Living as I did, and still do on the marsh, one could not go further than two hundred yards without coming into contact with it. Water was all around one; the sea to the south and the River Brede to the north being the two largest obstacles to keep we kids in our area. The whole marsh is fence-less with only the odd gatepost to hinder your view to the hills of the west. The east had massive shingle banks that have in the last forty years been extracted to leave large lakes further east. The River Rother flows to the sea via Rye where my River Brede joins to swell its flow.
The marsh consisted, as it still does, of permanent pasture, hundreds of years old. Only one hundred acres are under the plough in blocks that do little to affect the appearance of fifty years ago. No tree grew except for three elderberries around a shed that was used to tend the sheep that grace this wilderness of turf. To us kids, this was our playground. The fields were not too large and all were broken up by small ten-foot wide dykes that then drain into the larger sewers, twenty-foot monsters that then ran into the river through the sluice gate at low tide. In my day the river, unlike today, was tidal, it’s mud at low tide a happy hunting ground for us to chase little green crabs that we called ablers. We also dug for red rag worms in the mud to use as bait for eels and flounder. When the water was warm, us kids wore an apron of fishnet and hanging it from our necks stretched it onto our thumbs. Then, crawling in the shallow water we felt for the buried fish; on surprising one, it was arms up into the air and with luck he was yours. The water was brackish and never really formed ice to bear your weight and if it froze over at high tide, would stay suspended from the water till its weight or the thaw made it crash into the void left by the outgoing tide. It made a thunderous noise to us young kids and many times we helped it on its way with a good stamp of our feet, standing and staring as it shuffled its way down river. On this stretch of water we were not allowed a boat until we could swim as my parents claimed it was dangerous.
We thought nothing of disarming the cannon shells we found to recycle, the lovely fast burning cordite was our prize. We even attempted a land-mine once but the screw was too tight for our small fingers to undo and we knew, or we thought we did, not to hit it with a hammer.
The fields of our marsh were nearly all connected up by planks of wood in the furthest corner from the gateway for easy passage of the lookerer who counted all the sheep each and every day. After the sheep the most numerous animals around on four legs was the hare. Seldom did you see a rabbit out on this flat land, for any hole that they dug would reach the water table, which was in those days only two feet below the grass. Today the water level has been artificially dropped and the odd warren is apparent. The grey partridge, along with the green plover, was the bird of the marsh close by and from a high position singing his declaration to be king, the skylark hung over every field. We even had Corncrakes nesting amid the long rough grass and hard rush. All the dykes and ditches teamed with life from beetles to large fish, which the resident otter lived on. Some of the skeletons of bones he left lying on the banks made us small lads wonder at how large some of the swirls and disturbances were which occurred in front of our eyes as we trudged the water’s edge where the monsters of the deep kept their presence from us.
To us, a pike of twenty pounds was a very good fish and we often caught one that size, but the scales and bones on the grass told us that there were much bigger ones in the main waters. The most common fish to the marsh was the handsome roach which grew up to one and a half pounds, along with the slippery tench which I loved to angle for in the evenings as the sun set below the trees to the west high up on the hills. The calm water would come alive to the bubbles as the doctor fish grovelled in the muddy bottom. The fish we caught we returned in the summer, but in the colder months of the year, the pike was hit over the head and sold for food. We killed anything that was edible. It was not the case that we were cruel or bloodthirsty, it was food and often its skin was worth money. As of the poor old mole we trapped or the water vole whose skin was also prized. Even the wings of a moorhen were worth four old pence a pair as were certain sorts of feathers and cock pheasant plumage was eagerly sought, not just the tail of the male bird, but the gay rump and flank feathers called church windows.
ONE OF NINE
When the Saxons came Romney Marsh was all sea and not until the arrival of the Romans, did any dry land appear. Then only spits of sand showed. These men soon moved in and slowly as the sea retreated they built walls to prevent the salt water invading again. Slowly the land mass increased and Romney came into existence.
My marsh, Pett Level, a small part of Guildford levels, is one of the last to be claimed from the sea. Romney Marsh is unique in some ways for unlike a lot of land reclaimed from the sea, it was not so much reclaimed in that sense. The sea gave it back as it receded; man only stopped it encroaching back in time of storms. At the best of times it was an evil place to live in; always wet and not very accessible with few roads that did not flood. The scattered dwellings slowly grew into isolated villages and eventually built churches that are still to be seen forlornly across the flat land, standing on their little islands of raised earth to keep their feet dry. The church in Winchelsea Beach is a prime example of how they came about. First came the population; then they needed their own place to worship in. I remember my mother devoting all her spare time to raising funds so as reach the target to get the foundation stone laid and she was so proud when my little brother was the first to get married there. Before the present building, all we had was an old garage that I helped to put a concrete floor in and if I had known at the time I would spend time on my knees praying on it, I would have made sure the large stones in the concrete had been either removed or flattened level! Now that slab of concrete is all that remains of the first place of prayer.
