Royal Military Canal by Canoe

 The Epic Journey

By Jimper Sutton

I was only sixteen but bent on making my own history. My mate Chris had seen a documentary on the telly the night before of a couple that had travelled down the Amazon in a life raft.

“Why can’t we do something like that”? he said.

“We haven’t got an Amazon”, I said.

“No, but we have a river haven’t we”?

“Yes, but we have been up and down it so many times, it’s nothing new”. All day we talked on what we could do special that we had not done before. Slowly the germ of an idea came to fruition. The Military Canal the full length by canoe. Why not? We had the camping gear and my brother owned a lovely flat bottomed canoe made out of cedar wood. The weather was fine, the nights warm so sleeping in tents would be comfortable. Chris went home that night to ask his mum and dad if they minded if he accompanied me on an adventure up the Military Canal. Next day the paint pots were dug out and the canoe given a new coat of paint to make it look smart for we were going into foreign territory, ‘Kent’.

The Royal Military Canal was dug in William Pitt’s day of Prime Minister as an invasion deterrent in the Neapolitan War and luckily never tested. It now drains Romney Marsh but in its early years had been a highway for barges to transport goods onto and off the Marsh and to help in the struggle to combat the illegal smuggling activities going on. The whole length was luckily navigable so no problems there for us. The canal encompasses the whole of Romney Marsh starting at Pett in the west going east to Hythe; there it empties into the sea. In its course it uses the River Brede that runs at the back of our house and the River Rother from Rye to Iden Lock where it branches off across the flat land to Hythe.

My father took our canoe and all our gear in the back of the lorry the three miles by road to Pett Level. Many people who had heard of our attempt to travel the whole length of the canal watched as Chris and I entered into the water system. The trip in the lorry saved the two of us the tiresome task of paddling all the way to Pett from home only to turn around and retrace our steps.

The preparations for this epic voyage had taken over two weeks and we had told everyone we saw so there were a lot of people to see us off, including the local paper. Chris wore a straw hat much too big for his head and it covered most of his face. My headgear was much more in keeping with a mountain climbing escapade being a Tyrol hat which I had purchased in Austria and decorated with little silver badges and a badger’s brush type of symbol which all the Austrians wore.

The Epic Adventure Begins

At eleven that July morning I dug my Indian paddle into the warm lily pad covered water and the first stroke of our twenty six miles got underway. Under the hills surrounding Winchelsea that the course of the canal followed the going was tough. The whole expanse of water was covered in wild yellow lilies and their stems tried their hardest to tie knots around your paddle.

By one pm we reached the length nearest the road to Winchelsea Beach that we knew well and there we had to pull the canoe through the lock gate and paddle in our bare feet as the water was too low to allow the canoe to float with our weight in it. There we joined the River Brede and ten minutes later passed the landing stage in our back garden were our rowing boat was tied up. The empty scattered paint pots and brushes showed where we had pulled the canoe from the water and painted her up. Now with her lovely green sides and red top she looked a picture.

The long straight from home after we passed the Second World War pill box erected on the mound of earth to raise the old cannons in Pitt’s days made you realise the importance of this river in days gone by. History was seeping from each bank all the way to Hythe. The whole of the waterway was dug in lengths that could be protected by cannon and to make it easy to see the fall of shot the distance of each length was zig zagged.

The water in the Brede was running our way to Rye and we made good time leaving a wake behind us in the lovely clear water, a blessing after all those snagging lilies. A few people came out of their houses that backed onto the river as we silently glided past their homes on reaching Rye and wished us good luck.

The lock gates ahead were open and we glided through into the salt water of the main river to turn left for the next set of gates that stopped the salt going any further up river. Here we met the River Rother flowing out to sea and with the big tides we were having this week the water was travelling fast the wrong way. We dug our paddles deep and slung the canoe from side to side. Slowly we made headway up past the trawlers to pass under the third road bridge in three miles. Ahead lay the railway bridge that amidst the lines from Ashford to Hastings we were to pass back under a couple of days later on the other side of the Marsh. Meanwhile we had the tidal locks to reach.

