Monday, 15 October 2012

Romney Marsh

I really enjoyed exploring the mysterious and desolate landscape of Romney Marsh the other day. I've since been doing a bit of research on the area and found this fascinating article on the BBC website.

The name Romney or Rumenea derives from Old English for a wide river, originally referring to the Romney Marsh in general, not just the port towns of Old and New Romney. During the 13th century violent storms swept along the coastline and New Romney was devastated by ferocious storms in 1287 and 1288. The River Rother had altered its course by this time and was flowing through Rye. The harbour was lost as shingle and mud swept into New Romney and severed its links with the sea.

"The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh", wrote the Reverend Richard Harris Barham, writing as Thomas Ingoldsby, in The Ingoldsby Legends, his gothic tales of superstition and folklore, in the 1840s. It's not hard to see why he described the area on the Kent/Sussex border as being an altogether separate part of the world. Even today, where caravan sites dot the coast and the nuclear power stations stand bleakly on the shingle shore of the English Channel at nearby Dungeness, it is still possible to see exactly what Barham meant. At its heart, the 100-square-mile marsh is almost as mysterious and lonely as it was in the 17th century. A thousand years ago it would have been a vast area of reeds and water and some of the church ruins were once on an island. This was all drained away in the 1960's.

It has a strange beauty and the area has always had to defend itself against the elements as well as against foreign invaders. Due to the isolation of the area, its low lying marshland, and being close to France, the marsh churches are unusual, leading to the suspicion that one of their primary uses was smuggling. The marshes and the small villages were dominated by smugglers or 'owlers' where smugglers swapped local wool for brandy from France. There were pitched battles between smugglers and the revenue officers in most towns. Some reports speak of 200 smugglers regularly using an inn when the revenue men had a day off!

St Clement of Old Romney was a film setting for legendary Doctor Syn, a 18th century smuggler. It was based on book A Tale of the Romney Marsh by Russell Thorndike. (1915). The boxed pews were painted pink and stayed pink. Today, it is a flat landscape of rich soil stretching out under an immense sky, defended from the sea by a bank of shingle dotted with Romney Marsh sheep, or 'Kents', skylarks and soul-soothing towns. it still conjures up the memory of great writers who called this corner of England home. Romney Marsh sheep are seen in the open fields which are often swept with harsh winds and heavy rainfall. Their hooves are resistant to foot rot and their fleeces remain healthy in the harsh weather. They are exported all over the world.

Historians, fishermen, farmers, painters and ecologists describe the spirit of the place and what it means to them. “Wilderness is terribly important to people,” says one local. “Perhaps it is a sense that there is somewhere left to go.”