A hot June day in the Secret Gardens of Winchelsea.
Ideally, a day for a crisp cotton dress and a big hat, roses, scones and a cup of tea beneath a shady tree.
But I get ahead of myself…. First, a bit of history. About six miles from our home in Hastings, Winchelsea is another of the ancient Cinque ports of Kent and East Sussex, somewhat surprising now as it is at least a mile from the sea. The second settlement to carry the name, ‘Old’ Winchelsea was drowned by the sea in cataclysmic storms between 1250 and 1280. The ruins of the town lie out in Rye Bay. However, the place was so important that a new town and port was built nearby.
Planned and built between 1282 and 1288, the new town was one of the earliest to be laid out in a grid pattern, and the streets were numbered not named (giving rise to a totally spurious local myth that Winchelsea was the inspiration for the layout of New York). Much of the original grid pattern still survives. The old houses, now hung with roses, still front onto the streets, with the ‘secret’ walled gardens behind.
At first, the new town and port were extremely prosperous, with at least three churches and two monasteries. Extensive cellars under substantial stone-built houses supported a major wine trade. The town was defended by walls, ditches and impressive gates, some of which still survive.
However, like all ports along this stretch of coast, the constantly shifting coastline led to the port silting up, and by 1561, no boats could moor at Winchelsea. The town went into rapid decline. One of the few industries to prosper was smuggling, with the cellars of the now dilapidated houses used to store illicit contraband.
Alarmed by the debauchery and criminality of the inhabitants, the Methodist preacher John Wesley visited the town in 1771 and again in 1789, by which time a chapel had been established in his honour. Wesley preached his last outdoor sermon at Winchelsea, in 1790, six months before his death.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Winchelsea was popular with writers and artists, attracted by cheap property, beautiful countryside and for many, the proximity of Henry James, who had settled in nearby Rye. The American writer Ford Maddox Ford lived in Winchelsea between 1901 and 1907.
These days, Winchelsea has found new prosperity. The beautifully restored houses are inhabited by the affluent, who open their lovely gardens to scores of curious visitors on several days each year. There is now only one church, St Thomas’s, long since reduced from its original impressive size.
When we visited this time, there were Morris dancers in the streets and teas served in the Village Hall, as well as the beautiful gardens to wander round. It was all very lovely, but a glimpse of a fantasy England and a lifestyle that most of us can only dream of.
Stephanie Gaunt moved to Hastings, East Sussex three years ago from Birmingham in the West Midlands. She now lives overlooking the sea on a hill behind the Old Town with her husband Nick and Digby the food-obsessed rescue cat. She writes a blog about her experiences of starting a new life by the seaside, www.hastings-battleaxe.blogspot.com. Stephanie has always enjoyed writing, both prose and poetry, and is an active member of the Hastings Writers’ Group.