A few days ago I wrote about Orfordness. There’s something about the East of England that lends itself to the wild and wooly. Maybe it’s the east wind biting in off the Siberian Steppes. This is another such place, part of the southern tip of Kent that you’d miss as you hurtle south to leave England for the Continent.
It’s a place that becomes important every hundred years or so when the French or the Germans or whoever decide that, contrary to popular rumour, English cooking is a ‘must experience’ and try to invade our kitchens. Then we throw up Martello Towers and tank traps and gun batteries and flood previously drained bits and stand shoulder to shoulder being stiff upper lippish and feeling pretty bloody smug that someone a few millennia ago thought to build the Channel to keep Jonny Foreigner at bay.
Today all we’d do is line up UKIP MPs MEPs and Councillors and no right-minded European would think of crossing that particular picket line. ‘Picket’ as in the thing you do to a scab when it is hiding something pussy and infected.
Enough of the politics, Romney Marsh is windswept, covered in ditches to make it accessible and full of wildlife. It is a place, along with most of central and southern Kent that we visited for holidays in the 1960s.
It is difficult to communicate how much fun the Archaeologist and I had as kids hunting its hedgerows for butterflies and caterpillars. It taught us patience as we turned leave after leaf; it engendered a sense of competition which, for once I might win as the younger sibling. And nothing ever beat the excitement if you found something.
So many memories: my father climbing a sallow tree and finding, on descending that a poplar hawk moth caterpillar was clinging to his red cardigan; the day dad spotted a dormouse snoozing in a hedge; finding purple hairstreak eggs, a tiny beautiful butterfly with even tinier eggs.
From a bug hunt on the marsh we’d drive to Dungeness spit, a shingle beach bleak and uninviting save for the clouded yellow butterflies being blown in from France. There was a small gauge railway we’d catch, a bird reserve set in amongst old quarry pits which we’d wander about, as often as not playing pretend war games. And the inevitable fish and chips at the end.
We might drive along the coast to Folkestone and Dover, in the days when the only signs of a tunnel were from Victorian times, before visiting Dover Castle and hearing for the umpteenth time how our grandfather nearly bought a Martello Tower – how cool would that have been? Three foot thick walls good against any invaders.
Or we might head west, across the county boundary to Sussex and the gorgeous little town of Rye. If anything tells you that you have moved into a different world it is Rye. From the utilitarian holiday camps on Camber Sands to oh so twee English cottages covered in wisteria and roses, the contrast is stark. If Kent as one thing it was working class this far south. It might have been known as the Garden of England and their may have been more hops here than at many a beer festival, but it was also home to coal mines in Ash, only closed in the 1990s.
Romney Marsh was also home to smugglers back in the day. My dad, always able to recite a poem at will, would tell us of Smuggler Bill and Excisemen Gill, from the poem in the 18th century, part of the Ingoldsby Legends. These are the opening verses and how often did I hear these booming out in dad’s soft baritone as he drove our Hillman Huskey, while mum studied the map, the Archaeologist read the Aeneid or Beowulf or The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (he’d have been 7 or 8) and I absorbed the Beano, the Dandy or the Beezer.
The fire-flash shines from Reculver cliff,
And the answering light burns blue in the skiff,
And there they stand,
That smuggling band,
Some in the water and some on the sand,
Ready those contraband goods to land:
The night is dark, they are silent and still,
— At the head of the party is Smuggler Bill!
‘Now lower away! come, lower away!
We must be far ere the dawn of the day.
If Exciseman Gill should get scent of the prey,
And should come, and should catch us here, what would he say?
Come, lower away, lads — once on the hill,
We’ll laugh, ho! ho! at Exciseman Gill!’
The cargo’s lower’d from the dark skiff’s side,
And the tow-line drags the tubs through the tide,
No trick nor flam,
But your real Schiedam.
‘Now mount, my merry men, mount and ride!’
Three on the crupper and one before,
And the led-horse laden with five tubs more;
But the rich point-lace,
In the oil-skin case
Of proof to guard its contents from ill,
The ‘prime of the swag,’ is with Smuggler Bill!
Merrily now in a goodly row,
Away and away those Smugglers go,
And they laugh at Exciseman Gill, ho! ho!
When out from the turn
Of the road to Herne,
Comes Gill, wide awake to the whole concern!
Exciseman Gill, in all his pride,
With his Custom-house officers all at his side!
— They were called Custom-house officers then;
There were no such things as ‘Preventive men.’
Sauve qui peut!
That lawless crew,
Away, and away, and away they flew!
Some dropping one tub, some dropping two;–
Some gallop this way, and some gallop that,
Through Fordwich Level — o’er Sandwich Flat,
Some fly that way, and some fly this,
Like a covey of birds when the sportsmen miss;
These in their hurry
Make for Sturry,
With Custom-house officers close in their rear,
Down Rushbourne Lane, and so by Westbere,
None of them stopping,
But shooting and popping,
And many a Custom-house bullet goes slap
Through many a three-gallon tub like a tap,
And the gin spirts out
And squirts all about,
And many a heart grew sad that day
That so much good liquor was so thrown away.
Sauve qui peut! That lawless crew,
Away, and away, and away they flew!
Some seek Whitstable — some Grove Ferry,
Spurring and whipping like madmen — very —
For the life! for the life! they ride! they ride!
And the Custom-house officers all divide,
And they gallop on after them far and wide!
All, all, save one — Exciseman Gill,–
He sticks to the skirts of Smuggler Bill!