A walk chock full of history across flat marshland and rolling cliffs
Rye to Hastings, East SussexThis was quite a strenuous walk: over 15 miles, deceptively easy-going at first across the flatlands of Rye Harbour and the Pett Level, followed by steep climbs up over sandstone cliffs and down into deep wooded gullies. But it was well worth the effort, visiting two charming towns steeped in history, and some glorious coastal countryside rich in wildlife. Including the now-obligatory visit to two wonderful churches, I also managed to pay my respects to a comedy legend, and followed the line of an obsolete defence against Napoleonic forces. All along the route I found evidence of a coastline in constant flux and at repeated risk of invasion.
Halfway to Rye on the train, I realised I’d forgotten my camera. So the pictures in this post, taken with my phone, are a little bit blurry and indistinct, but should give an idea of the landscape encountered on this walk. Think of them as an Impressionist revival.
Start: Rye Station TQ918205
Finish: Hastings Station TQ814096
Length: 15¼ miles/8 hours
How to get there: Rye is on the Marshlink Line between Ashford and Hastings – I went from St Pancras on Southeastern’s High Speed service to Ashford International, then changed onto Southern’s service across the marshes that clings to the coast towards Brighton; Ashford can also be reached by regular (cheaper) Southeastern services from Charing Cross or Victoria. The return from Hastings is either by Southeastern back to Charing Cross via Tonbridge, or by Southern back to Victoria via Lewes
It’s market day as I alight from the train at Rye’s elegant but diminutive station. The little 2-car diesel train from Ashford, something of an anomaly in the mostly electrified south east, is busy with shoppers aiming for the bustling stalls, and with tourists who head uphill from the station, keen to explore the history of this beautiful town.
And Rye has history in spades, much of it intrinsically linked to the town’s location just over the channel from France. Years before the invasion of 1066, Rye, as part of the manor of Rameslie along with Hastings and Winchelsea, was already in Norman hands. In return for being given sanctuary from the Danes in 1014, King Æthelred (one of the Saxon Kings crowned in Kingston as I learnt on a previous walk) promised Rameslie to the Normans, but died before fulfilling this pledge. His widow, Queen Emma, the daughter of Duke Robert I of Normandy, married Æthelred’s successor, King Cnut, and persuaded him to honour Æthelred’s promise: in 1017 Cnut gave Rameslie to the Abbey of Fécamp. Less than fifty years later, the monks’ knowledge of the local area – and the fact that many of them joined William’s army – undoubtedly gave William the Conqueror a foothold when he invaded in 1066. The town returned to English rule in 1247, although an area to the north, still known today as Rye Foreign, remained in the ownership of Fécamp Abbey until the Reformation.Today the town is two miles from the sea, but historically Rye was almost entirely surrounded by water, in an inlet of the English Channel known as Rye Camber. This, along with its strategic defensive location, led to its growing importance as a port, possibly the busiest port on the south coast in mid-Tudor times, home to hundreds of mariners (most famously, Captain Pugwash, whose creator John Ryan was latterly a resident of Rye).
In recognition of the town’s defensive role, it was granted the status of a Cinque Port by Henry II in 1189. Thought by some to have been established by Edward the Confessor, the Cinque Ports Confederation was a collection of coastal towns that provided the King with ship service (57 ships in total, each with a crew of 21 men and one boy, for 15 days of each year) in exchange for which the towns were granted freedom from various taxes and tolls, and the right to hold their own courts. As the name suggests, there were originally five such ports (Cinque from cinq, French for five) – Sandwich, Dover, New Romney, Hastings and Hythe – but each had associated ‘limbs’, neighbouring towns and villages which helped fulfil the quota of ships. Rye, along with Winchelsea, began as a limb of Hastings; the two towns were later incorporated as ‘Antient Towns’ before being granted full Cinque Port status by Henry just before his death. This, along with a Royal Charter granted by Edward I in 1289, helped ensure Rye’s prosperity.But storms in the 13th century and the gradual silting up of the harbour led to Rye’s prominence as a port declining as it became less suitable for larger ships. Trade waned, such that by the 17th century, fishing and smuggling (especially the smuggling of wool, known as owling) had become the most important industries: the notorious Hawkhurst Gang frequented the Mermaid Inn in the mid 18th century. But despite the decline in its prosperity, the town’s former status is still evident from the vast number of impressive historic buildings which are such an attraction to the huge number of tourists who visit.
