Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Welcome to Dunchester

Dunchester is a small hamlet overlooking Romney Marsh, on the border between Sussex and Kent. With a population of less than 7,000 people in the town itself, it is a relatively intimate community. In 1892 it is considered a retreat for poets, writers, philosophers, and others hungry for peace and isolation. Its population has been shrinking since its heyday as a port in the Middle Ages, and much of the surrounding coastline has become silted up, turning into fog-shrouded salt marshes over the decades.

The History of Dunchester

Like many villages of its ilk, Dunchester is first mentioned in the Doomsday Book. By this stage it was already a fishing village, perched on a hill overlooking the storm-tossed Channel. It enjoyed a modest degree of prosperity thanks to sporadic trade with France, even after Normandy was turned over to the French crown by John.

A medieval charter makes mention of a raid by French troops against the town during the Hundred Years War, and tells how many soldiers were visited by a strange curse that decimated their ranks as they sought to take Dunchester by siege. This has been interpreted as plague by local historian Jeremiah Wislet. Suffice to say, it brought an end to the French attack.

Dunchester earned notoriety again shortly before the English Civil War, when a number of witches were captured in the village, accused of consorting with devils in the marshes that now surrounded the village. Travelers spoke of strange lights and drumming heard across the foggy swamps, and some of those foolhardy souls who sought to travel at night had been known to disappear without trace. Finally, Judge Ezekiah Grimfell launched an investigation that led to a special court of assizes in Lewes in 1638 at which six witches were tried and hanged. A seventh coven member, Labeliah Hellinges, went missing, evading capture. Sightings of her in the Kent/Sussex borders continued for several years thereafter, but the authorities lost interest in her after the war broke out.

Throughout the 18th century Dunchester was linked to a smuggling ring, called the Band of the Deeps. It was a successful syndicate of local and foreign smugglers who shipped in contraband by the boat load, using the shallow and treacherous local waters, as well as hidden tracks across the marsh, to make a considerable profit. Several efforts to crack down on the Brotherhood failed miserably. A surviving diary of one revenue man, from 1762, notes that the smugglers always seemed "most keenly informed of our movements, as if forewarned by the minute of our plans to bring them to justice."

In the early 1800s, a small group of painters called the Dunchester Circle won popularity for their moody landscapes. Inspired by the likes of John Stannard and the Norwich school of Regency painters, they were led by the irascible and moody Irish painter Michael Clerac, whose works, like Boys Fishing Near Romney (1829) won critical acclaim. Some of his later painting, which dwelt on more occult themes, was not as well received by the increasingly puritan British public (one exhibition in London in 1836 being cancelled the day before its opening), although Clerac continued to sell paintings to a small group of continental collectors until his suicide in Dunchester in 1840. After Clerac's death, the Dunchester Circle split up, with many of the painters travelling elsewhere for their inspiration, particularly to France and the eastern USA. Only one of their number, Rufus Tannisart, now in his eighties, still lives in the village in 1892.

Dunchester in 1892

With the introduction of railways, Dunchester has become slightly more easy to access for the occasional Victorian holiday maker, in search of sea views and fresh air. A number of invalids have sought its shelter to recuperate, but few seem to make much of a recovery, preferring instead the slightly more homely comforts of Hastings or Folkestone - some even complain of strange dreams and a deteriorating sense of well being.

Dunchester provides overnight accommodation to travelers at the Grimfell Inn, or one of a small number of houses offering lodgings (a valuable source of income to villagers who find it increasingly hard to make a living).

Dunchester is best approached by carriage from Hastings, but it is a journey of 17 miles, much of it across lonely marshes often swept by the sea wind. In winter the route is oftentimes flooded, forcing would be visitors to instead take to the sea, and make the approach by boat. However even this can be fraught with difficulty when the weather is harsh.

Fishing and shooting are local attractions for the Victorian gentleman. The marshes around Dunchester are known for the richness of their wild life. There are smaller settlements located out in the marshes where expert guides can be found, but most of the marsh folk are unfriendly and uncooperative when approached by strangers, preferring to be left to their own devices. Still, the Queen's shillings are not unrecognised here, and a boat and hamper for a fishing trip on the marshes can be readily procured for the right price.

Dunchester Asylum lies out in the marshes, converted from an old abbey, and dimly seen from the village's highest point on a fine day. It houses over 100 patients and is privately funded. Its staff have little or no dealings with the inhabitants of Dunchester itself, aside from procuring supplies on a weekly basis. Privately funded, it is managed by a Belgian psychologist, Professor Didiers Laterne. He rarely ventures beyond the walls of his institution, although he will occasionally travel to Folkestone to catch the ferry to France.

More on Dunchester to follow....


  1. Interesting! Might we be visiting Dunchester in the future?