Brede & Winchelsea

Three Oaks station – Lidham Hill – Icklesham – Winchelsea – Camber Castle – Rye station

The high-speed line puts this unique corner of Sussex within easy reach of London. This walk explores some of its remarkable landscapes – hills, orchards, salt marsh and reed bed – as well as some of its rich history, both shaped by a retreating sea.

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Length: 11 ½ miles (18.6km)
Underfoot: For the most part, this walk is on well drained fields and minor roads. However, inevitably in a low-lying coastal region you will encounter some wet ground, notably below Lidham Hill and later below Wickham Cliff. Good shoes strongly recommended.
Terrain: There are plenty of climbs and descents en route, but as the walk barely gets higher than 50m, they are all very short.
Maps: 1:50,000 Landranger 189 Ashford & Romney Marsh; 1:25,000 Explorer 125 Romney Marsh, Rye & Winchelsea (note that the first quarter of a mile of the walk are on Explorer 124. If necessary, the maps and directions on this site should be sufficient to navigate this section). 
Useful websites: The walk follows parts of the 1066 Country Walk. It visits the lowlying countryside of the Brede Level, the historic town of WinchelseaCamber Castle and the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.
Getting there: Three Oaks is on Southern’s cross-country Ashford-Hastings line, so requires a change to get there from London. Trains ‘skip-stop’ the minor halts, meaning Three Oaks only gets a train every two hours Monday-Saturday – plan your journey carefully using an online timetable. There are no useful trains to get you to Three Oaks on a Sunday from the London area (there is one Sunday morning train from Ashford, but too early for a connection from London). Travel from London St Pancras to Ashford on a twice-hourly Southeastern high-speed service (38 mins) via Stratford International for DLR services (31 mins). The journey from Ashford to Three Oaks takes 31 mins.
Getting home: Trains run hourly daily from Rye to Ashford (22 mins) for connections onto twice-hourly high-speed services to London St Pancras (38 mins) via Stratford International (31 mins) for DLR services.
Fares: An off-peak return to Three Oaks for £35.80 (child £17.90, railcard £29.30) will cover both journeys. Ensure you purchase a ticket that is valid ‘via HS1’ so that you can use the high-speed services.

Map1

Map2

Three Oaks station is an odd survivor – a tiny halt hidden in the trees, used by fewer

Three Oaks halt

Three Oaks halt

than 20 people every day. For 50 years after opening, trains on this line ran non-stop between Winchelsea and the outskirts of Hastings. Faced with road competition, the South Eastern Railway launched a steam railmotor (an unwieldy precursor of today’s multiple unit trains) service and opened three halts in 1907 to serve the small rural communities. Amazingly, two of them survived (the other is Doleham, which serves nothing of any consequence and has a very limited service) a decade of railway retrenchment. A recent heavy cut to Three Oaks and Winchelsea’s services were met with a massive local outcry and Southern relented, reinstating a train every two hours.

  • Three Oaks platform is so short, that only the doors in the front coach of a train open – there will be an automatic announcement on board to remind you of this! Walk up the path from the platform and out through the picket gate. Turn right along the road passing the modern houses of Three Oaks hamlet.
  • In front of the Three Oaks pub, turn left on dead end Maxfield Lane. Just beyond the
    Field boundary, Three Oaks

    Field boundary, Three Oaks

    pub car park, turn right through a kissing gate (with a footpath sign) into the field. Keep to left of an electricity pole and drop slightly to another signpost [1]. Keep to the route signed straight ahead and at the far corner of the field, pass through a footgate onto a fenced path.

  • Beyond a bungalow, you cut across another field to a gateway in the left hand corner [2], after which you swing left to follow the field boundary towards the farm buildings at Little Maxfield.
  • Passing through a footgate in front of the farm, head right along its drive (footpath sign) to quickly reach little Fourteen Acre Lane. Head left on this quiet road, strolling past
    Above Doleham

    Above Doleham

    scattered houses. Beyond the entrance to a small brick works, the road follows a wood on its lefthand side, pretty with wildflowers in spring.

