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Charles G. (Charles George) Harper.

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Street"; the station that city we now know as Canterbury.

At some late period in the Roman domination this magnificent harbour
was found to be silting up. Many things have changed since those remote
days, but the prevailing winds and the general set of the sea-currents
in the Channel remain unaltered. Even then the westerly gales and the
march of the shingle from west to east were altering the geography of
this coast, just as they are active in doing now, adding as they do
in every year great deposits of shingle to that projecting beak of
Dungeness which was not in existence in the Roman era.

The consternation of the merchants and the shipping interest of Portus
Lemanis at this gradual silting up of the harbour must have been great,
but we know nothing of it, nor of the measures that must needs have
been taken to prevent it. Probably it was the clearing of the wooded
inland country that caused these changes, quite as much as the set of
the shingle; for it was the dense woods that gave the Rother and the
Limen their once robust existence, and when they were cut down and the
moisture they generated was lost, those rivers would lose that strength
of current necessary to scour away the shingly bars that began to
accumulate in the estuaries. The mischief was, of course, long in the
doing, and probably two hundred years passed before it was seen that
the harbour and the port were doomed.

When that fact became at last impressed upon the Romans, they altered
their policy. Ceasing any attempt they had made to keep the waterway
open, they allied their efforts to the forces of nature, and, building
walls to keep the sea out and the rivers within their courses, began
that sustained work which has at last, after some sixteen hundred
years, made Romney Marsh what we now see it. It was they who first
built upon the shingle where Dymchurch Wall now keeps the sea at
bay, and their work was the "Rhee Wall" - the _rivi vallum_ of their
language - that, running from Appledore to Romney, kept the fresh water
out of the land it was now their earnest endeavour to reclaim. Portus
Lemanis, of course, was ruined, but, equally of course, not at once.
How rarely does one actually picture the real length of the Roman stay
in Britain, which actually comprised over four hundred years; or, to
put it in a picturesque comparison, a period of time equal to that
between our own day and the reign of Henry VIII. For half of their
colonial period - say from a time corresponding to that between the
reign of Queen Anne and that of Edward VII. - they were engaged in
enclosing and draining the marsh, and there must have been ample time
for the inhabitants of Portus Lemanis to realise the position. Did the
Roman scheme, we wonder, allow them compensation?

By the time that their empire fell to pieces, and their troops and
colonists were withdrawn from Britain, they had succeeded by degrees
in altering this scene into a bog, and then into fenced-off enclosures
intersected with drains and having a great reedy expanse of lake in
the centre, where the wild fowl nested in myriads. Something very like
this scene, although on a smaller scale, may now be observed at Slapton
Sands, between Dartmouth and Torcross in South Devon, where a shingle
bank divides the scene from a long length of a freshwater lake, choked
with aquatic plants and teeming with wild life.

This scene of reclamation must have reverted to a very wild condition
in the savage centuries after the Romans had left, and we hear nothing
of any further works until the eighth century, when the monks of Christ
Church, Canterbury, were granted the western portion of the marsh, and
reclaimed much of it around New Romney.

It was somewhere about this period, when it was difficult to convict
a writer of untruth, that Nennius, Abbot of Bangor, in his _History
of the Britons_, told his pleasant fable about Romney Marsh. His
imagination was not limited by his ever having visited Kent, and so,
sitting in the scriptorium at Bangor, he could give his lively fancy
full play. He describes it as "the first marvel of Britain, for in it
are sixty islands, with men living in them. It is girt by sixty rocks,
and in every rock is an eagle's (not a mare's) nest. And sixty rivers
flow into it, and yet there goes into the sea but one river, which
is called the Limen." For a series of picturesque lies that would be
difficult to beat, outside the _Arabian Nights_, whose tales do not
pretend to be other than fiction.

It was by the efforts of the monastery of Christ Church that the
harbour of New Romney, two miles farther down than the ancient Rother
mouth, was begun, and, in spite of Danish incursions and frequent
lapses into barbarism, the work went surely forward, so that in the
Norman period, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the marsh was
grazing ground for sheep, settled and prosperous, with numerous
villages and churches, whose Norman architecture bears witness to the
truth of history, as written in dryasdust deeds and charters.