With the water getting lower we were told by the lock keeper that we would have to wait four hours as the keeper was not willing to lose a lock full of precious fresh water this time of year for a canoe. Why didn’t; we pull it onto the bank and he would help us pull it over the river bank and re-float it for us? Together the three of us pulled the canoe out of the salt water and re-floated it on the fresh side. Now only half a mile of river running in a dead straight line before we entered the Military Canal again all the way to the sea of Hythe.

The sun was getting lower in the sky as we passed into the lock and ahead of us stretched another half mile of shadow covered water. The tall old elms growing the whole length of this stretch shaded the evening sun and together we decided to camp for the first night while we were still in Sussex for the next length of water would take us into the fair county of Kent. Overlooking the road there is a funny shaped stone standing to mark the boundary of each county and we reckoned it was as good as any place to stop so that tomorrow we could ride all day in Kent as today we had spent the whole time in Sussex.

Pulling into the bank we tied the boat up with a rope on both ends then started to unload our gear. The back compartment of the canoe housed all our eating gear and the tent, a two pole ridge affair was up the other end along with our sleeping bags and pillows. A tin of beans and a loaf of bread were tossed ashore and with the wooden mallet we had thought to take with us we assembled our home for the night.

Armful of Dead Sticks

With an armful of dead sticks we gathered up from below the trees. A fire was soon boiling our billy can of canal water to make tea. Both of us had found the paddling today to be thirsty work and often scooped a handful of water up to quench our thirst in the heat. With our supper of baked beans and toast heated in the tin in the fire and the slices of bread cut with our sheath knives toasted on sticks, it was time for bed. It was now we found a weak link in our preparations for the trip of a lifetime. Neither of us had thought of what we were to do in the dark. In our minds night did not enter the equation and we had not brought a lamp of any description. Chris blamed me and I accused him of not thinking of the simple item. Eventually we agreed we were both as guilty. We both knew it got dark and as we had planned to do this trip in four days, it was obvious that at least three times, night would come! Still, too late now and any rate it would be daylight by four thirty, then we could make an early start before it got too hot for the Marsh was veiled in a low silver cold clammy mist now, a sure sign that tomorrow was going to be fine. Together we clambered in the tent and laced the doorway up. Lying in our bags we discussed the lapse in our planning and wondered what else we had forgotten. The verdict tonight was nothing; daybreak would prove us wrong, very wrong!

Chris was the first up and ventured out into the chill of the dawn to answer a call of nature. It was then that another item of missing equipment became apparent. His shouting stirred me from my bag to peer out through the flap and ask what the matter was. His reply was short and to the point

“No paper!”

I pulled my head back inside and tried to get another half hour to let the sun rise and dispel some of the dew clinging to the vegetation. As Chris was up he could get the fire going and make a cup of tea for both of us.

I emerged to the sight of smoke rising and the billy cans’s lid juddering to the escape of steam. With a stick the lid was flipped off and a handful of tealeaves dropped into the bubbling water. Chris got a handful of sugar and tossed it onto the leaves floating on the water. Soon we had a hot mug of tea each laced with evaporated milk from a new tin that I stabbed the top with my sheath knife, making a hole each side. Chris put the frying pan on the fire and unpacked six rashers of bacon and two eggs. I was no cook but my mate reckoned he was and as he liked a bit of fried bread scraped a good load of lard into the pan with his knife. The eggs and bacon were very nearly ready when the pan over the fire burst into flames. The hot fat had spluttered and caught light. A mad rush to get his coat to wrap around his hand so he could withdraw the pan’s handle from the heat was not swift enough and his fried bread was charcoal by the time he had put the pan’s fire out and the eggs were black around the edges with a good coating of soot on the yolks. The burnt sacrifice was eaten by two hungry lads and washed down with half a gallon of sweet, smoky tea.

