Winchelsea, The Rise and Fall of A Port

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The Armoury, Winchelsea © C. Hris
Camber Castle © V. Bryant
Mermaid Street, Rye © Ian Macnab

The walk starts in the historic town of Winchelsea, and then descends to cross open salt meadows to Rye, passing Camber Castle en route. It returns through fields to Winchelsea, following the old line of the coast in 1288. Walking is easy, with one steep but short ascent at the end.

The confederation known as the 'Cinque Ports' came into being in early Norman times, when five (or 'cinq' in French) ports - Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich - banded together, for mutual protection at sea and to enhance their trade. Ships were privately owned, but shipowners operated within rules set down by the confederation. At a time when there was no national navy, successive monarchs used the fleets of the Cinque Ports whenever ships were needed, hiring them not with cash but by granting privileges, such as the exclusive rights to carry certain imports and exports. By the end of the reign of King John (1216) the Cinque Ports fleet was England's unofficial navy, controlling the Channel and with it the lucrative trade with the Continent. To gain access to that trade, other ports along the coast of Sussex and Kent applied to join the confederation.

Winchelsea soon rose to become one of the most important of the Cinque Ports. When Edward I raised a fleet to fight the French, Winchelsea provided 13 of the 50 Cinque Port ships, by far the largest single contingent. The importance of the port to the nation was recognised after 1287, when a ferocious storm devastated the town, hastening a process of gradual coastal erosion that had been going on throughout the century and washing away many houses. King Edward immediately gave vigorous aid, in the form of surveyors, engineers and most importantly money, and an entirely new town was built. The old site, on an eroding shingle beach, was abandoned, and instead a new site on a raised peninsula was chosen. Wide streets were laid out on a grid-iron pattern, and within each square thus formed a large plot of land was assigned to each household. The town was surrounded by impressive fortifications, incorporating the latest thinking upon military architecture.

Unfortunately, these precautions were not enough to protect the town. Winchelsea was attacked seven times by the French in the 14th and 15th centuries, and each time the attackers were able to enter, pillage and burn the town. Each time it recovered, and continued to play a vital role in the defence of the south coast against invasion. Winchelsea was finally destroyed, not by the French but by the sea. Inexorably, the coastline receded, sand and shingle gathered across the harbour mouth, and salt marshes developed along the beaches. By the end of the 15th century the port had ceased to be usable, and Winchelsea's great days were over.

The Walk

1. With your back to the New Inn, walk straight ahead down the road, with the church on your right and the museum on your left. The museum is open from May to September daily, 10.30 am to 12.30 pm and 2.30 pm to 5.30 pm, afternoon only on Sundays. There is an admission charge.

The church of St Thomas a Becket was planned on a magnificent scale when the town was laid out in 1288, and royal funds provided for its construction. It was never finished, and furthermore suffered damage during the French raids. The chancel, side chapels and the ruins of the aisles still remain. Much later, this church was the site of John Wesley's last open air sermon in 1790.

The museum is located in the Old Court Hall, also built with royal funds in 1288, and later added to in the 15th century. This was the courthouse and also the gaol of Winchelsea. Today it houses an interesting history of the Cinque Ports.

Soon reach the Strand Gate. The Strand Gate was one of three original town gates and gave access to the port. The massive gatehouse was originally set into equally massive town walls, long since pulled down. This gate has the dubious fame of being the only one through which the French did not enter Winchelsea in any of their seven raids. Next to the gate is the Lookout, built to provide a vantage point for a watchman in the days of the French Wars. From here there are excellent views of the whole coast, and on a clear day the French coast is visible.

Go through the gate and down the hill. At the bottom of the hill turn right along the busy main road, past the Bridge Inn.

Behind the inn is the meandering River Brede. In 1288 this was its estuary and the port of Winchelsea was built here, just below the ramparts of the town walls.

2. Immediately past the inn, where the road bends left, turn right along a side road, signed 'Winchelsea Beach'. In a few yards, cross the Royal Military Canal. Continue along the road for 1/2 mile.

The Royal Military Canal was built in 1803, part of England's defences against the threat of invasion by Napoleon. In 1288 this was the coastline. The sea lapped the cliffs behind you, on which Winchelsea is built, and the River Brede entered the sea at this point. The flat expanse of land to your right was open ocean in 1288.

Where the road bends sharp right, keep straight on along a track. It is marked 'Private Road, no access to beach', but it is a public footpath. Bend left with the track, ignoring a stile on the right on the bend, and continue along the track.