The Church derived a splendid profit from the enterprise with which
it had thus developed its property. Fat fields yielded toll of rent
and wool; the important harbour of New Romney collected rich shipping
dues. And then! - then befell a series of the greatest tempests ever
known on these shores - the storms of 1236, 1250, 1286, and 1334. The
first two wrought much havoc, but the great February storm of 1286
was the worst, when the wind and the sea choked up the harbour with
shingle and diverted the course of the Rother, and, tearing down the
sea-defences, lay the hardly-won lands once more under salt water. This
crowning disaster paralysed all effort. Only by degrees, and unaided,
did the waters subside. The unfortunate inhabitants had lost all; many
lost their lives; the port of Romney was crippled. Tradition even
goes so far as to tell how fifty-two thousand persons were drowned
in a tidal wave. Worst of all, the great monastery of Christ Church,
ruled at that time by men more grasping than enterprising, expended
nothing to make those misfortunes lighter. The port and harbour of
New Romney, in especial, brought into flourishing existence by the
statesmanlike policy of the early churchmen, was ruined by the later,
who at this hour of need treated it merely as a source of revenue,
and refused to undertake those works which, embarked upon in time,
might have preserved its importance. Great shingle-banks filled the
harbour entrance, and only the smallest vessels could enter. So affairs
remained, the townsfolk feebly delving and clearing the obstructions,
unaided, for close upon half a century, when the furious storm of 1334
undid all their work and finally crushed their spirit of resistance. At
this time, also, the district was exposed to foreign attack.

Thus it was that, in the reign of Edward IV., the marsh was, for its
better government and to induce settlement and reclamation of the
drowned lands, placed under the control of the bailiff and jurats
appointed by the charter of February 23rd, 1461. In the introduction
to this measure, the marsh was declared to be "much deserted, owing to
the danger resulting from foreign invasion and to the unwholesomeness
of the soil and situation." To support that statement, and to show that
this scheme was not altogether successful, comes the very interesting
description by Lambarde, who, a hundred years later, says, "The
place hath in it sundry villages, although not thick set, nor much
inhabited, because it is _Hyeme malus_, _Aestate molestus_, _Nunquam
bonus_ - Evill in winter, grievous in summer, and never good"; or, in
the once familiar Kentish phrase, the marsh provided "wealth without
health," good grass but unwholesome air.

Freed from the paralysing ownership of the Church, on the Reformation
an effort was made to encourage settlers in this almost deserted
region by granting those who held land within its limits freedom from
many of those imposts with incomprehensible names that must have made
the lot of mediæval taxpayers unhappy. "Toll and tare," "scot and
lot," "fifteen and subsidy," were the particular extortions excused
to these adventurous persons, and to quote Lambarde again, "so many
other charges as I suppose no one place within the Realm hath. All
which was done (as it appeareth in the Charter itself) to allure men
to inhabit the Marsh which they had before abandoned, partly for the
unwholesomeness of the soil, and partly for fear of the enemie, which
had often brent and spoyled them."

These inducements did not have much effect, for although many taxes
were remitted, there was still that special local tax levied to provide
funds for keeping the sea defences in repair, and that alone was, and
still remains, a heavy burden on the land. Thus many of the deserted
villages of the marsh were never re-populated, as we may still see in
the ruined churches and waste sites in its midst.

But the marsh was not wholly devoid of population. As the waters
subsided and grass grew again, so the flocks increased; and the ancient
trade of smuggling, which began in the time of Edward I. in the
illegal exportation of wool, flourished all the more from this being a
lonely district in which it was difficult for strangers to find their
way. This, the first phase in the long and varied history of smuggling,
was then known as "owling," and the dangerous trade at once enlisted
men fully as courageous and desperate as those who, in later ages, when
lace, tea, tobacco, and brandy were the chief items in the contraband
industry, terrorised the countryside and warred with the preventive
service in many a midnight skirmish. "Owling" took its name from the
signal-calls of the smugglers to one another on black and moonless
nights. They imitated the weird shrieks of those nocturnal birds, and
never was such a place for owls as Romney Marsh in the brave times of
contraband.