The streets are thronging, the many art galleries and tea shops brisk with trade. I stop at one of the many bakers for lunch of a roll and locally-produced pork pie before continuing along the High Street to Landgate, one of four fortified gateways that reflect the town’s historic embattled past. The 13th and 14th centuries were bloody and violent for the people of Rye, an almost constant period of conflict with France. Most notably, in 1377, the French raided Rye, burnt most of the town to the ground and stole the church bells. Some of those defending the town were thought to have made too little effort, and were subsequently hanged and quartered as traitors. The next year, in the return away leg, Rye raided Normandy to recover the church bells (and probably much more besides). A score draw.
Nothing remains of the other three gates – Strandgate, Baddings Gate and Postern Gate – but Landgate is still largely as built, two circular rubble towers either side of a central arch from which a portcullis, gate and drawbridge could be lowered.I head up Lion Street to admire the grand 18th century Town Hall, behind which, on possibly the highest point of the town, is the church of St Mary the Virgin. The present church owes its existence to William de Ros, the Abbot of Fecamp, who ordered its construction in 1103 to a similar design to that of the Abbey church which was built at the same time. This, and the town’s increasing status, explains why, like St Andrew’s at Alfriston, the church, sometimes known as the ‘Cathedral of East Sussex’, seems out of proportion to the population which it serves.
I spend a while exploring the interior of church, which has much of interest: the pendulum which, unusually, descends from the clock tower above to sway slowly to and fro above the crossing; the original cherubic ‘quarter boys’ which once stood outside high up on the clock tower (their places now taken with modern replicas); Norman arches on the west side of the north transept. But the highlight of any visit is the chance to ascend the tower. I pay my £2.50, and climb a narrow staircase, to an even narrower stone passageway, from where one can look down onto the crossing and chancel far below. Barely wide enough for one, let alone for two people to pass, I have to reverse three times to allow people to descend (banging my head on a timber roof truss each time), then climb time-worn stone steps into the ringing room. A wooden tablet on the wall commemorates the ringing of ‘A Peal of Grandsire Triples, 5040 Changes, A Variation of Holt’s Ten-Part’ on ‘Monday May 30th 1898 in Three Hours and Two Minutes’. Opposite, the clock mechanism, dating from 1561 and one of the oldest working church clock mechanisms in the country, continues to mark time, as it has done for 450 years. A steep wooden staircase leads up into the belfry, where the bells – not those stolen by the French in 1377, but ones cast in 1775 – hang still and silent. A narrow wooden walkway leads across the gloom of the belfry, through the slimmest of doors out into bright light and fresh air on the tower parapet.The view is spectacular: immediately below the tower, the steeply pitched red-tiled roofs of the town, tall chimneyed and dormer window’d, while to the south, beyond the Rivers Brede and Rother, flat marshland stretches away to the sea. Following the distant horizon eastwards, a line of pylons leads the eye to a far-off, hazy, box-like structure – the nuclear power station at Dungeness, almost insignificant at this scale.
Already an hour and a half since I alighted from the train and I still have many miles to go. Reluctantly, I descend the tower, and make a quick circuit of the churchyard, round to a curious yet elegant lozenge-shaped brick water cistern dating from 1735, and to Ypres Tower. A four-turreted rubble fortification, it was built as part of the town’s defences and now houses a museum – something for a future visit when I have more time. Pressing on along the cobbles of Watchbell Street – so named as one of the bells recovered from the French was erected here to be rung as a warning of further raids – past a hodgepodge of black and white timber-framed buildings, I take one last look at the view from the high ground before descending steep steps to the quay. I’m sure a return visit will not be too distant, but until then: God save Englonde and ye Towne of Rye!
Water is an intrinsic feature of this flatter lower-lying landscape beyond the edge of the town. A hairpin to cross the river to the south bank of the Tillingham, past a Martello tower (now a private residence and inaccessible to the curious), and over the Brede and onto Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, criss-crossed with drainage channels. Drizzle begins to fall from a drab grey sky beneath which sheep graze the thinnest of turf, a veneer over the sandy, stony soil deposited by the sea as it retreated southwards. The horizon is largely featureless: just a few trees. And in the distance, the bulk of Camber Castle.