  • After a dogleg, you reach a junction at the top of the hill with good views across the low hills and woods around. Keep straight ahead  (signed to ‘Guestling’).
  • The road drops steadily past Lidham Hill Farm then swings sharp right, passing another house. Just beyond, head left on the drive [3] to Lower Lidham Hill Farm (signed as 1066 Country Walk – ‘1066’ from here on in). After
    Path on Lidham Hill

    Path on Lidham Hill

    passing a blue gate in front of the farm, keep right on the track leading to a second gate and Lidham Cottage. Beyond the cottage, a path continues the descent between high hedges.

  • At the end of this path [4] you are confronted with four gates – pass through the one straight ahead (waymarks well hidden in hedge) into a sometimes muddy field. Descend diagonally towards the bottom left hand corner, to locate a stile and tiny footbridge, well obscured by the trees.
  • Roughly follow the stream on the right across boggy ground to reach another, larger footbridge across it [5]. Keep straight ahead on a clear path, crossing a further footbridge.
  • On reaching the far hedge, turn left alongside it, before following a waymark to veer left back into the valley floor. 

    Approaching Lower Snailham

    Approaching Lower Snailham

  • Approaching the far side of the valley, you reach a signpost (at time of writing) missing both its arms [6]. Here turn right beside the reed-choked drainage ditch until you reach the next fence line.
  • Here follow waymarks left over a stile and straight uphill towards Lower Snailham.
  • Over a stile in front of the house head right. At a footpath sign keep straight ahead (‘1066’), over a stile beside a gate to follow the farm’s access track. This climbs to the summit of the hill, with superb views across the Brede Level, before continuing along the low ridge to Snaylham Farm [7].
  • Ignore the paths signed off to the side and continue on the drive past pretty red brick
    Climbing to Snaylham

    Climbing to Snaylham

    Snaylham House. On reaching a minor road [8], head left to reach Brook Farm.

  • Follow the road round to the right in front of the farm to drop towards the oast houses. Before reaching them, swing slightly left on an unsurfaced track which drops past the back of the buildings.
  • Beyond a cattle grid swing right to regain the main track, where you head left (‘1066’), steeply downhill. Nearing the bottom, the road ends at a small house [9] and you keep straight ahead to a footgate in the fence beyond.
  • Keep ahead to a stile, after which you follow the field boundary on your right, ignoring a
    Brook Farm

    Brook Farm

    footpath signed to the right (follow signs to the Queen’s Head pub!) to reach a footgate at the foot of a grassy hillside. A very faint path leads uphill, crossing a dry valley. Having climbed steeply out of it, swing left to follow the small valley to reach a stile at the top of the hill [10], just before the houses of Icklesham.

Icklesham village is much expanded by modern housing, but you skirt most of this. Icklesham’s roots are much older, first mentioned in a land charter signed by Offa (or Mercia, and Dyke fame) in 772AD. It quickly became a highly strategic location, high above the flat expanse of the Brede levels and was an early target for Norman invaders in 1066, and plans were made for its

Queen's Head, Icklesham

Queen’s Head, Icklesham

evacuation in the event of a Napoleonic invasion.

  • Over the stile, turn left on the fenced path round the back of the housing estate. This becomes a track, past a huge thatched house. Keep straight ahead. On reaching some cottages and a sharp bend to the right, the pleasant Queen’s Head pub is just off to the left.
  • A little beyond, you reach the A259. Cross with care and take Workhouse Lane opposite.
  • Ignore the first ‘footpath’ signs to the left, but after Chantry Lodge, cut left on a clear path (‘1066’). The path swings right at the corner of the churchyard (the 12th century
    Icklesham church

    Icklesham church

    church is worth a very short diversion to the left here).

  • At Manor Farm, veer right to remain on the fenced path, before reaching the farm’s metalled drive [11]. Head very briefly right along the drive, then left over a stile (‘1066’) to head towards the windmill on the hill ahead.
  • Cutting through a hole in the hedge, you emerge on a minor road, turning briefly left. At a sharp bend to the right cross a stile on the left and continue to climb to the windmill, passing behind it. As you crest the hill, a fantastic view over the marshes and scrapes to the sea opens up, as does one up the valley to Rye. 

Ickesham windmill, also known as Hogg Hill Mill, is an 18th century post mill, originally

The Channel from Icklesham windmill

The Channel from Icklesham windmill

constructed at Pett, over a mile south of here, before being transferred to its current site in 1790 – such perambulations were relatively common for lightly build post mills. Its design, with a roof mounted fantail (the smaller sail at the rear) is relatively unusual, and only two surviving mills in Britain have this feature. The mill ceased functioning in 1920, but has since been cosmetically restored, now serving as a recording studio for Sir Paul McCartney.