The coast of Sussex has faced invasion threats throughout its history. Winchelsea was fortified against the French in 1288; soon we pass Camber Castle, built as a defence against the French by Henry VIII. To your left is the Royal Military Canal, the 19th century defensive moat, and behind that can be seen a World War II pillbox, survivor of the last invasion threat.

3. At the gate to River Brede Farm campsite, bear right with the tarmac track. Follow the track, soon gravelled, until you bear left past a farm entrance and through a gate. Just through the gate, take the left fork of two tracks.

Camber Castle can be seen ahead, with Rye visible on the hill behind. The ridge on the left was the coastline in 1288; Rye and Winchelsea, on their respective hills, faced one another across open ocean. The original town of Winchelsea stood here, upon a shingle spit of land stretching out into the sea. Follow the track to Camber Castle, finally passing through a metal gate to approach the castle itself. The interior of Camber Castle is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons July to September, 2 pm to 5 pm. Visits can be arranged by ringing the ranger on 01797 223862. The outside, in many ways the castle's most spectacular aspect, can be walked around at any time.

By the 16th century the sea had retreated, leaving Winchelsea high and dry behind salt marshes and shingle flats. Camber Castle was built in 1539 on the water's edge. It was constructed by Henry VIII in the new flower-shaped design characteristic of castles of the time, which gave maximum protection against cannon balls. It had a garrison of 42 men and was one of a number of forts that lined the south coast. As the sea continued to retreat, Camber was left ever further inland, until today it is a mile from the sea. It was finally abandoned in 1627.

4. After viewing the castle, return towards the metal gate. Just before the gate, turn sharp right and follow the track, the fence close on your left. Go through two metal gates and over a drainage channel. Continue ahead along a raised path, the drainage channel on your right. Follow the path as it passes between the channel on the right and the canal on the left. Go through a gate and bear left at a fork, following the canal bank. Keep ahead through a metal pedestrian gate to reach a track. Bear left along the track, still heading towards Rye seen ahead. On reaching a road, turn left over a lock. Keep ahead to a T-junction, where you turn right.

5. Follow the road to reach a garage. Cross the road and continue towards Rye for 20 yards. (To visit Rye, cross the bridge to the harbour and Old Town.) For the walk itself, turn left down a track between houses and a bungalow, just before a green road sign. DO NOT follow the road around the bend towards the bridge, and IGNORE a footpath sign at the end of the bridge. Follow the track, initially tarmac, past a farmhouse. Turn left with the track, now unsurfaced, at a fingerpost.

The cliffs to the right mark the shoreline in 1288. Winchelsea can be seen on the headland ahead.

Go through a metal gate and keep ahead across a field to a gate on the far side. Cross a stile by the gate and keep ahead, a drainage ditch as close on your right hand as the crops will allow. At the end of the cropfield, cross a footbridge into a large meadow. Continue ahead, initially following the drainage ditch on your right hand. Where the ditch peters out, maintain the same direction, aiming for a metal-railed footbridge on the far side. Cross this footbridge and maintain the same direction, with another drainage ditch now on your right. Where the ditch veers right, continue straight on along a clear path across the field, aiming all the while for Winchelsea on the hill ahead. Cross a footbridge at a waymark and maintain the same direction across the next large field. Near the far side of the field, bear right towards a white fence in front of bungalows. Cross a stile and turn left along the quiet lane, crossing a bridge.

The bridge is over the River Brede again, the coastline in 1288. When the new town of Winchelsea was laid out, the harbour was built along the banks of the river below the cliff ahead. Each merchant was allotted his own warehousing space in the port.

6. At the road junction turn left along the main road for 300 yards. Just opposite the first house on the left, cross the road and climb steps up the bank. At the top of the bank follow the footpath out into Winchelsea. Keep ahead along the street and take the first turning on the right to return to the church.

The grid-iron pattern of streets laid down in 1288 can clearly be seen on this short walk back through Winchelsea. The immediate impression is of the width of the streets, most unusual in a medieval town. The houses of the important merchants were concentrated in this northern sector, and many are still to be seen. The road level was much lower in 1288 than today, and stone steps led up to the front doors.

It is worth walking around Winchelsea. An information board in front of the church gives a plan of the town and the major points of interest, and an informative guidebook is on sale in the museum.

Location

Winchelsea is on the A259 Hastings-Rye road. The walk starts from the church in the centre of Winchelsea. There is ample roadside parking in Winchelsea, but please park with consideration for residents.

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