Neither Fish nor Foul
Many coastlines offer a radically different perspective when experienced from the sea, rather than from dry land. This is particularly true of the area in southern England from Rye (a beautiful medieval town renowned for its fish) to Folkestone which, in every sense of the word, is truly "foul". This post is about the bit in between - St Mary's Bay - where I am writing this sitting on a bench on the beach, watching one of the most glorious sunsets in recent memory (see the photo immediately to the right, taken late this afternoon)
The Kent coast from the North Foreland as far as Folkestone is spectacularly beautiful, and studded with some truly epic seaside pubs (such as the Zetland Arms at Kingsdown). Unfortunately, if we can for one moment skip over the commercial monstrosity that is Dover, after Ramsgate there are no viable ports of call until Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne. This blog, therefore, is intended to give a hint of the hidden secrets which passing sailors may never experience first-hand, because from the sea there appears to be precious little of merit, and nowhere really to go ashore.
Hard as it may be to believe nowadays, in the late Victorian era Folkestone was an elegant seaside destination, once favourably compared to Biarritz! Little remains of its cosmopolitan splendour, and during WW1 it became the embarkation point for troops crossing the Channel to fight in France (casualties were evacuated to Dover in order to ensure that fresh recruits never witnessed the true horrors of war until they were already in the thick of it). Although the harbour is tidal and muddy, a busy ferry service operated from here to Boulogne, though when this closed shortly after the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, the port (and with it the town) fell into decrepitude, and there are no real facilities or local attractions to lure the passing sailor. (I used to go there in my bilge-keeler to dry out in order to scrape the bottom and check the anodes, but it really is a filthy place to anchor).
A mile west of the harbour a truly miraculous change occurs, and the Lower Leas Coastal Park offers stunning views and amenities to rival anywhere on the Cote d'Azur. The promenade along the beach is studded with pastel-coloured beach huts, and the Mermaid Café now has an upper balcony serving all the right things to drink whilst staring out across the Varne Bank towards France. (The English Channel narrows here, and there is a remarkable amount of two-way traffic in both directions, clearly visible on all but the very worst days). The whole area reminds me of Juan Les Pins and the Cap d'Antibes, and as the path meanders past the late medieval castle in Sandgate, it opens up into a boardwalk backed by some fairly impressive houses reaching right onto the beach.
After Sandgate, the cliff line retreats inland, though following the road up towards Shorncliffe yields spectacular views across the bay as far as Dungeness - and, once again - France and Cap Gris Nez are clearly visible, a mere 25 miles across the waves. Unlike Folkestone, Hythe has not lost its charm and elegance, and when a town of only 14,500 residents still has its own Imperial Ballroom sponsored by Moet & Chandon, you surely know that this is not Margate. The promenade continues for 2 miles along the shingle beach with no sign of urban development or commercialisation and ends between one of the best fishmongers in southern England, and the second best Fish & Chip shop in the World*.
Hythe has a certain innocence which belies its rich history; it is (or, rather was) one of the medieval Cinque Ports and had a bustling harbour, of which there is now no trace. Just to the West is the village of Lympne, which 2,000 years ago was, as Portus Lemanis, the base of the Roman fleet in Britain, and stands on top of cliffs which nowadays are several miles from the receding sea. The Royal Military Canal begins in Hythe, and runs along the coast to Rye: originally conceived as a defensive line against Napoleon's Grand Armee (which had crossed the Rhine, Dnieper and Niemen Rivers with apparent ease), the 10 metre wide canal is now a nature reserve running through the wilderness of Romney Marsh and into the River Rother at Rye.
Until 1287 the Rother was navigable as far inland as Robertsbridge, and entered what was in those days a tidal lagoon, near Lydd. Both Rye and Hythe were important ports, but after a single storm the course of the river changed, the lagoon (and with it all the harbours) silted up, and Rye is now 2 miles inland. (Neighbouring Winchelsea - until that point the 3rd most important port in England - was inundated and now lies underwater, 3 miles out to sea). Of all the islands in the lagoon, Romney was devastated but survived, and soon found itself linked to the mainland across 8 miles of sub-tidal wetlands. The village I live in, on top of the original cliff line, still has nautical street names such as Boat Lane and Giggers Green, and a Roman villa which, back in the day, must have stood on the beach overlooking the lagoon. These days the Marsh is all sheep and caravan parks, but the view across it is nonetheless breathtakingly beautiful.
West of Romney and Dymchurch St Mary's Bay spreads out in a wide arc to the surreal shingle headland of Dungeness. There is something preternatural and other-worldly about Dungeness - what with an abandoned lighthouse, two decommissioned nuclear reactors and more dolphins than you can shake a stick at. I sometimes go down there in the early morning, especially in the winter, and the place is not so much spooky as a desolate, barren wilderness - complete with tumbleweed, wooden and corrugated iron shacks, and abandoned fishing vessels and industrial scale winch gear drawn up on the beach. As an extension of Romney Marsh, it is also designated as a nature reserve, and sometimes referred to as "The Fifth Continent". I know of nowhere else quite like it, and the eclectic filmmaker Derek Jarman made his home there; if you think I am exaggerating about the sheer weirdness of the place, search ******* for "Dungeness Lifeboat Women", and you'll have to pinch yourself to remember that the video you discover is not in fact a Monty Python sketch.
