Winchelsea, terrible tempests and Romney’s laughing frogs

Winchelsea Church
Winchelsea Church

This week my intention was to feature the Royal Military Canal that more or less curves around the edge of Romney Marsh in East Sussex before extending on into Kent.

However I got no further than Winchelsea, at the eastern end of the waterway. This town alone offered up enough fascinating stories for a complete episode of “County Yarns” so here it is.

Dumb Woman's Lane sign

Dumb Woman's Lane sign

Winchelsea was once a very important “Cinque Port”. Just to confuse, I should point out that the original “Cinque” established in the 11th Century were Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. Winchelsea and Rye were added later to make it seven in all even though the description “Cinque Ports” was never changed to “Sept Ports”. Perhaps it’s something to do with the French, who, we shall see, played a big role in Winchelsea’s history.

Raphael Holinshed (1529-1580) was a respected scholar in Tudor times. Much of the historic content of Shakespeare’s plays was drawn from Holinshed’s extensive chronicles. In one he described a natural disaster visited upon Winchelsea: “On the first day of October 1250, the moon, upon her change, appearing exceedingly red and swelled, began to show tokens of the great tempest of wind that followed, which was so huge and mighty, both by land and sea, that the like had not been known and never heard of by men then alive. The sea forced contrary to his natural course, flowed twice without ebbing, yielding a great roaring. The waves fought together such that the mariners could not save their ships where they lay at anchor. Some 300 houses and some churches drowned with the high rising of the water.”

Despite such colossal damage Winchelsea was not abandoned. In 1264 Henry III passed by on his way to do battle at Lewes with the rebel barons commanded by Simon de Montfort. Later de Montfort’s wife Eleanor visited and on her husband’s behalf encouraged the town’s seafarers to take up piracy against the French. In 1266, a year after de Montfort’s death at the Battle of Evesham, his conqueror, Prince Edward, “descended upon Winchelsea and chastised it bloodily”.

In 1287 another great storm sorely battered the old town to the point of destruction. A new Winchelsea was built about three miles away from the original and was bounded by the sea to the north and east.

This reincarnated Winchelsea prospered. In 1350 a battle between English and Spanish warships was waged within sight of the town. A spectator on the high ground was King Edward III who saw his fleet prevail.

In 1359, some 3,000 French raiders sacked Winchelsea and murdered many women and children. There was little resistance because most of the town’s menfolk had joined an English expedition bound on similar work in France. In 1376 the French returned but were repulsed by a force raised by the Abbot of Battle. In 1448 the French came again but this incursion would be their last as the sea before Winchelsea had gradually silted up. By the time Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the town’s religious houses, Winchelsea’s fortunes had massively waned. Lewes-born diarist John Evelyn visited the town in around 1660 and wrote of its “forlorn ruins”.

Rudyard Kipling most certainly had the redundant harbour in mind when he wrote of our county’s “ports of stranded pride” in his wonderful poem, “Sussex”. Another who lamented the town’s fate was John Wesley. In 1790 the Methodist cleric preached his very last outdoor sermon seated under an ash tree in the town, afterwards walking through what he described as that “poor skeleton of ancient Winchelsea”.

William Makepeace Thackery wrote a book in Winchelsea - “Denis Duval” - that he never actually finished. The author had extensively researched Sussex history in the British Library and the resulting story is redolent with smuggling lore. Two characters are based on the real-life Weston brothers, seemingly respectable Winchelsea citizens who led alternate lives as ruthless highwaymen. George and Joseph Weston ended up on the gallows at Tyburn on 3rdSeptember 1782.

The last smuggler killed in England in a fight with coastguards was reputedly Thomas Monk of Winchelsea who was killed on April Fool’s Day 1838. Legend has it that Dumb Woman’s Lane near the town’s train station is so-named because smugglers caught out in daylight with their contraband saw a woman looking at them out of a window. Alarmed lest she identify them, they decided to cut out her tongue to ensure her silence. The comedian Spike Milligan once lived in the same lane.

Rod Hull also lived in Winchelsea. He was famous for “Emu”, his puppet bird that ran amok in TV studios, and most memorably attacked Michael Parkinson. The chat show host later ruefully reflected that despite having interviewed so many iconic megastars of stage and sport he would forever be associated with that “bloody bird”. Ironically, TV exacted a bizarre vengeance when in March 1999, Rod Hull climbed onto the roof of his bungalow to adjust his television aerial. He slipped and fell and was killed.

Rather aptly, considering Winchelsea’s violent history with the French, I finish this week with a tale concerning frogs. In 1935 an English woman sought to stock her garden pond with edible “grenouille”. Unable to source the requisite French variety she instead bought a batch of large Hungarian Marsh Frogs. Inevitably some escaped from the lady’s Kent garden. Within 30 years they had colonized all of Romney Marsh and had surrounded Winchelsea. Marsh Frogs breed in the late spring when the distinctive cackling call of the males explains their nickname “Laughing Frog”.