As the sun started to make its presence known we packed and stowed all our gear in the compartments of our canoe and shoved the canoe away from the bank to carry on our trip to Hythe. After three lengths, all the Canal is in lengths of approximately quarter of a mile as it was dug as such so the cannon defending the Canal could have a clear view to fire their whole length, we came to our first village and road bridge in Kent.

The village of Appledore was a welcome sight, we soft paper and while about it, a few candles would not go amiss either. We tied up just before going under the bridge and crawled up the overgrown bank to the road. From there we walked the hundred yards into the high street where we purchased paper and candles, more bacon and another box of matches. Returning to our boat I decided to keep the box of matches in my top shirt pocket.

Cloudless Sky

The sun had again risen into a cloudless sky and beat down on us unmercifully reflecting off the surface of the smooth surface around us. Every half hour the pair of us changed sides to paddle and it always seemed that I got the side where the thickest water lilies grew. In places the underwater weed grew in such proliferation that it reached the surface and this also slowed our progress down, while at the same time making it hard work to propel the heavy laden boat through the water.

As the day progressed the two of us got tired and the going got slower. At the rate we were going the three-day voyage was going to take another day but neither of us were willing to admit defeat. The afternoon wore on and we started to drive a family of swans ahead of us. The old pair with their four offspring would not stop to let us pass, instead deciding to swim ahead of us. We tried stopping to allow them to swim back but they were stubborn and refused. After an hour the parents had been driven far enough from their familiar stretch of water and the young were showing signs of tiring; it was then that the old pair turned to face us one hundred yards ahead and took the decision to fly back over our heads. The distance was only just sufficient for them to get airborne with all the flapping and paddling off their feet in the water and they only just managed to clear our heads. I don’t know if it was panic thinking it was going to crash into us or deliberate but one of them dropped its greeny white load of whitewash all over us. It stunk and covered everything. The four half grown young tried to hide in the water plants growing along the side of the Canal and let us muck covered pair pass and I’m sure, as was Chris, that they smiled as we passed looking a sorry sight! We decided we had had a bellyful for today. Round the next corner the length of river looked even more lily covered and as we were covered in swan dung we elected to call it a day.

I said I would cook a good meal for the two of us. We rammed the bank, jabbed the hook into it and scrambled out to see where we were. Miles of marsh greeted our eyes; we had now left the road that had followed the canal all its length to Appledore and were now alone.

Before either of us handled any food we had to wash. Our clothes were stinking and the sun did not help. The white stuff was drying onto everything it came into contact with. Chris and I would have to wash our clothes now and as we were boys the idea that a change of gear would quite likely be required in the three days away from home had never entered our heads. Stripping down to our pants we dunked our trousers and shirts into the canal along with the box of matches we had so thoughtfully bought in the shop at Appledore. That’s how it was no planning. I had thought that if I kept them in my pocket they would be safe. Too late now the heads were that wet they came off the sticks. That evening if anyone had seen us they would have laughed for there were two sixteen year old lads, far away from any house, sitting around a small fire cooking their supper in boots and pants. Their clothes strung out on the guy ropes to a tiny tent in the forlorn hope they would dry overnight in heavy dew that was falling again on the green grass of Romney Marsh!

Tonight’s campsite was in a huge field of sheep that as it got dark assembled along the canal’s bank to spend the night. As promised tonight I made the supper, a tin of tomato soup heated in the can with the label removed first, and then on the bottom of the frying pan I did Welsh Rarebit with brown sauce. For pudding we shared a can of creamed rice and a gallon of sweet billy can tea with a lovely smoky taste and the end of the evaporated milk. Tomorrow we intended to go shopping at the next village that the canal would take us to, ‘Hamstreet’.

