Dawn on the levels. Running across a grey, cool morning, stepping slow behind the heels of winter. And today, for once, that quote is really true.
A plan formed deep in the forests of night. To run from Rye to meet the sea.
I trot out from the hotel and head up the cobbled street. Beside the half-timbered merchants’ houses on Church Square, past The Flushing Inn and the old sweet shop, through Landgate’s arch and down to The Strand.
And that’s where the uncertainty begins. A channel lies in front of me, and the flat far horizon ahead. But which way should I run? Does the river flow east or west to the coast?
The mist is lifting around me, but at this early hour it still floats thick in my mind. I stand on the bridge and watch the tidal flow. No clues.
Finally I see it. With masts taller than the span, the ships can sail only one way. And across the river, a footpath forges over the fields, so I follow towards Camber Sands and the sea.
* * * * *
Perhaps my confusion isn’t so surprising. Because the sea lies far out of sight, and this river once flowed the other way.
For a thousand years, there’s been a harbour here at Rye.
One of two Antient Towns linked to the five famous Cinque Ports, for centuries Rye (originally Atter Ie — or On the Island) was a bustling port at a safe anchorage beside the River Rother.
Trade with France and Flanders brought wealth through the Middle Ages, with pirate raids and fear of invasion, too. The town was often attacked by the French, and strong walls and guns were put in place to protect the port.
But gradually, the coastline changed. The river mouth at Romney to the east was blocked. To the south, the old town of Winchelsea (Gwent Chesel Ie — Shingle Marsh Island) was washed away by a storm in 1287, and rebuilt much further inland.
By Tudor times, Rye’s river flowed southwards to the sea. Trade continued to grow, but silting of the channel caused endless problems. Finally a new harbour was built a mile south of town.
Over time, the marshes were enclosed by dykes and drainage ditches, and as the ‘innings’ grew, crops and farms appeared. Eventually the new harbour was a mile from the sea.
* * * * *
Under a lightening sky now, my footsteps have joined a cycle path and a road. The river disappears behind a wall of sand dunes to my right and the path veers left of three flags and a field. Faintly I recognise Rye Golf Club — a classic links where the student golfer inside me played once, a long time ago.
The fairways run parallel to the dunes, and I do the same. I ask a runner plodding the other way how much further to Camber. Ten minutes more.
I’m late for breakfast now, but it seems near enough. A pair of par fours hack by before Camber arrives. A line of cottages first, then a park.
Finally a path for the dunes, through buckthorn and marram and threaded straight for the sky.
Two steps up, and half a step down — that’s how it goes across the sand. Suddenly I’m at the top, and a wide view of the coast shouts out with its secret.
Rye Harbour’s channel cuts a geological dividing line right through this coast.
To the west lies the shingle of Winchelsea Beach — chert and quartzite pebbles from the chalk and sandstone cliffs of Sussex. East and in front lies nothing but sand, eroded from the Weald Basin and brought here by the river. In the last 350 years, waves and the wind have built a new beach and these high sandhills above.
Three miles of marsh bring me back to the island. Sand, storms and shingle falling further behind me.
Geology and sedimentology have made history here, but now breakfast falls much more firmly in mind.
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196. In Shelley’s Sussex footsteps – running from Horsham to Warnham