people to Hastings to take the waters. It appeared not to have worked and 140 years later the spring can still be found, looking rather sorry for itself, in the upper reaches of the park, spewing out a constant flow of rust red water.

There is a plaque, which states that the Chalybeate Spring was “originally in open farmland, Robert Marnock incorporated this feature into Alexandra Park in 1880. The underground spring supplies a steady flow of foul iron-rich water once drunk for its alleged health-giving properties.”

Having drunk from the well, I can attest to it being foul tasting, your mouth tastes as though you had been sucking on an iron bar for several hours and the unpleasantness lingers on for a not inconsiderable time. As to its health giving properties, I’m afraid I was unable to force enough of the stuff down, to form a reasoned scientific opinion.

Today, the spring can be found tucked away in the upper reaches of the park, rather neglected and unloved, a long way from the vision of Robert Marnock.

A few metres further on from the spring is an overgrown well that most people walk past without a second glance. However, on closer inspection, there is a half hidden plaque which states that “Peter McCabe, an Irish Physician based in Wellington Square was Mayor of Hastings 1838 and 1843, committed campaigner for clean water, he constructed both this spring and the East Hill public well the foot of the cliffs at Rock a Nore”

The well in Alexandra Park has, quite clearly, not been used for drinking purposes for a considerable period of time, but if you go to Rock a Nore, you’ll find the aforementioned rather shabby public well, still functioning to this day, sited under the Funicular Railway and dispensing water to thirsty souls.

As part of my research, I have also sampled this well and the water tastes totally unlike the rust water in Alexandra Park, and, to be honest, is rather bland and tasteless. I rather suspect that, at some point in its life, it may have been connected up to the mains water.

Also in Hastings Old Town, under the West Hill and below the ruins of the Hastings Castle built by William the Conquerer in 1067, sits the magnificent St. Mary in the Castle, a Neo-Palladian Church (now deconsecrated) built in 1828.

But this church, which is literally built into the cliff behind, hides a secret in its depths. In the vaults there is a spring which, in the early twentieth century, was converted to a full immersion baptism font. There is very little photographic evidence of the working font, but I have managed to source a photograph (courtesy of St. Mary in the Castle) and a vintage postcard, which gives some idea of the spring being utilised in its heyday.

Today, the spring appears to have dried up and is sited in a store room full of bar stock and is apparently a ghost of its former self, which made me feel rather sad, as this was once a healing spring in its truest sense.

I am on a mission to seek out the secret places in Hastings, hidden behind main roads and the urban landscape. Summerfields Nature Reserve is just one of those places sited behind Hastings Museum and it is an absolute joy, a 7.3 hectares area of semi-natural woodland and freshwater ponds. The nature reserve originally formed part of the the Summerfield’s Estate, the site of a great mansion, Bohemia House, built in 1824; the house is long gone, but the original Walled Garden remains and has been lovingly restored for use by the local community.

The estate was originally owned by a well known Hastings family, the Briscos, and a certain Wastel Brisco. In my previous article on Old St Helen’s church, I mentioned this unsavoury family and their links to the transatlantic slave trade, as follows:-

“Wastel owned large tracts of Bohemia including Bohemia House (also now sadly demolished) and the Summerfields Estate. However, the source of their wealth had a dark history and together with thousands of wealthy families in Georgian and Victorian Britain, the Brisco’s money had been made in the slave trade. When the slave trade was abolished in the 19th century, the slave owners were compensated with enormous sums by the British Government, which enabled these families to retain their great wealth. As for the freed slaves, they received not a penny for the abuse they had received.”

But I digress, as this article is about the healing properties of water and the secret that can be discovered on a walk around the Summerfield woods is a mock Roman Bath and Grotto, utilising an ancient spring in the sandstone, built by Brisco in the 1830s. On a recent visit, it had clearly seen better days and had been mainly fenced off, being declared unsafe by the local council. Like many unusual buildings and other places of historical interest in our town, the Roman bath has been sadly neglected and is in danger of being lost forever, instead of being restored as part of Hasting’s heritage for all to enjoy.

Gazing in through the prison-like bars, it appears that the spring has almost dried up, being reduced to nothing more than a trickle. It was a rather depressing end to what had been a pleasant afternoon in the woods.

There are further springs in St. Helen’s Woods, still to be explored and no doubt many more that I am unaware of in this unique sandstone landscape in the Hastings area.

But there is still a mystery which I have been pondering over while writing this article. With a preponderance of natural springs, why was Hastings unable to compete with the other major Spa Towns in the UK and become a major player. I think it was a question of both time and place. The peak of the Spa craze was during the Georgian Era and by the time Hastings got round to the idea, the Victorian age was well underway and interest in taking the waters was on the wane. Many other Spa towns also had the added advantage of warm geothermal springs, where people could bathe and socialise, a far more attractive proposition than just tasting some unattractive looking water.

Whatever the reason, Hastings continued as a normal seaside town and the springs are slowly fading in people’s consciousness. I hope this article will encourage people to seek out these places before they crumble and disappear for good.


1 Those of a certain age and esoteric (some might say weird) musical tastes will recognise the lyrics of ‘The Water Song’ by The Incredible String Band, a 1960s Psychedelic Folk band, whose unique music, poetry and mysticism had a profound impact on a sensitive young man.

2 Quotation from ‘Water, Symbol and Metaphor’ by the WeAreWater Foundation a non-profit organisation, set up in 2010 with the aim of contributing to the resolution of problems derived from the lack of water and sanitation in the world.

All photographs copyright John Bostock with the exception of the Roman Baths, which is in the public domain.

The Hastings Variation

A couple of years ago we found ourselves watching an excellent Netflix series, ‘The Queens Gambit’, a drama about a troubled orphan and chess prodigy, Beth Harman, who fights her way, from adversity and drug addiction, to become the greatest chess player in the world. It was full of heartache, drama, triumph over the odds, and, of course, plenty of chess. Mind you, the chess action was mainly of people staring intently at a chess board and then suddenly making an astounding winning move, causing their opponent to walk off in a huff.

However, for those people, not me I would hasten to add, who have a picture of chess being a pastime for a rather nerdy male wearing a moth-eaten sweater, it should have been a revelation. Chess turns out to be sexy after all; who would have guessed?

Advertising poster for The Queens Gambit, with Beth looking simultaneously gifted AND sexy.

My relationship with chess is complicated; I joined the chess club in my early teens, but realised very quickly that I wasn’t cut out for it, being unable to memorise more than few moves ahead. But I am fascinated by it and in awe of the great masters, who appear to be able to visualise a game dozens of moves ahead. But, at its highest level, it is more than that, it’s a game of psychological warfare between two intellectual titans. It’s no wonder that some its most famous practitioners have buckled under the strain, as was the case with Bobby Fischer, who descended into paranoia and possible schizophrenia. How Bobby Fischer Went From Chess Champion To Troubled Recluse

In episode 6 of ‘The Queens Gambit’, my ears pricked up, when Beth started discussing a game at the Hastings Christmas Chess Congress held in Falaise Hall, White Rock Gardens. I rewound and played again, to make sure I had heard right, and it was then, with minimal research, I discovered the astounding truth, that my new home has been one the great destinations for the world’s chess players, held in some of Hastings most iconic buildings. I learnt about the celebrated 1895 Hastings Chess Congress and a Hastings resident, Vera Menchik, who was one of the greatest women’s chess players of all-time.

The history of chess in Hastings dates back to 1880s, when a group of local chess enthusiasts and professionals started a tournament, which quickly grew into a yearly event and culminated in the famous Hastings Chess Tournament of 1895, which attracted the greatest chess players from around the world at that time and was the first of what was to become a “super-tournament”. Garry Kasparov, the Russian Chess Grand master and, arguably, one of the greatest chess players of all time, has called the 1895 Hastings Congress, the greatest chess tournament of 19th century.

It was also held in one of the great iconic buildings of Hastings, the Brassey Institute, designed and built in 1879 by the Architect Walter Liberty Vernon for Thomas Brassey, when he was Liberal MP for Hastings. It was built in the Gothic Revival style, more specifically in the Venetian Gothic style and, it is not difficult to imagine gliding past this building in a gondola on the Grand Canal in Venice.

1879 Illustration of the Brassey Institute

Thomas Brassey was a major figure in Hastings in the latter part of the 19th century, the Liberal MP for Hastings for nearly 20 years, from 1868 to 1886. He had inherited a vast fortune from his father, also Thomas Brassey, a Civil Engineering Contractor, who had made his fortune in railway construction, having built a third of the British rail network, two thirds of the French rail network, as well as a vast number of projects throughout the world.

The Brassey Institute was originally built by Thomas Brassey as the School of Science and Art, together with a free Public Library and Museum. Today it the home of Hastings Public Library and after years of neglect, a major refurbishment was carried out in 2016-18 restoring this magnificent building to its original splendour. The Brassey Institute is one of the architectural glories of Hastings, both internally and externally, which deserves to be more widely known and appreciated.

