12 AUGUST 1865, Page 11

1. than the Weald of Kent and Sussex, extending seine

hun- dred miles in length and thirty miles in breadth, from near Hast-

ings till towards Folkestone. It has few roads and fewer villages ; its chief produce is rank grass, and its chief inhabitants are sheep. The loneliness of the region is enhanced by the remembrance of its former greatness, opulence, and fame. Here stood, and nominally still stand, the most renowned of the old maritime towns of Eng- land, the world-famous Cinque Ports, which up to comparatively recent times furnished the sole navy of which the nation was possessed. That some of these illustrious towns should have not only sunk into utter insignificance in our days, but actually ceased to be ports at all, is a fact to be classed among the most singular phenomena of modern history. It illustrates, almost more than any other, the laws which regulate the growth and decline of our maritime towns.

Rambling along the southern coast, we determined a few days ago to visit the ancient Cinque Ports of Winchelsea and Rye, both easily accessible by the South-Eastern Railway. We are landed at Winchelsea station, about nine miles from Hastings, and are struck at once by the air of utter solitude pervading the place. The town itself—for it is still a corporate town, with mayor and aldermen, though only 719 inhabitants—lies in a most beautiful position, on the crown of a hill, overlooking a wide plain, overgrown with thick grass, and densely covered with sheep. Once upon a time, barely three centuries ago, the waves of the ocean rolled where now the sheep are grazing, and the very path where we are walking, once the harbour, was crowded by vessels of all nations. Ascending the rather steep hill, we see nothing whatever to denote the presence of au inha- bited place till we come to an ancient gateway, not unlike Temple Bar. The roof has fallen in and the columns are overgrown with ivy, yet the whole still is evidence of former massive strength and grandeur. We are standing under one of the four old gates of Winchelsea, which gave entrance into the fortified town to the peaceable merchant, and defended, though not always with suc- cess, the inhabitants against the hostile Frenchman and Spaniard, much given, in old Cinque Port days, to inroads on British soil. Three of the gates are still standing, the fourth has utterly din. appeared, with much else that was in proud Winchelsea. The gate through which we enter looks very lonely, none of the 719 inhabitants of the corporate town being visible anywhere. It takes a good walk to bring us to the first house, a small cottage,

inhabited by a cobbler. The worthy citizen does not seem to have many boots to mend, but in compensation he has a great many children. Nature balances all things, even at a Cinque Port three miles from the sea. The next inhabited dwelling we reach, fields and gardens intervening, is a farmhouse. Then comes a butcher's shop, with a quarter of a leg of mutton in the window as whole stock in trade. Butcher runs forward in wild haste at the patter of human feet, not often heard before his door. The poor man evidently hopes to sell his mutton, which must have been weeks in the window, for it looks brown with age, and threatens to tarn into American beef. We feel intense compassion for the poor butcher of Winchelsea, and our pity does not lessen on discovering that his fellow tradesmen suffer from the same affliction. A few more farmhouses and gardens bring us to what seems to be the chief mercantile establishment of the corporate town, a sort of general storehouse for the sale of soap, biscuits, jewellery, candles, waterproof coats, potatoes, watches, dried haddocks, fishing tackle, millinery, patent medicines, and venom) other articles of a miscellaneous nature. The owner of the shop is sitting asleep in. a large wooden arm-chair; a dog at his feet lies asleep ; and a cat in the window, next to the fishing tackle, is also asleep. Happy people of Winchelsea, who need no laws to enforce leisure Turning a corner, a sudden sight bursts upon our eyes. There is a vast square, surrounded by railings, and in the midst stands a church, of each dimensions that we are quite startled at the sight of it in this lonely place. And large as is the edifice, it coisista evidently of but the ruins of a still larger building. To right and left of the church stretch the fragments of immense smiles, overgrown with ivy, which creeps through all the nooks and corners of the stones, twines itself among the tracery of broken windows, and wraps the whole mass of ancient masonry in the most charming mantle of green. Before us is the church of St. Thomas it Becket, or rather the chancel of it, but which seems large enough, even in its present state, to contain five times as many people as there are inhabitants in the corporate town. Of course we are anxious to see the interior of the building, but have some trouble in satisfying our wish. The key, an old man tells us, is with the rector, and the rector lives a good way off. We make our way to the rectory, are somewhat churlishly received by a fat servant of all work, but get the promise that a "man with the key" will be seat on to the church. The key-mau after a while makes his appearance, but beyond opening the gates of St. Thomas h Becket renders but little service to us. We find the interior of the ruin somewhat bare, and, like most ancient churches, wretchedly "restored ;" there are some fine monuments, yet even a look at them is spoilt by the in- cessant flow of talk from our guide. He will have it that the figure of a warrior of the fourteenth century, commonly held to represent Gervase Alard, is that of a " ringleader of Queen Elizabeth ;" and much as we try to stop the river of his eloquence, the key-man does not cease till arrived at the end of his well-learnt speech, which tells us that he is the organist of the church, and that he gets no pay, save what kind visitors may give him for" explaining." This is intelligible enough, and really furnishes much explanation in regard to the ancient church of St. Thomas h Becket.

