There are places I’ll remember
All my life,
Though some have changed.
Some for better,
Some for ever.
Some have gone,
But some remain.
As we came out of lockdown during July, I began spending two or three days a week visiting (or rather, re-visiting) a lot of places I’d had on a vague mental “tick list” for some time. Many of these, though by no means all, held associations for me from times in my distant, or fairly distant, past. Maps helped string some of these together for longer Sunday walks. Most of these “places” were in Kent or East Sussex. It was great fun. Few were in any sense on the beaten track, and cunning use of the path alongside the Royal Military Canal, coupled with the well-signposted but not too well-frequented Saxon Shore Way, facilitated a whole string of circular outings across the Romney Marsh and the downs above Folkestone,
The Romney Marsh was an area I’d spent much time exploring as a kid and young teenager, We had family holidays on the coast at Littlestone on Sea. I was never one for the sea or the beach. On foot or, a bit later, on my heavy old Elswick “clunker” pedal bike, I was pretty much free to roam as far as my three-speed gears would take me. Always, I remember, those bike rides seemed to be into the prevailing wind, never with it. And it always, mysteriously, swung into the opposite direction around the time I turned for home.
Thus it was that I got to visit most of the (to me at that time) spooky old medieval “wool churches” on the Marsh, or, in complete contrast, marvel at the scale of the building site for the Dungeness B nuclear power station, alongside its (at that time, still-operational) forbear, Dungeness A. Such things, and the acres of uncluttered sky above it all, were well outside the usual day to day experience of a south-east London schoolboy. They made an indelible mark on me: an itch that has demanded scratching for many years, but which, for shame, I have often neglected. That it was a beginning in total contrast to the amount of time I have spent in mountains and high places during my adult life, is a paradox I still grapple with.
When lockdown eased and the restriction on local travel lifted, the need for the comfort of familiar but quiet places and to go for long, occasionally contemplative walks began to call. The simple logistics of getting from home to somewhere on the edge of the Marsh, armed with a map, a packed lunch and a flask of tea, took away the need to think too much about where we should go.
Our determination to follow the course of the Royal Military Canal in stages for several of our walks eventually took us to Rye and Winchelsea.
Both had been at the outer limit of where I could cycle to, and back, when I was a kid. The body was willing, the bike was the weak link. Winchelsea, which hardly seemed to have altered, had first drawn me for a revisit very soon after lockdown ended. I’d never been to pay my respects at Spike Milligan’s last resting place, in the big churchyard. As coincidence happens, Milligan had been one of my main comic heroes when I was a young teenager.
I don’t think I was ever aware quite how scenic the route of the Royal Military Canal is. As a kid, I couldn’t ride my bike on the rough grass paths that flank it. I loved every metre of discovering it recently on foot, and want to get back during the winter, when there will be fewer leaves on the trees on the canal banks, allowing more characterful reflections and still bigger vistas.
The Canal was also a good way to visit several of the “wool churches” of the Romney Marsh. These mediaeval churches were originally endowed by local gentry who had grown rich on the wool from the ever-present sheep on the Marsh. Ostensibly they served local communities, yet the relatively remote location of many of them suggests that their “local” congregations were never large. However, the churches themselves are reasonably large, considering. Presumably this once reflected the importance of the parish, or the wealth of the patron. The founding of most of these churches seems to have been before 1100AD. They most probably began as wooden buildings, later rebuilt in imported stone.
As a kid, I found those churches that had an open door very scary to enter alone, and I was too timid ever to ask for the key to those kept locked. It would probably have been refused to me, a mere kid, anyway. Scarier still were the graveyards, if they had one. Strange, because I have a fascination these days with old burial places (witness my blog a few years back, here.) I’ve included a recent photo of the most remote of these churches, at Fairfield, well on the way towards Rye, which is famous enough currently to grace the cover of the local 1:25,000 scale OS map.
Sad to say, I don’t have any photos from “back then” – we’re talking about roughly 1964 to 1970 as I recall. I didn’t own my first camera until, I think, 1971, although I’d been allowed to take my mother’s Kodak Box Brownie (620 roll film) on school outings from time to time. My bike didn’t have a carrier or a saddlebag, so it would have been almost impossible to carry it, and I suspect the shaking it would have received would not have gone down well.
One thing I particularly regret is not having any photos showing the old sea wall on the stretch of coast beside which we stayed. This ran from Greatstone down towards Hythe. It was made up of a massive set of concrete steps, maybe half to three-quarters sea-covered at the average full tide. The whole length of it had a real “art deco” style, inwardly-curving top section, designed to diffuse the stronger waves in heavy seas. I’m referring to it in the past tense, but actually, it’s still there. The difference is that nowadays, most of it has been buried beneath what must amount to many millions of tons of shingle that have been moved there from further up the coast, as part of work to improve coastal defences. I’ve been completely unable to find any record of this work online, but it must have been a massive undertaking, stretching along several miles of coast. The old sea wall I remember so well still exists if you walk down to Dymchurch and along towards Hythe.
The photos with this chapter of the blog are all from this summer’s explorations.