Romney Marsh: The Fifth Continent

Romney Marsh: The Fifth Continent

The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh.
(Rev. R Barham, writing as Thomas Ingoldsby, in The Ingoldsby Legends,1840s)

Ever since, the marsh has been referred to as ‘The Fifth Continent’.

Thanks to  Cliff Bloomfield for this article.

Backdrop to Romney Marsh

10,000 years ago the waves of the sea were eroding the Wealden hills and river valleys, creating the long curving coastline that is the backdrop to Romney Marsh, which includes Romney Marsh proper, Denge, Walland,  Guldeford and Pett Marshes and a number of Levels.

The geological structure of these hills is variable. In the south-west at Pett Level, steep cliffs of sandstone with clay capping occur at varying heights, but do not exceed 100 feet (30m). The hills extend north beyond Winchelsea, Rye, and Iden and include the former island of Oxney, with its very prominent headland. Three river valleys carve through the hills, the Brede, the Tillingham and the Rother, its northern arm embracing Oxney. North-east wards beyond Ham Street are degraded slopes of Wealden clay; eastwards to Hythe the hills of clay-capped limestone rise once again to 300 feet (90m) a total length of 28 miles (7.8kms

The Embryo Marsh

Map of old coastlineThe bay lying beneath these hills may once have been covered by sea water at all states of the tide. At other periods low tide may have exposed extensive salt marshes, their seaward edges fringed with shingle made up of flint gouged out of the chalk cliffs of the South Downs, broken down by sea and driven eastwards by wave action generated by the prevailing south-west winds. This process, known as long-shore drift, formed a long thin shingle shore-line across much of the very early Romney Bay behind which the marsh could develop.

Forming the Foundations

Siltation has been a major feature in the development of the marshes. Most silt is carried in from the sea; on the top of the tide, with the water relatively stilled, the suspended silt settles along the outer margins of the river and back waters of the salt marsh; it settles too in the lee of the shingle fringe which provides protection from the waves of the open sea. To the sea-bourne silt must be added that carried down by the rivers swollen by winter rains.

Changing Sea Levels

As the bay evolved, the sea level could well have been some 70 feet (21m) lower than it is today; the bed rock of the marsh can be found as deep as 100 feet (30m). Sea levels have oscillated over time, rising and falling over thousands of years. Whatever nature created within the bay or out on the shore-line will have been washed away by the sea many times. A thousand years before the Romans came, the marsh was forested, with rivers and streams running from the hills to the sea.

The Roman Era

During the Roman period the marsh was again sinking; between Stone and Appledore the river was probably flowing eastwards to the sea at near West Hythe. Here successive shore-lines of shingle, curved landward, suggested a river mouth which could clearly be identified until evidence was removed by a shingle extraction company in the 1960’s. This was the outlet of the river Limen (now called the Rother), with a Roman port and settlement established near the Lympne of today. Following the close of the Roman era, the Limen appears to have silted up or to have become blocked by the long-shore drift of shingle. Much of Romney Marsh proper and a large area west of the Rhee Wall in Walland Marsh, including Lydd, was probably of Saxon origin.

The Calm before the Storm

By the 12th century the vulnerability of sea walls within the marsh caused concern. Grants of land carried provision for tenants to maintain the walls and waterways from damage by tidal water. Laws were passed by the 13th century for the administration of the marsh to be carried out by 24 elected men who would enforce the paying of levies or ‘scots’ for the upkeep of waterways and embankments. The expression ‘scot free’ has its origins in exemption of a person having land above marsh level. The system of levies or ‘scots’ continued until the Land Drainage Act, 1930

The 13th Century Storms

The river (which we know as the Rother) made its way south east from Appledore across the marsh to an outfall into the sea at New Romney; by the 12th century this marsh river was converted into a canal 6 miles (9.7 km) long to Old Romney. The 13th century was remarkable for a series of storms accompanied possibly by a rise in sea level. The first was in 1236 followed in 1250 when the town and port of Old Winchelsea were overwhelmed; there was a temporary recovery until it finally succumbed in the storm of 1287 by which time the new town of Winchelsea on the hill of Iham was being colonised.

The Rother Changes its Course

During this period, the people of New Romney were increasingly concerned with the condition of the river or canal and consequently of their harbour which was being blocked by silt and shingle. A further 2.5 miles (4.1 kms), of canal were excavated to make a new outfall to the sea. It was to no avail; the river at Appledore now turned south flowing through the inundated lands to Rye and the sea. The Walland, Guldeford and Pett Marshes were covered with tidal water and for the next 500 years man took advantage of the siltation process and enclosed or ‘inned’ the salt marshes. The name ‘Walland’ marsh is as its name implies- ‘wall-land’; Guldeford takes its name from the Gilford family who inned this marsh from 1478 to 1716. The last large scale innings took place along the fringes of Walland Marsh and the estuary of the Rother by the Salts Marsh Embankment Act 1833.

