The History of Dunchester
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."
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 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....