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Fresh fields and pastures new

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

I felt I was getting a bit predictable, you know. So last night I saw the weather forecast and the forecaster said today would be 'sparkling' and I thought 'THAT'S my baby'. Got on the net and worked out the cost and timing of a trip to Rye in Sussex.

So there I am, up at 7 this morning, leaving home at 8am to get the 9.10 train from St Pancras.

Rye is an old, old town. I've been there once before, in summer about ten years ago. That was in fatter days. I want to walk round the coast a bit and I remember last time it was a mile or so along the estuary to the coast and it was a hot day and I thought it was too far.


Now I am just concerned I won't get a proper walk in cos a mile there and a mile back in only two miles. I go looking for the tourist information centre, in case there's a map outside it.

There's no map outside it but it's open. At 10.30 on a Sunday morning. Now that's my idea of impressive. Would they have a map, ideally an Ordnance Survey map that shows every blip? They have. £7.99 well spent (roughly the cost of getting a coat cleaned and no prizes for guessing which I think is better value) and I may get lost but at least I'll have a fighting chance of finding myself again.

Walk along various cobbled streets, taking photos. The old town is tiny, built on a hill. It's got a very old and famous pub, the Mermaid, cobbled streets, loads of gift shops and tea rooms. And at the bottom of the hill, the river.

Start walking along, then stop to check map. (Please don't tell me I should have checked the map first. I bet you read the instructions for flatpack furniture too.) To walk where I want to be, I need the other side of the river and the only bridge is back the way. Turn back, walk along taking photos. The tide's out - I believe them about the deep water though, it's a 20 foot drop, and there's nothing to stop you from tripping and falling in.

Step away from the edge, pensively.

The gulls are clearly a nuisance here and there was one sitting on this post till I got my camera out and it flew off.

Walk along the road and come to an inviting gate with a footpath sign. Gorgeous little path and the road's fairly busy and dull so it's no competition. I'm on Rye Harbour nature reserve.

There I am. Beautiful blue sky, no wind, flat marshy landscape. I'm walking along a raised dyke and it gives me a fabulous view. I can see sheep in the distance that make me think of salt marsh lamb, something you get in France a lot and also in posh butchers in the UK.

It's a long way from Epping Forest. I do see a thicket with a robin in it, warning me off.

Keep walking and the path comes out on the road eventually, at the village of Rye Harbour. It's 12 and I haven't brought lunch with me. I'm looking for food. There is a pub, and I am thinking freshly caught fish would go down well.

Go in the pub, order their fish platter, and take a seat outside in some trepidation. The price is low enough not to fill me with confidence and sure enough when my food arrives, it's gone from the wholesaler into the freezer and from the freezer into the deep-fat fryer and on to my plate. Ah well. Fuel not food. It's perfectly edible, just not QUITE what I was hoping for. In any case it's my own fault cos I was too lazy to make sandwiches this morning and I actually had soup made and couldn't be bothered to microwave it.

I am a fundamentally lazy person. There's your proof.

The view, on the other hand, is just what I wanted. And being able to sit outside for lunch in the UK in November is pretty unusual too. Peruse new map with interest.

Finish eating and drinking, set off along the river estuary.

There are a few boats about and I watch a yacht moving down the river the other side of the marsh. Walk along another dyke, then down the road. On my right is the nature reserve and loads of people are birdwatching. And bunnywatching. On my left the estuary. Get to the end of the estuary and there are massive dunes made up of pebbles, not sand. I turn and walk along the road that runs just behind them.

The sky is huge. On my right are the marshes, on my left, the dunes. I do walk up the dunes at one point, but it's really heavy going, you slither in the pebbles. Across the estuary are people on the beach (note to self, might be nice to go that way next time) and beyond, in the distance, the power station at Dungeness.

I pass a disused lifeboat station and clamber up the dunes next to it. There are lots of bits of disused wood from something or other - a mooring or harbour or something. Two people with bicycles are sitting eating their by the sea.

Regret again not having brought lunch. Am also regretting a bit that I didn't bring water but I hate carrying it. Too much effort. There's bits of sea kale along the dunes, I've never seen it growing before though I once bought some in a supermarket and ate it. It's cabbagey all right, I can tell you that.

Walk a bit further, sit down on a rustic bench and have a look at the map. I want to take the next path on the right inland, go up past a farm, and walk across to have a look at the ruined castle.


What could possibly go wrong?

You're way ahead of me aren't you?

Turn inland and keep marvelling at how blue the sky is, how clear the air, the reflections in the pools, the apparent fuzziness of the teazles.

Although I love forests, if I had to choose, it's the wide open landscapes for me. Am following a nice trail, and it's been a very gratifying feature of the whole walk that there have been regular maps along the edge of the nature reserve and nice little arrows on signposts. Keep following the trail. It gets muddy - and guess who thought she was going to be walking along a sandy beach and wore her new trainers today? Suddenly it peters out. There are tracks everywhere of course, but am not sure which to choose. Keep on keeping on straight ahead.