The exportation of wool was at first only taxed, but later was entirely
prohibited. The object aimed at in depriving the Continent of wool was
the extinction of the foreign weaving industries, and the establishment
of the clothing trade in this country. To insure the fleeces not being
shipped abroad by men eager for personal gain and indifferent to
patriotism or national policy, the taxes on bales varied from twenty to
forty shillings in the reign of Edward I., but exportation was wholly
forbidden by Edward III., whose Queen ardently desired to introduce
colonies of Flemish weavers to use our home-grown wool within these
shores. Punishments ranging from death down to mutilation of ears or
hands were provided for those who infringed this severe law, but these
penalties had few terrors for the marshfolk, secure in their boggy
fastnesses. The marsh produced some wool, and the inland districts a
great deal more, and every shearing season, impudently flaunting all
laws and prohibitions, long lines of pack-horses, laden with woolpacks,
found their way to New Romney and quiet places along this coast, on
their way to France. For every new restrictive amendment of the laws
the smuggling exporters of wool had an ingenious evasion, and so the
contest went on for centuries. The law was the more successfully
outwitted and defied because the landowners and every rural class were
financially interested in the illegal trade. Although, as a special
effort against wool leaving the country, shearers were at last required
to shear only at certain specified times, and to register the number
of fleeces, this provision was openly broken. In 1698 it was enacted
that no man living within fifteen miles of the sea in Kent or Sussex
should buy any wool, unless he entered into sureties that none of
what he bought should be sold to any person within fifteen miles of
the coast; and wool-growers were required to account for the number
of fleeces they owned, and state the places where they were stored.
But legislators might have saved themselves the trouble, for it was
calculated that forty thousand packs of wool continued to be illegally
conveyed annually to Calais. The Devil might as reasonably be expected
to reprove sin as the local magistrates and persons in authority to
suppress the lucrative trade in which they waxed rich.

Under such circumstances, the officials who were entrusted with the
administration of these laws led a very hard life. They were the
Ishmaels against whom every man's hand was raised, and the more
strictly they performed their duty, by so much more were they hated.
One striking incident has survived out of many such that must have
happened. The mounted excise officers who in 1694 patrolled the
district made a capture of ten men escorting a large pack-horse train
of wool-bales to some pushing-off place for France, and haled them
before his worship the Mayor of New Romney. Sworn information and due
process of law were followed, and Mr. Mayor was desired to commit the
captives to prison. Instead of doing so, he strained his discretionary
powers to the utmost, and admitted them to bail. Possibly he had an
interest in that very consignment thus put under embargo, or at the
very least of it claimed friendship with, or was under neighbourly or
business obligations to those to whom it did belong - so thoroughly
bound up with smuggling was every detail of trade and intercourse
in the marsh. This admission of the whole gang to bail was but the
second act of the comedy, of which the seizure was the first, and it
was followed by another, and a more stirring one. During the night
the furious populace of Romney burst in upon the Revenue men, and so
threatened them with violence that the Mayor's son advised them, in
God's name, begone, lest worse befell.

Most excellent advice, and they take it. Half-dressed, and flinging
themselves upon their horses in haste, they ride out of Romney with
the whole town after them, and the town's pots and kettles hurtling in
the air after pursued and pursuers alike. Jacob Rawlings, as good a
freetrader as anyone, and hating an Exciseman as he ought to hate the
Devil, is downed by a saucepan intended for a King's officer; Nehemiah
Crutwell, who thinks good wool ought never to be taxed, has got a cut
in the cheek from a brass skillet, flung with uncertain aim; the sconce
of another is cracked by a broomstick intended for the crupper of one
of the horses. Off they go into the night, pursued by fifty armed men,
vowing death and destruction, and not until they have floundered across
Guildford Level, and are come to Camber Point and Sussex, do their
enemies draw off.




