Thursday 21 May 2020

Romney Marsh, the English Arcadia and Napoleonic War defenses

It is somewhere between late spring and early summer and I am staying at an old coaching inn whose history dates back to the 14th century. It is situated just outside the ancient city walls of Canterbury whose magnificent medieval cathedral still dominates the summer skyline. The city walls or ramparts are still intact in many places around the city and my inn happens to be just outside the city walls and near the West Gate of the medieval city. The inn originally known as the White Hart is now known as the Falstaff Hotel named after the Shakespearian character. There is meant to be three ghosts but happily, as yet,  I have not seen them.

The Falstaff Inn

The West Gate and Tower
Before we start our journey to Romney Marsh and look at beach defences of the early 19th century - a word more about our starting point. The West Gate was built by Archbishop Simon Sudbury in 1380 and replaced an earlier structure that had been built as long ago as 1023.  It was at this earlier gate that William the Conqueror stopped on his way from London to Normandy in 1067 to re-confer the ancients rights and privileges afforded to Men of Kent. "Men of Kent" being those who lived South and East of the River Medway. Those who lived in the west of the county were deemed to be "Kentish Men".  There is a suggestion that this ancient divide owes its origins to the fact,  that in the east the settlers were mainly Jutes and to the west mainly Saxons - these Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes had settled in England or should we say Engel-Land the land of the Engels or Angles as written today. It was said that the Men of Kent resisted the Conqueror more strongly than did the Kentish men, but that may not be very fair on the Angles and Saxons.

The White Hart Hotel as it was then known was just outside the city walls. At night the gates to the medieval city were closed and pilgrims unable to reach the city before dark would stay at inns such as the White Hart. It was renamed the Falstaff in Elizabethan times. Sir John Falstaff appears as a corpulent knight in Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

Queen Elizabeth was so taken by this character that Shakespear included him as a central character in The Merry Wives of Windsor. To an Elizabethan audience, Falstaff would be instantly recognizable -  not so today.

Nonetheless, the name has become an adjective. In it is described as one "having the qualities of Falstaff, especially his robust, bawdy humour, good-natured rascality, and brazen braggadocio".
"An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun".    

(first stanza from "The Road at My Door" by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

As I start my journey to Romney Marsh through the English arcadia - I notice the buttercups seem more abundant than ever. 

Is there anything more cheerful than a buttercup.

Is there anything more cheerful than a buttercup

 Perhaps only a field full of buttercups!

Perhaps only a field of buttercups

 The prickly Hawthorn bush is alive with blossom like snow in summer.

The Hawthorn in full bloom 
Blossom like snow in summer

Romney Marsh is that low lying area of rich green grass and dykes and ditches that lies between the sea on the right,  and the Saxon shoreline marked by the low line of hills that stretch from Hythe to the ragstone cliffs at Fairlight near Hastings. There's something magical and mysterious about the Marsh  - sometimes described as the fifth quarter of the globe. Richard Barham in "The Ingoldsby Legends" wrote, "the world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa and Romney Marsh". Nonsense of course, but there is something different about the Marsh. When you are on it you see more sky because of its low lying nature and when you look inland you can see the ancient coastline of Roman Britain. Towns like Rye and Winchelsea were once islands. Inland towns like New Romney were once ports. The days of buccaneers and smugglers have gone but left their mark. The sea has retreated and today Norman churches stand on what were once little islets amongst the salt marshes. There is on the marsh an uneasy alliance between land, sea and sky.

We catch our first glimpse of Romney Marsh at Lympne - here,  I am standing on the sea-cliffs of Roman Britain. Nearby there is a medieval castle and an ancient church. The castle is privately owned and said to be haunted. On a spring day, it seemed more enchanted than haunted. In Roman times, ships sailed over the shallow waters of what is now Romney Marsh to the Roman port of Portus Lemanis from which the name Lympne is derived. The Roman port was lower down the hill near and situated close to where the remains of Stutfall castle lie today. These old stone walls were part of a Roman and later Saxon fort built on the shoreline.

Lympne Castle and the remains (lower down the hill)  of Stutfall Castle  marking the Roman port of  Portus Lemanis

I wander into the churchyard that lies adjacent to Lympne Castle.  Was there ever a more beautiful view of Romney Marsh than from this quiet spot - the church is built on the crest of the hill and in one coup d'oeil you can see the Romney Marshes stretching out to Dungeness in the glimmering haze that marks  the horizon.

Churchyard with a view

As I look at these ancient graves I am minded of Gray's Elegy written in a country churchyard:

"Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-trees shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
         How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
         Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

(Thomas Gray  - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

General Woolf who took Quebec by an extraordinary feat of arms was reputed to have said of this poem (shown in part above) :

"Gentlemen, I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec tomorrow". 

But lets us move on to military defences before digressing into poetry and the English pastoral arcadia.

I walked past Lympne Castle through wooded glades:

Catching glimpses of the land below:

At the bottom of the scarp, I come across the Royal Military Canal - it stretches along the foot of the low line of hills that mark the old coastline of Roman Britain.  It was built in 1804 as part of the defences against the feared invasion of Britain by the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte who had assembled an army on the Channel Coast as long ago as 1798.  In 1803 L'Armee d'Angleterre was assembled at Boulogne and a flotilla of invasion barges was prepared. Napoleon was master of Europe, if only he could cross this narrow strip of water he could conquer and subdue the old enemy.  Unfortunately for Napoleon, the Royal Navy impeded this by their blockade of French ports and their mastery of the seas. However, back at this time, there was a serious concern about the threat of invasion. In preparation for which not only was the Royal Military Canal built but a 100 forts known as Martello Towers were built along the coast

The construction of the Royal Military Canal was commenced in 1804 with the approval of then Prime Minister - William Pitt the Younger. It ran for 28 Miles from Hythe to Rye.  The northern or inland bank of the canal was built up to form a parapet from the excavated soil and a military road was constructed beside it. Gun batteries were built at intervals and positioned to provide enfilading fire. It was finally finished in 1809  by which time the Battle of Trafalgar had been won and the French fleet defeated and the threat of invasion had been lifted. Admiral John Jervis was reported to have said of the French invasion army: 

" I do not say they cannot come - I only say they cannot come by sea".

 The Royal Military Canal today is a peaceful and pretty waterway that runs along the edge of Romney Marsh.

At the time of its construction, it was regarded as a "white elephant" created at enormous expense and critics like William Corbett argued, how we could have expected "those armies who had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube to be kept back by a canal 30 ft wide at most"!

Other than the Royal Military Canal and Redoubts built at intervals along the coast a hundred Martello Towers were built along the coast of Southeast England. These were round towers that housed an officer and detachment of soldiers who manned a cannon that could traverse 360 degrees.  Many of these forts still remain today like the one in the car park at Dymchurch shown below.

But my favourite  Martello Tower on Romney Marsh has to be the one in ruins at Rye Harbour also known as Frenchman's Creek.

The British Navy had come across such towers at Mortella in Corsica and one such tower had held of two British warships in 1794. They were formidable defences. They stood 40 feet high with walls that were 8 feet thick. Narrow slit windows provided loopholes for musket fire. Most towers had one cannon that could traverse 360 degrees. Typically manned by one officer and 24 men. 

Now its time to begin my journey back and leave the marsh and from my car you can see the old coastline of Roman and Saxon Britain and some of the flat land that makes up the Romney Marsh with its ditches and dykes  - you can see a lot of sky as always on the Marsh - and finally, the canal lies glittering in the late afternoon sun and the Martello Towers tell their story of long ago.


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