The literary allure of Romney Marsh
Romney Marsh, England
A few days before Ayesha and I were to leave for vacation in England, our son and daughter-in-law mentioned that they hadn’t picked a name for the baby they were expecting.
“Here, you look,” said my daughter-in-law, Kim, handing me a book.
The boy’s name “Romney” caught my eye. I had grown up on the edge of Romney Marsh, a place steeped in the lore of Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells. I remembered Romney’s magic.
“That’s a lovely name for a girl too,” Kim said.
Before we boarded the plane for London, our son called to say a little girl had arrived. Her name: Romney.
That is how, seven years ago, my wife and I found ourselves 60 miles southeast of London, walking up the lane to St. Clement Church, an ancient stone barnacle rising out of the marsh in the hamlet of Old Romney. Tall Romney sheep grazed almost up to the church door, and a sign urged visitors to close the door behind them “to keep the birds out.”
Inside was as bright as a nursery, with whitewashed walls and rose-pink box pews. I’ve discovered since then that the pews were painted in 1962 by the crew of a Walt Disney feature, “Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow” (later retitled “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh”), about smuggling and the fictional vicar of nearby Dymchurch. But that day, the pews seemed as though they had been painted specially for the recent arrival of a little girl named Romney.
We returned to the marsh last year, once again staying at the cozy Regent Motel in Rye, in our favorite third-floor room, from which we could spy on the weekly Rye Market below. After croissants and coffee at nearby Jempson’s bakery, I ventured out across the marsh and into that evocative landscape, where we could claim a family connection -- and trace the roots of Romney’s literary legacies.
Wind, sky and antiquities
“The world is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh,” the Rev. Richard H. Barham, a local parson, wrote nearly 200 years ago. Even today, when “caravan sites” (trailer parks) dot the coast and two nuclear power stations stand bleakly on the shingle shore of the English Channel at nearby Dungeness, it is still possible to know exactly what Barham meant.
At its heart, the 100-square-mile marsh -- in a southeast section of England reclaimed centuries ago from the sea -- is almost as mysterious and lonely as it was in the 17th century, when smugglers swapped local wool for brandy from France.
Its beauty is not of the pretty thatched cottage type; the marsh is about wind and sky and ancient lichened gray churches, land dotted with sheep and watched over by skylarks. It speaks to the soul, and perhaps that is why it has been a magnet for writers from both sides of the Atlantic.
At the turn of the last century, you might have seen Henry James, who lived at Rye, on the edge of the marsh, pedaling placidly along these lanes on his bicycle, or Joseph Conrad in his trap, swearing at his Kentish pony in Polish as he trotted off to see his friend H.G. Wells at Sandgate Bay.
“We lived rather in each others’ pockets,” American writer Ford Madox Ford wrote of scribes who included Kipling, Stephen Crane and children’s author Edith Nesbit, all of whom formed a loose-knit Romney Marsh writers colony not unlike Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury group.
They came here to gossip, to squabble, to make love and sometimes even to write. Manuscripts flowed back and forth, as well as insults. (James was deeply offended when Wells compared him to a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.)
Today it’s still possible to visit many of the sites where these long-ago tiffs and scandals played out, and I discovered there’s no better place to start than Winchelsea, one of the hilltop Cinque Ports from which the English kept a sharp lookout for French invaders and where Ford took his wife, Elsie, in 1901.
When the original town was washed away in a storm in 1287, a new town was built on the grid system, a scheme that is still a novelty for England. Weather was not its only problem: Today the beautiful St. Thomas Church is partly a ruin, broken walls still bearing witness to French attacks of the 14th and 15th centuries.
“I know of no place save for Paris where memories seem so thick on every stone,” Ford wrote.
David Bourne, the town’s retired postmaster, drew me a map showing the locations of the Bungalow, the Fords’ house and St. Leonard’s Well, to which the author insisted on taking all of his guests. Once they sipped its waters, he assured them, they were bound to return.
The Bungalow is actually a two-story New England-style house, renamed the Little House. A plaque out front notes the home’s significance, but the building is not open to the public.
I knocked on the door and chatted with owner Alan McKinna, who owns an extensive Ford library. He told me the veranda where Ford and James wrote contentedly together has long since been removed. Ford, the author of “The Good Soldier,” described helping Conrad write “The End of the Tether” when his friend stayed at a house across the street.
Ford was, like many writers, a terrible bother to his family. Elsie’s father, Dr. William Martindale, a Winchelsea pharmacist, had no sooner bought the Bungalow for the couple than Ford began a five-year affair with Elsie’s sister, Mary.
Martindale, McKinna said, committed suicide in 1902, “some said because of his daughter’s affair.” Nothing remains of the stones at St. Leonard’s Well, but the half-mile walk -- past a ruined windmill commanding a view of the whole countryside -- is still worth the effort. Below on the marsh, among bluebells and watercress, I found the spring where Conrad, James, Crane and novelist W.H. Hudson superstitiously sipped the water. I tasted it and found it on the muddy side.
