Winchelsea in East Sussex, on the brink of Romney Marsh, is a beautiful centre for anyone wanting to mix hiking and history or birdwatching and beer
A complete stranger almost nutted me the moment we arrived at our Winchelsea B&B. It wasn’t anything personal; the front door was very low, he was very tall, and I was trying to go in as he was bent double trying to come out. You have to expect minor hazards if you want to stay in a 15th-century cottage.
Winchelsea (www.winchelsea.net) is a beautiful hilltop village overlooking Romney Marsh. My husband and I stayed at Strand House, a luxury B&B in a quintessential English cottage, so picture-perfect that it takes a sharp rap on the head from one of the low beams to convince you that it isn’t a happy hallucination. It has 10 very individual rooms, a cosy lounge and a garden, and does magnificent breakfasts (from £70 per room per night for two people inc full breakfast. Evening meals are also available). Alternatively, there’s The Lodge at Winchelsea, a motel built to resemble a barn, with modern rooms, a restaurant and bar (doubles from £65 inc continental breakfast ).
History confronted us as soon as we climbed the hill to explore: the lane enters the village by squeezing through an ancient stone arch, Strand Gate. Winchelsea used to be walled, and three of the four gateways survive. They’re narrow enough to make life scary for any vehicle bigger than the medieval carts they were designed for.
Inside the gate is a timewarp. Streets of lovely houses - half-timbered, weatherboarded, tile-hung, stone-built; lavender borders flickering with dozens of butterflies; few pavements, no street lights, and although the streets have names, they haven’t got name signs. Luckily, Winchelsea’s small, laid out on a grid plan, and blessed with friendly inhabitants, so it’s not hard to find your way about.
The centre of the village is St Thomas’ church, where the magnificent 1930s stained glass windows by Douglas Strachan are almost literally stunning, full of colour and movement. The faces of the people in them are the most alive and expressive I’ve ever seen. They seem to be individuals rather than imaginings.
Spike Milligan is buried in the churchyard. So is a woman ‘killed by enemy action’ during World War II. Winchelsea is peaceful now but it was often on the front line in the past, as we found out when we visited the interesting local museum in the old Court Hall opposite the church. Winchelsea used to be on the coast and was one of the Cinque Ports, building ships outside Strand House. It suffered several raids by the French over the years and the Royal Military Canal, which runs by at the foot of the hill, was dug to keep Napoleon out. During World War II, decoy sites were set up on the marshes nearby and anti-aircraft guns in the village, which was bombed several times.
For hikers, various footpaths wind away from Winchelsea. We followed one through the fields past Camber Castle (www.english-heritage.org.uk) to Rye (www.visitrye.co.uk). This is another picture-postcard town, with beautiful cobbled streets, inviting shops and even more inviting pubs, plus a useful Heritage Centre (ryeheritage.co.uk) offering audio guides to help you explore. Like Winchelsea, Rye is built on a hill, and the views are best appreciated from the garden of the Ypres Castle Inn (Gun Gardens, off Church Square; 01797 223248; www.yprescastleinn.co.uk). The inn serves delicious, well-presented meals featuring local, seasonal produce, including fish landed at the town wharf.
In the opposite direction, paths lead to Icklesham village via a short stretch of the Royal Military Canal and Icklesham Windmill. The Queens Head (01424 814552; www.queenshead.com) is hidden at the end of Parsonage Lane, a lane so narrow and insignificant that it looks like someone’s driveway. The pub has a lovely timbered interior with real fires in winter, a garden with glorious views down the Brede Valley, real ale and substantial but quality pub food.
A walk along the Royal Military Canal (www.royalmilitarycanal.com) is a must, for both its history and its wildlife. A footpath runs its whole length, but unfortunately roads follow most of it too. However, a short drive to the pretty village of Appledore let us pick up a very pretty section of the canal that is owned by the National Trust and road-free. As a defence against Napoleon, the canal would have been about as much use as a fence to keep out monkeys, but this section makes a delightful out-and-back walk of up to eight miles. We enjoyed a sunny day ambling beside the water, spotting greenfinches, lapwings, green woodpeckers, herons, a young cuckoo and even a kingfisher. Back in Appledore, there was tea at the charming Miss Mollett’s High-Class Tea Room (cash only; 01233 758555; www.missmolletts.co.uk).
The Sound Mirrors at Greatstone were a bit more efficient as defences. Precursors of radar, they picked up the sound of approaching enemy aircraft. Various shapes and sizes were tested and three different models stand side by side here. They’re on private land but can be seen clearly from a public footpath, and there are occasional guided tours (greatstone.net/history/sound_mirrors). You could get here on the slightly-less-than-lifesize Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, hauled by steam or diesel engines (01797 362353; www.rhdr.org.uk); get off at Romney Sands.
Nearby is the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve (01797 320588; www.rspb.org.uk/reserves), where we had the surreal sight of a marsh harrier gliding slowly against the backdrop of the power station. There’s more birding at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve (www.wildrye.info/reserve) near Winchelsea, where we watched terns feeding their well-camouflaged chicks.
The proximity of wildlife and defences sums up the experience. Once in the front line of warfare, Winchelsea is now a front-runner as a peaceful holiday destination.