  • Continue downhill to rejoin the road by the white cottage, turning left. Where the road
    Hog Hill and the windmill

    Hog Hill and the windmill

    swings sharp left [12], turn right on a track (following a footpath waymark, not the ‘1066’ route straight ahead).

  • Almost immediately follow a waymark over a stile to the right to drop down the field ahead. Another stile and a flight of steps leads you to buildings [13], where you follow footpath signs left on a clear path, leading to a grassy track.
  • The track descends the hill – through the gate at the bottom keep straight ahead on a clearer, lovely track twisting through the reed beds.
  • The track swings right beside a wide drainage channel and you soon cross it on a
    Pannel Valley

    Pannel Valley

    footbridge [14], turning left on the far bank to pass a hide which gives a superb and close-up view of the often teeming birdlife on the scrape, hidden behind the bank from the path. 

These scrapes – artificial lakes created from arable land, but which effectively recreate the shallow waters that would have dominated low-lying parts of this area before the sea retreated. The reserve is managed by the Wetland Trust, and bird species often seen around the scrapes include bearded tits, water rails, barn owls and harriers, as well as more common waterfowl. Herds of farmed deer can often be seen on the slopes on the opposite side of the scrapes.

  • Continue on the track beside the drainage channel, passing the path to a second hide. Eventually, you cross a footbridge and come to a signpost [15] where you turn left, over another footbridge. The broad channel just ahead is the Royal Military Canal.

The Royal Military Canal is a unique watercourse, 28 miles in length, running from near Folkestone to near Hastings and cutting off Romney Marsh and the Dungeness peninsula from the ‘mainland’. Built from 1804 onwards, its primary purpose was defensive, when the threat of Napoleonic invasion led to a reconsideration of the historic view that the Marsh could be defended by flooding it. Planned to be 19m wide, the canal was to provide a tricky obstacle for an invading army landing on the Sussex/Kent border, as would the parapet built from the excavated soil. A side effect, which brought off local landowners, was the improved drainage the canal would provide in the area. The canal was completed in 1809, three years after the end of any serious French invasion threat after the defeat at Trafalgar. Having cost the equivalent of £178m and immediately becoming a white elephant, the canal was a laughing stock and a government embarrassment. In his Rural Rides, William Cobbett noted “Here is a canal made for the length of thirty miles to keep out the French; for those armies who had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube were to be kept back by a canal thirty feet wide at most!” Subsequent attempts to justify the canal by using it for transport proved lacklustre and were doomed by the opening of the Ashford-Hastings railway in 1851. Commercial navigation ceased by 1909. Nevertheless, the canal was requisitioned by the War Office in 1939 and a line of defensive pill boxes were built along it. Today, it continues to serve as a drainage system for the marsh, and stretches are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

  • Keep ahead through the lumpy field, broadly parallel with the Canal, to reach the foot of Wickham Cliff and follow it. 

Wickham Cliff – the low wooded escarpment to your right – is a symbol of how much the

Wickham Cliff

Wickham Cliff

geography of this area has changed in recent (by the standards of geographical change!) times. In Saxon times, this was the coastline – there is a line of these inland cliffs stretching north from here along the inland edge of Romney Marsh – you may have seen some from the train either side of Rye. Over the past 700 or so years, the process of longshore drift caused huge deposits of silt to move the coastline in places far from its previous course (here it is only about a mile away), taking with it much of the prosperity of towns like Winchelsea and Rye, who lost their harbours. Though there was one positive side effect – after 1448, the French were no longer able to undertake their periodic raiding of Winchelsea, as the water was now too shallow for their boats!

  • Where the cliff begins to veer away from the canal, keep to the foot of the cliff. The way is boggy and muddy in places at first, but persevere and you are soon in a dryer pasture. 
  • Just after passing through a gateway, follow the fence to swing left up to Wickham Rock Lane. Turn right on this tiny road. Rounding a corner you suddenly come to the fine New Gate and the town ditch.

