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.

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

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