It would be an exaggeration to say we were lost in a swamp
and it was dark when we arrived at Dumb Woman's Lane. Not a wild, mad-eyed exaggeration
, mind, just enough that a more sensible walking partner could point out that we weren't lost in a swamp yet
, and it wasn't dark yet
Unless civilisation, which for present purposes includes enclosed shelter, the taming of fire, and the distilling of grain, could be reached in about one hour's walk from Dumb Woman's Lane, it would be time to go wild and mad-eyed.
We had gone to Rye on a whim. To Winchelsea on a whim. Even, though we hadn't known it'd be there waiting for us, to Dumb Woman's Lane on a whim.
We were in a swamp. It was late, we had both walked more than enough, the grey sky was being whipped up and flattered by rain-loving winds, and we didn't know which direction Rye lay in. "Not lost in a swamp as such," M. insisted when I reviewed our position.
"Lost, and in a swamp, but the two are unconnected, you mean?"
"Yes," she said happily. She enjoyed teasing me, lord knows I deserve it sometimes. I was glad I had such a sensible partner to keep me steady in these little jaunts; but I have to ask, privately, if she's so sensible why does she follow me when I announce we don't need a local map because we're just walking straight from Rye to Winchelsea?
To be fair, I was expecting a quick tramp in a country lane once we got out of town, with the odd car whizzing by to distract us from the silence and beauty of fields. Hmm. It's a reclaimed swamp, the fields are very flat, broken up by channels filled with sedge, and grazed by an unattractive, muddy breed of sheep. The cars were incessant. I hated it by the time I was half way there, and we agreed we'd get a bus or train back.
Ah, Winchelsea! It was worth it -- it was worth the cars and the long walk, when we climbed the steep hill, passed laughing and wondering through the 13th-century Strand Gate, and found ourselves in a charming, serene, orderly little village commanding what is now farmland but was then an arm of the sea.
In its day Winchelsea was one of the most powerful ports of England, and constantly suffered from the depredations of our old enemy the French. But a far older and more potent enemy was laying plans. In 1250 the Sea sacked Winchelsea: in 1287 the Sea overwhelmed it in a mighty storm and changed the whole coastline between it and Rye. Old Winchelsea is under the waves now; no-one knows quite where. But already before its destruction a new town had been planned, a grid of squares on a defensible hill peninsula, blessed and furthered by King Edward I.
The French raided and sacked the New Winchelsea several times, but once again the Sea made the final disposition, this time by withdrawal. The harbour was silted up, the coast moved away, the merchants moved too when there was no more trade, and the great church of St Thomas the Martyr fell into ruin.
It was the church we had come for: I had told M. it had one of the finest collections of effigies in England. For some reason I had forgotten the truly magnificent modern stained glass, another reason to go out of our way to visit it. Two effigies of white stone are near contemporary with the founding of the church: one is Gervase Alard, first Admiral of the Fleet in the time of Edward I, in convincingly draped pleats of robe and finely carved chain mail. But in the opposite chantry, in the north chancel, are three smoother, more primitive figures, carved of dark Sussex marble, a crusader knight, a lady, and a lad, perhaps one family. Their identities have been lost under the sea and over the centuries, but their animatedly human stone forms lie here, rescued from the drowned ruins of the old church while there were still people who remembered them.
Well. We "did" the church, trying to take in how large and dominant it must have been when its nave existed and its transepts were more than arches flung out forlornly across the graveyard, we paid for guides and postcards, we added our names in the visitors' book. Then we walked the trim streets, hoping the thin biting rain wouldn't deepen, we saw where Ellen Terry had lived, and Malcolm Saville, and where Wesley as an old man preached his last outdoor sermon. Then we wandered companionably, arm in arm, down towards the railway station.
We'd seen a sign pointing towards it: it was Sunday, so we were resigned to sitting in a dingy waiting room for half an hour or more. Small inconvenience, as we had each other's company: who could count such hours dull? Alas, alack, our bliss was short. The sign pointed thataway, away from the main traffic, good, our last little walk would be amid peaceful farms, with only bleating and the seagulls' cry and the soughing of the wind. But it led to another sign: station 1 mile. That would take us half way to Rye, or worse, a mile further away.
Now we're young and fit, we can walk, if we know where to go. But between us and the hilltop of Rye was marsh criss-crossed with silently malign channels. No footpaths, no lanes, no guarantee of dry ground. An occasional gunshot booming across Romney Marsh. At this point we noticed it was getting late.
We did walk that mile. It was very pleasant: the way we'd wanted the first walk to be. Stillness, company, mild exertion, wind in our faces. We talked painting, and people we knew, past loves and what we'd eat back in Rye. Soon, we hoped. "Winchelsea" station is a platform in the wilds of south-eastern Sussex, with a bench and a timetable. Sunday. Not every hour, but every two hours, and one had just gone. And the sun calling back its light.
The prospect of retracing our steps before dusk caught us was not appealing, especially if it was dark on that last stretch of busy road with its thin, irregular pavement to walk on. Luckily there was another signpost: Rye 2 miles if we continued onward. I hadn't fancied taking risks with cross-country this close to dusk. From time to time we could see Ypres Tower, the high fortress dominating Rye, tantalisingly close if we could walk flat across to it, but our road wasn't going directly towards it. Sunset orange began to glare at us: the sun was visibly lower every time we looked.
Along this totally unfrequented path we went, and it came to a fork, and to the right, towards Rye, was Dumb Woman's Lane.
How we hugged each other in delight at the serendipity! It had not a dingy, crabbed, 18th-century sign, hidden from time, but no, this had a very modern, large, completely out-of-place council sign that named it. I was thankful it hadn't fallen victim to modernising correctness and become Differently Bright-Idea'd Bitch's Lane.
It quickly curled away in quite the wrong direction, and a jogger we asked said the bridlepath, full of grey mud and sheep droppings and deranged sheep, overhung by a beetling and goblin-haunted cliff on one side and an evil, still channel that made the Dead Marshes look like a koi pond -- said that this was our quicker route.
We got into Rye at twilight, drank at the Old Bell Inn (1420), and recounted to each other fondly and minutely over pasta how much pleasure we'd had from the day.
The geography is all true. The lane really exists. The events are mostly true; the people are absurd.