By Tom Chivers
I have been searching for the lost islands of London – urban Atlantises whose origins are announced by the Anglo-Saxon suffix ey, meaning island or, more vaguely, a patch of dry ground near water. Unlike the lost kingdom of Atlantis though, these islands have not been submerged beneath rising seas, but the opposite: their coastlines erased by receding tides and a millennium of land reclamation, until they are little more than faint rises in the landscape of the city. Cross Abbey Street, Bermondsey, from the south and you are stepping off dry ground and into the marshy lagoon of the Thames before its banks were drained and its braided course made straight. Walk Battersea Park Road in either direction and you are bisecting another island, cut off on its western edge by the Falcon stream and to the south and east by a tidal inlet of the Thames.
It takes imagination to picture inner city London as a landscape of marshes, creeks and islands. And so I headed south, to the coast, to discover something altogether more tangible.
I’ve been coming to this coastline my whole life, to fill my nostrils with salt wind and get fat from Christmas turkeys at my aunt and uncle’s house in Bexhill, East Sussex. After a hearty breakfast in Pebsham Drive, Adrian, a semi-retired estate agent and authority on the music of the 1970s, dropped us on the outskirts of the town. He had a DJ gig that evening in a local Indian restaurant, so we shared the car with his notorious PA system – “The Vintage Music Machine”. My wife Sarah had joined me the previous night and so was my – somewhat reluctant – walking partner for the day.
In a county whose population is mainly squeezed into a narrow strip along the coast, you don’t have to travel far inland to find what Adrian calls “the old Sussex” – scattered villages, isolated farmhouses, a landscape of woods, fields and downs, criss-crossed by a network of country lanes. Our start point was the hamlet of Hooe, four miles north-west of Bexhill Station; a settlement without any discernible centre and a population barely beyond single figures. At some point in the Medieval period, and reputedly as a result of the Black Death, the inhabitants of Hooe abandoned their homes for a spot further north (now Hooe Common), transforming the original site into an eerie ghost town. Its only relic is the stone church of St Oswald Hooe, which, no longer attached to anything, sits in glorious isolation in the middle of fields.
As we headed down the narrow track towards the church, the songs of birds darting around the trees were unexpectedly joined by the peel of bells, first distant as in a daydream and then, as we picked our way around boggy patches and the square tower appeared behind a hedgerow, broadcast clear and loud, tumbling up and down the scale on a fresh Saturday morning after rain.
Remembering my etymology: Hooe derives from the Saxon term hōh – a headland or promontory – a word also present in Plymouth Hoe and the famous burial mound at Sutton Hoo. Rising up to one hundred feet from the marshland between Bexhill and Eastbourne, Hooe commands a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. As we reached St Oswald’s – a compact Norman construction set within a grassy churchyard – the bells came to an abrupt stop, leaving an eerie silence to fall in this secluded spot. Had we dreamt them after all? We entered the church to find the local bell-ringers – half a dozen men of or approaching retirement age – packing up after Saturday morning practice. One of the ringers, a jolly, pukka gent in his 60s, showed us around. Walking us down the newly-polished nave, he gestured to the roof where a worm-riddled oak beam had once fallen during a service, narrowly missing a notoriously cantankerous local woman.
“From the bell-tower,” he explained, “you can see all the way across the levels to Pevensey Castle. In days gone by, the villagers would light beacons at the high points as a warning for seafarers.”
The way ahead to Pevensey would take us across these marshy wastes, low-lying land that, whilst liable to flooding now, was once entirely inundated by the sea. Not marshland then, but a lagoon – an inland sea dotted with islands.
I left some shrapnel in the honesty box and, against the advice of our guide (“I wouldn’t bother with that – it’s out of date”), took a pamphlet to read later: Records of Hooe by John James Newport. He tells of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, whose shockwaves reached as far as the English coast, ‘choking Hooe Haven with beach, destroying salt pans and damaging the church and other buildings.’
We took our bearing from the churchyard and headed south-west over a wooden stile and into open fields, the sky growing dark with promised weather. Looking back at the church, we could see more clearly how it commands the crest of a headland – the hooe. We began to descend, skirting a wet ditch to our right where a path might be perceived in the grass, and then down to Green Lane, the way into the levels. A lone utilities van was parked up by a drainage channel. As we reached the crossing with Narrow Road, it began to drizzle. A few minutes later we were crossing the A259 – the busy new road across the marsh. At the end of a boggy track lined with dense hedgerows, we spotted our entranceway: a metal gate half-leaning off its hinges. From this point onwards, we would be walking at sea level.
