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A walk around Winchelsea

Climb over the stile and walk down the right-hand side of the field (marked by a line of electricity poles) until you come to another gate and stile in front of a bridge across a wide ditch. Cross the stile and then the bridge. You are now on what looks like a raised dyke. In front of you is a much wider ditch. The dyke and ditch are the remains of 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). That is where you are heading. The dyke is the remains of the earthwork parapet that lined the bank of the Canal, which varied in width from 30 to 62 foot. 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 to allow quick reinforcement. The narrow ditch behind you provided drainage for the road.

Amateur generals tend to dismiss the Royal Military Canal as a folly that would have failed to stop Napoleon. This ignores the fact that it is very difficult for troops to cross water under fire. And, even if the Canal had eventually been breached by the French, it would have given the British more time to concentrate their forces against the enemy.

Cross the Canal using the concrete bridge ahead of you, through the two gates at either end. Please remember to close the gates. Turn left and follow the Canal. Winchelsea should be above you on your left. The trees that now cover the cliffside are home to many species of bird including rooks, green woodpeckers and herons. In winter, when the trees have shed their leaves, you may be able to see a small section of stone wall along part of the cliff top. This is the very last remnant above ground of the medieval town wall. Think how the medieval town must have looked in its heyday in the early 14th century. Where you are standing would have been marshland. Ahead of you, ships would have been sailing back and forth to the harbour. Above you, there would be no trees, just the town wall - which would have been rendered and white-washed - hiding most of the buildings and all the noise of a busy port town.

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4 The Royal Military Canal

The Royal Military Canal
The Royal Military Canal