Motorhome travel: Taking it slow in East Sussex
Tenterden bank is a steep hill for a steam train. The bark of the engine exhaust sends smoke into the sky and me across the car park to the level crossing.
We have arrived at the Kent & East Sussex line, the railway interest in our trip to the southeast. The garden interest? Great Dixter and Herstmonceux Castle. The day at the seaside? Hastings. It may lack the sounds and smells of the steam trains, but the best way to travel the Kent & East Sussex Railway is on the 1950s diesel train.
The line is full size, but minimalist, built at the turn of the twentieth century and follows the rivers until it gets to Tenterden, then it goes straight up the hill. Leaving Tenterden in the train, we drift gently down to the valley floor where hay is being gathered on a glorious day. For a few minutes we stop at the tiny Wittersham Road Station and are encouraged out onto the platform to enjoy the sunshine while we wait for a returning train to pass.
Underway again we cross into East Sussex just before Northiam and then pick out the outline of Bodiam Castle across the pan-flat fields. Bodiam is the line’s terminus and, from here, we could visit the castle as it is easily walkable. Instead, we stroll around the station and find a shiny brown luggage van. No ordinary van this – it’s the van that, in 1920, carried the remains of the unknown warrior from Dover to London on his final journey. Painstakingly restored, it contains a moving exhibition, not just to the unknown warrior, but also to Edith Cavell and James Fryatt, both noted for acts of heroism during WWI.
Our train ambles gently back through the fields to Tenterden. The seat behind the driver is denied to second-class passengers, but the views are still first-class and the diesel mounts Tenterden bank with much less fuss than the earlier steam train. There is a museum next to the station dedicated to the story of light railways and Colonel Stevens, who built this railway. Outside there is an early railcar – an old bus on train wheels – a typical invention of the light railways. It may have been cheap to run, but it was heartily disliked by the passengers for its rough ride.
We could clearly hear the train whistles from our campsite at Wittersham so, the following day, I opened my folding bike and pedalled off to find the station. Three miles and several short, but sharp, hills later I arrived. Of course, I should have realised – the station is Wittersham Road. All the old railway companies employed this deceit when a village was inconveniently far from their route, not unlike certain ‘London’ airports today.
We came for the gardens, but the house at Great Dixter is also open to the public and, inside, we found some attractive contemporary furniture, another interest of mine. The pieces are by Rupert Williamson and were commissioned by Christopher Lloyd, better known for his gardens. A writing table in the shape of a musical crotchet stands in the parlour. In the solar there is a book table, square with curved edges and a forest of curving legs.
Moving into the gardens, we find they are grouped around the house, densely planted and full of flowers. The long border is the most celebrated and a profusion of colour – my favourite is the exotic garden. Its towering fronds peep above the rest of the garden like a beacon, so you can’t get lost. There are also some nice ‘hard’ features, such as the likeness of a dachshund – Lloyd’s favourite dog – fashioned in coloured tiles on a path and little five-bar gates crafted from green wood to keep visitors to the paths.
We drove to Hastings through a deluge and it was still raining when we arrived at Fairlight Wood Caravan and Motorhome Club site. Wood by name and wood by nature, this site is attractively laid out among the trees. The weather was much nicer for our day at the seaside and, after a short walk, we caught the 347 bus into Hastings.
New to motorhoming, we have worried about not having a car with us, but we are rapidly changing our minds. We find other bus passengers are keen to tell us about local attractions and this journey was no exception. We could both enjoy looking at the scenery and I avoided some tricky driving on tight, steep and busy town roads. We now begin to see bus journeys as a plus when we plan a holiday.
We strolled on Hastings’ beach and came upon a steel sculpture commemorating the arrival of William the Conqueror. It is in the form of the bow of a boat and is a very evocative piece, called simply The Landing. Further along, the East Hill Cliff Railway is the easy way to get up to the clifftop country park. It is the steepest funicular railway in Britain. Climb a bit further and you can enjoy splendid views out to sea. Far below is the Stade, the historic fishing beach and, to the west, is the West Hill, with its own funicular leading to the castle.
Between the two hills is the old town of Hastings. There is a museum near the East Hill lift, full of fishing facts and fishing stories. Hastings’ fishermen have no need to exaggerate their stories; walk on the deck of the central exhibit – a fine, but work-worn, old sailing lugger – and get a feel for both the thrill and danger of inshore fishing.
Just over 100 years ago the local fishermen wondered how to raise money for orphaned children in their community. They founded The Winkle Club, with each member expected to carry around a winkle, preserved with wax. If, when challenged by a fellow member to ‘Winkle Up!’ and he could not present his shell, the fisherman had to pay a forfeit into club funds. The club is commemorated by an enormous shiny winkle on the pavement on Winkle Island. The sculpture was created by local blacksmith, Leigh Dyer, who also masterminded The Landing. We enjoyed superb fish and chips at The Neptune Café and dropped a donation into The Winkle as the club continues to support underprivileged children.
It took us about 15 minutes to walk to the award-winning pier. Its middle superstructure appears rather like a ship and houses a café and bar. There are acres of newly laid boarding to stroll on and a fantastic view of the sea, the shore and the cliffs. We completed a memorable day with an ice cream on the way back to the bus. We had seen Bodiam Castle from the train and decided to visit on our way to Herstmonceux. It is quite remarkable. From the outside it is the classic fortress with towers and a moat, like a perfect sandcastle. Inside it is a ruin but provides a tremendous view from the battlements and, on a sunny day, it is a fine place for a picnic.
Discovering Herstmonceux Castle
At Herstmonceux we stayed at the delightful Coopers Croft Cattery CL. The pitches are arranged in a tree-lined circle and it has a very pleasant and spacious feel. Herstmonceux Castle is really a large stately home, brick-built and prettily set in its moat. The gardens are very formal, a complete contrast to those at Great Dixter and they feel much more open to the sky. Each section has a theme: Elizabethan, rose, butterfly, herb and so on. There is a huge sundial, dedicated to John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, reminding us that the Royal Observatory Greenwich was located here for a period. We strolled through the gardens on a lovely sunny morning and, when the sundial indicated coffee time, we found the café.
Beyond the gardens we walked through just a small part of the extensive woodland on the estate before driving up to The Observatory Science Centre. We had discovered that, with a combined ticket, we could visit this separate attraction as well. We explored the ‘forces’ gallery and some of the outdoor exhibits. The Centre is really targeted at the younger visitor but we entered into the spirit, pressing buttons, turning handles and attempting to rebuild a clock! Then an invitation came over the PA system to view the old telescopes of the Royal Observatory Greenwich. This is what I had been hoping for.
A very knowledgeable guide took us into two of the old domes. One contained the Thompson 26-inch refractor, built 120 years ago and among the largest of its type. The other housed the Yapp 36-inch reflector of 1932. Both are smaller than later telescopes, but are still spectacular in their huge domes. Before leaving we noticed the ‘sound mirrors’. You can whisper to each other right across the observatory complex. Quite spooky, it demonstrates a system set up nearby on the south coast to detect enemy aircraft before the invention of radar.
This proved to be a great week. Highlights included Hastings Beach, the perfection of Bodiam, the furniture and exotic plants at Great Dixter, the gardens and telescopes at Herstmonceux and, of course, that loco climbing up to Tenterden.
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