CHAPTER VII

ROMNEY MARSH (_continued_)


There is no fault to be found with the present condition of the road
that leads from Warehorne to Snargate. It winds amazingly, but the
surface is good and the width sufficient to keep the most inexpert
drivers of traps or riders of cycles from steering into the black
dykes that line it. Far otherwise, however, is it with the tracks that
branch off boldly here and there and lure the unwary into extraordinary
remotenesses where the guide-book measurements and acreage of the
marsh seem a mockery, and its limits recede with every step. Lonely
cottages, where the "lookers," or shepherds, or the dykers live, are
passed at infrequent intervals, each one a forbidding box of dull
brick, with its generally unkempt garden and numerous chickens, and
its great pile of faggots or brushwood for winter's firing. In this
wilderness may be found many of those deserted sites already mentioned;
the shapeless walls of ruined churches alone telling silently of the
great flood and the drowned villages. Eastbridge Chapel, Orgarswick,
Blackmanstone, and Hope Chapel are the chief of these. Newchurch and
Ivychurch are striking exceptions to this old tale of destruction. They
belong to the same Early English period, with later additions, and are
large, handsome structures. Standing on ground rising ever so slightly
higher than the sites of their unfortunate neighbours, they escaped
destruction, to tell us how well, and on how grand a scale they builded
who first brought the marsh under cultivation.

Romney Marsh is still so greatly in a state of nature that the
black-headed gull breeds freely in its reedy dykes, although, to be
sure, the demand for plovers' eggs causes much havoc to be wrought
among its nests by denizens of the neighbourhood, who earn a very
excellent livelihood by supplying London poulterers. The simple native
and the honest poulterer both do very well, and so long as the London
consumer of expensive "plover's" eggs knows no better, why, no harm is
done.

Snargate stands on that fine, straight, broad, and level road from
Appledore to New Romney which bears the strongest evidence of having
once been a raised causeway across the morasses, and is in fact
identical with the Rhee Wall, already mentioned as having been built
by the Romans to keep out the river Rother. "Snargate" was originally
the name given to a sluice from the marsh into the river at this
point. An inn, the church, a few old cottages, the vicarage - that is
now the sum-total of Snargate, whose flint and stone battlemented
church-tower peeps over the surrounding trees, and forms a pretty
picture for a great distance down the long perspective of the road.
A near approach shows it to be not only surrounded with trees, but
hemmed in by them, and so closely that they obscure the light from the
plain, leaded casement windows, and cast a green, mildewy, fungoid
shade over all. Great gloomy churchyard yews, planted, perhaps, by the
first church-builders, grow at close quarters and carpet the ground
with thick and vivid moss, and two giant trees that look like pollard
beeches, but on closer inspection are seen to be ashes, stand sentinel
by the south porch, and lift eerie phalanginous branches dramatically
upright.

It is a fine old church, built in the graceful Early English style,
and on quite a large scale; but now uncared for and horribly damp.
When, having obtained the keys, you swing back the groaning door, the
reek of the dampness smites you coldly in the face, and the odour of
it produces a sneeze that goes hollowly reverberating up and down the
mildewed interior. Emptiness and damp are the interior characteristics
of Snargate church - its pavements slimy with moisture, the walls
alternately livid and green with it. It is not surprising that Barham
preferred to live at Warehorne.

[Illustration: SNARGATE.]

Brenzett village is larger and livelier than Snargate. From it
Brookland, Ivychurch, and Newchurch are most easily reached - the first,
on the right-hand side of this causeway road to New Romney, in Walling
Marsh; the others to the left, in the Marsh of Romney. Brookland is
distant one mile from the main road, on a by-way that, if you follow it
long enough, brings you dustily into Rye; dustily, because the traffic
that resorts to Brookland station cuts up the surface to an astonishing
extent; astonishing, because that traffic is necessarily of small
dimensions, seeing that this is merely a branch railway leading to
the very verge and outer rim of the world at Dungeness. An infallible
sign of this scarcity of road traffic is the action of the keeper
of the level crossing by the station, whom one suspects to be also
station-master, ticket-collector, porter, and signalman combined. He
touches his hat to the passing tourist, and, glad to hear the voice of
a stranger, exchanges remarks on the weather.

[Illustration: BROOKLAND.]

