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The literary allure of Romney Marsh

A landscape of sheep, skylarks and soul-soothing towns conjures up the memory of great writers who called this corner of England home.

August 10, 2003|Frank Jones | Special to The Times

Romney Marsh, England — Romney Marsh, England

A few days before Ayesha and I were to leave for vacation in England, our son and daughter-in-law mentioned that they hadn't picked a name for the baby they were expecting.

"Here, you look," said my daughter-in-law, Kim, handing me a book.

The boy's name "Romney" caught my eye. I had grown up on the edge of Romney Marsh, a place steeped in the lore of Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells. I remembered Romney's magic.

"That's a lovely name for a girl too," Kim said.

Before we boarded the plane for London, our son called to say a little girl had arrived. Her name: Romney.

That is how, seven years ago, my wife and I found ourselves 60 miles southeast of London, walking up the lane to St. Clement Church, an ancient stone barnacle rising out of the marsh in the hamlet of Old Romney. Tall Romney sheep grazed almost up to the church door, and a sign urged visitors to close the door behind them "to keep the birds out."

Inside was as bright as a nursery, with whitewashed walls and rose-pink box pews. I've discovered since then that the pews were painted in 1962 by the crew of a Walt Disney feature, "Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow" (later retitled "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh"), about smuggling and the fictional vicar of nearby Dymchurch. But that day, the pews seemed as though they had been painted specially for the recent arrival of a little girl named Romney.

We returned to the marsh last year, once again staying at the cozy Regent Motel in Rye, in our favorite third-floor room, from which we could spy on the weekly Rye Market below. After croissants and coffee at nearby Jempson's bakery, I ventured out across the marsh and into that evocative landscape, where we could claim a family connection -- and trace the roots of Romney's literary legacies.

Wind, sky and antiquities

"The world is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh," the Rev. Richard H. Barham, a local parson, wrote nearly 200 years ago. Even today, when "caravan sites" (trailer parks) dot the coast and two nuclear power stations stand bleakly on the shingle shore of the English Channel at nearby Dungeness, it is still possible to know exactly what Barham meant.

At its heart, the 100-square-mile marsh -- in a southeast section of England reclaimed centuries ago from the sea -- is almost as mysterious and lonely as it was in the 17th century, when smugglers swapped local wool for brandy from France.

Its beauty is not of the pretty thatched cottage type; the marsh is about wind and sky and ancient lichened gray churches, land dotted with sheep and watched over by skylarks. It speaks to the soul, and perhaps that is why it has been a magnet for writers from both sides of the Atlantic.

At the turn of the last century, you might have seen Henry James, who lived at Rye, on the edge of the marsh, pedaling placidly along these lanes on his bicycle, or Joseph Conrad in his trap, swearing at his Kentish pony in Polish as he trotted off to see his friend H.G. Wells at Sandgate Bay.

"We lived rather in each others' pockets," American writer Ford Madox Ford wrote of scribes who included Kipling, Stephen Crane and children's author Edith Nesbit, all of whom formed a loose-knit Romney Marsh writers colony not unlike Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury group.

They came here to gossip, to squabble, to make love and sometimes even to write. Manuscripts flowed back and forth, as well as insults. (James was deeply offended when Wells compared him to a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.)

Today it's still possible to visit many of the sites where these long-ago tiffs and scandals played out, and I discovered there's no better place to start than Winchelsea, one of the hilltop Cinque Ports from which the English kept a sharp lookout for French invaders and where Ford took his wife, Elsie, in 1901.

When the original town was washed away in a storm in 1287, a new town was built on the grid system, a scheme that is still a novelty for England. Weather was not its only problem: Today the beautiful St. Thomas Church is partly a ruin, broken walls still bearing witness to French attacks of the 14th and 15th centuries.

"I know of no place save for Paris where memories seem so thick on every stone," Ford wrote.

David Bourne, the town's retired postmaster, drew me a map showing the locations of the Bungalow, the Fords' house and St. Leonard's Well, to which the author insisted on taking all of his guests. Once they sipped its waters, he assured them, they were bound to return.

The Bungalow is actually a two-story New England-style house, renamed the Little House. A plaque out front notes the home's significance, but the building is not open to the public.

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