Wet Fences

Approximately 80% of the landscape features have evolved over many centuries with a pattern of fields formed of old salt marsh creeks connected with man made ditches, the farming community refer to the system as Wet Fencing. Centuries ago winter drainage of the land was a problem in those areas away from the tidal channels, with little gradient in the water courses, general water logging must have occurred. In summer, a simple system of artificially retaining water would have been devised. Fog and marsh mists being common place, in these conditions a form of malaria referred to as the ‘Marsh Ague’ was prevalent.


Sheep have grazed the marshes for centuries; the quality of its pastures, thanks to the alluvial deposits, is renowned. The sheep known as Kent or Romney pure breed are believed to have originated in Flanders; the fleece is long and close giving it the hardy qualities necessary to withstand the rigours of marsh winters.

By 14th century England’s most important export was wool; tax provided a major source of revenue; the smuggling out of wool remained a clandestine trade into the 19th century. In l939 there were some 200,000 sheep on the marsh, but after five years of war, the sheep being sent away to the hill farmers in Yorkshire, the numbers were halved and arable farming had increased four-fold to 15,000 acres and remains roughly the same today.

Counter Invasion Measures

In 1940 the Pett Marsh suffered a temporary disaster, lasting 4 years; it was deliberately inundated by the sea as a counter invasion measure, the then sea wall was breached, flooding almost its total area, only being retained on its landward edge by the western bank of the Royal Military Canal, its purpose was to stop aircraft landing invasion forces, whereas in all other areas of the marshes and river valleys, individual fields were planted with thousands of 20 foot (6 m) poles cut from the local woodlands.

The Rhee Wall

The major feature of the Romney Marsh today is the Rhee Wall, which literally dissects the marsh — Romney Marsh proper to the east and Walland Marsh to the west. It  follows the line of the original embanked canal which in the 12th century was attached to the rising ground on the western edge of Appledore village. Today its line resumes on the south side of the Royal Military Canal. A classified road,  the B2080,  leads south to Brenzett,  joining the A259, and  passing Old Romney to Hammonds Corner where it ceases to be defined as it crosses the fields to the site of its ancient outfall.

See the separate article on the Rhee Wall.

Coastal Areas

The shore-line of the marsh has over the centuries been split into three specific areas by accumulations of shingle due to long-shore drift; east of Pett Marsh to the River Rother Mouth; east of Walland Marsh at Jury’s Gap to Dungeness point, curving north to Greatstone; and finally an area north of the Redoubt beyond Dymchurch to Hythe. Between these areas the marshes have been exposed to the sea, they consist of Pett, Walland and Romney Marsh proper. Originally only having the natura1 protection of a shingle fore-shore and crest, they were prone to move landward, and creep onto the marsh unhindered. Today these marshes are protected by sea-walls.  See the separate article on the Rhee Wall.

Sea Defences

Early attempts were made to stem this advance by building earth walls behind the shingle crest, which were then thatched with faggots, (bundles of brushwood) cut from the local woodlands. It proved quite resistant to the sea in the short term.

Faggots in the form of thick sticks referred as bats were dug in to the shingle at right angles to form groynes to trap the eastward drifting shingle. In the long term it made little difference to the problem, until seawalls were constructed of stone and subsequently concrete, because the natural long-shore drift continued moving shingle eastwards.

In the last 30 years the local authority has resorted to shingle recycling. The practice is to move it from areas of accumulation, this is always to the east, and transport it back to the west,to recharge the shore, leaving the long-shore drift to redistribute it eastwards.

A shingle covering on the walls acts as an absorbent sponge to the waves. This prevents the over topping of the wall, and gives protection to the wall’s structure. A case of harnessing nature to solve a problem.


Global warming now presents a serious threat to the marsh, as it is all below high tide level, at an average of almost 5ft (1.5m). The present authority is working on a rise of 2ft (60cm) although other predictions give a figure of 3ft 3” (1m) in 100 years. In the shorter term shingle recycling will continue. The Romney Marsh coastline is an isolated pocket separated by the Fairlight Cliffs to the west and the Folkestone cliffs to the east, and within this area extensive shingle deposits exist. This may well provide shingle for replenishment to top up the recycling process.

It may be contentious to refer to specific areas where likely shingle deposits could be extracted, as much of these are owned by the Ministry of Defense and also included in these are other areas where Nature and Bird Reserves exist. Either the sea will eventually take over, the marsh, or the shingle could be extracted in a systematic way. Removing it from along the whole length of the shore edge its visual loss would be imperceptible, on these open natural shores, erosion still continues, its crest-line being naturally raised as the sea rises, and this happens when a gale on a high tide is experienced at present. It is difficult to imagine that nothing will be done in say 50 years time. In 500 years time the sea may have taken back that which it gave up.

First posted in Romney Marsh on 2nd October 2009
Last updated: 28th November 2012
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