Romney Marshes: Take a quickstep back in time

A former railway hotel dominates the seafront at Hythe, in Kent. Its rambling splendour takes Anthony Lambert back to childhood holidays roving about the Romney Marshes

My eyes were just about level with her bosom. "Slow, quick, quick, slow..." The vinyl on the Dansette hissed its mono notes into the stuffy air of the ballroom, empty but for the dancing instructor and me as she struggled to impart the moves of the foxtrot to her reluctant pupil. I was supposed to be on holiday. Having to spend an hour a day learning ballroom footwork seemed more like a detention to my 11-year-old self.

But my mother had ordained that I should not disgrace her at the Saturday evening dinner dance and that my abilities at the twist did not count. Lessons in proper dancing were required. We were staying at the Imperial Hotel on the seafront at Hythe in Kent, a rambling pile which opened as a railway hotel in 1880 with lots of pianos and plants and even electric bells and telephones. By the 1960s it was the sort of place families went for a fortnight and you always had the same table.

I hadn't been back to the Imperial since our three holidays there, this time around I ate my cornflakes to Doris Day singing "Move over Darlin'". There was nothing déjà vu about the food at dinner though, which had taken a seismic shift towards Modern British cuisine and the use of local ingredients such as Romney Marsh lamb, echoing the meat reared on the saltmarshes around Le Crotoy on the other side of the Channel.

Being compliant over the dancing lessons (not that I had a choice) gave me leverage for the quid pro quo of frequent trips on the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway. As a child witnessing the end of the steam age, I was enthralled by this main line railway in miniature. Built with rental income from the central business district of Melbourne, the railway runs for 13.5 miles from its northern terminus at Hythe using one-third sized locomotives, most resembling the Flying Scotsman.

The station hasn't changed; its roof still spans the three tracks and there by the gleaming locomotive was the usual knot of children, envious of the driver who was giving his 1920s steed a final polish. Appropriately, the author of The Railway Children, Edith Nesbit, lived in a bungalow beside the railway at Jefferstone Lane. Although the railway parallels the shore of St Mary's Bay, it is not until journey's end beside the lighthouses and nuclear power station at shingled Dungeness that you get a glimpse of the sea. Crabs are still sold from shacks along the front, and the 169 steps of the old lighthouse are a little more worn by visitors wanting to see the view over the Channel and RSPB reserve around the lakes of Denge Marsh and Denge Beach.

For the first part of the journey from Hythe you can see the escarpment beneath which the Royal Military Canal was built by French prisoners of war in the 1800s, starting in Hythe and ending near Hastings. We used to walk stretches of this extraordinary earthwork, which is manicured and canalised through Hythe but resembles a well-wooded navigable river for much of its 28 miles. Gun emplacements every 500 yards were superseded by pillboxes during the Second World War.

Having lived through the First World War as well, my parents' cycling days were over by the time we holidayed in Kent, so most excursions were by Austin Cambridge or Rover 90. I chose two wheels to retrace the routes of our drives around Romney and Walland marshes, which were punctuated by stops to look at the exceptional churches that dominate the landscape. The marshes are as flat as the Fens but much less open, with abundant hedgerows and trees to create a feeling of seclusion. The sense of peace is reinforced by the absence of traffic; the lanes are so quiet that a car is a surprise, making it perfect cycling country if you have young children.

Before leaving the Hythe area I called at what has become its principal "tourist attraction", the wildlife park at Port Lympne which was begun in 1973 by the late John Aspinall. Spread over 400 acres of wooded hillside, the compounds are home to more than 900 animals of 60 species. The captive breeding programmes have enabled black rhinos to be returned to South Africa and Przewalski's horses to Mongolia and China. They're working on sending Barbary lions back to Morocco, the source of lions used in Roman gladiatorial contests. All survivors can be traced to the king of Morocco's menagerie, and it's hoped to reintroduce them to a national park in the Atlas Mountains once it has enough Barbary deer to provide lunch.

To the sound of reeds rustling in the roadside ditches and constant birdsong, I dropped down to the marsh, passing tile-hung cottages and a farm straight out of The Darling Buds of May. Chickens scattered before my bicycle as the road passed through the farmyard where nothing seemed to have been discarded in case it came in handy. A hare scampered into the road and was gone in a second. A mile on, a field of perfect grass was the first sign of a turf farm for which the light to medium loam soils are well suited. Rangers play on Romney Marsh turf at their Ibrox ground.

I made for the well-buttressed stone church of St Clement in Old Romney, where children have been christened from the same Purbeck marble font since the time of Edward II. The ancestors of the sheep that still graze to the church fence helped to pay for the construction of the marshes' churches. The distinctive breed of New Romney sheep has been the source of the marshes' wealth since the land was reclaimed from the sea and was recognised in the war by the evacuation of sheep before women and children. Sheep were also a target of the area's endemic smuggling past, immortalised by Russell Thorndyke's fictional character of Dr Syn, who was an upright vicar by day but smuggler by night. A black locomotive is named after him on the RHDR.

Making for lunch at Brookland, I passed at Cutter's Bridge one of the few remaining Looker's Huts, a tiny chimneyed brick shed that was once "home" to a looker who would act as shepherd to a number of flocks on the marsh. At times it must have been a frightening experience sleeping out alone on the marsh, for the smuggling gangs were a violent lot. In 1821 there was a pitched battle around the Royal Oak at Brookland which left four smugglers dead and 16 wounded, against one dead and eight wounded among the Blockade men who had pursued them from Camber. They'd still recognise the building where the wounded were brought - apart from the change of name to the Yew and Ewe - but inside it's all stripped wood and brick and cooking of a quality that would astonish my parents. The Yew and Ewe was simply the house of the parish clerk until 1736, when he was granted a licence to supply ale, "to be tippled in his house but not to be tippled during divine service".

You could be forgiven for wondering what you'd been drinking when you enter St Augustine's Church at Brookland: the stone arches of the arcades flanking the nave lean at an alarming angle and help to explain why the shingled octagonal steeple is on the ground beside the church rather than on the roof. The marshy soil cannot even support the mid-13th-century church walls. To remind you of the county you're in, a medieval wall-painting depicts the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The church has a fine set of Georgian box pews, but its most famous feature is the 12th-century lead font decorated with the signs of the Zodiac. It is the most important of 40 remaining lead fonts in all England and is thought to be Flemish.

Between hedgerows of hawthorn and blackthorn, I came upon the incongruous sight of a Canberra bomber, parked beside what was once a Spitfire base and now home to the Brenzett Aeronautical Museum in a former hostel of the Women's Land Army. More reminders of the WLA cover the walls of the flower-covered Red Lion at Snargate, which was last modernised in the 1890s and still serves beer from casks behind the bar. Posters echo calls for volunteers to till the land, and sun-bleached photographs show groups of smiling faces beside farm equipment. The pilots of 122 and 129 squadron would have been glad of the land girls at the Saturday night dances. Bet they didn't need dancing lessons then.

The writer stayed at The Hythe Imperial (01303 267441; marstonhotels. com), which offers double rooms from £142 per night.

Romney Cycles (01797 362155) hires out bicycles from 77 High Street, New Romney, from £10 a day or less for longer or multiple rentals. A pack of five local cycle routes on laminated sheets is available for £3.95.

The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (01797 362353; rhdr.org.uk); Port Lympne (01303 264647; totally wild.net); The Yew and Ewe (01797 344215; yewandewe.co.uk); Brenzett Aeronautical Museum (01797 344747).

For more information contact Kent Tourism (01271 336020; kent tourism.co.uk).

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