When it was built by Henry VIII in the 1540s as a formidable defence against French and Spanish invaders, the Castle stood on a spit of shingle protruding into Winchelsea Harbour. But by 1637, when the garrison was disbanded, the harbour had shifted eastwards to such an extent that the Castle became obsolete and was abandoned. It now sits in brooding isolation – ideal for the multitude of wildlife that shares the landscape today.Approaching the castle, it appears to squat despondently, looming large until the massive walls dominate the view. Flocks of cawing crows and jackdaws buffeted by the wind in the sullen sky only add to the sense of eerie and timeless remoteness. But like much of the coastline here, it also feels transient, ephemeral. Up close, the stonework is crumbling (so much so that, despite renovation work in recent years, it is now only open for guided tours), the individual blocks of sandstone and Caen limestone heavily weathered, gradually dissolving, the flesh wasting away to leave a skeleton of mortar. The entrance is padlocked shut, such that I am only able to view the crumbling keep fleetingly from behind barred gates, or through decaying window arches in the D-shaped bastions. But it seems an appropriate way to visit: the castle still retains its sense of foreboding and impenetrability.
The sheep, of course, are oblivious to the sometimes bloody history surrounding them, and continue to shave the meagre turf as I continue to Castle Farm. Two grey-and-white donkeys dawdle around in their paddock dolefully, as is the way of donkeys, in contrast to the cheery sign on the fence: ‘Hello! We are Teddy and Patches. We are rescue donkeys. We are on special diets, please do not feed us’. Maybe that’s why they look so downcast.
Sea Road leads westwards, on a parallel meandering course to the Brede, now hidden behind idiosyncratic houses. Over the Royal Military Canal (of which more later) to turn up a narrow steep lane beneath the dense shade of sycamores. The higher elevation allows for glimpses through the trees of marshland stretching towards the distant sea. At the top, the road narrows even further to squeeze between the rotund stone towers and under the stone arch of Strand Gate, one of four fortified entrances into Winchelsea.Given the commonality of history that Winchelsea has with Rye – also an Antient Town and member of the Cinque Ports Confederation – the town is surprisingly quiet after the bustle of its neighbour. Also surprising, on glancing at the map, is that the streetplan is geometrically regular and similar to a Roman town or modern planned urban settlement like New York or Milton Keynes, quite unlike what might be expected for a mediaeval English settlement. The answer lies in the fact that this is in fact Winchelsea v2.0. The site of Old Winchelsea now lies somewhere under the Channel, having been swept away by the sea in the 13th century, more evidence of the influence the sea has had on this part of the coast. ‘New’ Winchelsea was then constructed on Iham Hill at the instigation of Edward I, the town divided into 39 geometric quarters by wide open streets on the gridiron principle, along the lines of the Bastide towns in France, a layout that remains to the present day.
At the centre of the town (for, despite its relatively diminutive size, Winchelsea regards itself not as a village but makes a claim to be the smallest town in England) is the church of St Thomas the Martyr. Quite substantial for a settlement of this size, the present-day church only hints at what was originally constructed. Ruined transept columns to the west of the porch suggest that a much larger church may have existed (whether construction was ever completed was the subject of speculation for many years but it is now generally accepted that the church once extended westwards), but successive brutal and murderous raids by the French in the 14th century destroyed much of what had only recently been built.
I enter by the west door. Subdued lighting emphasises the serenity of this place, and allows the rich colours of the stained glass windows to glow. The quality of the craftsmanship is apparent not just in the fabric of the building, but in the decoration too. Arches supported by tall but slim perfectly proportioned limestone columns support elegant arches that draw the eye to the altar. The roof timbers are a testament to the skills of the woodcutters and carpenters who shaped them from oaks grown in the nearby Weald forest. Three effigies in the north aisle – thought to be of members of the Godfrey family – are exquisitely carved, every detail of the human form beautifully depicted in what was once a solid block of black marble. I feel an urge to touch the stone and feel its cool smoothness beneath my hand, but somehow can’t help thinking this would show a lack of respect not just for the memories of those the effigies commemorate but also for the craftsmanship involved.A selection of booklets and postcards explaining the history the church is available for purchase by the entrance beneath the impressive organ, so I buy a guide book for the collection. I’m surprised to see one postcard featuring the instantly recognisable face of Spike Milligan – what’s his connection with this place? It turns out Spike, a resident of Winchelsea in the latter part of his life, is buried in the churchyard. I can’t pass up the opportunity to visit the last resting place of one of my heroes, so leave the church to try and locate his grave.