Out here, the fields are unfenced, separated instead by a vast network of streams draining the land down to the coast. Cut over centuries, these artificial channels have many names here. Sluice and sewer, fleet, gut, dyke and ditch. Fringed with rushes and reeds, brimming with bream, carp, tench and the odd eel. On my OS map, unfolded in the rain to plot our course, they appear as a system of tiny capillaries, branching off the thick blue arteries of Salt and Waller’s Havens. But they are broad enough to confine the flocks of nervy sheep grazing the springy ground of the levels. In this wet December they were full to the brim.
We started to pick our way through this boggy hinterland, keeping as much as possible to the firmer ground on the edges of the fields, and crossing the ditches via small steel footbridges called liggers, some wrecked and half-submerged in reedy puddles. There is no visible path across the Hooe Level, although the public right of way is marked by wooden staves and a splash of yellow paint which you can make out if you squint. As we entered our fourth or fifth field from the A road, a clayey quagmire revealed traces of buried rubble – brick or stone, I couldn’t tell. We were on the right track. As the drizzle subsided and we continued south, I noticed that the standing water was beginning to collect in a network of intersecting lines, illuminated by the low sun as shimmering glyphs; the landscape rendered as a geometric plan. Thanks to the weather, we had located not England’s Nazca Lines but the foundations of another lost settlement: marked on the map in antique Gothic font as Northeye Village.
One of the islands or eyes that once stood proud of the waterline, Northeye was a significant place in the early medieval period. Associated with the Cinque Port of Hastings as one of its five ‘limbs’ or subsidiaries, its sheltered harbour offered access to the flourishing ironworks of Hooe and beyond. Viewed from above with Google’s satellites, Northeye’s full extent becomes clear – perhaps as much as 100 acres of isolated farmland scarred and cross-hatched by a phantom street plan. Northeye ceased to exist as anything more than a ruin when, in 1260, it was overwhelmed by a turbulent sea. Later reclamation led to the founding of a second chapel here – a monastic ‘cell’ twinned with St Oswald’s – but who would want to worship in such a lonely spot, with only the warblers and skylarks for company?
Long after the village had been abandoned, Northeye lived again, though only in name, as a Category C prison half a mile to the north-east. Established in 1969 on the site of an old radar station off the Barnhorne Road, HMP Northeye began as little more than a scattering of fortified Nissen huts. Life at the jail was, as one former inmate recalls, “a fairly relaxed affair”. Their windows were unbarred, and the facilities included a gymnasium, games field and cinema. Only a razor wire perimeter fence separated the four or five hundred men from the surrounding marshes. But in the long hot summer of ’86, the dynamic changed. One evening, a small group of inmates, disgruntled by the removal of their privileges, set fire to one of the prison buildings. Within the hour, several structures were ablaze and before long Northeye was encircled by fire crews, heavily armed riot police and a TV news helicopter.
“Inmates wandered around the burning jail, unsure of what to do. I saw one guy walking down to the kitchen with his tea mug as though everything was normal ... I spotted another guy walking around in an officer’s cap and white medical smock and a large bag filled with tablets stolen from the hospital, into which he was dipping a hand and scattering dozens of pills about him to his shouts of ‘Medication, medication.’”
By the morning more than 40 per cent of the prison was destroyed, and the inmates were bussed off to Pentonville. A ruin for the rest of the decade, the site at Northeye was eventually refurbished in 1992 and later opened as a training centre for students from the United Arab Emirates. In this landscape, nothing is too strange. Today the complex is once again empty, another ghost town in the levels.
Ahead of us the land was rising up – an incline of only eight metres, but in this dead flat environment the eye becomes attuned to the slightest contour shifts. At the base of this hill, the confluence of two streams – a deep orangey-brown – suggested a temporary vision of the bucolic, as if we might imagine the scene ancient and unchanged – virgin terrain, not a landscape that is marked and unstable. We climbed up or, as it seemed, into the grass-covered hill, its brow lumpy with mysterious structures (ramparts perhaps?) and pockmarked by pools of water. If your feet were as damp as ours in their marsh-caked boots, you would be grateful for this island of firm ground. From here you can see right across the levels to Pevensey and the chalk headlands around Eastbourne, although the sea itself remains hidden from view.
Further south two more hillocks could be discerned in the distance, identified as The Neppes by the cartographer William Hedger (a local toponym probably derived from the Old English nebb meaning beak or bill).  We plotted a course between them. More geometric tracery on the descent, including a lightly scored circle roughly ten metres in diameter that I imagined might have been a barn or silo. In other circumstances I would have mistaken it for the remnants of a henge. We stepped off the island into what was once open sea. A bright yellow flash signalled the way, though conveniently this marker was submerged in a wide pool that had to be crossed in a series of ungainly running jumps.