When ‘New’ Winchelsea was built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries (more on this

New Gate

New Gate

later), it was constructed with the kind of defences befitting a town that frequently came under attack from French raiding parties. The town was completely surrounded by a ring of walls or ditches, with four main gates leading in. The New Gate, as the name suggests, was the last to be completed, in 1330, and guarded what was then the main road to the south, and would have had a double pair of gates. With the aid of some treacherous locals, French and Castillian forces were, at least in legend, able to enter the town through New Gate in 1380. The town ditch, of which a clear section survives next to the gate, ran around the western, southern and eastern edges of the hill on which Winchelsea stands.

  • Continue under the gate and follow the road round a number of sharp bends as it climbs into town. At a junction with the main route into Winchelsea [16], cross to the pavement and keep straight ahead.
  • You are soon in the rigid grid pattern of streets of Winchelsea, centred on the remarkable partly-ruined St Thomas’ church. At the crossroads just beyond the
    St Thomas' Church, Winchelsea

    St Thomas’ Church, Winchelsea

    church, you will find the New Inn and the Court Hall museum.

The Winchelsea that we see today is a planned town – not the earliest such town in England, but probably the best preserved in terms of layout. The original Winchelsea (‘Old Winchelsea’) was a prosperous port town, situated around four miles to the east, in what is now Rye Bay. A prolonged period of turbulent weather from the 1230s to the 1280s accelerated longshore drift, weakened the shingle beach on which the town was built and damaged sea defences. For Old

Winchelsea

Winchelsea

Winchelsea, this culminated in a ferocious storm on 1 October 1250, when ‘a great tempest of wind’ caused two tides to apparently merge, without an ebb in between, permanently destroying much of the shingle beach and taking much of Old Winchelsea with it. Another great storm in 1287 finished off all that remained. In 1281, Edward I ordered a new town, built on a planned grid pattern, to be built on Iham Hill, granting it Old Winchelsea’s status as one of the Cinque Ports. Complete with a tidal harbour on the River Brede, the new Winchelsea quickly prospered, particularly from the cross-Channel wine trade (many of the houses retain remarkable wine cellars as a legacy, which can sometimes be visited). All too quickly, however, the prosperity ended, as from the mid 14th century onwards, a combination of French raids, the decline of the wine trade during the Hundred Years War, and the steady silting up of the harbour, meant that Winchelsea was supplanted by other south coast ports, such as Chichester. The town declined and shrank – by 1561, there were no ships based in the town at all. A brief economic revival was spearheaded in the 18th century by linen-producing Hugenot refugees, the constant humidity of the wine cellars proving perfect for the delicate fibres – this led to the building of many of the fine houses still extant today, albeit on the medieval street plan. Winchelsea became famous as a rotten borough, sending two MPs to Westminster even when it was reduced to a few hovels at the nadir of its decline. A remnant of this remains in the form of Winchelsea’s mayor and corporation (it is the smallest place in Britain to have such accouterments) – who have no government function, but also no democratic legitimacy. The mayor is elected by the freemen of the corporation, with the freemen appointing new freemen in a closed circle. The church of St Thomas’ – originally the largest of three churches in the planned town – was the size of a small cathedral when constructed, with a tall tower and spire visible far out to sea. Today, only the chancel remains intact, along with the ruined transepts on either side, but these still give a good impression of the immense size of the original building.

  • Turn right here, along the attractive Main Street, past the village shops and a cafe. At the end of the houses, keep to the main road as it swings sharply left to pass through the Strand Gate (take care – there is no pavement on the corner, and this can be a busy
    Strand Gate

    Strand Gate

    road), which has fine views over the marsh to the sea from the pavement beside it.

Much more imposing than New Gate, Strand Gate was built in 1300, to protect the road from the harbour, which stood at the foot of Strand Hill. It would have housed a pair of portcullises and a pair of gates, what remains today being at least a third shorter than originally built.

  • Continue downhill on the pavement to the A259 where you turn right. Where the main road swings left [17], turn right on the road towards Winchelsea Beach, crossing the Royal Military Canal.
  • Continue along the pavement for around half a mile, the marsh on the left, a row of houses on the right. Where the main road veers very sharply right [18], keep straight ahead (10mph sign and footpath sign to Camber Castle) on a small road.
  • Keep to this road as it swings left and then shortly after veers right [19], now becoming a track past Castle Farm.
  • By a bungalow, keep to the left hand track (following a waymark). Through a gate, veer left again [20] on a track which quickly curves towards the low bulk of Camber Castle
    Camber Castle

    Camber Castle

    across the grassland.