There is another fine old edifice at Winchelsea, the Chapel of the Virgin, once part of the church of the Greyfriars Monastery, but this we cannot see at all. Somebody has bought it, and built a house over it—a " residence " we ought to say—of which he makes a show-place for picnic parties from Hastings every Monday. As we happen to be at Winchelsea on a Tuesday, and do not belong to any picnic party, we must leave without seeing the Chapel of the Virgin. So we depart, treading our way slowly through the silent grass-grown streets, full of thoughts of the strange changes worked by a few centuries. This Winchelsea, now less than a village, was called "Little London" by Queen Elizabeth, when she visited it in 1573. The inhabitants then were very proud of their Cinque Port, and the only thing they feared was the incroachment of the sea, which had destroyed, three hundred years before, the ancient site of the town. The move- ment of the sea indeed destroyed Winchelsea once more, but this time not by advancing, but by retreating. By one of those curious changes in the currents of the ocean, as yet unexplained by geographers and hydrographers, the waves, in the latter part of Queen Elizabeth's reign, gradually receded from the hill on which Winchelsea was built, leaving a dreary marsh several miles in extent. At first the high tides continued to come up to the walls of the town, but at length they also kept away, the sea having formed for itself a new boundary of sand and shingle. The marsh then grew over with rank grass, and sheep came to feed where ships had sailed but a short while before. Winchelsea was left high and dry on its hill, a stranded leviathan.

We quit the ruined old town through a fine gateway, broad and massive, and flanked with round towers, noble still in its decay. This was once the "Strand Gate," opening to the sea ; now it leads nowhere but to Winchelsea's twin brother, the ancient Cinque Port of Rye. Exactly like Winchelsea, Rye stands perched upon a high bill, once surrounded by water, and now several miles distant from the sea. When both maritime towns were in their prime there was constant rivalry between them, but all this has long since ceased—ever since sheep came to take the place of ships. We see plenty of these sheep in our half an hour's walk from Win- chelsea to Rye, across a country which bears unmistakable signs of having been not very long ago at the bottom of the waves. Our road leads close to Camber Castle, a massive fortress built by Henry VIII in 1539, for the protection of the coast, at an expense of 23,0001.—a very large sum in those days. The sea having chosen to retire soon after, the big castle was as useless as—well, let us say as useless as most castles and fortifications are in our own sea-girt isle. We have to ascend a steep hill to get into ancient Rye, and find it a place very like Winchelsea, though a shade more lively. The grass grows in the streets high enough to feed the sheep, but there are sundry marks of modern civilization, such as a druggist's store, several gin-shops, and a large gaol. The latter we discover accidentally. Conspicuous above the forlorn dwellings of Rye stand the ruins of the ancient castle, built in the twelfth century by William d'Ypre, Earl of Kent. Desirous of looking at the interior, we knock at the heavy gate, which is opened by a policeman, who tells us that the castle has become a prison. He cannot show us the castle, he says, for "the top has been nailed up';" but he is quite willing to exhibit his prisoners and their cells. The latter, as may be expected in & fortress built in the twelfth century, are gloomy in the extreme, and have provoked, we are told, more than one suicide ; which, however, does not prevent the magistrates of this ancient district to keep it well tenanted. There is among the inmates an old man between sixty and seventy, who has been sent here for six months, for a trifling theft committed to save himself from starvation. We think ancient Rye gloomier than ever when leaving the castle of William d'Ypre.

Nevertheless it is undeniable that the decay of Rye is less than that of Winchelsea, that in fact it is not quite dead as yet. The cause is not far to seek. Looking down from one of the silent grass-grown streets upon the plain below, we perceive a small arm of the sea wending its way, in many serpent-like turnings, towards the foot of the hill. It is ebb tide, and there do not seem to be more than six inches of water in the narrow channel, yet we have no doubt that it is this slight communication with the sea which keeps Rye from that utter decay visible in the Cinque Port brother over the plain. Some tiny craft navigate the salt-water channel, the current of which is marked out by long besoms, probably to prevent vessels getting aground at high tide, when part of the surrounding land is covered by the waves. Some activity is visible besides in shipbuilding, but otherwise the population appears to be in a somnolent state. We try in vain to get a peep into the parish church, a vast edifice of the reign of Richard II. There is ne public building visible at Rye to strangers except the gaol. The big gaol is the last remnant of the departed glories of the ancient Cinque Ports.

There is much that is suggestive in the sad fate of Rye and Win- chelsea. Though the primary cause of decay of the two old townr is undoubtedly due to physical changes, there are also political ones which had not a little influence. Liverpool would scarcely be destroyed if the tidal course of the Mersey underwent some alter- ations—new docks and embankments, and the liberal employment of a few millions in dredging, would remedy the evil in all proba- bility. That nothing was done to arrest the decay of the old Cinque Forts points to another influence. The fact is the political centre of gravity in our sea-girt kingdom has changed for the last three or four centuries, quite as much as the tides on the coast of Sussex. While the Norman Conquest and the intimate connection of France and England lifted the maritime towns on the British Channel to a high degree of prosperity, and invested them with extraordinary privileges, the Union of England and Scotland, and, more still, the rise of the industrial power in the northern and midland counties, entirely altered this state of things, and, in drifting the centre of gravity northwards, left the former seats of commercial and political influence to premature decay. It seems doubtful, however, whether this movement is not going too far. Our commerce with France and the people of the south of Europe is daily more expanding, thanks to the spread of free-trade principles ; and our intercourse with the great nation on the other side of the Channel is now infinitely more important than ever it was in the time of the Nor- man Kings. Yet for all that there is scarcely one good harbour from the mouth of the Thames to the Isle of Wight. The question therefore is whether it would not be wise to think of restoring some of the fine old harbours on this coast, and, without neglecting Liverpool and Glasgow, consider the possibility of bringing a little life into the maritime towns which originated the Navy of England, the old forgotten Cinque Ports.