This was once smuggler’s territory, where contraband from the coast crossed the marsh by secret routes known only by the locals; it was a marginal zone contested by criminal gangs and the customs men or ‘Watchdogs’. As the fields petered out and we could hear the occasional buzz of vehicles, a dark trail emerged from the tree line – an old ‘hollow way’ completely enclosed by dense hedgerows. Walking underneath a foliage roof and with ditches on both sides, I felt simultaneously elevated and sunken, the bridge at once a bridge and a tunnel: a portal out of the levels.
We surfaced, muddy and breathless, in the car park of the Star Inn. Leaving our boots at the door, we padded across the thick carpet of this notorious smuggler’s haunt in saturated socks. As I ordered myself a pint of Harvey’s and a Coke for Sarah, I realised the barmaid was the first person we’d seen since leaving Hooe Church.
Beyond the Star, the marsh extends west for three miles along the coast to Eastbourne, and north-west for five miles to Hailsham. If you follow the five metre contour line on your OS map, you can plot the original coast of this inland sea, making a palimpsest of the landscape. Out of this lagoon rises a phantom archipelago of islands, islets and peninsulas (literally ‘almost-islands’). Some have been consumed by suburban development, as Langney has by the westwards spread of Eastbourne; others, such as Manxey, Bowley and Horse Eye, survive as little more than isolated farmhouses or obsolete fieldnames.
We left the pub and headed due west down Sluice Lane. Before the building of the A259 (dubbed the most dangerous A road in Britain in 2008), this was the only route across the marsh. Adrian had warned us of flooding here, but we needn’t have worried; broad, reed-fringed ditches on either side of the tarmac protected the lane, lending it an almost sacramental character, as if it were a trackway to some great ritual site. We passed the massed ranks of static caravans at Norman’s Bay, where the Conqueror’s army are purported to have landed in 1066.
The sun appeared faintly in the distance, the levels broad and flat to either side. Almost immediately the road began to rise steeply. We were climbing onto Rockhouse Bank, formerly known as Southeye. We passed the remnants of a World War Two gun emplacement and then a large farmhouse with commanding views of the sea. Unidentified birds wheeled and squawked as we reached the summit. A few cars sped past – locals who know the roads. A monastery once occupied this clay island, this lens of high ground whose shape on the map resembles a cartoon whale. What am I coming to these secluded places for, these vanished islands, other than to lament the deficiencies of my own faith?
As we returned to the flat ground, flanked by wind-whipped rushes the height of a man, I spotted a cluster of three huge wooden staves driven into the wet ground beyond the lane. A trio of black megaliths, fifteen feet tall. Giant arrowheads, waymarkers: we could not tell. The Wenham Stream – a tributary of Waller’s Haven which diverges at Reynold’s Gut – was now running beside us, hugging the verge so closely that the stream and the lane were almost contiguous, a dual carriageway of water and tarmac. An acrylic sign welcomed us to the Pevensey Levels. Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, public access to this land – in fact, three geometric wedges of land – is restricted. Beyond the stream, the marshes thrive, with yellow wagtails, damselflies and hairy dragonflies, water voles, beetles and freshwater snails. This Level also sustains a substantial population of Britain’s largest arachnid: the rare and semi-aquatic fen raft spider. As we resumed our journey, the reedbeds growing golden in the sun, I tried not to think of these giant floating terrors lurking in the meadows.
Ten minutes further and the lane twisted past a cluster of farm buildings. We spotted a handsome chestnut horse through a gap in the fence, shuffling in its scruffy yard. Further on we passed the corpse of a badger splayed on the roadside, face down, still bearing its vicious, outsized claws like a pair of Freddy Kruger gloves. Ten paces more: a discarded Peugeot hub cap.
Finally, we heard the traffic drone of the A road converging from the north, and with a last twist Sluice Lane ended, coughing us out onto a busy roundabout. Across the Salt Haven, and Pevensey begins – a long finger of sandstone reaching into the marshes, its High Street lined with two-storey cottages of indeterminate age. We climbed up to the castle as dusk fell, passed into the space between its concentric rings of Medieval and Roman walls. In the grainy half-light, the jagged gatehouse with its empty windows was a defleshed skull, I thought, wailing into the silence.
 See Cliff Dean, Birding Walks in RXland: http://rxbirdwalks.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/mysterious-island/
Tom Chivers is a writer and literary arts producer. His books include How To Build A City, The Terrors and, as editor, Generation Txt, City State: New London Poetry and Stress Fractures: Essays on Poetry. Tom is currently working with Cape Farewell on ADRIFT, a project exploring the landscapes of the city. Learn more at thisisyogic.wordpress.com.