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How Rye Repelled the Enemy

Wide skies, lonely seas and lagoons form the backdrop to this remote coastal walk, which is excellent for birdwatching.

Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Level paths and good, clear tracks, no stiles

Landscape Mixture of shingle expanses and old gravel workings, now part of a local nature reserve

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 125 Romney Marsh, Rye & Winchelsea

Start/finish TQ 942190

Dog friendliness Dogs on leads within Rye Harbour Local Nature Reserve

Parking Spacious free car park at Rye Harbour

Public toilets Rye Harbour

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1 Keep the Martello Tower and the entrance to the holiday village on your right and enter Rye Harbour Local Nature Reserve. The Rother can be seen on the left, running parallel to the path. Head for Lime Kiln Cottage information centre and continue on the firm path, with the Rother still visible on the left. The sprawling expanse of Camber Sands, a popular holiday destination, nudges into view beyond the river mouth.

2 Follow the path to the beach, then retrace your steps to the point where a permissive path runs off to the left, cutting between wildlife sanctuary areas where access is not allowed. Pass the entrance to the Guy Crittall hide on the right. From here there are superb views over Turnery Pool. In the distance, Rye's jumble of houses can be seen sprawling over the hill. Continue west on the clear path and gradually it edges nearer the shore.

3 Ahead now is the outline of the old abandoned lifeboat house and, away to the right in the distance, the unmistakable profile of Camber Castle. Keep going on the clear path until you reach a waymarked footpath on the right, running towards a line of houses on the eastern edge of Winchelsea.

4 Take this footpath and head inland, passing a small pond on the right. Glancing back, the old lifeboat house can be seen standing out starkly against the sky. Turn right at the next junction, pass the Watch House and continue on the track as it runs alongside several lakes. Pass to the left of some dilapidated farm outbuildings and keep going along the track. The lakes are still seen on the left-hand side, dotted with trees, and the silent, motionless figures of fishermen can often be seen along here. Begin the approach to Rye Harbour and on the left is the spire of the church.

5 On reaching the road in the centre of the village, turn left to visit the parish church before heading back along the main street. Pass the Inkerman Arms and return to the car park.

Turn the clock back to the dark days of the World War II and you would find Rye Harbour a very different place. Blockhouses for machine guns littered the coast and barbed wire and landmines made it a 'no go' area. During the hours of darkness great searchlights swept across the night sky; they were particularly effective detecting the dreaded flying bombs. Go there now and you can still identify some of these crumbling relics of war. It's a fascinating exercise to rewrite the pages of history and imagine what might have happened if enemy forces had landed on this forgotten corner of England.

But this wasn't the first time the area had been under threat. During the Napoleonic Wars, 150 years earlier, Rye Harbour was considered an obvious target for invasion and attack when the Martello tower, seen by the car park at the start of the walk, became the first of 47 fortifications built in Sussex as a defence against the French. The tower would certainly have been a tough deterrent. The walls are nearly 12ft (4m) thick at the base and the middle floor would have been occupied by a garrison of one officer and 24 men.

Since then, the sea has built up over ½ mile (800m) of land in front of it, with violent storms dumping huge deposits of shingle on the shore every winter. Today, the little community of Rye Harbour is peaceful and yet, years after the shadows of war have passed over, it still conveys that same sense of bleak isolation. Though not as atmospheric as neighbouring, shingle-strewn Dungeness, it does feel isolated from the rest of the country.

Part of a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Rye Harbour Local Nature Reserve lies at the mouth of the River Rother, which forms its eastern boundary. During its early stages, the walk follows the river and at first glance the shingle seems so bare and inhospitable that it is hard to imagine any plant could grow here. But in late May and June the beach is transformed by a colourful array of flowers. Delicate yellow horned poppies, sea kale, carpets of seaweed and countless other species of plants thrive in this habitat. Salt marsh, vegetation along the river's edge, pools and grazing marsh add to the variety and the old gravel pits now represent an important site for nesting terns, gulls, ducks and waders. Rye Harbour is best known for its bird life and very popular with ornithologists.

The walk follows the coast for some time, passing the Ternery Pool, originally two separate gravel workings dug by hand early in the 20th century. It continues along the coast before heading inland to some more flooded gravel pits. Here you might easily spot gulls, grebes, cormorants, swallows and reed warblers. Turtle doves are often seen in the fields and sometimes perch in pairs on the overhead wires.

What to look for

The little tern is one of Rye Harbour's summer visitors. Arriving in April, it stays until September when it departs for its wintering grounds on the African coast. Several eggs are laid in May on bare shingle or sand along the coast. The best colonies are found in protected areas controlled by wardens. Through their efforts, the populations of these terns have increased in recent years.

While you're there

Stop and look at the old lifeboat station beside the route of the walk. It's not been used since one stormy night in November 1928 when the 17-strong crew of the Mary Stanford were called to rescue a leaking steamer in the English Channel. The volunteers ran from their beds and dragged the lifeboat into the sea through gale force winds and huge waves. Soon afterwards, the coastguard heard the steamer was safe but with no ship-to-shore radio available he was unable to convey a message to the lifeboat crew. The next day, the Mary Stanford was seen floating upside down in the water. Not one volunteer survived the tragedy. Today the old building lies empty, abandoned and forlorn - in keeping with its surroundings. The churchyard at Rye Harbour has a memorial to the crew of the Mary Stanford.

Where to eat and drink

The Inkerman Arms at Rye Harbour specialises in seafood and locally caught fresh fish. Food is available both at lunchtime and in the evening. Also in Rye Harbour, the William the Conqueror pub serves food and nearby Bosun's Bite café offers a range of sandwiches, baguettes and burgers.

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