As a note in the church explains, Spike’s headstone has recently been removed by his family for re-engraving following the recent death of his wife Shelagh, which means I won’t be able to read for myself his self-penned epitaph ‘Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite’ (‘I told you I was ill’), written in Gaelic as a compromise to avoid any perceived offence. A brilliant comic to the last. But, using the clues of other headstones show on the postcard, I am soon able to find his grave: a low mound of fresh earth, a solitary jam-jar of dead flowers pushed into the loose soil, beneath an ash tree, in the most tranquil spot in the graveyard. An appropriately peaceful spot for someone who found life troubling at times, tormented as he was by mental illness, despite his success, for many of his years. Rest in peace dear Spike, and thank you for all the laughs.
Time is pressing on. With the plinky-plonky piano theme from Q5 in my head, I leave the churchyard for a quick circuit of the town – past the tree under which John Wesley last preached in the open air in 1790, past the Millenium Beacon which stands on a site overlooking the Brede Level once occupied by St Leonard’s Mill until this blew down in the Great Storm of 1987 – to head south along an avenue of lime trees, cows to the left, sheep to the right. On the edge of the modern town now, but there are signs that mediaeval Winchelsea once encompassed a larger area, before the silting of its harbour, like Rye, led to a decline in its fortunes. Like a shark’s tooth emerging from the ground, a ragged gable end wall is all that remains of St John’s Hospital, not a hospital in the modern sense, but one of four almshouses in the town. In use until the 16th century, this crumbling monolithic slab is the only fragment left, all vestiges of the other three (Holy Cross, St Bartholomew’s and St Anthony’s) having long since vanished. Other remains have been found buried on the finger-like ridge of Wealdstone that stretches several hundred yards to the south, a promontory into the surrounding low-lying marshland.The elevation here makes for defensibility against attack, in this case supplemented by the deep ditch, Town Dyke, that I cross as I head southwestwards downhill onto Pewis Marsh. The town walls extended to this point too, although were possibly just a wooden palisade here, but the only evidence of these fortifications is New Gate. A stone arch flanked by two towers like Strand Gate, it differed in that it lacked a portcullis and could only be secured by two heavy wooden gates. It sits in open countryside, surrounded by trees, evidence of how the town has shrunk, looking banished, quite forlorn and almost ashamed, as it was through New Gate that French and Castillian attackers entered the town in 1380 after the wooden gates were opened by treacherous townsfolk.
Uphill across open country, and past Wickham Manor, a 16th century stone farmhouse, now owned by the National Trust and let to a tenant farmer, but once the home of William Penn before he emigrated to the Americas to found Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Further uphill, to cross Wickham Rock Lane, past grazing dairy cows to the hill summit, overlooking the marshland to the south and, beyond, the sea. Such an ideal vantage point explains why a concrete pill box lurks semi-hidden in the undergrowth of a tree belt running along the ridge: a reminder that this coast has been threatened with invasion far more recently than the French offensives that have featured so prominently in the history I have encountered so far.
Over stiles through hedgerows, and downhill across a field spotted with the last few bright blue flowers of chicory among the rust-coloured seed heads – and a whole host of other wildflower species – grown, presumably, for shelter and sustenance for birds and bees. Back on Wickham Rock Lane, a mechanical grumbling over a hedgerow grows louder, a rattling and clanking of machinery and the thrumming roar of a diesel engine. Climbing the stile, a tractor and pasture topper trundles past, rolling along the undulating contours of Hog Hill up which I now climb. Breathing deeply, not just due to the exertion of the ascent, but to savour the sweet scent of freshly grown grass, I reach the summit and Hogg Hill Windmill, its black weatherboard roof, like the inverted keel of a capsized clinker-built boat, in vivid contrast to the gleaming white fantail. Built in 1781, it was originally erected in nearby Pett but moved to its current location in 1790, and is a well-preserved example of a post mill, although today the spring sails are missing. Not that this matters so much now. Milling ended here in 1920 and today it has a very different function. Obsolete(?) 18th century technology replaced with that of the 21st century: the windmill buildings now contain Sir Paul McCartney’s recording studio.