The Brassey Institute today, following restoration

Following on from this famous tournament of 1895, Hastings hosted a yearly International Chess Congress , which continues to this day and has attracted the greatest from across the world of chess. In fact, every chess world champion, before Garry Kasparov, with the exception of Bobby Fischer has played at Hastings, it was the Congress that everyone wanted to be a part of.

In the 1920s, into this rarefied world of international chess, appeared the amazing Vera Menchik, arguably, the greatest woman chess player of all time and resident of St. Leonards on Sea. I guarantee that most people outside of the chess world have not heard of this remarkable woman and she is almost unknown in Hastings and St. Leonards, but I believe it is time she joined the Hastings and St. Leonards ‘Hall of Fame’.

Vera was a refugee from Russia and Czechoslovakia, who arrived in England, at the age of 16, without a word of English. Her father was Russian and her mother, Olga, was half English and following the breakdown of her parents marriage, she moved to St. Leonards on sea, where her grandmother lived at 13, St. John’s Road, near Warrior Square station.

Vera Menchik at the age of 21 in 1927
After Menchik won the 1926 London Girls’ Championship, she gave a 13-board simultaneous exhibition

Decades before the fictional Beth Harman arrived on the scene, Vera was encountering misogyny and discrimination in the male dominated world of chess. Many men ridiculed her and the Viennese master Albert Becker, at the start of one tournament in 1929, mockingly proposed that any male player whom Menchik defeated in tournament play should be granted membership of the Vera Menchik Club. However, the last laugh was on Becker, when he became the first member of the club, followed by dozens of the world’s top male players. Vera would not be cowed by all this ridicule and, prior to one tournament, she declared that she was looking forward “to drinking some men’s blood.”

Vera bent over the chessboard in 1935

Vera’s father had taught her chess at the age of 9 and at the age of 21, in 1927, she became the Woman’s World Champion, which had been established that year. She then held that title for the next 17 years in a row, an amazing achievement, ended only by her untimely death in 1944.

Vera had married Rufus Steven in 1937, a widower twenty-eight years her senior, also very much of the chess world, who subsequently died in 1943. Tragically one year later, Vera, her sister Olga, and their mother were killed in a V-1 flying bomb attack which destroyed their home in Clapham, London, bringing an end to a dazzling career at the young age of 37.

This year, the New York Times, published ‘Overlooked,’ a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This is the article, a fascinating read about a exceptional person – Overlooked no more: Vera Menchik. It is time Vera Menchik joined the other august residents that have lived in Hastings and St. Leonards and is honoured with her own blue plaque on the family house at 13, St. John’s Road.

A few of the readers might be wondering at the rather cryptic title of this article ‘Hastings Variation’, the full title of which should be ‘The Hastings Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined‘. This takes its name from the game between Victor Berger and George Thomas, held in Hastings Town Hall at Christmas 1926. Rather than try and explain, with my limited understanding, these chess moves, here is a link for people who might wish to know more about Queens Gambit and The Hastings Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined

Between the years 1931 to 1964 the Hastings Chess Congress was held at the White Rock Pavilion (now the White Rock Theatre), another of those buildings that residents of Hastings often take for granted, but which has features of great interest. Constructed in 1927, it is built in a curious mixture of styles, part Art Deco and part Spanish Colonial, not to everybody’s taste, but somehow it all seems to come together.

White Rock Pavilion in 1929, 2 years after first opening
White Rock Theatre in 2022

But, to me, the most interesting aspect of the building, by far, are the ceramic roundels, designed by the celebrated sculptor Gilbert Bayes and made by the Doulton factory. These magnificent roundels representing Drama, Romance, Adventure and Terpsichore (the muse of dancing) really elevate this building. Sitting there next to the White Rock Hotel and opposite the pier, on the border between Hastings and St. Leonards, it is a true Hastings Landmark.

Hastings continues to be an important international destination for the world’s chess players and I am pleased to say that Hastings Chess Congress is still thriving, with the 96th tournament being held this year in December. Link to Hastings Chess Club

And what of the future of chess generally, which despite the advent of computers and ‘Artificial Intelligence’ still seems to be in good shape in the hands of humans at all levels of competence, who continue to play and enjoy chess the world over. At the Grand Master level, chess can still bring out the best and the worst of the human character, a timely reminder that it will be a long time before computers will be able to replicate the drama of human emotions.

As I write this article, an enormous row has broken out between the existing world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway who has accused his opponent Han Niemann of cheating. The whole saga appears to be slightly bizarre, with rumours of Niemann using vibrating anal beads to assist him (don’t ask), but it does show that the passion hasn’t gone out of chess. Carlsen v Niemann: the cheating row that is rocking chess

Chess originated in India over 1500 years ago, worked its way into Persia and then onto the Muslim World. It arrived in Southern Europe in the 8th to 9th centuries, following the Moorish conquest of Spain, before working its way up to Scandinavia. And when was chess introduced to Britain? Some people say it arrived around 1013 with the Danish invasion, which may well be true, but it arrived in a significant way with the Normans in 1066 and so, it could be argued, that the birthplace of British chess is Hastings. It is a romantic notion and one that I shall continue to cling to, until proved otherwise.

Rocks in the Landscape

I am still exploring this area of the South East that we now call home and, up to a few weeks ago, I had no idea that there was a connection between William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, a garden containing monumental landscape boulders more reminiscent of the Peak District, a minor poet and associate of the Bloomsbury set, and Ireland’s greatest poet of the 20th century. What a heady mixture. Since then I have also learned about Medieval iron works, the fact that the rocks are a feature of the landscape in many areas around Tunbridge Wells and much more. This is the story of the house and garden now known as ‘ Penns in the Rocks’.

Twice a year this historic house opens up its spectacular gardens to the public under the National Gardens Scheme. We went along not knowing what to expect, but we were not disappointed . The house is located over a mile off the main road through Rocks Wood, an ancient woodland hiding a secret; iron founding workings dating back to the Romans and possibly earlier. In fact, the whole of the Sussex and Kent Weald, has been involved in iron production for over 2000 years, from Sedlescombe and Westfield near Hastings, up to a large area to the West of Tunbridge Wells.

Romano-British iron-working sites in the Weald

In the mid 17th century there was a farmhouse, Rocks Farm, on the site of the present house owned by the Springett Family, who for generations had been involved in the Sussex Iron Industry. In 1672 William Penn enters the story by marrying Gulielma Springett and in return receiving Rocks Farm as a dowry, although they never actually lived there.

Most people will know that William Penn founded Pennsylvania, but how he ended up with a large piece of land across the ocean is not so well known. Penn who had been born in 1644 had become a committed Quaker, not long after the movement was formed by George Fox in the middle of the 17th century.

Penn was the son of a Royalist Admiral, but he was ostracised by his family and society when he became a Quaker, often spending periods in prison as a result of his beliefs. However, when his father died, William inherited an unpaid debt that the crown owed to his father and in 1681 Penn requested that the King, Charles II, grant him the last large unclaimed territory on the North American seaboard in lieu of the debt.

Penn stands facing King Charles II in The Birth of Pennsylvania, 1680, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Penn had the bold idea of creating a haven for the Quakers and other religious minorities who were becoming increasingly persecuted in their home country. In the new province of Pennsylvania, he wished to create a society where there would be complete religious freedom for all, and where all faiths and religious groups could worship without fear of persecution, known by the Quakers as ‘The Holy Experiment’.

“To attract settlers to Pennsylvania, Penn traveled throughout the continent, promoting his colony to both Quakers and other religious groups suffering persecution for their beliefs. Many accepted Penn’s invitation to come to the New World, and Pennsylvania quickly became a multinational and multi-religious colony unlike any other in North America. Rich with natural resources and economic opportunities, it attracted Quakers, as well as English Anglicans, French Huguenots, Scottish and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Irish Catholics, and Jews. For most of the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania was one of the few places under British control where Catholics could legally worship.” Quotation from the website, Explore PA History at Religious Communities in Pennsylvania

These groups were quickly followed by more marginal Protestant groups from Europe escaping persecution including Lutherans, Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, Harmonists and many more too numerous to mention, but all with one thing in common to be part of a noble experiment to create a new society and, with it, a better world.

As with all great movements this was doomed to failure, but as stated in Explore PA History “today, Pennsylvanians of hundreds of different faiths live and work together peacefully, and the communitarian impulse survives in myriad forms: religious and secular, urban and rural, pacifist and apocalyptic.” This must give us some sort of hope, when we see how America is once more at war with itself.

Before we leave William Penn, I have discovered a fascinating fact, that will infuriate those people who think that the European Union is a dastardly plot hatched by the French and Germans. It was in fact an English Quaker, the same William Penn, who in 1693 drew up a detailed proposal for a League of European Confederation, to end, once and for all, the fratricidal wars tearing Europe apart. This radical proposal was, of course, rejected, but is as valid today as it ever was. William Penn: The Utopian Who Invented the European Parliament

Meanwhile, back in England, Rocks Farm became the residence of the descendants of Penn, and in 1732 the house was updated with the addition of the the classic Georgian facade facing the Rocks, and changed its name to ‘Penn’s House in the Rocks’ shortened to ‘Penns in the Rocks’.