The track gets very narrow and is suddenly going through a thicket of hawthorn covered in lichen, horrible and it's slanting and so slippery I have to stop. At this point, I would turn back but I can't actually turn around. To avoid the ankle-deep mud, I insert myself into a thorn bush and lean on it to stop myself from slipping over. The bushes are full of birds and I swear this bluetit was giggling at me.

Step past the muddiest bit and I'm glad to say it improves drastically. Emerge on a nice wide farm track.

I can go left, to Winchelsea, back the way I came (not an option, trust me), straight up a muddy hill through a field with a horse in it or right, along a farm track and through a gate. I choose right. This is not marked as a public right of way, and there are two people doing something with a piece of agricultural equipment that is (I think) designed for punching holes in the earth to aid drainage. Hope that they don't object to me using the farm track. In fact they don't appear to notice me, which is a relief. In my teens I went on family walks and on occasion we were accosted by landowners rather hot round the gills even though we were on public footpaths and not doing anything noticeably obnoxious (interfering with sheep, greasing piglets, whatever). Keep walking round and come to another junction of tracks. Get out map again.

Realise I have gone about 50 metres the wrong way so turn back and am pleased to see two people a bit ahead of me who must have been more or less following me. They follow the track round a field with gorse bushes in. The castle is in the distance.

This flat landscape is weird. You can see absolutely miles and one effect is that even 20 minutes' walking feels as though you've hardly moved. The castle inches closer and I turn off towards it. Suddenly it's near enough to touch. I wander round taking photos.

So this is Camber Castle. It's a Martello Tower, built by Henry VIII in 1536. If you follow the link you can see an aerial pic of it.

Henry VIII was the guy who had six wives. He fell out with the Pope over divorcing wife one to marry wife two. My history is hazy but the Martello Towers were built to fortify England against invasion by the French and I think the expected invasion was one of the results of Henry falling out with the Pope.

Anyway, the invasion didn't happen but we still have these towers. They are interesting because by Henry's day, big houses were being built as palaces (eg Hampton Court) rather than castles, so these towers would, I'm guessing, have been purely built for military purposes.

But I could be wrong. Don't take my word for anything.

Anyway, Rye looks invitingly close now, just a short hop further across the fields. The path is not very well defined but you can see where you're going and I want to get back, I'd quite like tea somewhere and I wanted to have a look at some of the gifte shoppes. The woman in the tourist place mentioned a vintage car rally (not me) and a craft market (definitely me) too. So I take a track across the field and head by the shortest route back to the town.

And come unstuck, of course.

You'd be disappointed by anything else, wouldn't you?

What happens is quite simple. This is a watery landscape. It is drained marshland. There are deep ditches everywhere. Now, where I come from in northeast England, there are ditches and some of them are deep but it's rare to find one more than about three feet across. Even I can jump that far.

These ditches are seven or eight feet across, minimum. The opposite bank tends to be higher than the one you are standing on. They are brimful of water and in some cases swans.

They are long and interconnecting. I find myself walking up and down a field in a maze of ditches full of water (to say nothing of the boggy bits in the field itself). I'm tired, thirsty, hungry, need a pee and most unpleasant of all, the sun is getting very low on the horizon.

I do not want to be staggering around a field full of water features in the dark.

The two people I had earlier seen ahead of me, who were sitting by the castle, are also casting about trying to find their way out. I have a feeling they must have followed me, thinking I knew where I was going.

I should have warned them this was a bad idea.

Anyway, I am walking up and down a ditch and at both ends is another ditch so there's no way forward. Just the other side of it is civilisation, houses, a road etc, but there is no bridge and I'm stuck. I keep my eye on these other two people. They double back, go through a gate, and then another gate, and set off down the field. I follow. I go through one gate and then . . .

This is the scariest moment I've had since starting to walk. It might seem trivial, but the second gate is stuck because a clump of reeds has grown up and blocked it. You can only open it a few inches and edge round it to get through it.

Sounds simple?

It's situated right over a deep ditch full of water so when you edge round it, you are in fact hanging over the ditch and the only thing that stops you from ending up in the ditch is your hands hanging on like grim bloody death to the gate.

Before I can even give myself time to think, I edge round the gate and am safely on dry land taking the above photo.

I will be having nightmares about that for years. I once saw a guy perform the same manoeuvre round a fence that was right at the edge of the Corinth canal. It was clearly routine to him.

The two women have stopped another woman coming the other way with a dog and she's clearly giving them directions. I follow them, come level with her and she comments approvingly that I have a map.

The map's not much use I can tell you if you don't know which waterfilled ditch is which.

Shortly after I arrive back at the path I started on and ten minutes later I am back in the town. When I look at the time (confidently expecting it to be approaching 5pm) it's only 3.30pm. There is time for me to go and have tea etc, but there's a train leaving at 3.48 and I decide I'd rather catch that.

An interesting point: I'd assumed it would be ok to be out and about till 4.30, but clearly I need to be back in civilisation by 4pm at latest.

I walked a good ten miles, so no worries there. A new personal best. I'd go back to Rye any time.

And my new hiking boots are due to arrive tomorrow!
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