Sheep can graze for about six to eight hours a day, according to Google And it turns out, I can happily spend a good 60 minutes or so watching them; there’s something quite hypnotic in that steady rhythm of rip, munch, chew.
I’ve just spent the night in a shepherds’ hut on Romney Marsh – a 100-square-mile stretch of marsh and farmland declared an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, tucked between the Kent Downs and Sussex border on England’s south coast. Alarm set for sunrise, I’d planned to head out for an early bike ride, but opening my blinds to a heavy fog, it’s a slow morning instead.
“The marsh mist,” Kristina Boulden, who runs Romney Marsh Shepherds Huts with her husband Paul says knowingly when we chat later. Much of this pancake-flat region sits below sea level, and apparently the dense morning mists frequently roll in. It certainly adds a fun dash of mysteriousness and, with a whole day to myself, I’m happy to let nature set the pace. By the time my coffee’s brewed and jam’s slopped generously on my toast, my neighbour – a chunky-fleeced Romney ewe – has emerged from the cloud. We breakfast together, me mug-in-hand on my hut steps, her snout-to-ground a few yards away.
Besides, you can’t staycation in a shepherds’ hut and not spend a chunk of time just pottering and cranking down a gear. That’s exactly what Kristina and Paul had in mind with Rumwold and Lookerer, the two traditionally designed huts that make up Romney Marsh Shepherds Huts.
They’re fully kitted out with hot water and electric: there’s a small kitchen area with a hob, sink and fridge, bathroom, and super-comfy double bed. There’s also a log burner, plus a firepit outside. It’s just the right balance of away-from-it-all rustic charm and comfort. Little touches, like the sheep’s lanolin toiletries and blankets, come from Romney Marsh Wools, which Kristina set up in 2008.
Paul’s family has been farming in the area since 1882 (they currently have around 1000 Romneys and Merinos, as well as crops and a small cattle herd). Kristina married into it, and soon developed a passion for reviving British wool. It’s a by-product, she tells me, that often goes to waste – but with the growing focus on sustainability and shopping local, she’s hoping this will change, and works with UK weavers and local craftspeople to create their range of clothing, accessories, knitting yarns and blankets, available from their on-site shop and online.
The shepherd’s huts came a decade later in 2018, offering visitors the chance to retreat from the hustle and bustle and soak up the peace of the marsh. I’m here just as pandemic restrictions have lifted enough to allow self-catering travel.
Extra measures have been introduced to meet Covid-safe requirements, such as additional cleaning steps and later check-ins, and once you’ve booked, you’ll be sent a link to their handy app, which contains everything you’ll need to know about getting to and accessing the hut, what to bring, what’s included (like breakfast essentials, firewood and a bottle of wine), available add-ons and things to do in the area (options range from photography workshops to jeep safaris, and of course there are endless walks).
Many guests drive but I’ve come by train from London, opting to head to nearby Folkstone to spend a few hours walking the shore and reading by the sea, before getting a taxi for the half-hour drive to the huts for 4pm check-in. It’s lambing season, and I’m greeted by a merry flock of bleaters and leapers as I make my way past their barn to the field.
Making yourself at home here is instant and easy; I brew some tea and soon drift into full-blown relax mode. Having your own hut is a bit like childhood daydream come true, especially if, like me, you love a mini solo adventure (although it’d make a sweet romantic getaway too). Best of all, you don’t need to be an expert map-reader or mega intrepid to explore Romney Marshes alone. The aforementioned app has lots of info, plus there’s 4G for Googlemaps and it’s all pretty well signposted.
About a 15-minute walk from the huts is a footpath along the Royal Military Canal, which runs for 28 miles from Seabrook to Cliff End near Hastings, built in the early-1800s during the Napoleonic wars. You could, if you wanted, walk the whole thing; I head off for an early-evening stroll to work up an appetite. A number of nearby village pubs might be options for dinner (check ahead that they’re open and whether booking’s required) and there’s a small foldaway dining table in the hut if you’re cooking on the hob or firepit.
For me, it’s a Friday-night treat courtesy of Kentish Home Feasts – a lockdown enterprise launched by local catering company, The Flavour Kitchen – whose gourmet seasonal menus showcase local ingredients (from £30 per person). Hors d’oeuvres plus three courses – broccoli soup with Kentish Blue profiterole, fennel gratin with green beans, hazelnut and blood orange salad, and cheesecake with berries – along with a bottle of local vineyard Heppington’s award-winning Pinot Gris, arrive at my hut. All but one small part of the packaging is recyclable, and all I need to do is heat the soup and tuck in. It’s all utterly delicious; I light a fire and cosy in for the night.
The next morning, the mist fades eventually, revealing brilliant blue skies. I’ve got a bike from Channel Bike Hire (from £25 a day) and can’t wait to get going. Heading right out of the farm, I take the first left onto Lower Wall Road and the next right onto Tame Lane – then I’m cruising along in more-or-less traffic-free bliss, crop fields either side, golden pampas reeds twinkling in the sun. I make my way through the village of Burmarsh then head on to Martello Tower 23 at Dymchurch, where I join the sea wall.
Romney Marsh has about 20 miles of coastline and nearly all of it’s protected by the sea wall, which is perfectly sized for pedestrians and cyclists to share. From here, I cycle all the way to Dungeness (re-joining the road for the final five miles or so), the southernmost point in Kent – and home to the other-worldly fishing village and vast ‘shingle desert’ beach, with its artfully decaying old boats, smattering of uber-cool shack homes and looming nuclear power station backdrop. Dungeness is also a protected nature reserve, especially important for birdlife – and a popular spot for photo shoots. I do feel like I’ve just rolled into the semi-abandoned set of a tense but achingly stylish thriller.
After a snack on the shore and hot chocolate pitstop, it’s back on the bike to retrace my route back, looping in some extra lanes once I’m back on the marsh. After 40-odd miles or so, I’m back in time to help Kristina feed the lambs at 6pm – then I’ve grand plans to light up the firepit and roast marshmallows, and finish off the wine as the sun goes down.
TRAVEL FACTSAbi Jackson was a guest of Romney Marsh Shepherds Huts (romneymarshshepherdshuts.co.uk). A two-night stay in Rumwold Hut for two adults sharing starts from £166pp, based on travel between July 1 – September 22, 2021. Minimum two-night stay. To book, visit bloomstays.com/property/rumwold or call 01227 903 404.
Kentish Home Feasts can be found on Facebook (@Kentishhomefeast) or call 07766 820 696. Channel Bike Hire, who also organise the jeep safaris, can be found at channelbikehire.com