Downhill now, along a lane between dense hedges, then onto a barely discernible footpath through unkempt hedgerows and more overgrown fields of seeding wildflowers. Then, my planned route seems to peter out altogether: no sign of the footpath that on the map at least heads to the edge of woodland at the foot of Wickham Cliff, just another field of bird and bee food, including deep claret millet. A different footpath, this one along a track, heads along a bearing only a few degrees to the west, so I take the well-trodden path downhill to the edge of the reedbeds of Pannel Valley Nature Reserve.I turn left to try and pick up the intended route, but although a dilapidated stile and half a waymark indicate that there was once a footpath here, any trace of it disappears into nettles and undergrowth beneath the trees. I initially try to follow the alignment shown on the map, but get as far as a badger sett beneath a walnut tree just inside the woodland before deciding to admit defeat and retrace my footsteps. Back to the track and a left turn through the reedbeds. Head-high, gently swaying-dancing in the breeze, the reeds are a little disorientating as the footpath twists its way as if through a maze, and I’m a little apprehensive that I will somehow miss a turning to take me over the network of drainage channels and ditches that might otherwise prove an insurmountable obstacle and result in another volte-face.
One ditch is crossed by a narrow footbridge into a hide looking over a lake – if a dried up muddy hollow can be described as a lake. Other visitors have noted their observations in the visitors’ book – one entry for July records the presence of avocets, oystercatchers, reed buntings, little ringed plovers, lapwings, sedge warblers and a variety of other birdlife but also notes ‘almost no water for feeding!’. Disappointingly, like some more recent visitors to the hide, I’m unable to spot anything, not even the deer that were recorded a few days earlier (although the presence of high fences in the distance makes me wonder if these were farmed and not wild visitors at all).
Another footbridge crosses to the east bank of the Royal Military Canal, which, reassuringly, means I’m back on route. The 28 mile Canal dates from the early days of the 19th century during the threat of Napoleonic invasion when Romney Marsh was a likely landing spot for French forces, and the realisation by Lt Col John Brown of the Royal Staff Corps that the flooded marsh with its network of ditches would be an insufficient barrier to a determined invader. Brown proposed a defensive ditch 19m wide be constructed from Folkestone around Romney Marsh to Rye and this was greeted enthusiastically by the Duke of York and Prime Minister William Pitt. John Rennie, who had had made his name with the construction of, amongst other things, Waterloo Bridge, numerous canals and the dockyards at Chatham and Devonport, was appointed engineer and proposed extending the canal from Rye to Cliff End, incorporating the Rivers Rother and Brede, thus creating an island of Romney Marsh. Once Pitt had convinced local landowners of the benefits of the Canal, which could also be used to drain surrounding farmland, construction began in October 1804.Progress was slow, dogged by bad weather and flooding, and only 6 miles had been completed by May 1805 when Pitt dismissed Rennie and Lt Col Brown was once more put in command. 1500 men hand-dug and clay-puddled the remaining Canal to reduced dimensions, the excavated material being used to form a bank on the landward side from which troops could open fire on Napoleon’s forces. Cliff End was finally reached in April 1809, by which time the cost to the public purse had reached £234,310, a huge amount at the time.
But by this time the threat had receded: Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 since when he had concentrated his empire building in mainland Europe. Faced with an embarrassing white elephant the Goverment opened the canal to barge traffic, charging tolls to try and recoup some of the construction costs, but this never amounted to much, particularly after the arrival of the Ashford-Hastings railway in 1851. The last toll was collected in 1909. But, of course, history has a habit of repeating itself, and the Canal’s defensive strength against invaders (this time from another megalomaniac empire builder, Adolf Hitler) was recognised in the 1930s and a line of pillboxes was constructed along its line.