Between the first and last war was the time that the beach of Winchelsea was rarely discovered. Until then few people inhabited the place unless they worked there on the marsh. It was a place alongside the sea. The odd pub that had stood far out on the marsh close to the sea had been the haunt of a few locals and a place for the better off to hide away. Then the sea had a say in its location and took it into its keeping; the owners then built again further inland.
Not until the sea wall that runs from Winchelsea Beach to Pett Level was built was there a true road connecting them together. Up until then a dirt track had sufficed. I remember the old farmhouse of Molfords?? that the Simpsons lived in having a gate across the road. Across the road from the house was a very soggy bog full of hard rush, now built over and the home of the amusements arcade, where the family first set up their entertainments. I used to go there and play bingo in a tent.
In my lifetime the whole marsh has dried out. The fields opposite the public house, the Ship Inn, were full of clumps of hard rush. It was not until the dyke’s water level was lowered that land drains were then able to be installed across the fields so allowing them to be ploughed. This patch of ninety acres is the only part of my marsh to be in this way. At the other end towards Pett there is another small area that has been visited by the plough; other than that it is all virgin turf and some of the best in all of Romney Marsh. Luckily it is in the ownership of a prosperous family of devoted sheep farmers and now lies inside a Triple S Site of Site of Special Scientific Interest so with luck will remain undisturbed to fatten the sheep.
Our little part of the marsh had the only trees growing on it and now they are all gone apart from one old willow that somehow clings to life alongside the sheep pens. When we sold the land in the seventies, they were the first thing that the new owner got rid of. They had grown alongside the main sewer for a hundred years. The old pollarded willows were hollow and had been the home of the otter and a family of owls I had often hidden in their branches, awaiting nightfall to watch their antics.
Along with the trees they also removed my monument that I had built using all the worked stone that the dredging of the dykes had revealed from their bottoms. My belief, as others, was that they had been used as ballast in the ships that sailed over the land when it was still sea, coming to Winchelsea. When they dug the sewer out in the late seventies to increase the flow to the massive new pumps, the digging had dragged a huge bulk of timber out of the water. This lump of wood lay out on the marsh for a long time and interested me. Twelve inches square, it had tenants? Cut into it at intervals with round holes to take round pegs. A few people saw it and all said it was the keel of a big ship. Alas, by the time an expert came to view it, the farmer had removed it and could not remember what happened to it. Obviously it had lain there a long time and is the only tangible thing to show itself so far, apart from all the worked stone that the dredging throws up. I once picked up what I thought to be a flint spur from a cockerel . I gave it to a girl who was interested in old things and it turned out to be a shark’s tooth, over three million years old!
As a young lad I loved to listen to all the old men telling each other their stories. Little did I know then that what they really were doing was reliving their lives, what nowadays is called nostalgia. To them it was life and the pace of life today is nothing like the way they lived it. They really had to live. Today everything is made for you to sample. Things out of the normal working day are now called leisure. To our ancestors it was the time to try and improve your life or even to keep alive. Any graft out of working hours had to achieve a goal and at the same time bring in an income. The nights spent out on the marsh walking miles in all kinds of weather was not done for fun and anything that had gone wrong had to be laughed at or it would have driven you mad. Risks were taken that any man today would not dream of. Those old boys of my young youth had known no better. To them the world was a crude, evil place at times. The last 1914-1918 war had taught them that life was precious. Like their fathers had told them, “you had to look after yourself; no one was going to do it for you.” Pensions were unheard of. The house at the bottom of Strand Hill had been the last place for many of them.
So looking back now, I realise that many of the tales they told had a core of truth to them. Each time the story they told of a cold windy night, it was always colder than any time before and each time the wind was stronger than the last time. The same goes today; always the first or the largest this or that. Like as their minds black out the good days; it’s always the rough ones, when things go wrong that you remember. When all goes according to plan, nothing untoward sticks out to remember. How many miles do you travel a year in your car? You don’t remember this or that trip; it’s only the time you get lost or have a puncture.
Those old men left their fingerprints on everything they did. They put their lives into it unlike today; we only leave a mechanical mark. All the ditches and banks you see on the marsh, these men made with a spade in their hands. Today a man makes a hundred yards with no effort. Many houses in Winchelsea have a mark in them somewhere if you can find it. The carpenter would take his pencil from behind his ear and write his name or something onto a piece of wood. The stonemason carved his mark unlike today; the workmen are not interested, it’s all mechanical.
“Cinque Ports” April 2016
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