In the Candlelight

That night by candlelight Chris and I talked of how it was going. The trip since we had left the tidal waters of the Rother had been slow. The River Brede had been clear of weed and our progress rapid. If ever we did a trip like this again we decided to do it in the spring before all the plant growth got going and blocked the watercourse. The snagging of weed in the paddles made for hard work. I had never thought to check for weed that would hamper us the length we were endeavouring to pass over. We both knew that the end in Hythe was clear and had supposed that the whole canal was the same. Only the stretch from Pett to Winchelsea should have given us a clue as we lived by it and often had marvelled at the mass of wild water lilies that invaded our fisheries. The local water board each year had a gang of men in a punt with a large shuffling blade on the front that they cut the plants off with to keep the water flowing to the sea. Tonight we slept the sleep of kings; the only sound came from the sheep and the animals around us.

The sun was well up before we awoke to another scorcher and my arms and back of neck told their own story, ‘sunburn’! At nine that morning the little bridge we had been longing for told us we were going under the main road to Ashford and up on the top of the bank we would find the little village of Hamstreet and shops to replenish our food and matches. All day, every day, our progress was obscured from view by the banks as being in a canoe we were low in the water. It was only by getting out and climbing up the low bank that we had any idea where we were but there was no fear that we were going astray as every ditch or sewer that emptied into the canal had boards or pipe to allow ingress and nothing compared to the uniform length of the canal.

Tying our transport up to the bank we walked along the road to town. As we had talked together last night we both agreed that the three days we had allowed to get to Hythe was going to be more like four and as many to get back home. We had sorted our money out and came to the conclusion that with care we had enough to buy food with. The shopping list today was bully beef and rice pudding along with one box of Swan Vestas and two tins of evaporated milk.

Chris was a long time in the little post office phoning his mum and dad and when he came out he had made a purchase that took our budget up to the limit. I was not too pleased with his extravagance, as I did not, and never have liked, chocolate. Today he had four blocks of the bloody stuff and bought with our pooled money! His huge smile on finding me in the shop next door belied his story that we should not go too far today as he had been told that the river got a lot clearer weed wise and it was not very far to Hythe. I had my doubts; it looked a long way on the map we had. Even the stretch in Hythe itself was considerable. We made our way back to the canoe and on the way he told me that if we wanted a good fire tonight we ought to gather more wood as there were not many trees along this stretch.

The length of canal the other side of the road bridge had some trees growing near the water so we stopped again and took over an hour gathering up fallen dead wood to tuck into all the space we had aboard.

Pushed off for the Days Journey

When we eventually pushed off for the day’s journey the canoe looked more like a bird’s nest after a hurricane had hit it. Twigs poked out everywhere. Chris made a point of remarking that the tow path along the bank looked well used and we did pass a few people walking this stretch, the first we had encountered since we left Winchelsea and Pett Marsh. Along one of the straights a ditch emptied into the canal beside an oak fence that came to the water’s edge. It was here that Chris said we should call it a day and pitch camp.

It was early yet and I wanted to go on but no, Chris wanted to stop here so we tied up to the fence and put the tent up. Then I got the fire alight and put the Billy can on with some salty water to boil some potatoes to go with the tin of bully beef we intended to have for our dinner. The spuds were sort of peeled and had been on for twenty minutes when we had company in the form of two young girls on bicycles, which they were riding along the path from Hamstreet to find us.

So this was why Chris did not want to travel very far tonight and also his concern over firewood as the girls made it plain that they intended to stay the night with us as Chris had said they could in the post office, where he had met them.

The chocolate bars were for them it seemed; the crafty beggar had met them and planned this evening from the very start. His concern over the state of the towpath now made sense. Chris had told the girl he fancied that I would be up, as he put it, for a blind date having travelled all this way by water. The girl I was supposed to entertain for the evening was a year younger than me and from the very start made it clear that she was my date and were we going to spend the night together?

To be continued ………..

From October 2008 Issue of Rye’s Own All material and Photographs included on the “Rye’s Own” website are subject to strick worldwide copyright