Despite its origin in times of violence, the Canal today is peaceful and tranquil, a watery corridor of great value to wildlife. As I head south along Rennie’s extension to Cliff End, perfectly straight save for a kink which was deliberately engineered to allow enfilading fire should French troops try to cross the Canal, swans drift gracefully along the still waters; a kestrel perches on a fence post overseeing his domain; to the west, on higher ground, a nest box on a tall pole provides a home for owls – hunting along the dykes and ditches must provide a cornucopia of prey, including water voles for which the canal provides an ideal home. To the east, on Pett Level, hundreds of sheep and cattle graze contentedly in the stiffening breeze.
At Cliff End, I leave the Canal as it turns 45 degrees to run along a row of houses to its end. I climb up the flood protection embankment that runs parallel to the sea road, and descend onto the shoreline. It’s low tide: scrunching down the steeply sloping shingle colonised by sea kale and horned poppies, I come to exposed golden sand and grey-brown mudstone where flocks of oystercatchers are feeding in pools left by the receding water lapping feebly at the shore.In places the sand has been scoured away and what’s left feels surprisingly spongy beneath my feet. A closer inspection reveals a matrix of peaty fibrous timbers, the roots, branches and fallen trunks of a submerged forest that grew here 6000 years ago when the sea level was lower than at present. Astonishingly well preserved by the seawater (although not fossilised), in some places birch branches even retain fragments of silvery-white bark.
I could linger a while on such a beautiful beach, but time is passing and I’m only halfway to Hastings. I follow the road as it curves inland past the head of the Canal, then turn off up a footpath to climb steeply between fences and high hedges. Hidden by woodland and expensive houses with expansive gardens, I can hear the sea but not see it, until a stunning view unexpectedly opens up of the waves breaking on the shore far below, framed by the moss-covered, wind-stunted branches of oaks. Further along the clifftop path, the view landward is spectacular too, across rolling sheep-grazed open pasture that tumbles away inland, but the sea is hidden once more by dense scrubby hazel, sycamore and blackthorn clinging to the near-vertical cliff face. Scarlet rose hips and crimson hawthorn berries shine brightly, with a supporting cast of blush-blue sloes.
The path drops downhill into Fairlight Cove. With no access along the clifftop, I follow the lanes and footpaths through the village. Or at least, I try to: in a couple of places, roads and footpaths end at the crumbling cliff face and I find myself consulting the map for another route. But this rapidly changing coastline means that the map is quickly dating. Around a bend in the road, a building depicted by Ordnance Survey has disappeared, what remains of the garden locked away behind fence with a sign warning ‘Keep Out! Dangerous and unstable ground!’ Other houses cling on precariously, some boarded up, others still occupied, the residents living on borrowed time before inescapable geological forces and a tempestuous sea snatch their homes away, sending them plummeting over the cliff edge.Westwards, and the path gradually climbs to Fire Hills, the easternmost part of Hastings Country Park. Unlike the chalk cliffs to the west (around Beachy Head) and to the east (from Folkestone towards Dover), the cliff face is not vertical but drops away more gradually (but steeply nonetheless) to the sea, the slope colonised by gorse and scrub. The difference is explained by geology: here the rock type is sandstone, the tail end of the Lower Cretaceous river deposits of the Weald nestling between the chalk of the North and South Downs, of great scientific interest for its fossils of Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Cetiosaurus.
Labyrinthine grassy rabbit-cropped paths meander through the deep green gorse and golden bracken to the radar station perched on one of the cliff peaks. A superb vantage point over the Channel, all is wonderfully silent, save for the breathy whistle of a stiff on-shore breeze, and the steady but barely perceptible woomph….woomph….woomph…. as the radar waveguide rotates mesmerically.