Subsequent owners made further alterations to the property, but it was not until the 1920s that the house and garden really came into its own, when the bohemian socialite and Bloomsbury poet Dorothy Wellesley bought the house, in 1928, after visiting it with Vita Sackville-West, her friend and one time lover.

Dorothy had been married to Lord Gerald Wellesley in 1914, and had two children, before separating in 1922, allegedly after she abandoned her husband and children to be with Vita. For the rest of her life Dorothy’s preference was most decidedly other women and she became part of the queer subculture that thrived amongst the intelligentsia in Sussex and Kent in the 1920s and ’30s including, amongst others, the aforementioned Vita, the novelist Virginia Woolf and the BBC Radio Producer, Hilda Matheson.

In 1932, Dorothy became lover and companion to Hilda Matheson, who moved into Rocks Farm a short distance away from Penns and they were together until Hilda’s tragic death in 1940, whilst having a routine thyroid operation. Hilda was an extraordinary woman who had worked for MI5 and then became a senior executive in the fledgling BBC, and whilst there are libraries full of books about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, there is very little written about Hilda and she deserves an article all to herself.

Dorothy Wellesley 1935 by Lady Ottoline Morrell © National Portrait Gallery

Dorothy, as a poet, was part of the Bloomsbury Group, albeit on the fringes, and was a close aquaintance of both Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, who were well established by this time in Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, which had become an artwork in its own right.

At that time Penns had a very traditional interior and in 1929 Dorothy decided to get her friends to brighten up her Dining Room and bring it into the modern age; she commissioned them to design and decorate the room, including walls, table and chairs and even the fireplace. It must have looked spectacular and Duncan Grant thought it was one of best pieces of work they ever did, but alas all that remains of its splendour are two black and white photographs that appeared in The Studio Magazine in 1930.

In an act of cultural vandalism, the room was completely redecorated by the new owners of Penns, following Dorothy Wellesley’s death, and the fittings and furniture were sold off. The fireplace has found its way into Southampton Art Gallery and some of the chairs have been acquired by the collector David Herbert, an expert on the Bloomsbury Group and the Omega Workshops. Further information about Dorothy Wellesley’s dining room can be found on David Herbert’s website at It started with a jug

During that period, Duncan Grant also painted a wonderful picture of Penn’s Rocks, to my mind, very much influenced by a certain Vincent Van Gogh.

Penns in the Rocks Duncan Grant 1930 © Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photo credit: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

William Butler Yeats, the famed Irish poet, discovered Dorothy Wellesley’s poetry, when he was editing and researching The Oxford Book of English Verse and was immediately smitten, declaring that her poetry was sublime. In the view of many critics, Yeats’ judgement seems to have deserted him in the case of Dorothy, who is generally regarded as a good but minor poet.

When Yeats began visiting Dorothy on a regular basis at Penns in the 1930s, it is hard to overstate his fame, being widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet of the 20th century. He had recently received the Nobel Prize for literature and was also a former Senator in the new Irish State that had emerged in 1921.

It was an unlikely attraction, the older sexually obsessed Yeats with a serious heart condition and the younger Dorothy, who was determinedly lesbian. Somehow, it appears that they forged an intimate relationship, which lasted for the four years up to Yeats’ death in 1939. Whether it was sexual or not we will never know, but it appears to have been a grand passion. It is not known what the other person in Dorothy’s life, Hilda Matheson, thought of this strange relationship.

W.B Yeats and Dorothy Wellesley 1935 by Lady Ottoline Morrell © National Portrait Gallery
In 1938 Dorothy built the “Temple of Friendship” dedicated to the poets who loved Penns

When Dorothy died in 1956, the property was sold to the parents of the present owners, who continued to develop the garden, the results of which can be appreciated by visitors to this day.

When first entering the garden at the rear of the house, you walk across a well manicured lawn and it is then that you suddenly notice, with a start, the rocks, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, looking as though they had been randomly dropped into the landscape from a great height. The ferns and mature trees are growing out of the fissures in the rocks, causing their roots to bend and twist, and you would not be at all surprised to see a dinosaur suddenly popping its head up over the stones.

“The trees grow out of the fissures in the rocks so that their roots twine and twist over the stone” quote Victoria Sackville-West

These boulders could well have been around when the dinosaurs walked the earth, as Geologists have dated them to be approximately 150 million years old. When set down in the middle of a Georgian garden, it is a landscape gardener’s delight, something Capability Brown could only have dreamed about.

In fact, in this area just south west of Tunbridge Wells, many outcrops of ancient sandstone rocks can be found including, amongst others, Eridge Rocks Nature Reserve , High Rocks and Harrison’s Rocks, the latter being owned by the British Mountaineering Council for the benefit of climbers. These areas are one of the many surprises that one finds in this part of the High Weald on the Sussex and Kent borders.

Penn’s Rocks, which constitutes this particular outcrop plus 3 other outcrops covering approximately 10 hectares in the vicinity, have been designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) in that the ‘sandrock’ is a nationally rare habitat that supports a rich community of ferns and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) including many ‘Atlantic’ species, which are uncommon in South-East England.

A Prehistoric landscape containing many rare ferns and bryophytes

Sometimes a chance visit to a previously unknown place can open up a world of possibilities for a writer and ‘Penns in the Rocks’ is just such a case. A unique garden formed from an ancient landscape, a history involving one of the major figures in the early history of the United States and filled with a cast of poets, writers and artists. Serendipity is a wonderful thing and can often be found just around the corner.

The Wreck of the Amsterdam

The story of the tragic voyage of the Dutch cargo ship ‘The Amsterdam’ and its subsequent shipwreck on Bulverhythe Beach in 1749.

It was the pride of the VOC1 and named ‘Amsterdam’, in honour of the great city in which it was built, the home of Rembrandt and Vermeer also known as the ‘Venice of the North’. It was one of the mighty East Indiamen2, and would be sailing to the Dutch East Indies, bearing 28 chests of silver to trade for the finest silks and porcelain.

The VOC shipyard in Amsterdam circa 1750

It was fitted with 54 cannons to protect it from the robbers and plunderers on the high seas and thought to withstand the harshest of weathers. Completed in the year 1748, it was bound for Batavia3, the centre of a great Dutch Trading Empire, one of the greatest powers the world had seen.

Map showing the extent of Batavia (present day Jakarta) in 1681

The Amsterdam was an imposing sight with carved figurines at at the stern painted in bright colours and a gilded lion figurehead at the bow, a symbol of Dutch power. But little did anyone know what fate would befall it, when it set sail from Texel4 on that fateful January day in 1749.

Replica of ‘The Amsterdam’ at the Netherlands Maritime Museum in Amsterdam

Captain Willem Klump embraced his wife and children and bid farewell at ‘The Place of Tears’5 , imagining that he wouldn’t see them again for at least two years. And as he sailed away, he waved a further adieu to the dykes and the windmills he knew so well, he was bound for a more exotic shore.

This was Klump’s second trip to Batavia and already he regarded himself as a veteran. He had impressed his masters at the VOC, who were giving him the command of this prestigious ship. It is up to history to judge whether their confidence was misplaced.

When the Amsterdam set sail, there were 203 crew members, 130 soldiers and 5 passengers. The ordinary crew members were from the lowest classes, mainly illiterate people living in cruel and inhumane conditions in the slums of Amsterdam. Signing on for a passage was often a last resort and the crew were routinely treated savagely by the officers; the large group of soldiers on board were not needed for defence only, but also to keep control of the crew.

Adrian Welgevaren was probably the youngest person on the ship, not yet 16 years of age and was one of three cabin boys. Unlike many of the crew, he came from a wealthy family and was Captain Klump’s cabin boy, under his personal protection. Poor Adrian, the Captain’s protection was worth nothing, as we shall come to hear.

The voyage was doomed from the start, the ship made two abortive attempts to set sail, and was forced to turn back both times due to atrocious weather. Eventually, on the 7th January, the weather had eased sufficiently to allow the Amsterdam to begin its fateful journey.

But the seeds of destruction were already being sown in the lower quarters, as men were laid low by a mystery illness. Before the ship set sail, one of the crew had been carried almost lifeless on board, and within a few hours was dead. In a matter of days, scores of men were sick and dying, with the illness spreading like wildfire, exacerbated by the insanitary conditions.6

By the middle of January , the Amsterdam was in the vicinity of Rye, fighting mountainous seas, in one of the worst storms in living memory. Not only were men dying from the fever that was raging through the ship, others were being washed overboard or dying from cold or exhaustion. It must have seemed like hell on earth.

There was no break in the storm and by the 23rd of January, the Amsterdam was struggling towards Pevensey Bay, when calamity struck and the rudder was torn off making the most terrible sound. The ship was at the mercy of the waves and out of control, drifting towards Bexhill.

