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Stranded Winchelsea - Abandoned by the Sea

Explore a Cinque Port with a record of bad luck before following an historic line of defence.

Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 197ft (60m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field paths and pavements, 19 stiles

Landscape Mixture of marshland and undulating farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 124 Hastings & Bexhill or 125 Romney Marsh, Rye & Winchelsea

Start/finish TQ 905173

Dog friendliness On lead near birdwatching hide and across farmland

Parking Roadside parking near St Thomas's Church at Winchelsea

Public toilets Winchelsea

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1 With the New Inn on your left and ruined St Thomas's Church on the right, follow the road round the right-hand bend. Head down to Strand Gate and then take the road to the junction with the A259. Turn right and follow the pavement along here.

2 When the road bends left, turn right at the sign for Winchelsea Beach. Cross the Royal Military Canal and bear immediately right. Follow the tow path across this empty landscape. Cross a stile and avoid a concrete footbridge. Eventually, the canal begins to curve left. There's a stile and galvanised gate here.

3 Bear right a few paces beyond it at the footbridge. Cross a second footbridge over a ditch and make for a stile. Pass the birdwatching hide and continue along the path, making for the next footbridge.

4 Turn right here, veer right and then follow the path as it curves left through the reedbeds. Begin a moderate climb and head towards a house. Keep to the left of it and follow the path through the trees. Join a drive, pass Ashes Farm and look for a stile on the left. Go diagonally across the field to a stile, then bear right for a few paces to two more stiles. Skirt the field to the next stile and exit to the road. Keep right here, signposted 'Winchelsea', and soon you pass below the hilltop windmill, avoiding the 1066 Country Walk which meets the road at this point.

5 Go straight ahead over a stile when the lane bends left and cross the field. Look for a stile and keep alongside some trees to the next stile. Continue ahead, pass an old pill box and head down the gentle field slope to the road.

6 Turn right for a few paces to a stile on the left. Bear right, still on the 1066 Country Walk, and cross the next stile. Keep to the right of Wickham Manor and look for a stile in the far boundary. Cross the drive to a stile and keep ahead across the fields. Make for a stile and gate in the bottom left corner and follow the 1066 Country Walk waymarks. The path veers over to the right to two stiles. Bear left and begin a moderate ascent to a stone stile. Turn right at the road, follow it round to the left and return to the centre of Winchelsea.

The story of Winchelsea is fascinating. Extraordinarily unlucky, surely nowhere else in the country can have fallen victim to fate in quite the same way. Looking at the sleepy town today, it seems hard to believe it was once a thriving port, one of the most important on the south coast.

This delightful little town, one of the seven Cinque Ports and characterised by elegant houses and quiet, grid pattern streets, became stranded when the sea receded, exposing a stretch of fertile marshland. Now it lies more than a mile (1.6km) inland. But Winchelsea's run of bad luck did not begin and end with the vagaries of the ocean. The new town replaced Old Winchelsea in the late 13th century when it was inundated by the sea and swept away by a great storm in 1287. The old town now lies beneath the English Channel, somewhere out in Rye Bay. As the water encroached, the inhabitants built new homes on the hilltop, establishing themselves on higher ground before the disaster finally took hold.

A Planner's Dream

The new town was conceived and sited personally by King Edward I, and, with its regular grid pattern, has long been acknowledged as perhaps the first example of medieval English town planning. Only a dozen of the proposed 39 grid squares were ever completed and the ambitious plans for the new Winchelsea were eventually abandoned. Three gates, part of the original fortification, still survive, including Strand Gate with its four round towers. Many of the buildings you see today date back only about 100 years.

The town's bad luck continued through the Middle Ages when Winchelsea came under constant attack from the French and suffered heavy damage. The church, much of which was destroyed during the last raid of 1449, includes the tomb of Gervase Alard, England's first admiral, as well as various monuments and a wall painting from the 14th century.

Before starting the walk, take a leisurely tour round the town. It's well worth the effort and the views from Strand Gate out towards the Channel are very impressive. This is a walk of two extremes. From Winchelsea's lofty vantage point, you'll descend to a bare, rather featureless landscape, skirting a flat expanse of water-meadows known as Pett Level. The return leg is more undulating, with good views both of the coast and Winchelsea's unspoiled hilltop setting.

While you're there

Visit the Winchelsea Museum, which highlights over 700 years of the Cinque Port's history. Models, maps, pictures, artefacts and memorabilia vividly illustrate the troubled history of the town. Call into the birdwatching hide, part of the Pannel Valley reserve. From here, you will probably be able to spot teals, coots, shelducks or geese on the water. The large numbers of birds coming in off the sea also make a spectacular show. The reserve is recreating a marshland habitat and increasing local interest and awareness of nature conservation.

What to look for

The Royal Military Canal runs below Winchelsea and extends for 25 miles (40.5km). Constructed at the beginning of the 19th century, its purpose was to protect the exposed south-east coast from invasion by Napoleon's forces. William Cobbett mentions the canal in his Rural Rides, wondering how a 30ft (9m) wide ditch could possibly deter troops who had managed to cross the Rhine and the Danube. The Saxon Shore Way follows the tow path.

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