Well over half way now, but the most strenuous part of the walk is just beginning. Three deep water-worn gorges incised in the sandstone – Fairlight Glen, Warren Glen and Ecclesbourne Glen – lie on the path to Hastings. With a kestrel hovering overhead, I begin the descent into Fairlight Glen, gentle at first through gorse and bracken, then dropping steeply into dense oak, hazel and sycamore ancient woodland. The sheltered microclimate, warm and moist, encourages mosses and lichens to proliferate on the oak branches. Steps cut into the steepest part of the slope twist downwards to the nadir of the Glen, and a densely shaded gully, a red-brown slash in the greenery, in which water trickles over jagged angular sandstone boulders, lush ferns on either side.Almost as suddenly as the descent ends, so the climb begins abruptly up the opposite slope of the Glen, beneath the canopy of fantastically twisted oaks. Near the summit, woodland gives way to scrub once more, and open patches of rough grass where heathland restoration work is underway: scrub and bracken has been cleared with the eventual aim of producing a mosaic of acid grassland, heather and gorse to encourage a rich variety of wildlife, including Dartford warblers, adders and green tiger beetles. I follow a narrow path through the gorse to where it ends at a precipitous drop. Here the cliff edge demonstrates its almost ephemeral nature: the forces of weathering and erosion have sliced through the land revealing a golden vertical face, topped with a thin veneer of green, and a slump of deposited sand beneath. Clearly there’s no way forward, so I turn back inland, back into the trees, and then downhill once more.
Descending into the depths of Warren Glen, the slope seems steeper and the woodland denser than in Fairlight Glen. If those fossilised Iguanodon and Megalosaurus suddenly came back to life, it wouldn’t seem so very surprising. Downhill, each step jars my whole body; uphill, my chest burns and legs ache at the effort, despite frequent pauses for breath and to admire the delicate ferns and foxgloves. The path is waymarked – just as well, as the twisting, turning path is not easy to follow on the map – but Hastings seems to remain a constant 4½ miles distant.
Eventually, the slope levels off and the trees melt away to reveal open grassland along the clifftop: here, the meadows are being managed, scrub and brambles cleared, and legumes and wildflowers planted to encourage long-horned and other bee species. The last flowers of the year of creamy yarrow, purple knapweed and bright yellow trefoils provide pinpricks of colour amongst the browning seedheads.
Then, the descent into Ecclesbourne Glen, a crevasse-like gouge cleaved into the cliff top, the walls of which are near vertical in places, too steep for any vegetation to cling on, thus revealing the strata of crumbling sandstone. Where scrub has managed to gain a foothold, the hawthorn has been wind-sculpted by sea breezes funnelling along the narrow Glen and reclines gracefully, arching backwards aerodynamically. Over a footbridge, to climb breathlessly up the steps carved into the opposite wall, back onto the open clifftop at East Hill for the first view of Hastings. Far below, red roofs atop bay-windowed pastel blue and yellow Victorian houses and, beyond, the pier, silhouetted by the setting sun, jutting out into the sparkling sea.At the cliff end, the land plummets down to the town. One possible means of descent, the East Hill Cliff Railway, has ceased running for the day which leaves me with the only other option: a steep flight of stairs, the treads of which are too wide and the risers too low to comfortably descend with any sort of rhythm. Sneaking along the back of houses, through narrow gaps between the tall, thin buildings, the stairs emerge at the Stade, home to Europe’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet. The black-weatherboarded net shops, like tall sentry boxes, could, I suppose, be described as quaint, attracting the tourists as they do, but this is still very much a working beach. I scrunch across the shingle, weaving between the weatherbeaten boats and rusting winches and bulldozers that drag the fleet up the beach, past tangled webs of nets, and stacks of battered brightly coloured fish boxes.
The fishermen are fiercely proud of their heritage and protective of their future, which explains the graffiti on some of the winch huts: ‘NO JERWOOD’. Next to the net shops, the modern lines of the near-completed Jerwood Gallery have met with significant local opposition. Although investment in Hastings, parts of which do seem down-at-heel, should be welcomed, I must admit I have considerable sympathy for their view that the Stade and surrounding Old Town are ‘a working community inhabited by working people’ and not a museum piece for coachloads of tourists.Along the beach towards the harbour wall, putting up as I go perfectly camouflaged grey-brown waders (knots maybe, or dunlin?), almost indistinguishable from the pebbles, then along the seafront, past boarded-up refreshment stalls, and the bizarre pirate-themed crazy golf course, still open but largely deserted. Then to the fish shop for tea, to sit by the sea with a large cod and chips while a belligerent adult herring gull, squawking loudly with head thrown back, bullies grey-plumaged squeaky-wheezy juveniles for the scraps I throw them while the sun slowly sets.