At this point Klump, dropped Anchor in shallow water to ride out the storm. But fate was not looking kindly on Klump that day. A small group of men from Hastings rowed out to the Amsterdam and offered assistance, but Klump declined and decided to try and make his way to Portsmouth for repairs once the storm had abated.

This fateful decision may have been the catalyst for what happened next, as something in the crew finally snapped. With 50 of their number already dead and almost as many too ill to care, the rest of the crew took matters into their own hands and made the decision to mutiny. To give them courage, the men broke into the stores and started to consume large quantities of gin and wine.

It appeared that shots were fired and somehow, the cabin boy, poor Adrian Welgevaren was killed, ironically on his 16th birthday. His bones were discovered during excavations in 1969 and now reside in Hastings Shipwreck Museum7

Leg Bones of the Cabin Boy, Adrian Welgevaren, in Hastings Shipwreck Museum

They then forced the Captain to guide the ship towards the nearest shore, probably using a temporary rudder, and there at Bulverhythe beach, on a stormy Sunday afternoon on 25th January of 1749, the Amsterdam finally ground to a halt lying helplessly on the soft sand like a beached whale.

Meanwhile, back in Hastings, the townsfolk were in St. Clement’s Church for evensong, when they heard a cannon firing a distress call. In the congregation was the Customs Officer for Eastbourne, Thomas Smith, who was brother-in -law to one of Hastings most famous residents John Collier8. Smith, together with the Mayor of Hastings, William Thorpe hurriedly made their way towards Bulverhythe, not knowing what they would find, only to be greeted by the sound of drunken singing from the crew.

Somehow, in the general mayhem, a notorious Hastings smuggler, Anthony Watson managed to make off with one of the chests of silver, some of which eventually was recovered, but Watson and his share of the booty were never seen again. It was at this point that William Thorpe sent troops down to the shore to guard the ship, however there was a last twist in this tale, when a local man was shot, trying to board the ship; this was the Amsterdam’s last victim of this doomed ship.

From the very first moment that the ship was grounded on the beach it started sinking into the sand of Bulverhythe; once the job of rescuing the silver bullion had been completed, it soon became impossible to rescue much more from the ship. Within a few weeks the ship had almost disappeared, only to reappear every low tide in the form that we see it today.

According to local accounts at the time, the people of Hastings had shown friendship and compassion for the rescued survivors, putting them up in their houses and caring for the sick. However, it is a strange fact that there is no evidence of any of dead crew being buried locally in any of the churchyards; where these men ended up is a mystery unlikely to ever be solved.

And so the Amsterdam lay almost forgotten, except by local people, for over 200 years. It was not until 1969 that a contractor, putting in a sewer nearby, started digging in the middle of the boat and finding all manner of antiquities. As local treasure hunters descended on the scene, chaos ensued and eventually the archeologists stepped in. Peter Marsden, a renowned Marine Archeologist, was put in charge of the operation and they carried out a detailed archaeological survey during that year and a further survey in 1984. As a result of Marsden’s efforts, the Amsterdam is now protected by Historic England, due to its international importance.

Peter Marsden went to on to found the Hastings Shipwreck Museum and some of the treasures found from the Amsterdam can be viewed in the museum.


Several years ago, a small group of people were gathered together on an early spring morning at Bulverhythe beach. We knew it was going to be a special morning, it was a low spring tide, and we were waiting for our guide from Hastings Shipwreck museum, who was going to take us on a tour of the extraordinary hidden world of Bulverhythe beach. At that time, I knew very little of the history of Bulverhythe, but this was soon to change.

View looking down over Bulverhythe beach towards Bexhill

As we followed our guide, we tentatively made our way across the sand. Many people are unaware that there are pockets of unstable sand at Bulverhythe at very low spring tides, where the underlying clay slurry can make its way to the surface and care needs to be taken to avoid any treacherous areas.

During the fascinating hour that we spent on the sands, we learnt about the large area of Cretaceous Rocks, that lay to the west of the wreck. These can be dated to approximately 135 million year ago, back in the mists of time, when Hastings basked in a tropical climate and was situated at the equator. A taste of things to come.

We then moved to an area just east of the wreck, which at first looks like a group of strange rocks, but when you bend down to touch these objects, you find they have a soft spongy quality and on closer inspection you realise you are looking at a forest of old tree trunks. This is the remains of an ancient forest and wooded valley that once ran along Bulverhythe beach over 4000 years ago, when water levels were 6 metres lower than today at the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Finally, we moved on to the main event and reached the Amsterdam just in time, before the tide turned. When you first see it you feel slightly disappointed and have a feeling, ‘is this all there is’, but when you use your imagination and realise that these small protrusions, sticking out of the sand, are hiding a wonderful secret beneath your feet, you understand that you are looking at something truly fascinating and historic. The ship lies 8 metres down in the sand and still contains a large part of the cargo and personal possessions, seemingly, forever lost.

The Amsterdam at spring low tide soon to disappear for another 12 hours.
The Bow of the Amsterdam disappearing yet one more time beneath the rising tide

This article would not have been possible without reference, firstly to the Guide Booklet written by Peter Marsden and published by The Shipwreck and Heritage Centre, Hastings, but mainly to the definitive book ‘The Wreck of the Amsterdam’ also written by Peter Marsden, but now sadly out of print. This book tells you everything you ever wanted or needed to know about the tragic journey of the Amsterdam and its aftermath.

My well thumbed copy of ‘The Wreck of the Amsterdam’ by Peter Marsden

And what of the future for the Amsterdam? The ship and its contents are protected by the British, but are owned by the Dutch Government, and there have been various campaigns to excavate, raise and transport the ship back to its home in Amsterdam, where it could be conserved and exhibited, similar to our own ‘Mary Rose’ in Portsmouth. It has alas all come to nothing, mainly due to the vast cost involved and it may never rise from its watery grave.

The ship lies buried deep, probably forever, in the alluvial clay of this ancient river valley bed, where our ancestors hunted for food along its wooded banks. In time, the Amsterdam will decay and fade into legend, a distant folk memory for our descendants in the far future, if the human race survives that long.


1 – VOC is an abbreviation for Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), the Dutch equivalent of the British East India Company. In the 17th and 18th century, these two great imperial powers competed with each other in colonising the known world by the use of trade and force.

2 – The ‘East Indiaman’ was a class of ship built to operate under charter or licence to any of the East India Companies of the major European trading powers of the 17th through the 19th centuries. They carried passengers and as much cargo as possible for trading purposes. They were always armed to protect themselves against pirates.

3Batavia was the capital of the Dutch East Indies, corresponding to modern day Jakarta in Indonesia.

4 – Texel is a small island at the North Sea mouth of the Zuyder Zee, where all the ships of the VOC were towed to commence their maiden voyage.

5 – ‘Place of Tears’ was the name given to quay on the Amsterdam waterfront, where families typically waved goodbye to their loved ones.

6 – Mystery illness – There were rumours in Hastings that the crew had been suffering from ‘Black’ or ‘Yellow fever’, but we will probably never know. In light of the insanitary conditions that the crew were forced to endure before they sailed, it could have been any one of a number of diseases including cholera and typhoid.

7 – Adrian’s bones – When some of Adrian Welgevaren’s bones were discovered in the gun room in the 1969 and 1984 excavation, there were discussions as to a fitting burial for Adrian. A contingent was sent over to Leerdam, his home town, to find a final resting place, but unfortunately no existing relatives could be found and the original family graveyard was now under a shopping centre. In the end the bones were brought back to Hastings where they now reside in the Hastings Shipwreck Museum.

8 John Collier, a lawyer by trade, was one the pioneers of modern Hastings and at the time of the Wreck of the Amsterdam was its most prominent citizen. Unfortunately, he was not in Hastings on that day in January 1749 due to an illness and was recovering in Bath. However, a large amount of what we know about that fateful day can be gleaned from the vast amount of correspondence written to Collier from Thomas Smith and others, giving a blow by blow account of the tragedy.

The Strange Tale of Whistler’s Mother

I love writing about Art, and in recent times, I’ve also written about my adopted home of Hastings and St. Leonards and when the two subjects combine, that’s icing on the cake for me, as I recently discovered, when I heard that the mother of the famous artist, James Whistler, spent the last five years of her life in Hastings.

Normally the mother of a famous artist would be of little consequence, but she has become something of a cult figure in her own right. Everyone knows or has heard of the painting ‘Whistler’s Mother’, even those who know very little of art and have only vaguely heard of the artist himself, James Whistler. It is one of the most famous pictures in the world, not quite on a par with the ‘Mona Lisa’ but not far off. Cole Porter included it in one of his most famous songs ‘You’re the Top’, she has been the subject of numerous advertising campaigns, Mr. Bean has even used her in one of his sketches, and she reached the pinnacle of her fame by becoming the ultimate symbol of American Motherhood, being honoured with a rather pompous statue, together with the ultimate accolade of appearing on a U.S. postage stamp.

