Walking: Plenty of sheep but no sign of witches: Ken King on the 'fifth quarter of the globe'

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The Independent Culture
'The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh. In this last named and fifth quarter of the globe, a Witch may still be occasionally discovered in favourable, ie stormy, seasons, weathering Dungeness Point in an egg-shell, or careering on her broom-stick over Dymchurch wall.'

SO WROTE Thomas Ingoldsby in his introduction to The Leech of Folkestone, one of the Ingoldsby Legends. Thomas Ingoldsby, alias Richard Harris Barham, was rector of Snargate Parish on Romney Marsh, Kent, in the early 19th century. We decided to walk in his parish, and others near by, to see for ourselves whether 'The Marsh' was still such a special and ghostly place.

We gathered by the bridge over the Royal Military Canal at Appledore. Near by was a concrete blockhouse constructed, rather optimistically, during the Second World War, as an obstacle to Hitler's panzers; 190 years ago the canal had been dug to impede another tyrant's army when Napoleon was expected to invade across the English Channel.

Earlier still, King Harold gathered his army here before proceeding to the Battle of Hastings, but that time invasion was for real, and did succeed.

For once the weather was ideal for walking. The sky was a clear blue with a few clouds racing towards the sea. There was a steady cold wind blowing from the north, but the air was dry.

We set off along the bank of the canal on the south or 'French' side. Sheep grazed placidly alongside, but there was a woolly corpse floating in the water. This sheep had stretched too far to gulp a tasty leaf and had plunged in and drowned as its waterlogged fleece pulled it under. It is easy to imagine that it could have been one of Napoleon's soldiers floating face down, weighted by his heavy pack. If the French had come this way, some would indeed have perished in the canal, although the Grand Army, which crossed the Rhine and many other rivers and reached Moscow, would have made short work of crossing the Royal Military Canal. However, the canal did do some good: it drained the marshes and so destroyed the plagues of mosquitoes that spread malaria which, in turn, killed many people in these parts - including many of the workers who built the canal.

We continued past gliding swans and patient fishermen bent over their rods. At the bridge we turned off on to the Marsh proper. The Ordnance Survey map shows footpaths that we would have liked to have used but, on the ground, these do not exist. In this area, criss-crossed by drainage ditches, the essential bridges become disused and moulder away. As local people now use their cars rather than their legs, the bridges have not been replaced. There is hope, however, that new bridges will be put in place by a partnership made up of volunteers, supported by Kent County Council and the Countryside Commission, in an initiative known as the Parish Paths Programme.

So instead of a field path we walked along a narrow lane. The horizon was far away, as on the sea. This is not a walk for mountain training: the spot heights on the map vary only from two to four metres, but the views stretch far and wide and the sky is huge.

There was no sign of habitation until we reached Snargate. Here we came to the Rhee Wall, which runs from Snargate to New Romney. Of a wall there is nothing now to be seen - only the Appledore to New Romney Road which runs along the top of it - but the wall, which was built 1,600 years ago by the Saxons, is the reason for the existence of the fertile fields we see today.

Before the Rhee Wall was constructed the area to the east was a stony salt marsh, but the 80ft- wide wall held back the sea and 24,000 acres of new land was formed. From the 13th to the 15th centuries more land was reclaimed on the other side of the wall to form what is now Walland Marsh, which we entered next.

Continuing across broad sheep pastures we crossed the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway, leading to the nuclear power station which looms over the Marsh at Dungeness. We were now in the parish of Brookland and, unlike Snargate, this parish has mended its bridges and the footpaths are in good order. We arrived at the the Royal Oak Inn in time for a good lunch.

Next to the inn is the medieval church, which was dedicated to St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. The church is famous for its detached belfry, on the ground next to the church. It looks like three candle snuffers, placed on top of each other. This curious wooden structure supports a ring of five bells.

It was originally built in the the 11th century, since when, many fantastic local stories have been told to account for its location. Most of these imply that the Devil removed the belfry from the church for a variety of scurrilous reasons. The truth is, however, that the high water table made the ground unsuitable for supporting a stone tower and bells.

Leaving Brookland we crossed more fields, passing among flocks of sheep which regarded our intrusion apprehensively. We arrived at another church - this one dedicated to another Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket. One might expect that such a famous archbishop would have have a magnificent edifice dedicated to his name, but this church must be one of the smallest in the country. It has no churchyard and sheep graze peacefully up to its door. Despite its size it is a jewel inside. It is almost entirely painted white.

There are 18th-century box pews, a three-decker pulpit and a unique font. The church was originally built in the 13th century of wattle and daub. Later additions were built with timber which deteriorated so much that, in 1912, it was about to collapse.

Fortunately it was considered by the Church Commissioners to be worthy of restoring, and it was entirely dismantled and then rebuilt, using many of the original timbers.

We took a short break to look in the church and sit for a while on the sheltered south side. The sun was very warm but we resisted the temptation to take off our windproofs and once again faced the cold wind.

We passed Becket Barn Farm and crossed the Ashford-to-Rye single-track railway. In the distance, rising from the flat land, was the Isle of Oxney. This was once surrounded by the sea, and evidence of this is the obvious cliff face now in front of us. We walked towards it, stumbling over a vast newly ploughed field, cursing the farmer who had not restored the footpath he had churned up.

We now rejoined the Royal Military Canal and walked along the high bank towards Appledore. This time we were on the defenders' side and slit trenches are still plainly visible.

The canal is laid out in a dog- leg or enfilade plan so that, every 500 yards or so, the waterway is kinked to give the defenders a clear view along the length of the canal to fire on those trying to cross.

We arrived back at Appledore Bridge. We had seen many interesting sights but, disappointingly, no witches - neither on broomsticks nor sailing in eggshells. But one fellow walker commented that the witches would have felt at home stirring the brew in the nuclear power station.

(Photograph omitted)