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Romney Marsh – the Fifth Continent

Portrait of Dr Syn, © Dee Taylor

The Fifth Continent

I am standing alone at a level crossing on the Romney Marsh, my home, sometimes known as “The Fifth Continent”.

A familiar whistle sounds in the distance and in a few minutes I am enveloped in steam, smoke and noise as the steam engine and its train whooshes and rattles past me. The smell of steam, oil, coal smoke and hot metal bring back memories from my past. My Dad was a steam engine driver.

Then the train is gone, leaving me behind, alone on the vast, bleak emptiness of Romney Marsh.

The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch

The RH&DR, Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, has been an integral part of the marsh landscape since it first breathed life in 1927 when it was called “Kent’s Mainline in Miniature”. Its one-third size steam and diesel locomotives haul trains along 13 miles of track from Hythe to Dungeness, which is a national nature reserve and bird sanctuary.

The railway is a firm favourite of day trippers, holidaymakers, short distance commuters and children going to and from school.

The RH&DR is the world’s smallest public railway.

The Romney Marsh is the Fifth Continent. 

The Ingoldsby Legends

This synonym has its origin in the Ingoldsby Legends, a collection of myths, legends, ghost stories and poetry, published in 1837, supposedly written by a Thomas Ingoldsby, which was a pen name for the author Richard Harris Barham and illustrated by the renowned illustrator Arthur Rackham

Barham wrote, “The world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh”.

The Marsh

The Romney Marsh is a vast, flat landscape. A hundred square miles of a bleak and windswept network of winding lanes with hawthorn, blackthorn and bramble hedgerows. Dykes and drains criss-cross fields that are either wild or tamed for agriculture or sheep grazing. The Romney Marsh breed of sheep is well known worldwide.

Beside the sheep, there is much wildlife, kingfishers, herons, cormorants, geese, duck, grebe, and birds of prey are plentiful. There is a large population of wild boar in the wooded areas around the marsh and their hoof-prints have been seen on the marsh.

Birth Of the Marsh

The marsh was formed during the great storm of 1287 which was such a cataclysmic and tragic event that it literally altered the landscape, diverted a river, obliterated harbours and in one mighty surge flooded the land all the way up to the Lympne escarpment, which to this day is the northern boundary of the Romney Marsh.

A grim reminder of the catastrophe is in the interior of the medieval church of St Nicholas, New Romney. A pillar still shows the water stain which is about 10 feet high.

Fortification Against a French Invasion

The Royal Military Canal runs nigh on thirty miles across the marsh from Seabrook near Folkestone to Cliff End near Hastings. 

The canal was hand dug as a defence against the expected Napoleonic invasion. The canal was well fortified along its length with deliberate bends and curves to afford musket and artillery fire along its course.

All this fortification has now gone except for the Martello towers that were built along the marsh coast. The coast here was thought to be the most vulnerable to the invading French, because of the flat beaches and shallow coastal waters.

The Martello towers are nearly all still standing, and were used during World War Two as look-out posts. The tower in Dymchurch is where look-outs spotted the very first doodlebug to fly over England. The towers are between 9 and 12 metres high with 3 metre thick walls. At the time deep ditches were dug to act as moats. There was space for ammunition, gunpowder and weapons, and accommodation for troops in case of siege during the invasion.

A Tradition Of Smuggling

The Romney Marsh, because of its position near the sea and the isolated nature of the area, has an historic and infamous reputation as the haunt of smugglers, brigands, and cutthroats. 

Brandy and tobacco were smuggled in from France, and Romney Marsh sheep wool smuggled out. There are many blood curdling stories that are still told in the taverns on the marsh.

The Legend Of Doctor Syn

Actor and writer Russell Thorndyke, the younger brother of the more famous Sybil, had a love for Dymchurch and the Romney Marsh. He was a frequent visitor to his mother, who lived in a cottage in Dymchurch.

The birth of the legend of Dr Syn of the Romney Marsh had a macabre beginning when Russell and sister Sybil Thorndyke were on a theatrical tour sometime before 1915. They were living in digs when a murder took place in the street outside the house.

The corpse was left lying in the street for many hours, and both Russell and Sybil were of course appalled and frightened, and during their ordeal they began discussing death, and murder. Their morbid but theatrical minds eventually began to create what was to become the legend of Dr Syn.

The first story created by Russell Thorndyke was Dr Syn: A tale of the Romney Marsh. Other books followed and the legend of Dr Syn has haunted the marsh ever since, and has become part of the heritage of Dymchurch.

Screen Versions Of the Legend

There have been three major film adaptations of the Syn stories. Doctor Syn (1937), Captain Clegg (1962), and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963).

CosPlay For All

Every two years during the August Bank Holiday weekend the whole town of Dymchurch turns out in costume. There are smugglers, pirates and scarecrows thronging the streets, and of course the redcoats in full uniform and armed with muskets and swords are also in town looking for the scarecrow gangs.

There are many skirmishes between the hated redcoats and the marsh smugglers. Inevitably there is a pitched battle on the beach, with deafening musket and cannon fire. All good fun!

The IMOS Foundation

A charitable organisation, The IMOS Foundation of New Romney, and headed up by Briony Kapoor, is dedicated to community projects, and promotes local art and artists. A recent important community project has been the creation of The Romney Marsh Tapestry.

It has been a few years from conception to completion, with Briony Kapoor as creative director, and a large team of local women skilled in stitching, embroidery and fabric design. The piece is similar in format to the Bayeux Tapestry, and will be forever on display in many of the medieval churches of Romney Marsh.

Dee’s winning design of a flag for Romney Marsh – the Fifth Continent
Dee’s winning design of a flag for Romney Marsh

The Official Flag

IMOS are also responsible for the concept of an official Romney Marsh flag. All local artists and designers were invited to enter their designs, and after a public vote a design was chosen.

I am proud to admit it was my design that won the vote.