It seems strange to think that this supposed paean to Motherhood, was part of an ongoing artistic experiment by James Whistler and his mother was only a bit player in this process. The official name of the painting was ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’, where Whistler’s intention was to arrange colours in a formal, almost abstract way, the subject matter being of lesser importance. I’m not sure if Mrs. Whistler was aware of this, as she patiently sat for her son, day after day, over several weeks.

However, on closer inspection of the painting, whatever the original intentions of the artist, the end result was a memorable image of his Mother, looking rather severe, slightly prudish and rather disapproving with a pursed lips expression. The accuracy of the image can be seen in comparison to a photograph of Anne Whistler taken over 10 years earlier and the likeness is uncanny, although it obviously helps with the same severe hairstyle and a rather fetching line in head shawls. How the painting came to be regarded as an archetypal representation of motherhood is altogether another question.

Close up of Anne McNeill Whistler’s head from painting
Photograph of Anne taken circa 1850s

In Art, James Whistler had always followed his own path, mainly distancing himself from the main movements of the 19th century, always passionate and always experimenting. He started by aligning himself with the realist school, and then moving on to the fringes of the aesthetic movement, the symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites. He was very influenced by the link between Music and Painting, the stylisation of Japanese art and was a leading proponent of ‘art for art’s sake’, not aligning his art to any school, philosophy or theory. In other words, he was a maverick, ploughing his own solitary furrow.

The critics hate nothing more than an artist, who does not play by the rules and John Ruskin, the greatest art critic of his day, was no exception. To add to this, Whistler was also a difficult and acerbic human being, who seemed to go out of his way to make enemies. The scene was set for a confrontation, so when John Ruskin decided to antagonise Whistler by declaring that his painting ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”, Whistler felt that he had no option other than to sue Ruskin for libel in 1878. Although Whistler won the case, he was only awarded a farthing damages and, as a result, he was financially ruined and was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Nocturne in Black and Gold (Falling Rocket) – James Whistler 1875

Whistler has had the last laugh, as his paintings, such as ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ are now seen as forerunners of modern abstract art, with their idea of art being used to convey feelings and emotions, as opposed to a purely realistic representation of a scene.

But how did a genteel Southern Belle from North Carolina, daughter of a slave owner, end up living firstly in Chelsea, London, before finally ending her days in the seaside town of Hastings? In her earlier life, she had moved to St. Petersburg with her husband, where he worked as a railway engineer, but when he died of Cholera in 1849, she moved back to the United States.

By 1864, both her sons had moved to London, William working as a respected throat surgeon and James, who was trying to make his name in the British art establishment. They persuaded Anne, at the age of 59 to take a risk and move to England, where she was to live with James in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.

James at that time was living the life of a scandalous celebrity, moving in very bohemian circles and friendly with many artists and writers, of whom the pious and rather stiff Anne would have highly disapproved. He managed to move his mistress out of the house, just in time before Mummy arrived, but was still visited by his friend and neighbour, the outrageous poet, Algernon Swinburne, who was notorious for his decadent and deviant behaviour. Somehow, Anne and Swinburne became firm friends, which is one of life’s mysteries; he must have really have been on his best behaviour on his visits to Anne.

Early Photograph of Whistler in 1863, looking every inch the disreputable libertine
Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

After 12 years in London, in 1876 Anne Whistler moved to Hastings, on the urgings of her physician son, William and his wife Helen. The London air was causing serious health problems to Anne and it was thought by William that the fresh sea air in Hastings, would be beneficial for her. She found an appealing terraced house with a balcony at No.43, St. Mary’s Terrace, on the West Hill, where she had an uninterrupted view over the water towards Beachy Head. From her letters and diaries we are told that this move from London to Hastings had a restorative effect on her health and humour.

St. Mary’s Terrace is a charming and secluded narrow street, well away from the hubbub down below, in Hastings Old town. In Victorian times it was a quiet and tranquil corner of Hastings, even today it still has that special feeling of solitude. It is no wonder that Anne felt at home in this charming area, far removed from the grime and smog of London.

St. Mary’s Terrace, full of Victorian charm

In the early 20th century, a few doors down in No. 31, a certain Archibald Stansfeld Delaney later known as ‘Grey Owl’ , was being brought up by his two Aunts. However, he couldn’t wait to get away from this genteel road and experience something a bit wilder and more primitive over in Canada. But that is another story for another time.

It is not known how often James Whistler visited his mother, but visit he certainly did and according to reports he was seen enjoying the company and the beer in ‘The Plough’, which is still thriving to this day, the only remaining pub on top of West Hill.

A recently restored Plough on the West Hill

As his Mother came to the end of her life, James Whistler’s art began to move in another direction. From about 1880, he started working in watercolour, on a smaller scale, including many pictures from Hastings. Gradually, in his later life, these watercolours became of increasing importance and like all his work were often highly experimental. Below is a watercolour looking from West Hill towards Hastings Old Town with the East Hill in the background. The artist would have painted this picture only a few hundred metres from Anne’s house in St. Mary’s Terrace in 1880/81, either just before or after the death of his mother.

View from West Hill over Hastings towards the East Hill (1881) – Private Collection

Anne McNeill Whistler died in 1881 at the age of 77 and was buried in Hastings Cemetery , together with her less famous son, William and his wife Helen. Their modest headstones are in sharp contrast to the grand memorial in Old Chiswick Cemetery for her more famous artist son, James.

Interestingly, another great artistic iconoclast, from a previous century, William Hogarth is also buried in the same cemetery as James. It left me wondering whether the churchyard is big enough to accommodate these two, undoubtedly great, but irascible and egotistical artists?

As a result of Whistler’s dire financial situation, his Mummy’s picture had to be pawned soon after Anne’s death. Luckily for posterity, he was able to rescue it after a few years and it was eventually sold to the ‘Musée du Luxembourg’ in Paris, the French having recognised his genius, well before the rest of the world. Today, this world famous picture is safe for the future and can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

However, a mystery remains. How did this painting, by no means Whistler’s best, not just my opinion, but in many others more knowledgable than me, become one of the most famous paintings in the world, revered and ridiculed in equal measure? I think it taps into an archetype of what a typical mother should be.

The art historian, Martha Tedeschi has summed this up very well, when she stated that:-

“Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.”

However much we let ourselves and others down, with our bad and inconsiderate behaviour, our mothers are always there for us, come what may. They maybe shocked and disapproving of our lifestyle, but in the end they will always forgive. A Mother’s love is unconditional and always will be.

Dedicated to Long Suffering Mothers Everywhere

Borderlands – Between Strand and Sea

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand

Extract from ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold, 1867

I was born in middle England, well away from the coast and my only experience of the sea and the coast, like thousands of middle class families in the 1950s, was the yearly family holiday and, for us, it was mainly on the South Coast.

Money was always tight in those days and we normally spent a week in a chalet or very occasionally bed and breakfast, in guest houses run by fierce harridans. I seem to remember that a greasy breakfast was served at 8 o’clock sharp and then we were locked out of the house all day, as punishment, until we were reluctantly let in during the evening, so that we could sleep in rock hard beds between nylon sheets, in constant fear of electric shocks during the night. In this age of boutique guest houses and ‘Air B & B’, it is amazing to me now, that we were willing to pay for this yearly ritual humiliation.

This should have put me off the coast for life, but my abiding memory of those days was the hours I spent on the beach, whatever the weather, digging sandcastles, paddling on the edge of the water and wading in rock pools foraging for all sorts of miniature sea life.The reality was no doubt different, but in my imagination, it was a time of innocence and wonder.

The author as a young boy learning construction skills ©John Bostock
The unadulterated joy of the seaside ©John Bostock
Building castles can also be tiring ©John Bostock

Perhaps it was those memories that triggered a desire to escape the city after 27 years in London. When we moved down to the coast, was I subconsciously trying to revive those lost days of my childhood? Whatever the motivation, we arrived 9 years ago and a new life has opened up. In recent months I have started to try and analyse my fascination with the coast.

What is it that I love about my new home by the sea? I’ve thought about this a lot and, at the heart of the matter, it always comes back to the quality of light, at that point where the land meets the sea, the borderlands. Every day when I look out the window, the effect is different, the colour of the sky, of the sea, of the beach, the morning is different to the evening, from season to season, from sun to storm, and in fact from second to second. There is an infinite variety of sensations of to take in and the natural world is in a state of constant flux.

I now realise that for the last forty years or so, I have been pursuing this quality of light in my imagination and through my love of art. In the early 1980s, my wife and I experienced it in Skagen in the North of Jutland in Denmark. ‘Skagen Odde’ is a unique sandy peninsula which stretches 30 km and varies between 3 and 7 km wide, with a small 4 km long sandbar at very tip, which is growing every year, as a result of longshore drift.

Aerial view of Skagen Odde – The small town of Skagen can just be seen towards the tip
‘Grenen’ the 4km long sandbar at the Northern tip of Skagen Odde
The Northern tip of Denmark, where on the left is the North Sea, Skagerrak and to the right is the Baltic Sea , Kattegat.