Camber Castle now stands as a hulking, low bulwark, alone amongst the marshes inhabited only by sheep and hares. Another testament to the changing coastline, when originally built in 1539 by Henry VIII, it would have stood on a headland in a strategic position to defend the naval and mercantile anchorages at Rye. Camber is one of a series of what were known as ‘device forts’, artillery fortifications to protect against invasion during England’s political isolation after Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon. The taller, central tower predates the main castle by 25

Camber Castle

Camber Castle

years, with the four outer towers added to create the clover-like design. As the shorline receded, the central tower was raised to increase the range of its cannon, but by 1637, less than a hundred years after construction began, silting of Rye harbour rendered the castle obsolete. 

  • On reaching a fence alongside the castle, do not pass through the gate, but head right to the castle itself. Ignore the footgate on the right and walk beside the castle walls to the next fence.
  • Pass through the footgate here and swing right on the faint track running beside the fence. At the end of the field pass through the footgate ahead and follow the clear path
    Rookery, Castle Water

    Rookery, Castle Water

    through the scrub to the Ken Haplin hide [21], with superb views of wildfowl on Castle Water, then retrace your steps to the footgate.

Castle Water, a freshwater lagoon, is part of the large Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, an important part of the Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay SSSI, managed since 2011 by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. The 465 hectares contains a huge range of habitats, including saltmarsh, reclaimed marsh, shingle ridges, sand and woodland. Over 3,300 species of flora and fauna have been recorded on the reserve. 

  • Back through the footgate, turn right along the fence and where that ends, alongside the
    Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

    Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

    channel. At the second gate on the right [22] (the first has a ‘private’ notice), pass through it (waymark), to follow the fence on the right. The skyline of Rye is now clear on its hilltop ahead.

  • Through a gate ahead, keep straight ahead, now following the fence on the left, with a scrape to the right. Eventually, where the path begins to turn east, you come to a wooden footgate [23] (waymarks) and pass through it to follow a clear path beside a fence which soon swings towards the industrial buildings ahead.
  • Nearing the buildings you come to a path junction [24]. Keep ahead over a footbridge and swinging left to pass through a footgate and back into open marshes. Keep ahead on the slightly raised trackway paralleling the reserve boundary.
  • Keep straight ahead through two gates. The second leads onto a path through trees and
    The path to Rye

    The path to Rye

    out onto Harbour Road. Turn left, over the canal to reach the A259.

  • Turn right along the main road and follow the pavement through the outskirts of Rye, swinging right over the river bridge. Having come this far, you will probably want to explore Rye’s superb old town, in which case head right at the mini-roundabout [25], still on the A259, and take the first left (Mermaid Street – a fine, steep cobbled street lined with historic houses) up into the centre of town. The route to the station is well signed once you are ready to leave.

The history and attractions of Rye are too complex to go into at length here. Like Winchelsea it is one of the Cinque Ports and occupies an important strategic location, at

Rye, across the Rother

Rye, across the Rother

the point where the sandstone of the High Weald ridge that runs through Kent and Sussex reaches the sea – the hill on which the old town stands is the final point of this. When Rye developed as a port, it stood at the head of an embayment of the Channel, surrounded on three sides by water. The great storms of the 13th century cut Rye off from the sea, leaving only the River Rother as an outlet for shipping, which in turn gradually silted up. The story of much of Rye’s history was a conflict between the sea-going economy and agricultural interests, whose reclamation of the fertile lands of the Romney marsh for sheep grazing reduced the river’s flow still more. As legitimate trade declined, Rye became increasingly dependent on smuggling, including of wool, as a means to make a living. Much of Rye’s built heritage remains on its hilltop site, including cobbled streets, fortifications, gateways and ancient inns, with superb views over the surrounding countryside.

  • Alternatively, if you want to head straight to the station, from the river bridge, the
    Rye station

    Rye station

    quickest route is to cross the zebra crossing immediately after the bridge and turn right past the fish and chip shop. Take the first road on the left (Cyprus Place). At the end of the road by a level crossing, take the road almost opposite which leads directly to the station just ahead. Ashford trains depart from over the footbridge.

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