We have in our kitchen a mug purporting to belong to ‘Romney Marsh Mountain Rescue’. There is, of course, no such organisation – the mug is a reference to a long-standing family joke, about how my brothers and I love mountaineering despite having grown up in one of the lowest, flattest parts of England. The Marsh has a handful of small hillocks – really just bumps with delusions of grandeur – but overall it is very flat. My Ordnance Survey map does not mark a single contour line from Rye in the south west to Hythe in the north east and from the Royal Military Canal to the Channel.
After a quarter of a century away, I returned to live here with my wife and children last summer. Dymchurch, our new home, was for hundreds of years a quiet farming and fishing community. In the 18th century it was a lively centre for cross-Channel smuggling; not only is it one of the closest points to France on the whole coast, and blessed with long, smooth beaches, but it was a long way from large administrative centres and therefore remote from the prying eyes of the Revenue men.
During the early 20th century it attracted the odd writer and artist looking for some quiet, out of the way spot. Noel Coward, who lived only a few miles away in the Kent Downs, was a regular visitor, and the author Edith Nesbit settled locally after her second marriage. Pioneering Modernist Paul Nash lived and painted here in the early 1920s and the old seawall features in many of his pictures from the period. Nowadays the local economy is heavily dependent on the holidaymakers who flock to the golden sands in the summer.
In the off-season, it gets rather quiet and you can understand why.