Simon Calder is beguiled by the beauty and haunting otherworldliness of Romney Marsh

It is not every day you get to visit a new continent. Nor is it every day that you can double the population of a train. But that is what happened at Ashford International station. The departure board said "Hastings", but a short way down the track it began to feel like a stopping train to nowhere, via Ham Street and Appledore.

The line provides a rough boundary between Romney Marsh and the rest of the world. South and east of it lies a land that should not really exist: the bare fields floating past the window in a blur were reclaimed over centuries from the sea.

Romney Marsh is an aberration. To add an extra layer of opaqueness to this mysterious landscape, it is actually composed of three marshes: Walland Marsh, skirted by the railway line; Denge Marsh, which sounds like a tropical disease and occupies the south; and Romney Marsh proper to the north and east. I could not see the joins.

In its wintry nakedness the landscape is comprised mainly of blank meadows that struggle to clamber above sea level. They are separated by an arbitrary arrangement of neat hedgerows. Some empty roads knit the farms and the occasional straggle of cottages together, but have little sense of purpose in this cul-de-sac for the nation.

The waterways are more distinguishable features: notably the Royal Military Canal, dug to amputate the marsh from the rest of Britain as a last line of defence against Napoleonic expansionism. But what keeps the land above water is a network of ditches and sewers - "sewer" being the local term for "big ditch". Much of the work was carried out in the 15th century, when a tax called a "scot" was imposed on the owners of low-lying land; those lucky to live on higher ground escaped the tax, which led to the expression "scot-free".

The main attractions in the marsh are the churches, most of which have outlived their congregations. The Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust looks after 14 of them, and the ruins of four more. Of them all, the most singularly beautiful is St Thomas à Becket in Fairfield. And where might that be? The church booklet elucidates:

"For civil purposes the parish is reckoned to be in the Administrative County of Kent, the Hundred of Aloesbridge, the Lathe of Shepway, and the civil parish of Snargate. For church purposes it is in the Diocese of Canterbury, the Archdeaconry of Maidstone, and the Rural Deanery of South Lympne."

Glad that's clear, then. You will find it on the lane that leads south from Appledore. Or, rather, off the lane, floating serenely in a field that turns out to be an island.

Traditionally in the English countryside, a church is at the heart of the village. Fairfield is unusual in that there is no village. Before the Black Death swept through these fields and claimed many of the people of the marsh, there may have been a real community. But - and back to that handy church guide - since the start of the 19th century, the census returns for the three square miles of Fairfield parish have never reached three figures. The highest, in 1831, was 89; at the last count, a century later, it was 61 and falling.

The church's origins are medieval, its exterior 18th century. But the interior is like no other church I have seen. British aisles tend to be much of a muchness: channels between neat rows of pews. But the aisle at St Thomas à Becket is like a corridor. As you walk along it, you pass white compartments - box pews - in which families would face each other, rather than the preacher.

He could keep an eye on everyone, though: the mahogany pulpit is a triple decker. The parish clerk sat at the bottom, the main service was conducted from the middle level, while a sermon "often of prodigious length" was delivered from the top. Even the font is an oddity, with seven sides.

A sense of otherworldliness grows the longer you spend in Romney Marsh. But to reconnect with humanity, you need not head north back to England. Instead, go as far south as you can.

The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a fine creation. The smallest public railway in the world is far more than a tourist attraction; it provides essential public transport. The curious thing about it, though, is that the name does not mention its final, dramatic destination. Dungeness is the end of the line for the tiny steam train - and for the nation, which slides into the Channel here. The station abuts a giant nuclear power station that, I swear, hums gently around the clock. Yet this bitter end of Britain has accumulated a substantial (for Romney Marsh) population.

You feel not so much a visitor as an infiltrator. It is one of the oddest places in this odd land: an eccentric collection of fishing boats, lighthouses and idiosyncratic cottages. The film-maker Derek Jarman was a noted resident, and the garden of his Prospect Cottage is still a sight to behold. But the whole place is a study in fragility: from the shifting shingle that constantly changes the shape of the coast, to the frail cottages that rest inshore.

Many of us have been about three miles from Dungeness, possibly without being aware of it; that is the typical altitude at which flights from continental Europe make landfall. You may have glanced out of the window at the distinct V carved into the Channel. But at ground level it is magical. As you wander along the frontier between the land and the water, the sky provides your in-walk entertainment. The clouds test all kinds of shapes, as if trying to create an extra dimension to make up for the forlorn flatness all around. The soundtrack is supplied by bedraggled birds. It may be the fifth continent, but it is strangely seductive.

Simon Calder reports from Romney Marsh in 'The Heaven and Earth Show' on BBC1 at 10am tomorrow

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The closest railway stations to Romney Marsh are Rye, Appledore and Ham Street. National Rail Enquiries: 08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk

GETTING AROUND

The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (01797 362353; www.rhdr.org.uk) operates on Sundays only at present; it will run daily between 11-19 February and 1 April-29 October.

Hythe to Dungeness costs £10.90 return, £7.30 single.

STAYING THERE

The most atmospheric place to stay is the splendid Mermaid Inn (01797 223065; www.mermaidinn.com) in Rye - which, as the sign proclaims, was "Rebuilt 1420". A double room starts at £160 including breakfast; dinner cost an extra £30 per person. A cheaper option is provided by Haguelands Farm Bed and Breakfast in Burmarsh, (01303 872273). Doubles from £70, including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Romney Marsh Countryside Project (01797 367934; www.rmcp.co.uk). Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust (01233 820809). Kent Tourism (01271 336020; www.kenttourism.co.uk).

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