Gunplay on the terrace
Across the field, the River Brede winds back past the Udimore (pronounced Yoo-de-more) uplands to Brede Place. It’s the 15th century manor house to which, in February 1899, Crane, fresh from the triumph of “The Red Badge of Courage,” moved with wife Cora, former madam of the Hotel de Dream in Jacksonville, Fla.
Crane, 28, debt-ridden and tubercular, would fire off his Smith & Wesson revolver on the terrace to impress guests. H.G. Wells, a Christmas houseguest that year, recorded that he and his wife were lucky to get a bedroom. Most of the women were bedded down in a room called “the girls’ dormitory.” With inadequate toilet facilities, “the wintry countryside the next morning was dotted with wandering, melancholy, preoccupied male guests.”
In “Writers of Romney Marsh” (out of print but well worth a search in secondhand bookstores), Iain Finlayson writes that on Dec. 29, 1899, Crane collapsed, hemorrhaging from the lungs. Six months later, on June 5, he died in a German sanitarium.
Brede Place is no longer open to the public. After a fire in 1983, it was renovated beyond recognition.
So I turned instead from quiet Winchelsea to Rye, two miles across the marsh. After a fine lunch of plaice, the locally caught flatfish, at the Flushing Inn, I escaped the town’s crowded cobbled streets for the tranquillity of the Gun Garden, behind the church. With the marsh spread below, I read again John Davidson’s 1906 poem “In Romney Marsh,” which begins:
As I went down to Dymchurch Wall,
I heard the South sing o’er the land,
I saw the yellow sunlight fall
On knolls where Norman churches stand.
Lamb House history
Then, braving tourist cameras and tearooms, I stood on Mermaid Street -- one of the most photographed in England -- and pictured a day in October 1902. Here they came: Ford, prim and professorial, and Conrad, dark, broad and hairy, with a nautical gait. From afar they spotted Kipling and his wife, Carrie, leaving Lamb House on West Street, looking crestfallen.
A few minutes later, the tenant of Lamb House, James, explained: The Kiplings had arrived from their manor house, Bateman’s, in their new Rolls-Royce. When it was time to leave, the chauffeur admitted he had forgotten to lubricate the wheels, which had seized up. James, who abhorred modern contraptions, said the Kiplings were forced to return home by train. That, James added with ill-concealed glee, “is calculated to make Mr. Kipling think.”
You can still see one of Kipling’s cars, a towering blue 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom, at Bateman’s in Burwash. The house, designated a National Trust historic property, lies 20 miles west, where Kipling lived from 1902 until his death in 1936. Check the size of the double bed in the Kiplings’ house and it’s clear the tiny couple surely could have stood up in their Rolls.
Lamb House is another National Trust property open to the public. James told author A.C. Benson that he “secretly and hopelessly coveted” the home from the moment he saw a watercolor of it in 1895. The door to what is really a rather small, early 18th century Georgian house opens right off West Street, and through it I entered a Jamesian past. The master’s walking sticks stand in the hall (he often hiked the two miles to Winchelsea to see Ford), while his friend Edith Wharton, stern and overdressed, looks down her nose from the wall.
Some of James’ letters are in binders on the dining room table, and photographs, one showing him with a Vandyke beard, line the walls. King George V made James a British subject in 1915, six months before his death. There is a certain opaqueness in his portrait’s gaze, and I decided that this self-created Englishman could easily have been a character created by Alec Guinness or Alastair Sim.
Through the French doors, the garden, incredibly, is an acre, hidden away behind Rye’s discreet walls. What would have caught James’ eye was the “garden room,” an excellent writer’s refuge where he dictated “The Ambassadors,” “The Wings of the Dove” and “The Golden Bowl.” It’s gone now, destroyed by a German bomb in 1940.
But I heard the music of the marsh, the long sighing of the wind in the bulrushes, and the next morning I headed for an appointment with Edith Nesbit.
Getting anywhere in Romney Marsh defies logic and the compass. As a character in Kipling’s “Puck of Pook’s Hill” remarks, “The Marsh is just about riddled with diks [dikes] an’ sluices, an’ tide-gates an’ water-lets ... [and] they twists the roads about as ravelly as witch-yarn.”
Arriving at St. Mary’s in the Marsh, a couple of miles from Old Romney, I found in the graveyard the unusual wooden marker the locals call “the goalposts.”
On the crossbar is inscribed, “E. Nesbit, poet and children’s author.” It was carved by her second husband, Thomas “Skipper” Tucker, who brought her a measure of peace in the years before her death in 1924. Her first husband, Hubert Bland, had made her life a torment with his infidelities.
