Influx Press’s editor-at-large, Gary Budden, and author of Marshland, Gareth E. Rees, venture into Rye Harbour with inadequate footwear and a 1904 guide to Sussex.
They discover more than they’d bargained for…
BUDDEN: I switch at Ashford International. I hate Ashford. The train rumbles off. I rub my eyes, wishing I’d slept more. The landscape flatlines somewhere between Appledore and the destination, Rye. Out the window must be the Romney Marsh, fresh-shaven sheep dotting the greenery, rain flecking the glass. These flatlands are unsettling. I don’t know when I cross the boundary line from Kent into Sussex. It seems so arbitrary. The train stops and I’m in Rye. Unlike most writers I know, Gareth is on time and waiting for me at the station, alongside his cocker spaniel Hendrix.
REES: Gary looks tired. We set off immediately, him mumbling about coffee. The museum streets of Rye have pretty curves and period touches. He ducks in for a coffee in a place that might be hundreds of years old, I don’t know. We’re not here for cream teas. We’re bound for the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in search for Valhalla. The end of the world.
The Harbour Road is our route south out of town, lined with industrial sites for motorcycles, lingerie and plumbing supplies. Corrugated blocks loom over yards cluttered with pallets. The air is acrid with chemicals, even as we cut away from the road into salt marsh, flat and tall with grass, stretching to the unseen sea.
A sign warns:
A laminated map, pinned to a post, depicts the triangle of shingle and marsh we’re about to explore. The ink is bleached almost to whiteout, the paper warped by water seeping through the plastic. A beach of yellow mould has reclaimed its bottom half.
This map has become the territory it represents. Weathered, soaked, silted up, reclaimed. Teeming with microbial life. On the brink of assimilation by the sea.
BUDDEN: I could lie down here among the reeds and sedge. I’ve got this urge to let the marshwater soak through to my skin, the wind to weather me, the rain to wash my body clean of city dirt. I’d like to loll on this memorial bench, dedicated “to three doughty ladies”, a can of strong lager in hand, watching the paper-white egrets. The flatland is silent and full of noise. The dull thrum of the motorcar faint and distant. The reeds hissing like steam, stems shaking side to side like nervous men. Rain beats a steady tattoo on skin. Tremolo cries of wheeling oystercatchers fill the air above. We must be near their nest. They’re warning us off. I look at their white black orange plumage and think, we’re not here to hurt you. Other species chirrup, chirp, honk and whine around us.
REES: A cry goes up. Running ahead, Hendrix has surprised some geese. As they flap into the distance we come upon a severed sheep leg, gnawed to the bone.
Holy shit, were they feasting on this? Tyrannosaurs live among us! Biding their time until humankind steps aside. Slowly building their toxin resistance and their appetite for flesh. One day, Dino-Geese will move in slow, hungry legions from the floodlands to high ground to feed on the last human survivors. One day we will fear the sound of honking.
Horrified, we step over the masticated limb and head towards Camber castle, hunkered in the lowland. This geometrical military compound with four circular towers around a central keep was built by Henry VIII to protect Rye. It overlooks a lake where pterodactyl cormorants roost on islands, swans sulk in the water and swifts hunt insects on the wing.
Gary points my gaze towards an egret, a slender white thing with a curvy neck. It looks exactly like a heron. I wonder to myself how bird watchers know the difference.
“Okay, now there’s a heron,” says Gary as another bird lands in the water. Beside the egret the heron looks gigantic, with shabby grey feathers. They are not at all alike. I am an idiot.
BUDDEN: Gareth seems to know almost nothing about birds. He keeps asking ‘What’s that?” even when it’s something obvious like a starling. He looks confused and, if I’m honest, a little frightened. I decide it’s best that we head back to the Harbour Road and make our way towards the sea.
We leave the salt marsh and walk through a sickly industrial estate: abandoned rusty warehouses, colonised by cow parsley, CCTV cameras stuck like the heads of criminals on top of poles. No unauthorised entry and WARNING Confined Space signs are reassuring. I can sense Gareth feels more at home; this is like his beloved East London marshland, only depopulated, more poisonous and with fewer attack-dogs.
REES: After the Churchfields Industrial Estate, we pass its namesake: The Church of the Holy Spirit, a Gothic Victorian building, obscured from the road by an industrial simulacrum – a block of concrete, sporting a telegraph pole spire.
In this place the arcane echoes the sublime. Everything is religious, and everything is ruined.
BUDDEN: After a piss in the public toilets, walls scrawled with EDL slogans, we head through a deserted car park as the rain turns biblical, up the small slope to look at the Martello Tower.
REES: A Napoleonic cylinder of brick and patchy cement, crawling with vines and surrounded by a steep rampart. This would have been the beach in the 19th century. Then came an invasion of silt and shingle, something the tower could not stop.
BUDDEN: We strike out towards the sea. Sheets of rain and a sky the colour of dishwater. But there’s no turning back. We can already see the World War II pillboxes ahead of us.
REES: The path is crunchy with broken mussel shells. The further we push, the more fragmented the signs of life. An isolated hut with a red roof, crash landed from Oz. A memorial bench. A post on the wonk. There’s less of everything and more of less. The land thins into a drenched desert. The horizon evaporates in a haze. Water steams from shingle. Sea becomes sky.
A World War II pillbox seems a tempting refuge but there’s a man in there. He peers at us through a widescreen slit in the concrete. A Nazi glint in his glasses. I don’t like it.