Being surrounded on all sides, there is something special about the quality of the light that comes off the water on both sides and it was this light that drew a colony of artists to move here at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Skagen artists painted the sea, the sand and the local fisherman, but above all they painted themselves with the sea and sky as a backdrop. These pictures by Artists such as P.S. Kroyer, Michael Ancher and his wife Anna have become famous well outside the confines of their native Denmark, for their exploration of light and colour. Here on this remote peninsula the beginnings of Danish modernism can be found. More information on the Skagen Artists can be found on the Skagen Museum Website Two of the iconic paintings, which are on display in the Museum, are shown below.

P.S. Krøyer: Summer Evening on Skagen’s Southern Beach (1893)
Anna Ancher: Sunlight in the Blue Room (1891)

At the same as artists in Denmark were discovering Skagen, in the far South West England, another group of British artists were moving to Newlyn, a fishing village near Penzance, in Cornwall, painting many of the similar scenes as their fellow artists in Denmark, again inspired by the extraordinary quality of light in the south west peninsula.

And then moving onto the 20th century a new generation of artists were inspired, in the town of St. Ives. to create pottery, paintings and sculpture. The names of Alfred Wallis the self taught fisherman together with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and many more, have become legendary in the annals of British 20th century art.

The Wreck of the Alba , Alfred Wallis 1941 (c) Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
Zennor Storm – Peter Lanyon 1958 (c) Estate of Peter Lanyon

The result has been to make St Ives the ‘go to’ destination for art lovers. It was inevitable, with our love of ceramics and art, that we would be drawn to the town and over the last thirty years we have visited numerous times. When walking along the coast from Carbis Bay through a wooded area, you are suddenly greeted by the amazing vista of the harbour at St. Ives, a sight that never fails to lift the spirits. And yes, the light is as unique and wonderful, as it is rumoured to be.

The iconic view of the harbour at St. Ives ©John Bostock

And so, eventually, by a roundabout route, via the North of Jutland and the extreme South West of England, 9 years ago we eventually arrived on the South Coast of England and settled for our own slice of the good life along the coast.

When you actually live in a place, rather than just visit it, you gain a totally different perspective of life on the edge, where you can experience four seasons in one day, and the natural world takes on a reality, rather than being an abstract concept.

Having a view over Beachy Head has enabled me to experience how the landscape changes from season to season, from day to day, from morning to evening and even from second to second. I have tried to capture a feeling of this in an ongoing series of photographs taken over the last few years, a selection of which can be seen below.

However, the seashore is not just about beautiful views and gorgeous sunsets, it can also be a frightening and terrifying place and the storms can be fierce and relentless. We have experienced our fair share of extreme weather since our arrival and, for the most part, they are exhilarating and exciting, but you quickly learn to respect the power of the sea and develop a sense of awe in the face of powerful natural forces beyond your control.

Photographs of Bulverhythe beach during a storm ©John Bostock

Any article about the borderlands, the capture of light and the power of the sea, would not be complete without reference to our greatest landscape painter, J. M. W.Turner. Nobody, before or since, has captured both the beauty and horror of life at sea, from his beautiful sunsets to his realistic and terrifying paintings of shipwrecks, where you feel the total helplessness of the souls fighting for their lives.

The Shipwreck – J.M.W.Turner (1805)

Turner painted dozens of beach scenes, but I find this watercolour below very poignant, showing a solitary dog along the waterside. Ruskin named the painting ‘Dawn after the Wreck’, but there is no wreck and no wreckage. I think it was Turner’s aim to show how sad and desolate the beach can sometimes feel, a place of loneliness. I love the way that there are no boundaries between the strand, the sea and the sky, they almost merge into each other, a true borderland.

Dawn after the Wreck – J.M.W. Turner c1841

Nowhere captures the true nature of the borderlands than at low tide, when the sea retreats, revealing a hidden world, which for a few hours gives up its secrets. Bulverhythe beach is one of St. Leonards best kept secrets, during the short time when the sea retreats; where else can you experience a a 4000 year old Petrified forest, a group of 135 million year old Cretaceous rocks and the wreck of an 18th century Dutch cargo ship, all within the same half hour walk.

Low Tide at Bulverhythe, a borderland which is neither land nor sea ©John Bostock
The sunken hull of the Amsterdam from 1749, only visible at very low tides ©John Bostock
Part of Sunken Forest at Bulverhythe at low tide ©John Bostock

The borderland between strand and sea is a place of coming and going, of departures and arrivals. For centuries people have left for adventure and travel, many leaving these shores never to return. Fisherman sail out every day, risking their lives to bring us food from the sea. Lifeboat crews constantly brave the storms to rescue people and bring them safely to shore.

And in recent years it has become a place of arrival, a safe haven, as thousands of frightened and desperate refugees risk their lives to arrive on our seashore to escape war, torture and oppression. I am proud that in Hastings we have welcomed these souls fleeing oppression through the organisation Hastings Supports Refugees.

With a strange synchronicity, a phenomenon that seems to affect me more and more these days, I have completed this article, just as Hastings Contemporary opens a stunning new exhibition called ‘Seafaring’, which covers, in pictorial form, much of the beauty and terror of life on the borderlands and beyond.

These then are the borderlands that have become our home. The borderlands between strand and sea, between ocean and sky, between beauty and terror, between fantasy and reality, between despair and hope, between past and future, a constantly changing landscape of endless possibilities.

The Ghosts of Lamb House

Whenever I visit Rye, which these days is often, my spirits rise and I am transported back in time. This ancient town has been special to me for many years and I was collecting vintage Rye Pottery long before I first visited there ( Ref my article Simple Pleasures – Rye Pottery )

However, since moving to the area, I have come to appreciate the amazing atmosphere of this historic town. There is the medieval charm of Mermaid Street and the Mermaid Inn, the 12th century St. Mary’s Church at the top of Rye with its amazing view of the surrounding area from its tower, the elegant Georgian Town Hall, Rye Castle Museum and the Ypres Tower and, last but not least, Lamb House.

The town has long been home to a long line of artists, poets and novelists, but probably its most famous and distinguished inhabitant must be the American writer Henry James, who lived at Lamb House from 1897 until 1914.

The tale I am about to relate includes, of course, Henry James, but it is also about much more, it is the story of Lamb House, the numerous people who have lived there and the ghosts that permeate the house, the inhabitants and the books written there.

Unlike large portions of Rye, Lamb House is a relative newcomer in the town being built by James Lamb in 1722, who was a wine merchant and local politician. A notable incident in the early days was when King George I was driven ashore onto Camber sands in a storm in 1725 and had to stay at Lamb House. James Lamb gave up his bed to the King, even though his wife Martha was pregnant at the time and maybe because of the excitement of having Royalty in the house, she actually gave birth to a boy the same night, she named him George of course.

There is no doubt much to be written about the Lamb family in Rye, but the house’s main claim to fame today didn’t arrive until the beginning of the 20th century, with the arrival of Henry James, followed by a number of other fascinating literary and distinguished figures.

The Front Entrance to Lamb House
The Rear of Lamb House from the Garden

In 1897, James was reaching the height of his powers and was feted throughout America and Europe. He was a dedicated Anglophile and had a number of friends in Rye and on one of his previous visits he had been very taken with Lamb House and was delighted when the opportunity arose in 1897 to lease the house.

Over the next few years, James wrote many of his greatest novels in Lamb House, The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, both in the Green Room, and during the summer months, in the Garden Room, which he loved, but which was sadly destroyed in an air raid, during the Second World War.

The Ruins of the Garden Room destroyed by a German bombe in 1940 ©National Trust / Charles Thomas
Photograph of the the Garden Room in happier times taken in the early 20th century with a figure on the steps, possibly Henry James himself

In its heyday, Lamb House became a Mecca for artists visiting the the great man, from Virginia Wolf, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Josef Conrad, John Singer Sargent, Arnold Bennett, the list is endless. What it would have been to be a fly on the wall and listen in to these great minds?

It is was during this period that James acquired his nickname “The Master” and the regal portrait below by that other master of portraiture John Singer Sargent, shows James relishing in his reputation as ‘The Great Man of Letters’.

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent (National Portrait Gallery)

However, as we are dealing with ghosts and the supernatural, I am returning to 1897, when Henry James wrote his most famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, one of the most disturbing stories ever written in this genre. James wrote this in London, as he was waiting for some alterations to be carried out in Lamb House, and it was serialised in 12 parts in Colliers Weekly, a popular Magazine of the time.

The story concerns a Governess who is caring for two children on a remote estate called Bly and becomes convinced that the children are in communication with the malign ghosts of two previous inhabitants of the house. Without giving anything away, the tension is ratcheted up very slowly, hence the title ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and much is left to the reader’s imagination. The story is full of ambiguity and one is left wondering who is really haunted, the children or the Governess.