A mile away, at Jeson St. Mary, beside the railway track, are two linked cottages -- shanties, really, named the Long Boat and the Jolly Boat -- where Nesbit, author of “The Railway Children,” went to sleep each night to the clickety-clack of passing trains.
H.G. WELLS wrote that Nesbit was “a tall, whimsical, restless, able woman who had been very beautiful and was still very good-looking.” Wells, a self-described “student of illicit love,” described the faithless Bland as “my professor.”
Wells, the author of “The Time Machine,” was at this time bedding intellectual young women, including Amber Reeves, “a girl of brilliant and precocious promise” with whom he made love in the bracken at nearby Hythe.
With a stop at the Romney Bookshop in New Romney, where Liz Skilbeck still keeps in print the 1915 marsh classic “Doctor Syn,” by Russell Thorndike, I was on my way to Sandgate Bay. There, in 1899, Wells ordered up Spade House, an imposing pile on the cliffs. You will find it on Radnor Cliff Crescent, although today it is the Spade House Nursing Home.
With permission, I climbed to the neglected garden, imagining Wells sitting here reading the proofs of “The History of Mr. Polly,” interrupted only by the arrival of Conrad, berating his pony. Wells claimed Conrad never could understand English humor and would frequently go home angry and mystified at his jokes.
For Conrad and his wife, Jessie, Pent Farm at nearby Aldington was home from 1898 until 1907. It’s a place of pilgrimage for Conrad enthusiasts. Owner Jane Reynolds welcomed me into the garden to inspect the historical plaque.
Cora and Stephen Crane, who was especially fond of the Conrads’ little boy, Borys, made happy visits here. It’s a tranquil setting, with a rooster crowing and geese on the pond. But Conrad, perpetually short of money, felt much anguish as he wrote furiously to put bread on the table.
Like his friends, Conrad came to the marsh seeking a peace that largely eluded him.
Driving back, I stopped again at Old Romney to remember another man whose quest was far more successful. John Defray was a French Protestant who fled persecution in France in 1684 and was rector of St. Clement Church for nearly 48 years. A stone at the front of the church records that, “after much delight in doing good, he departed this life Sept: ye 4th, 1738.”
To delight in doing good: It is an apt hope for a little girl named Romney, who is now 7.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A novel corner of England
From LAX, nonstop service to London is offered on British Airways, Air New Zealand, American, United and Virgin Atlantic; direct service (change of planes) is offered on Continental. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $898.
From London’s Charing Cross station, frequent trains run to Rye, changing at Ashford. For schedule and fares, www.nationalrail.co.uk/planmjourney.
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international code), 44 (country code), plus the four-digit area code and six-digit local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Benson Hotel, 15 East St., Rye, East Sussex TN31 7JY; 1797-225-131, fax 1797-225-512, www.bensonhotel.co.uk. Doubles with breakfast about $130-$150.
Regent Motel, 42 Cinque Ports St., Rye, East Sussex TN31 7AN; 1797-225-884, www.regentmotel.com. Basic but comfortable, warm as toast (but no restaurant). Steps from the railway station. Doubles from about $55.
Strand House, Tanyards Lane, Winchelsea, East Sussex TN36 4JT; 1797-226-276, fax 1797-224-806, e-mail email@example.com. Doubles with breakfast about $95-$125.
Romney Bay House Hotel, Coast Road, Littlestone, New Romney, Kent TN28 8QY; 1797-364-747, fax 1797-367-156. Grand seaside house built in the 1920s for gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Doubles with breakfast about $140-$225.
WHERE TO EAT:
Flushing Inn, 4 Market St., Rye; 1797-223-292. Mainly seafood, some locally caught. Three-course lunch $30; dinner $45-$63.
Old Forge, 24 Wish St., Rye; 1797-223-227. Grill and seafood. Dover sole ($20-$34) and plaice ($16) from Rye Bay are specialties.
Gandhi Tandoori, 10 High St., New Romney; 1797-366-292. My favorite dish was prawn Madras curry, about $8.
Lamb House, West Street, Rye; 1892-890-651. Open 2-6 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, April-October.
Bateman’s, off A265 at Burwash; 1435-882-302. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays-Wednesdays, April-September. Conservation work is planned, so call in advance to check about closures.
Information on either is available from the National Trust, www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
TO LEARN MORE:
Rye Heritage Centre, Strand Quay, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7AY; 1797-226-696, fax 1797-223-460, visitrye.co.uk or www.rye-tourism.co.uk.
Romney Marsh Web site that I’ve found to be superb: homepages.tesco.net/davyo.
Visit Britain, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176; (800) 462-2748, www.travelbritain.org.
-- Frank Jones
The loosely knit Romney Marsh writers colony that formed at the turn of the last century included:
Frank Jones, a former columnist for the Toronto Star, is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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