BUDDEN: A few other mad, lonely souls like ourselves are taking shelter. With no desire to socialise, we find our own pillbox on the beach. Dripping stalactites have formed on the ceiling. The floor is carpeted with fag packets, crumpled beer cans, remains of supermarket food. We peer through slits designed for machine guns, looking over the rain-swept Camber sands. I eat the squashed sandwich I bought in St Pancras as Gareth vainly rummages in his bag for the spliff he swears he brought with him. No luck.
REES: I’m bloody sure I packed it. It’s probably disintegrated. The contents of my bag are soaked. All I find are a few damp cigarettes. We smoke them, dismally. As I watch over the Nazi in the other pillbox, Gary peers at an Edwardian guide book to Sussex.
BUDDEN: I flick through the chapter on Winchelsea and Rye in Highways & Byways: In Sussex, by EV Lucas that I’d stashed in my backpack. First published 1904. The author warns of “The eternal French problem”, “The freakish sea” and “The suddenness of Rye”. He had no worries about the Germans, then. That threat would come later. We smoke sadly as the rain beats on concrete, stuck in the memory of an invasion that never happened.
A man in a Panama hat is strolling around outside. Other people here make me nervous. I feel the temptation to stick a rifle through the concrete slit and gun them down. French or German, it wouldn’t matter. This seems like a perfect place to die. I wonder whether to mention this to Gareth.
REES: An elderly lady with a yappy dog has appeared out of nowhere. She’s talking to the Nazi in the bunker. They’re pointing at us. It’s not safe. There’s only so long we can hide in this rat-hole. We’ve got to move on. We tumble from the doorway and take the long path running between the beach and the salt marsh.
BUDDEN: We head back out into the wetness, begin the mad trek across the flatland in weather so awful I find it an affront. I had to take a day off to do this fucking trip! I look at the clumps of sea kale and wonder if you can eat it. This must have been how the Vikings felt when they invaded this coastline in the 8th and 9th centuries and took out Hastings, long before William the Conqueror. We have to make it out of this reserve and into Winchelsea or Pett Level if we’re ever going to get some food and ale inside us. I decide to pick up the pace.
REES: Rain now penetrates everything. Fills my ears with brine. Percolates through my waterproofs. Sloshes in my pants. I’m being reclaimed. My nose is silted up. Mouth salty. I can’t talk. There’s only the path and the rain and the walking and the wetness and the path and the rain and the wet rain. The people are long gone now. Not even Nazis are willing to follow us this deep into the marinade. I can’t see Hendrix, only hear him barking up ahead.
Where the hell is Gary, even? Is that him up ahead? Was he wearing a sou’wester hat before?
I pause at a mound of shingle and cement, littered with random bits of iron. It’s as if the beach is trying to form itself into a body, rise up out of this hell and hightail it to Rye for a latte and a pastry. I don’t blame it. I try to take a photo but my iPhone has filled with liquid while in my trouser pocket. The screen is streaked and blinking. Out here, the water claims all.
BUDDEN: Gareth is straggling, but mercifully the rain has eased. There’s only one building in sight, the only thing that can be described as vertical for miles around: the Mary Stanford Lifeboat house. What was it Gareth told me about this place? People died here? Luckily a chipped and faded Maritime Heritage sign is here to help. On the 15th November, 1928 seventeen lifeboatmen, setting out to help the distressed sailors of The Alice of Riga, all lost their lives. Waterlogged bodies washed right up on the shore where Hendrix now runs about madly. Wreaths and water-damaged poetry are pinned to the building.
I am not there, I did not die
I am the seagull overhead
In the harbour here in Rye
REES: I reach the Mary Stanford Lifeboat House but can’t see Gary. The slope to the water’s edge bristles with wooden spikes and struts splintered and jagged with rusted nails. A milky sea laps the broken defences for a boat long gone; its brave seafarers departed this world, their memories trapped here in this damned repository. The lifeboat house is Rye Harbour’s Valhalla. A dead man’s afterlife.
BUDDEN: The path beyond the lifeboat house is lined by stone walls held together with wire mesh. Here I stand at the word’s most inappropriate zebra crossing. I’m confused. We came on this trip to learn something about the area, but I can’t get the timelines right in my head. Is it 865AD? 1514AD? Is Old Boney threatening to cross the water? Are the Bosch about to land in Sussex, and will I have to gun them down? Did I see bodies washed up on the beach back there? What is that strange singing?
REES: At the sound of barking, I stagger up onto the path. In the lifting haze I can see black and white stripes – a zebra crossing. It cannot be real. There’s no traffic here. This must be some symbolic crossing, surely? I can see Gary stepping onto the crossing, Hendrix running around him in circles. He’s wearing a sou’wester with two horns sprouting from each side, like on a Viking’s helmet.
Gary? I cry out. Don’t do it, Gary! Don’t cross!
I begin to run but there’s no stopping him. On the other side he stands on the shingle, looking down at something on the beach. Shadows in a snaking fog. The resonance of men’s voices. It’s the crew of the Mary Stanford in a circle, drinking brine out of silver flagons and praying together.
Lo, there do I see my mother
and my sisters, and my brothers.
Lo, there do I see the line of my people
Back to the beginning!
Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them
In the halls of Valhalla!
Where the brave may live forever!
REES: As the horrible chorus swells, the lifeboat crew begin to walk into the waves, Gary shuffling just behind them, scribbling on his sodden notebook, looking as enthusiastic as I’ve ever seen him. Oh well, I think, in for a penny, in for a pound. With a warrior’s yell, I run to join my dog and my editor.
Enjoyed this? Make sure you watch Gary and Gareth performing Rye’s Valhalla live at Camaradefest II collaborative poetry extravaganza.