First page of the 12-part serialisation of
The Turn of the Screw in Colliers Weekly

Having recently read the story, I can see how it caught the imagination of so many people, having been filmed many times and even being made into an opera by none other than Benjamin Britten. The horror/ghost story was by no means unique in the writing of James, who wrote many ghost stories throughout his life, but this is his masterpiece; it is indeed a classic of the genre.

The seeds for the story came from an unusual source, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Edward White Benson, who just happened to be the father of E.F. Benson, himself a good friend of James, who would himself later move into Lamb House in 1918, after the death of Henry James and who plays a large part in the history of the House.

Edward White Benson, despite his Christian Faith, was a strong believer in the supernatural and ghostly phenomenon and when he was at Cambridge University, he and a friend formed “The Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry” , also known as the Cambridge Ghost Society by the students. Benson’s interest in all things ghostly was passed on to his children, as we shall come to hear.

And it is to Benson’s son, Edward Frederick Benson, better known as E.F.or Fred Benson, who next takes centre stage as the custodian of Lamb House for over 20 years until his death in 1940. Benson was in awe of Henry James and was himself a well regarded author, who later became famous for his satirical and comic “Mapp and Lucia” novels set in the fictional town of Tilling and featuring a house called Mallards, both unmistakably, Rye and Lamb House.

I have not read the novels, but saw the brilliant BBC adaptation from 2014 filmed in Rye and Lamb House, starring the wonderful Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson. It was gloriously camp, bitchy and funny and it apparently satirised real characters in Rye, it is a wonder that Benson wasn’t sued for defamation of character.

Anna Chancellor as Lucia, Steve Pemberton as Georgie and Miranda Richardson as Mapp (copyright BBC)

I was lucky to catch part of the filming for Mapp and Lucia in 2013, where Market Street, in front of Town Hall, had been transformed into a bustling 1920s street, and it was easy to imagine what Rye would have been like a hundred years ago.

E.F. Benson was also a prolific writer of ghost stories and wrote dozens of them, many of them set in Rye. What is perhaps more surprising is that both of his brothers A.C.Benson and R.H. Benson, who were also published novelists, were enthusiastic writers of ghost stories. It seems as if the whole family were obsessed, or should I say were possessed with the supernatural.

But the ghosts in Lamb House did not stay confined to the page and the house itself seemed to have had its own ghostly visitors. Of course, this is hardly surprising, as an ancient town like Rye has its fair share of ghosts with the 14th century Mermaid Inn, just round the corner from Lamb House, having the reputation as being one of the most haunted hotels in the Country.

This particular ghost appeared one hot summer’s day in Lamb House, when Benson and the local vicar were sitting in the garden, which was recounted by Benson in his autobiography, written in 1940, where they saw:

…the figure of a man walk past this open doorway. He was dressed in black and he wore a cape the right wing of which, as he passed, he threw across his chest, over his left shoulder. His head was turned away and I did not see his face. The glimpse I got of him was very short, for two steps took him past the open doorway … Simultaneously the Vicar jumped out of his chair, exclaiming: “Who on earth was that?” It was only a step to the open door, and there, beyond, the garden lay, basking in sun and empty of any human presence. He told me what he had seen: it was exactly what I had seen, except that our visitor had worn hose, which I had not noticed.

This appears to be the only sighting recorded of this ghostly figure, during Benson’s time at the house, although later tenants were also convinced of a ghostly presence. The Bensons were an extraordinary and talented family, with the spectre of bipolar disorder always a constant presence in their lives, and they deserve a story all to themselves.

Is this the doorway where the ghost appeared?

The literary presence in Lamb House continued when another writer moved there in 1967. Rumer Godden is a name perhaps not so familiar with many people and I freely admit that she was unknown to me prior to researching this article. She was however a prolific author and during her career she wrote over 60 books for both children and adults, many featuring her earlier life in Bangladesh, Calcutta and Kashmir. She also, surprise surprise, wrote a number of ghost stories; it appears to have been an obligatory part of living in Lamb House. She certainly felt, at times, that there was a ghostly presence around, when she was alone in the house.

If Rumer Godden is unfamiliar, then one of her most famous novels “Black Narcissus” is probably not, as it became a cult film in 1947, starring Deborah Kerr and directed by Powell and Pressburger the two doyens of the British Film industry at the time. This film, a psychological drama about a group of Anglican Nuns in the Himalayas, was full of repressed sexuality and emotions and was groundbreaking in its treatment of female sexual desire.

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (1947)

By the time Rumer Godden moved into Lamb House in 1968, as a tenant, Lamb House had been owned and run by the National Trust since 1950, when it was bequested to the Trust by a relative of James. They continued to rent out the top floor of the house until 2018, when the last tenant left and it is only now that the house can be enjoyed in its entirety.

By coincidence, I have recently learnt that St Leonard’s A Town Explores a Book Festival has chosen for its 2022 book ‘The Diddakoi’, a novel for young adults about the Romany Community, which won the 1972 Whitbread Prize for Godden. So it appears that this long forgotten author is on the verge of a long overdue renaissance.

To bring together all the myths surrounding ghostly visitations in Lamb House, it was left to another one time resident of Rye, Joan Aiken, who published ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’ in 1991, mixing truth and fiction over the life of Lamb House and spanning nearly three centuries.

Joan Aiken, the daughter of American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Conrad Aitken, was born just around the corner in Mermaid Street. Her novel was divided into three parts, the first set during the time of the original Lamb family, then moving on to the Henry James era and finally in the third part to the time of Fred Benson, all different stories but all linked by a ghostly visitation, mixing fact and fantasy to great effect.

The Cover of ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’ by Joan Aiken 1991, now sadly out of print

Other Tenants of note at Lamb House were the MP and writer H. Montgomery Hyde, who lived here between 1963 and 1967, and who was best known for his tireless campaigning in respect of Homosexual reform and Brian Batsford, an artist, publisher, designer and politician, who became best known for his illustrations, in particular his brightly coloured posters and for the cover to the travel guide ‘The Villages of England’.

And what of Lamb House today? I can state, from personal experience, that it is thriving in the excellent hands of the National Trust. Now that it no longer has tenants, the upstairs has been opened up to visitors and a complete restoration of the rooms has taken place to reflect the glory days when Henry James held court to a constant stream of literary visitors.

There is not much trace of the other writers that spent so much productive time here, but I am sure that they would not mind, after all, they all acknowledged that Henry James was ‘The Master’.

The Garden is a wonderful space and is reputed to be the largest garden on Rye. Although, James confessed that he was no gardener, he employed a close friend Alfred Parsons to design the layout and planting and in time he took great delight in the garden. The Trust admits that the garden is still a work in progress and the aim is to restore the garden to its original design as envisaged by Parsons.

But what of the ghosts? On the warm spring day that we visited, there wasn’t much of a ghostly feel, at least not of the clanking chains and wailing variety. However, I did feel the spirit of the place. My belief is that certain buildings and places carry the residue of the people who have lived and passed through there. That is why great churches and cathedrals give off a certain aura.

Lamb House is certainly in that category and, although I am sceptical about the physical manifestations of the dead, I am convinced that Lamb House is permeated by all of the great writers and artists who have passed through its doors, and in that respect, it truly is a haunted house.

The Boy who Loved the Sea

When Paula Rego brought her stories to Hastings

Catalogue produced to accompany the Exhibition

In May 2017, a documentary film was made for the BBC, by Nick Willing, the son of Paula Rego and Victor Willing, which revealed for the first time, in Paula Rego’s own words, how her life had impacted on her art, Paula Rego, Secrets and Stories. Following this film, the Jerwood Gallery (now Hastings Contemporary), held a major exhibition of her work, showing a large amount of new material for the first time.

For me, having been a volunteer at the Gallery, since moving to the area in 2013, the exhibition was a revelation. I must confess, rather ashamedly, that her work had mostly passed me by until then, but when I walked into the gallery that first day of the exhibition, I was smitten. Here was a unique vision of the world, forged through pain and trauma. But despite the darkness in much of her work, there is also, paradoxically, a radiant humour that shines through, a ray of hope that lifts the spirits, as you walk through the exhibition.

Paula Rego’s life has been well documented, from her childhood in Portugal growing up under the oppressive dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, to her arrival in England aged 17 to study at Slade School of Art, her subsequent marriage to the artist Victor Willing and his tragic decline and death as a result of Multiple Schlerosis; finally Paula’s well deserved recognition as one of the great figurative artists of the late 20th and early 21st century.

However, for me, it is ultimately her art which defines Paula Rego and, in this exhibition, she demonstrated this, having produced an exciting series of relatively new work, based on books or stories that had made an impact on her life. These stories, which formed the mainstay of this exhibition in the large Foreshore Gallery, consisted of 2 or 3 large scale pictures for each story, mostly in Rego’s favourite medium, Pastel, all in vibrant colours.

These pictures, with echoes of myths, folk tales and Old Master paintings are laced with characters, who display a mixture of humour, sadness, evil and innocence – all human life is on show here.

