All at sea
Prior to the Norman Conquest, the area now known as the Pevensey Levels, was a part of the sea, at least at high tide. Today the Pevensey Levels are now a wetland of international importance. This walk moves from the historic coastline at Pevensey towards two former islands with the majority of the walk having once literally been “all at sea”.
LENGTH – 4.5 miles
TIME – 2.5 hours
START – Pevensey Castle car park, High Street, Pevensey BN24 5LE (NGR 647 048).
PARKING – Pevensey Castle car park, High Street, Pevensey BN24 5LE (pay and display)
TOILETS – Pevensey Castle car park
REFRESHMENTS – Pubs, cafes and tea room in Pevensey and Westham. Village shop at Westham and farm shop and café at Chilley
CAUTION – The walk is almost wholly on a wetland area and may be flooded following wet weather. There are two crossings of the A27 road.
This walk contains stiles.
The walk starts outside the eastern gate of Pevensey Castle. Most of what can be seen here is a Roman Fortress named Anderida, built about 290; one of a chain of such forts between The Wash and The Solent to defend Britannia against Saxon invaders. All the time a trained Roman army and navy were available within the country this worked. However, after the Roman administration and troops left in 410, the fort became a refuge for the surviving, less-organised native population. In 471, the Saxons, “Aelle and Cissa besieged Anderida and killed all who were inside, so there was not one Briton left”.
The route descends here to the old shoreline and crosses the Pevensey Bypass. On the northern side, occasional small mounds can be seen in the fields. These mark the site of medieval saltworks. Salt was a vitally important part of the medieval economy, as the only viable way of preserving meat, hence the expression “worth his salt”. At high tide, sea water was trapped in shallow basins and allowed to evaporate when conditions allowed or boiled in large vats; to drive off the water and leave the valuable salt behind. The salt was then removed and the other solids piled up in waste heaps, which are the main visible evidence of the industry today. As the sea was pushed back the salt industry had to move with it, leaving these debris mounds isolated inland today.
Between about 1100 and 1350, the pressure of an increasing population forced the pace in reclaiming land from the sea. “Inning” produced a series of piecemeal banks enclosing one small field at a time and gradually pushing the sea back. However, the population collapse after the Black Death, followed by higher tides and storms, especially the “Great Storm” of 1287, undid most of this work, leading to the re-flooding the greater part of the area.
The original position of the coastline is illustrated by the Saxon place names. “Ham” endings such as Westham and Hailsham mean a settlement on a spur of high land above a wet area, whilst names ending in “Ey” such as Rickney, Chilley and Pevensey are former islands.
After about 1400 man began again to drain the marshes, but with greater coordination than before. Assisted by the natural growth of a shingle spit across the mouth of the Pevensey Levels, as the prevailing weather pushed the shingle ever eastwards, the land was changed into pastureland, drained by a mixture of natural and man-made channels. The Pevensey Haven was the original channel supplying water to the port of Pevensey, its age emphasised by the parish boundary following its route. However, as the reclamation continued, the channel became silted, the mouth blocked and the port vanished. Today, the marshes are drained by a series of manmade channels and sluices across the Levels. Modern management ensures that the drainage is “just good enough” to allow farming but to leave the area sufficiently wet to preserve the wildlife. The present “Water Level Management Board” is a direct descendent of “His Majesty’s Commissioners for Sewers for the Sussex Coast” established in 1269, just after the Great Storm.
As the walk returns towards Pevensey, the location of the castle on its peninsula, stretching along the ridge can be appreciated. The other side of this peninsula was the landing point of the Norman invaders on 28 September 1066. Under the heading “et venit ad Pevenesae” (and they came to Pevensey), the Bayeaux Tapestry shows their 700 ships landing on a shingle beach and offloading men, equipment and horses without opposition. To unload a fleet as large as this, ships must have stretched away into the distance westwards along the beach. The story of William falling as he landed (a bad omen) but rising again with soil in his hands crying “I have already seized England” (turning it into a good omen) would be more impressive if the same tale had not already been attributed to Julius Caesar, a thousand years earlier.
The real reason for landing here was that the semi-ruined Roman fort would offer some defence against an immediate attack. But none came. William hastily dug a ditch across the peninsula to cut the landward approach but it was not needed. The next day, his force moved off on land and by sea to Hastings and into history. Shortly after the conquest, the Normans built a stone church at Westham, described as their first in England, to give thanks for the safe landing. Viewed from the south, herringbone flintwork and three small, round-headed windows can be seen from this first building amongst the later additions.
The walk now approaches the western end of the Roman fort. Passing through the Roman gate, a second castle can be seen inside the first. After his successful conquest, William gave the castle and port to his half-brother Robert who created the first defences by refortifying the original walls and creating two enclosures (or baileys) within it, divided by a ditch and a timber palisade.
Moving toward the centre, the remains of another stone castle can be seen inside its moat. The first stone buildings here date from the 1190s when regular and substantial payments were made by the Crown, who had repossessed the castle, for building works. These were added to between 1246 and 1254 by the new owner, Peter de Savoy, who replaced the inner bailey’s timber defences with the present stone walls and towers, including a chapel, a well, a great hall for communal dining, and living quarters, as well as the impressive keep. Eventually the castle ceased to be used for defence and briefly became a prison, holding James I of Scotland amongst others. Under the Tudors it fell out of use, until the threat of the Spanish Armada led to a gun platform being hastily constructed armed with two cannons. History repeated itself in World War II when gun emplacements were added, carefully camouflaged to blend with the older masonry and the towers were used as barracks. Thus defences of four periods blend together, whilst a fifth – the Martello Towers – can be seen from the ramparts.
As the walk ends, the planned layout of the now-diminished Norman town at Pevensey can be appreciated. Immediately outside the east gate of the castle was a market place (now the car park) and from here three streets originally stretched eastwards to the harbour, with the church situated on the middle one. Two still carry traffic, but the third is now merely a gate in the car park wall, mute testimony to the decline and disappearance of the port of Pevensey.
Whilst we have taken reasonable endeavours to ensure the information is up to date and correct, you will be using the information strictly at your own risk. If you come across any inaccuracies whilst you are on your walk, please contact Wealden District Council’s Community and Regeneration team.
The self-guided walk descriptions are provided to help you navigate your way, however we recommend that you plan your route prior to walking the route and that you carry an Ordnance Survey map of the area being walked and follow your position on the map as you proceed.
Please note, we cannot be responsible for the conditions of the footpaths and land and you are responsible for your own safety.