From afar off, along the flat road, the whimsical bell-tower of
Brookland church rises, like some strange portent. If the stranger
has not heard of it before, he speculates, perplexed, as to what
it can possibly be, for, seen in silhouette against the sky, it
presents the weirdest kind of outline. Imagine three old-fashioned
candle-extinguishers, placed one upon the other, and you have that odd
campanile very closely imitated. It stands apart from the church, is
of massive oak framing, weatherboarded, and thickly and most liberally
tarred. The wildest local legends exist, purporting to account for this
freak, the most specious of all telling how the builder of the church
finding he had lost by the contract, set this up in place of the stone
tower originally contemplated. The real reason for this detached wooden
belfry is found in the old-time nature of the site, too waterlogged
to be capable of giving support to so heavy a structure as a stone
tower. A wicked old satirical allusion to this unusual feature, still
current in the village - or perhaps rather, considering its nature, in
the surrounding villages - declares that when a bachelor and a maid
are married in Brookland church, the belfry will leap up and occupy a
place on the roof. As marriages here are not uncommon, and the belfry
keeps its place, this, it will be allowed, is a grievous saying. An old
writer, with a naive assumption of innocence, noting this example of
local humour, pretends not to understand the libellous gibe. "What it
doth portend," he remarks, "I know not." He should have inquired, say,
at Brenzett - or, indeed, anywhere save at Brookland, whose inhabitants
are still touchy on the subject; as well they may be, since every
passing stranger, posted in local lore, lets off a joke or makes
jocular inquiry.

Returning to the main road, a signpost directs into the heart of Romney
Marsh, by way of Ivychurch and Newchurch. Ivychurch, whose tower is
dimly visible from the road in the soft atmosphere of the marsh, is
a mile and a half distant, and stands as isolated from the world as
a place well may be and yet remain a "going concern." What is there
of Ivychurch? A few farmsteads, a few more cottages, an oast-house
or so, a village inn, and an amazingly large church. Apart from New
Romney church, which is that of a town and therefore not comparable
with that of this rural parish, the great church of Ivychurch is by
far the largest in the whole district, and fully deserves to be called
the Marshland Cathedral. It could accommodate, fifty times over, the
present population of the parish, and the irresistible inference is
that this must, six hundred years ago, when the great church was built,
have been the most densely peopled region of the marsh. Nowadays, like
all its fellow churches, it is damp and mouldy and a world too large.
Nay, more: its vast empty interior is falling into decay, and the north
aisle is made to serve the purpose of a coal-cellar; while, because
the windows are broken, the wildfowl of this "recondite region" have
made it a favourite roosting-place. It is an eerie experience, having
procured the keys and unlocked the door, to be met with a tremendous
whirring of wings, and to be almost knocked down with the surprise of a
moorhen flying in one's face. Funds are accumulating for a restoration
of this church; but, unless the people come back to the land, why
expend so much good money? Better were it that this should go the way
of the other ruined churches of the marsh if there be none to worship.
The wheel of fortune, however, still turns. God grant the time be at
hand when the yellowing corn becomes again that predominant feature in
the landscape it never has been in the eyes of the present generation;
that the farmer may again find his industry pay, and we be no longer
dependent upon the foreigner for our food supplies.

[Illustration: IVYCHURCH.]

[Illustration: NEWCHURCH, ON ROMNEY MARSH: "THIS RECONDITE REGION;
THIS FIFTH QUARTER OF THE GLOBE."]

Newchurch, nearly three miles farther into the marsh, was new seven
hundred years ago, when the church was built. It is second only in
size to Ivychurch, with the same lichenous damp, but better cared
for, and the centre of a quite considerable village, as villages go
in these parts. There must actually be sufficient inhabitants in the
parish to quarter fill the building! Newchurch makes a pretty picture,
thoroughly characteristic of the marsh. From it the eye ranges to
the wooded cliffs at Bilsington, to Aldington Knoll, and to Lympne,
with its castle and church, looking fairy-like and ethereal in the
shimmering light of a summer afternoon; or in the other direction
to where the marsh is bounded by the sea. The picture of Newchurch
itself is seen here, and is more eloquent than mere words can be. In
it you perceive how this is an epitome of the marsh, with windmill and
rushy dyke in the foreground, and farmsteads, rickyards and church,
companionable together, and in appearance mutually dependent, in middle
distance: the infinite levels of this interesting district appearing
in the background. It is not by mere chance or by any figment of


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Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Ingoldsby Country → online text (page 6 of 16)