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Landscape Mysteries - Programme 6: The Abandoned Marsh

Updated Monday, 24th October 2005


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Abandoned marsh Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

On the Romney Marsh in Kent, there are ruined churches in the middle of fields and tales of towns lost at sea. The area once supported a much bigger population than it does now. Aubrey sets out to find out what happened to these lost communities and why the marsh is now one of the most deserted areas in the country.

Aubrey discovers that at the beginning of the 13th Century the population of the marsh stood at an all time high. The waterlogged land was being drained and used for farming to cope with an expanding population. At the same time, vital ports - Hythe, New Romney, Rye and Winchelsea - grew up along the coast.

But everything changed during the 13th Century. First, violent storms breached the shingle barrier that protects the marsh, flooding large areas of the reclaimed land, and driving people away. The port of New Romney became silted up and Old Winchelsea was completely destroyed.

Aubrey visits present day Winchelsea - a 13th Century ‘new town’ built to replace the old port on the River Brede. But he discovers that this too declined when the river silted up. Then in the 14th Century, the already depleted population of the whole area was further reduced by the coming of the Black Death.

When, much later, the flooded land was eventually reclaimed once again, bigger fields suited to pasture were established, which could be managed by fewer people, and the Romney Marsh sheep industry was born.

But there was still one more threat to the long suffering population of the marsh – bad drainage, perhaps badly maintained with so few people, led to the arrival of the ‘ague’ or Malaria. In the 19th Century, as the drainage improved, so did people’s health. But the population never recovered. Now, modern agriculture has lead to the fields on the marsh becoming even bigger, leaving the bleak landscape we see today.

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