Getting Shot at
Dungeness is a fantastic place to sail - especially given the bizarre tidal gate which allows the East-going sailor almost 9 hours of fair tide up the Channel. Sadly, going Westwards, Rye Bay is not only slightly anticlimactic, but potentially extremely dangerous for any number of reasons. On most weekdays the British Army will do their damndest to sink you with gunfire from coastal batteries. Well, Lydd firing ranges anyhow, but this is merely the most recent in a long sequence of attempts to repel seaborn invaders stretching back as far as the late-Roman "Saxon Shore" fort of Stuttfall near Lympne, past the Napoleonic-era martello towers that stud the shore, to the WW2 pill-boxes and anti-aircraft installations which bristle along the coastline, neatly book-ended by two of Henry VIII's 16th century forts (at Sandgate and Winchelsea Beach). I even have my own secret theory - not without rational underpinnings - that the BBC TV comedy series "Dad's Army" was in fact set in New Romney, and there is no doubt that foreign-looking seafarers have typically been unwelcome along this stretch of coast since time immemorial. ("Dungeness" itself is a Viking name).
Just before Rye harbour there are miles of desolate golden beaches at Camber Sands, backed by dunes just high enough to mask the tawdry chalets and holiday parks that litter the coast from Dymchurch to the outskirts of Rye itself, and after that a line of slowly rising cliffs which peak just before Hastings.
Rye is truly splendid; visitors to the UK should forget Bath, forget Stratford on Avon, forget every other chocolate-box picture postcard they might ever have seen of Ye Olde England - Rye is the Real Deal. As an example - and there are many, many others - the Mermaid Inn dates back to 1156, and you can still stay there in very considerable luxury (and expense) to this day. The streets are steep and cobbled; there are antique shops on pretty much every corner; and the local seafood is second to none.
Unfortunately getting there by boat is a nightmare, and not worth the effort. On the flood tide, the River Rother runs at up to 6 knots, and the narrow entrance is hemmed in by low concrete "training walls" which, combined with a vicious swell, have caught many a yachtsperson out and planted them high and dry on the bank. Rye Bay can be extremely dangerous - the entire local lifeboat crew was once drowned just offshore - and the town quay itself is a muddy puddle without facilities or any water whatsoever outside HW +/- 2 hours. Do not sail to Rye. Really. Do not sail to Rye. Hire a car, take the very good train service, even catch a bus if you must, but do not sail into Rye.
Inland from the town, the River Rother is now maintained behind a tidal lock, and is navigable by small craft all the way to Bodiam, about 14 miles upsteam. In the summer I keep a wooden wherry on a bankside mooring, and frequently row for a couple of hours before stopping for a picnic and a glass or six of Pimms. It's totally unspoilt, and you can go all day without seeing another soul, let alone another boat. Kingfishers, Grass snakes swimming across the surface, massive Carp and Tench (and Sea Trout, apparently), and huge birds including Cranes and Red Kites. Totally enchanting. Bodiam Castle itself is the most quintessentially English of English moated castles, and well worth a day out (albeit perhaps not by boat, unless you have muscles like Popeye and a very large canister of Pimms on board). There is a fantastic Pub halfway along (The White Hart) which offers exceptionally good traditional B&B, and for those of you who might have forgotten to pack your own boat, Newenden Boating Station not only hires skiffs by the hour, but also operates an excellent bistro (with decent, clean toilets). Add to this the local aerobatics school which seems to be the launch site for innumerable "White Cliffs of Dover" flights in WW2-era Spitfires and Hurricanes, and you could easily convince yourself that you have entered a timewarp back to the 1930's, and are about to have an impromptu encounter with a foppish Noel Coward (who lived in the village which I currently call home).
Hastings is horrible. Really, truly, awful. And next-door St Leonards on Sea is slightly worse. When William the Conqueror (yes, another French tourist who chose to pay an uninvited visit to this part of the South Coast) landed at Hastings in 1066, its a wonder that he ever bothered fighting a battle over it - most people (with the notable exception of the recently-resident asylum seeker community) - would take one look at it, turn around and go straight home. (Local rumour has it that King Harold got the better end of the deal by taking an arrow in the eye, because unlike William of Normandy, at least he didn't then have to spend the next few weeks looking around Charity shops in Bexhill, and that's really all there is to do down there).
From Rye to Pevensey there really is nothing to attract any but the most wayward and undiscerning tourist (except, apparently, a nudist beach at Fairlight, though I suspect that's also just a local rumour akin to the Loch Ness Monster).
Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne is where you want to be (but probably not Eastbourne itself); I was moored there for a year and thoroughly enjoyed it - 24 hour access, good facilities, restaurants, shops and bars, and an excellent launch pad for either the spectacular coastline around Beachy Head and on towards Brighton, or for heading due south for your choice of Dieppe, St Valery or Fecamp. The Tiger Inn at East Dean - say no more.
There's far more to this part of the World than meets the nautical eye; there is an abundance of wildlife (including not just Dolphins - dozens of Dolphins - but amazingly enough increasing numbers of Bluefin Tuna and other exotic species such as Sunfish up to an astonishing 1,320kg). On a clear day you can see not just France but - from the South Foreland above Dover - even parts of Belgium, the air is clear, the sunrises and sunsets can be spectacular, and inland from the coast there is a treasure trove of unadulterated English cultural heritage just waiting to be discovered.
Pull up a chair, pour yourself an improbably large gin & tonic, dial up Groove Armada's "At the River" on Amazon Music, kick back and simply soak it all up. Just try not to look too foreign, or the locals are likely to shoot you
* The best Fish & Chip shop in the entire World is of course located in a tin shed on a remote beach in Langkawi, Malaysia at approximately 6.43826 degrees N, 99.80162 degrees East
- Feb 23, 2021
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