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History and Mystery in East Kent

East Kent is full of history. It is the part of England closest to the Continent; on a clear day, the coast of France can be clearly seen. Across the narrow stretch of water that separates England from France have passed Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans, traders and soldiers and sailors, smugglers and spies and revolutionaries task management tools. In the sixteenth century the Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel; in the twentieth, Admiral Ramsay stood on the gallery of the underground bunkers at Dover and directed the Dunkirk evacuation, and a little later the Battle of Britain was fought in the skies overhead.

The period on which we have concentrated is the mid-1790s. The Body on the Doorstep takes place in May and June of 1796, at a time of high tension. The French Republic, now a quasi-dictatorship ruled by a small group of men known as the Directory, had repelled all attacks by foreign powers, Britain included. Now, France was flexing its muscles. Invasion armies were gathering, and it was known that the Directory had plans to attack Britain. Meanwhile, the smugglers continued to run their cargoes of untaxed brandy and gin and lace across the water; and who knew where their real loyalties lay.

The town of Deal was one of the foremost centres of smuggling. Earlier in the 17th century Daniel Defoe wrote angrily that Deal should be obliterated: ‘The barbarous hated name of Deal shou’d die, or be a term of infamy; and till that’s done the town will stand, a just reproach to all the land.’ On one occasion the Royal Navy raided Deal and burned every boat in the port, in an attempt to stop smuggling. The smugglers were back in action a few months later.

Deal August 2016 cropped

Deal Castle, shown above, was built by Henry VIII during an earlier struggle with France, to ward off a possible invasion. Henry was rather more energetic than the British government in the 1790s, investing heavily in coastal defences. Not until the following decade and the rise of Napoleon did Britain begin to construct similar forts and dig the Royal Military Canal.

Tenterden

Tenterden is a handsome market town with many fine old buildings, such as these on its high street. The tower of St Mildred’s Church can be seen in the background. By day, Tenterden was a prosperous and bustling commercial centre; according to the 1801 census it had a population of about 2,300. At night, things changed. Tenterden was on one of the main routes between the coast and London, often used by smugglers. During the time of the new moon, the midnight streets often echoed to the sound of heavily laden horses and masked men, moving in convoys.

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This is Romney Marsh, the ancient delta of the River Rother before it changed its course in the late 1290s. A violent storm blocked the mouth of the Rother at New Romney and the river diverted south to its present outlet near Rye. The curve of the coast can be seen, a crescent stretching from Dymchurch down to Dungeness. The Romans began reclamation of the Marsh for farmland, and by the end of the Middle Ages most of it had been drained and converted into rich pastureland.

Roman ruins at Lympne

The Roman presence can still be seen in these ruins near Lympne, the old fort of Portus Lemanis, known today as Stutfall Castle. Portus Lemanis was part of the old defensive system known as the Saxon Shore, built in an –ultimately futile – attempt to keep out Anglo-Saxon raiders and invaders.

Mary's tea Rooms Dymchurch

Mary’s Tea Room in Dymchurch, an indispensable watering hole for thirsty historians. Excellent tea, a friendly owner and the cakes are excellent too. A J MacKenzie stop in whenever they are in the area!

Lookers hut at Kent Wildlife centre

This is a looker’s hut, a shelter used by shepherds while watching their flocks out on the Marsh. These simple structures, of one or two rooms only, were once common across the Marsh; several hundred are known to have existed. Today, only a few remain. This one can be found at the Kent Wildlife Trust’s centre at St Mary’s Bay. In The Body on the Doorstep, a looker’s hut is also used as a makeshift prison.

Scarlet pimpernel

Scarlet pimpernels flowering on Romney Marsh at the Kent Wildlife Centre. Baroness Orczy made this humble little flower famous in her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel and its sequels, about the dashing Sir Percy Blakeney rescuing French aristos from peril during the Revolution. We think the baroness must have envisioned Sir Percy crossing to France from Romney Marsh; perhaps it was here that he first plucked a scarlet pimpernel and put it in his buttonhole.

St Mary in the Marsh church North side

Much of the action in The Body in the Doorstep takes place in and around the village of St Mary in the Marsh. This is its beautiful medieval church of St Mary the Virgin, seen from the north. St Mary the Virgin was a patron saint of sailors right across western Europe, and the church of St Mary would have been clearly visible from the sea. Romney Marsh has many old churches, each with its own peculiar features and all well worth a visit. Sadly, some of the old churches are now ruins, or have disappeared entirely. We chose this photo because it shows how churches on the Marsh (and some houses) were built on very slight rises which were often enough to prevent them being flooded.

St Mary's churchyard looking north to the ridge above the Marsh

Above is the view from the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin looking north across the Marsh. The line of hills in the distance marks the edge of the Marsh, and would have been the original coastline before the Marsh was formed. It separates the Marsh from the rest of Kent almost like a wall. That sense of separate and distinctness is a strong feature of Romney Marsh. The Reverend Richard Barham, himself a Romney Marsh clergyman, wrote that ‘The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh.’ Today Romney Marsh is still sometimes known as ‘the Fifth Continent’.

New Romney gaol and courthouse

Though its port had largely silted up, New Romney remained a busy small town and commercial centre. This is the town gaol, today a private house. On its right is the town hall which also doubled as a courthouse; it remains in use as the town hall today and the courtroom is worth a visit when it is open.

RHDR engine and carriags

Public transport on Romney Marsh: the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, which runs down the east coast of the Marsh. Opened in 1927, the railway was taken over by the military in the Second World War and played a role in the coastal defence of Kent. A J MacKenzie have found it an excellent way to see the parts of the Marsh that the roads do not reach. Who doesn’t love a miniature steam railway?!

Dungeness and lighthouse

The lighthouse at Dungeness, above the great banks of shingle swept up by the waves and tide. Bleak and mysterious even in sunlight, Dungeness is one of the most atmospheric places in Kent, if not all of England. Small wonder that so many novelists, ourselves included, set scenes here.

Plants on the shingle at Dungeness

Sea kale growing out of the shingle on the beach at Dungeness. This hardy plant is able to withstand the salt spray and winds that often batter the point.

Rye east of church

We conclude our tour in the beautiful hill town of Rye, which is actually across the river in Sussex but is closely linked to East Kent. Away from the bustle of Rye High Street are many quiet and lovely corners like this street east of the church. If you are thinking of touring East Kent, set aside at least part of a day to enjoy Rye.

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Kent, 1796.

Shocked to discover a dying man on his doorstep – and lucky to avoid a bullet himself – Reverend Hardcastle finds himself entrusted with the victim’s cryptic last words.

With smuggling rife on England’s south-east coast, the obvious conclusion is that this was a falling out among thieves. But why is the leader of the local Customs service so reluctant to investigate?

Ably assisted by the ingenious Mrs Chaytor, Hardcastle sets out to solve the mystery for himself. But smugglers are not the only ones to lurk off the Kent coast, and the more he discovers, the more he realises he might have bitten off more than he can chew.

 

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Published 24 Aug 2016