There were 4 stories, which Rego illustrated, ‘The Relic’ and ‘Cousin Basilio’ both based on 19th century novels by the Portuguese writer Eça de Querios, ‘The Boy Who Loved the Sea’, a contemporary Portuguese novel by Helia Correia and finally ‘The Last King of Portugal’, the true story of how the last King of Portugal had to escape for his life and ending up in the suburbs of London.

The 2 books by Eça de Querios are essentially morality tales, full of avarice, hypocrisy, misogyny and lust and it is not difficult to see why Paula Rego, the artist of human frailty, was drawn to these books.

The Relic is a comic novel, revolving around a dissolute young man hoping to inherit his religious aunt’s fortune, by pretending to be pious. Inevitably, his plans are scuppered by a farcical mix up, where instead of giving his aunt a gift from his travels, he gives her a negligee from a prostitute.

In the below picture the nephew Teodirico meets the prostitute Adelia for the first time. She lies on the couch looking exhausted after their encounter, surrounded by various onlookers.

Meeting Adelia 2013 – Courtesy of Artist and Hastings Contemporary

In the final picture of the series, Teodirico is undone, clutching the negligee looking totally chastened, whilst his aunt points an accusing finger at him, the title of this this image, full of humour, says it all “Get out of here, you and your Filth”.

Get out of here, you and your Filth, 2013 – Courtesy of Artist and Hastings Contemporary

Cousin Basilio is a dark story of bourgeois marital infidelity and blackmail; in the picture below there is plenty going on, the husband Jorge is lazing on the couch, whilst his wife Luiza dreams of her lover, Cousin Basilio, who is due to arrive at the house, when Jorge is away on business. The maid, presumably the blackmailer, looks on taking in the whole scene, while the large portrait of Jorge’s mother, hanging on the wall, looks on menacingly.

Breakfast 2015 – Courtesy of Artist and Hastings Contemporary

The story, which gives the Exhibition its title, is a dark story full of child abuse, cruelty, sadness and the childhood hope of something better in this world, which is represented by the sea. The boy in question believes his father is the sea and in order to escape his awful life he runs away, but dies when he reaches the sea “The sky was blue, the sea was blue and the boy was also blue…because he was dead”.

The Boy who Loved the Sea series, 2017 – Courtesy of Artist and Hastings Contemporary

The story that made the biggest impression on me was the true story of the Last King of Portugal, also known as Manuel the Unfortunate, a story that also had enormous significance for Paula Rego. Manuel was crowned the King of Portugal in 1908, following the assassination of his Father and Brother, but in 1910 he had to flee for his life after a Republican revolution. Manuel and his Mother Queen Amelia fled in a small boat into exile, from the tiny fishing village of Ericeira, eventually ending up in England. Paula Rego had spent a lot of her childhood in Ericeira and had lived there for a time with Victor and their daughter, so this place had a special significance for her. The picture below shows Manuel escaping in a small rowing boat, cradling his elderly Mother, with crowds of people watching on from the top of the cliff.

Rowing from Ericeira, 2014 – Courtesy of artist and Hastings Contemporary

A photograph taken of the actual event, shows an almost identical scene, the only difference being the rather larger boats. Paul Rego, in her picture, uses artistic licence to create a more intimate and emotionally satisfying scene.

Actual footage of the King’s escape from Ericeira 1910

Manuel lived for many years in Fulwell Park, a glorious mansion, near Twickenham in South West London, which was sadly later demolished to make way for suburban housing. Manuel’s great passions were Portuguese literature, opera and tennis. Although fit and healthy, having played tennis the day before, on the 2nd July 1932, Manuel was taken ill with a bad throat and died a few hours later.

The official cause of death was oedema of the throat, a swelling which blocks the air passage, however there has always been suspicions around his sudden death and rumours abounded that he had been poisoned. These suspicions were fuelled by the fact that in 1931 an intruder had been discovered in the grounds of Fulwell Park who, when arrested, was confirmed as being a prominent member of a Portuguese republican terrorist group. The true facts will never be known.

Below is a photograph of Manuel taken a few hours before he died, looking hale and hearty. He could have died of an allergic reaction, but a sudden death feels rather unlikely when looking at this man. I lived in this area of South West London for 27 years and it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely setting for Regicide than this middle class leafy suburb, but stranger things have happened.

Manuel II just hours before his death at Fulwell Park; 2 July 1932.

In Paula Rego’s interpretation, Manuel is lying in his bed clutching his throat in agony, while his maid stares impassively at him, clutching something in her hand. Her expression is ambiguous and even more so with the reflection in the mirror, a technique that Paula Rego uses to good effect in many of her pictures. There can be no doubt that something bad is going on here.

The King’s Death, 2014 – Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary

This painting also had a big impact on my son-in-law, when he visited the exhibition. As a result he was moved to write an excellent poem of the incident, which with his permission I am publishing here.

Manuel, The Unfortunate
(after Paula Rego’s Last King of Portugal)

Both sides of the story of your death
involve striped pyjamas, a maid, and the deep rich red
of your bedroom wallpaper. Was your outpost
at Fulwell, Twickenham, private and secure enough
to keep at bay those Republican activists
who might by various means have poisoned you?
Or can we assume you over-exerted yourself
one too many times at tennis, and in so doing
activated some hereditary bronchial condition,
hitherto undetected, with fatal consequence?
None at Scotland Yard had strength or means
to piece together the evidence either way.
Goodnight, sweet prince.
Let acrylic, graphite and pastel on paper
mounted on aluminium be your epitaph.

Published with kind permission of William Kemp (copyright)

These series of stories, show the influence of Old Master paintings on Paula Rego’s later style, following a period as artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, and I can see echoes of Velasquez in some of the characters.

Paula Rego, in her career, has never shied away from controversy, highlighting women’s issues, misogyny and abortion. Her shocking series of abortion pictures played an important part in the campaign to legalise abortion in Portugal. In this exhibition, a number of Works on paper from her ‘Depression’ series created in 2007 were on show. These works, which were exhibited for the first time in 2017, show that Rego is not afraid to expose her soul to the world. She has made no secret of her struggles with her mental health over the years, which make these works all the more poignant and moving.

The Depression Series, 2007- Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary
Eleven, 2007 – Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary

What hasn’t been mentioned is Paula Rego’s superb draughtmanship and this can be seen in her lithographs and etchings illustrating classic novels such as Jane Eyre, Peter Pan and children’s nursery rhymes. Of course, Rego always puts her own twist on things and there are always a number of challenging images, such as the grotesque mermaid drowning Wendy.

Lithographs and Etchings illustrating Peter Pan, 1992 – Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary

Her illustrations for Jane Eyre are equally disturbing, showing scenes of misogyny, male dominance and abuse, giving a feminist perspective to this well known work, long before the ‘MeToo’ movement.

Lithographs and Etchings illustrating Jane Eyre, 2002 – Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary

Not long before the exhibition, Paula a suffered a very bad fall on a concrete path, causing serious bruises and nasty cuts, but in her typical way she used the situation to produce a series of quickly executed self portraits. There is complete honesty and a total lack of self pity in these portraits, which are also full of life and humour and demonstrate that even in old age, Paula, has not lost any of her edge.

Over many years as an artist, Paula Rego has changed her method of working, and today works almost exclusively in her studio, using her long term friend and assistant, Lila, as a life model and, in more recent years, utilising a large number of props and what she calls her dollies, models of all types, which she constructs in paper-mache. These models have become works of art in their own right. Below can be seen some of the dollies on show during the exhibition and Paula, in her studio, together with her grotesque mermaid dollies.

Photograph – copyright Nick Willing

No article about Paula Rego would be complete without mentioning Victor Willing, who since his untimely early death has been somewhat overshadowed by his wife, as her fame has grown. Victor Willing was a fantastic artist in his own right and, in my opinion, has been sadly neglected. Hastings Contemporary have attempted to remedy that with a major exhibition of his work in 2020 and we were able to appreciate the quality of his art and what he might have achieved, if his health hadn’t declined, resulting in his relatively early death.

Despite many years of exile from her homeland and the controversies of past times, Paula Rego, is now regarded as a National Treasure in Portugal and, in 2009, a dedicated museum was built in her honour in Cascais, where she had spent much time as a child called ‘The Paula Rego House of Stories’ housing both art by herself and her late husband Victor Willing.

At the time of writing this article, Hastings Contemporary (formerly Jerwood Gallery) is about to celebrate its first 10 years as an Art Gallery in Hastings. For much of that time, I have also been part of that journey, working as a volunteer for a few hours a month. During these years, much great art has flowed through the gallery attracting visitors, both locally and from further afield. The Paula Rego exhibition was a superb show and definitely one of the high points of the first 10 years.

Hastings Contemporary has become part of what has been known as The Coastal Art Trail, a ring of cultural highlights running though Kent, East and West Sussex including the Turner Contemporary in Margate, Hastings Contemporary, De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne and further along the coast, the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Art is flourishing and regenerating the South East Coast of England, long may it continue.