A walk within Winchelsea
This walk should take about 90 minutes. It should be suitable for disabled visitors.
Start at the Look Out, which is to be found at the lower (eastern) end of the High Street at the top of Strand Hill. Just on the other side of the wall is an interpretation board describing the view from the Look Out and the history of the location. There are similar boards at three other cardinal viewing points around Winchelsea (the bottom of School Hill in the north, the former windmill site in the west and by St Johns Hospital wall in the south).
The Look Out was built in 1867 as a viewing platform for visitors. However, it soon became a gathering point for locals and was described at the end of the 19th century by Ford Madox Ford in his book The History of the Cinque Ports (1899):
"Here, on a rainy day, one may sit and enjoy life and leisure. The marsh stretches out below one's feet: beyond that a narrow strip of sea and the narrower strip of pebble-land on which stands Dungeness Lighthouse; beyond that again more sea and the cliffs near Folkestone. The whole of Romney Marsh is visible on the left and, on the right, the full sweep of the Channel. One may sit there and lazily read, glancing occasionally at the small figures of the people wandering along the road towards the sea. One may, if one cares, speculate on who they are, where they are going, why none of them is a whit better than they should be, and, if it is a soaking day, on how wet they will get. For the patron of the nook is, without doubt, Dame Gossip."
The view of Dungeness Lighthouse is now obscured by the nuclear power station, which rather looks like an aircraft carrier on the horizon (at about 11 o'clock in directional terms from the Look Out). There is a view of Camber Castle (at about 10 o'clock), which should really be called Winchelsea Castle. This was one of Henry VIII’s coastal gun fortresses. It was built at the end of a spit of land to defend the entrance to the Camber, which was the anchorage between Winchelsea and Rye. Incorporating an earlier tower built by Sir Edward Guldeford between 1512 and 1514, it was reconstructed several times between 1538 and 1543. However, the Castle was soon stranded by the shifting shingle beach and was decommissioned in 1637.
The view of Rye is partly obscured by the trees on the side of Strand Hill. It is believed that Old Winchelsea is due south of Rye (at about 11 o’clock from the Look Out), somewhere in what is now Rye Bay, where it was finally overwhelmed by the sea in 1287.
Below the Look Out is the Royal Military Canal, built between 1804 and 1809 as a defence against Bonaparte’s planned invasion of England and extending in an arc for 29 miles from Cliff End (some 3 miles to your right) to Shorncliffe in Kent (away to the left). The Canal joins the River Brede at the Strand Bridge, which is just after the junction between the road from Winchelsea to Rye and the road off to Winchelsea Beach (Sea Road). There is a famous engraving by JMW Turner of an incident at the junction of the Canal and the Brede when a temporary dam protecting the construction of the junction was swept away by the spring tide.
An earthwork parapet lined the bank of the Canal, which varied in width from 30 to 60 feet. The Canal followed a zig-zag and, at each angle, there was a fortified redoubt armed with cannon that would have swept the Canal to destroy any boats attempting to cross. Before the arrival of the enemy, the Canal itself would have been used to move troops and heavy equipment quickly to threatened areas. There was also a road behind the Canal for rapid reinforcement.
Beyond the Royal Military Canal is Winchelsea Beach. This settlement started to appear in the 1930’s. It was originally a collection of holiday shacks, but it has become a dormitory for neighbouring towns. However, the sea defences in front of Winchelsea Beach are being abandoned and, sometime before the middle of the century, the area is expected to return to brackish marshland that will be submerged at high tide. This will be much as it was when New Winchelsea was founded in 1288. The area was then called the Spadland Marsh, of which the part immediately below Winchelsea was called Trecherie. Until then, however, Winchelsea remains one of the “Ports of Stranded Pride” in Rudyard Kipling’s poem Sussex (1902).
And east till doubling Rother crawls
To find the fickle tide,
By dry and sea-forgotten walls,
Our ports of stranded pride.
The Look Out was the setting for a local comedy in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s involving the men employed by the Corporation of Winchelsea to maintain the Look Out. Two of the keepers - "Chummy" Bardon (keeper from 1929 to1943) and Fred Curd (1944-1966) - spun the yarn for gullible tourists (and journalists) that they were part of a long line of watchman employed by the Corporation since the raids of the 14th century to watch for approaching French ships. They would often dress up for the occasion, Chummy in a top hat and Fred in the costume of the Corporation s sergeant-at-mace. In 1958, the Guardian wrote:
Every now and then they find some forgotten island in the Pacific inhabited by Japanese soldiers who have still not heard that the Second World War has ended. This, I now discover, is nothing. I have just found a place in Sussex where they are still paying a man to look out for the coming of the French invasion fleet.
The fiction came to a head in 1964-65 with articles in papers as diverse as the Daily Express and Die Welt, and features on the BBC and other TV channels. When Fred said that he needed a new telescope, one was duly sent by a firm in Toronto. It was all too much for the mirthless dignity of the Mayor at the time and Fred was replaced in 1966, his successor sworn to kill the harmless legend.
On the other side of the road to the Look Out, just to the left of the Strand Gate, is Tower Cottage, the home of the actress Ellen Terry between 1896 and 1906, after which she moved to Smallhythe in Kent.
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