The defense of the realm
Although the exact line of the coast has moved through time, this coastline has been at the forefront of every invasion threat to England from Roman times to World War II. It is also the landing place of one invasion which did succeed – that of William the (soon to be) Conqueror who landed at Pevensey on 28 September 1066. This walk looks at what is left of these defences of varying ages and styles.
LENGTH – 3 miles
TIME – 2 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
TOILETS – Pevensey Castle car park.
REFRESHMENTS – Pubs at Pevensey, Pevensey Bay and Westham. Cafes and tea room at Pevensey and Pevensey Bay. Village shops at Pevensey Bay and Westham.
CAUTION – The walk is partly on a wetland area and may be flooded following wet weather. There are two crossings of the A259 road and rail crossing.
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”.
Just as the walk leaves the recreation ground and turns onto the A259 road, it passes over a drainage channel with another visible on the far side of the road. These mark the original access waterways to Pevensey, up which the Roman fleet could sail, even at low tide, through an area of saltmarsh to reach the port next to the castle. However, between about 1100 and 1500, prevailing winds and weather formed a shingle spit across the entrance to the Pevensey Levels on the present line of the beach, blocking the entrance to the port. Despite efforts to keep it clear, the channels eventually silted up and fell out of use.
Arriving on the modern day beach, a series of what look like giant children’s sandcastles can be seen at intervals throughout the settlement, but set a little back from the present beach. These are Martello Towers, built between 1804 and 1812 to defend against the French under Napoleon. Each is a miniature fort, manned by 25 men with a large gun mounted on the top of the tower. The towers are sited close enough together to be able to cover the whole beach with cannon and small-arms fire between them. The rounded shape allowed enemy cannon balls to bounce off. In the event, they were never used in anger, but just under half the 103 originally built still survive, some, like the Pevensey Bay pair, converted into houses.
If the tide is full out, bits of metal looking like scaffold poles can occasionally be seen protruding though the sand. These are the last remains of a forest of such poles festooned with wire and explosives, which were situated on the beach during World War II to try to prevent barges landing in the dark year after Dunkirk. Some of the Martello Towers were also reused as observation points, often with machine gun ports added.
As the walk returns to Pevensey, the location of the castle on its peninsula, stretching along the ridge can be appreciated. This was the view seen by 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 Pevensey was already a thriving port and 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.
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.