Edward I new town on the hill..
Built on the ‘Hill of Igham’ three miles from Rye, this ‘antient towne’ looks down to where its port once flourished and across meadows and houses to where the sea sparkles in the distance. It is Kipling’s other ‘port of stranded pride’, forever contemplating the sea that deserted it. Its quiet streets and stately houses have an air of time standing still and belie its past as one of the most important ports of the Cinque Ports Federation.
Edward I was aware of the damage being suffered by Old Winchelsea, then located on a shingle spit in Rye Bay, due to significant climate change evidenced by phenomenally violent climatic disturbances and terrible storms which raged from the mid thirteenth century onwards. Matthew Paris, a monk at St Albans recorded in 1250:
On the first day of the month of October, there appeared a new moon, swollen and red in appearance as a sign of the coming tempests, the disturbance sea transgressed its usual bounds, the tide flowed twice without ebb and emitted a frightful roaring sound. At Winchelsea besides the salt-houses, and the abodes of fishermen, the embankments and mills which were destroyed, more than three hundred houses and several churches, were thrown down by the impetuous rise of the sea.
As a Cinque Port, Winchelsea was too important to the Crown to be allowed to vanish. In addition, for three hundred years from the middle of the twelfth century Guyenne and Gascony were connected with the English crown and it was with a view to encouraging and protecting the wine trade with these French provinces that Edward interested himself in the building of New Winchelsea. He had already identified the little town of Igham on its hill as a suitable site for the relocation of the old town when it was finally engulfed by the sea in 1287.
Laid out in 39 blocks or quarters, the New Winchelsea was built between 1288 -1295. Hardly more than a superficial glance at the town plan is needed to suggest a comparison with the southern French towns which are grouped under the generic names of ''villes-neuves'' and ''bastides''. Edward was himself directly or indirectly responsible for at least fifty bastides in Guyenne, including Monpazier, built in about 1284, the most complete of all. For Winchelsea, though now occupying little more than a quarter of the original site, retains more of the elements which go to make a typical bastide than any other of the English towns of medieval origin with streets laid out on a grid pattern crossing at right angles.
In a term of four years, shortly after the building of New Winchelsea, this country imported nearly a quarter of a million gallons of wine, a considerable proportion of which wine was shipped to Winchelsea. During the wine importing season 1306/07 between October and the following April over seven hundred and thirty six thousand gallons of wine are recorded as having been shipped to Winchelsea and at its height the town had a population of over five thousand. In order to carry on this important trade, large stone, barrel vaulted cellars (or undercrofts) were constructed to act as sales rooms and storage for the wine. Later fine houses were built over or close-to these cellars so that some are now accessed from the houses while others have their entrances in the gardens. Occasional tours of accessible cellars are available, particularly during the Rye Arts Festival in September, and a visit with a well-informed guide is highly recommended.
By the end of the fourteenth century Winchelsea was in decline in part due to the devastation wrought by the repeated attacks on the Town during the Hundred Years War and part through the gradual silting up of the harbour.
Today the large Church of St. Thomas the Martyr still holds court at the centre of the town while a small Methodist Chapel is situated nearby. John Wesley, the eighteenth century preacher and founder of the Methodist Church, gave his last outdoor sermon in 1790, under a large ash tree in German Street. He died the following year but the tree, known thereafter as ‘Wesley’s Tree’, survived until 1927.
Facilities and Services
Winchelsea has a Church of England Primary School; a ‘Village’ Hall and a Museum housed in the old Court Hall. The New Inn also offers restaurant and B&B services; The Winchelsea Farm Kitchen comprising a delicatessen and grocery and part-time Post Office The nearest Farm Shop is within a mile, on the road to Icklesham.
Bus services on the Hastings to Folkestone route come through the town. There is a limited train service from the station near the bottom of Ferry Hill on the Brighton to Ashford International line with connecting high speed services from Ashford for London St Pancras (37 minutes) and the Continent via Eurostar.
Who buys property in Winchelsea?
Typically retired military personnel, judges, doctors and other professional people. Property is also in demand for the second-home market by people who have fond childhood memories of holidays spent in the town and at nearby Winchelsea Beach.
Like Rye it has long held a fascination for writers and artists with its spectacular views back towards Rye and out to the sea. This part of the coast was popular with the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood and some very fine pictures were painted here, including “The Blind Girl” and “L’Enfant du Regiment” by Sir John Everett Millais.
The ‘Arts and Crafts’ design movement left its mark on the town, both with the style of new houses and with many old houses having been up-dated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which still display this pleasing style, especially in door and window fittings.
Winchelsea maintains its centuries old tradition of electing a Mayor and Jurats but it is in no way ‘frozen in time’ as evidenced by the various clubs and societies run by its residents. These include: The Garden Society, The Allotment Holders Society, The Second Wednesday Society, The Friends of the Ancient Monuments and Museum, The Literary Society, Winchelsea Players, Winchelsea Singers and Cricket and Bowls Clubs.
The town also lets its hair down with a summer fete, bonfire celebrations and perhaps most of all with the infamous ‘Kicking the Frenchman’s Head’ - now more tactfully known as ‘The Winchelsea Streete Game’. A game played between three teams, of indeterminate numbers, on Boxing Day at 11a.m in sedate Castle Street. There is just one goal- a barrel, and no rules. The object is simply to get the cloth ‘head’ into the goal and the score is kept by The Game Marshall. Starting with the reading of the fictitious history of the ‘ancient’ game (it started just over a decade ago) and the swearing of an oath by the large crowd of spectators – “We ain’t seen nothing, we were never there”, the game usually lasts between 20 and 30 minutes. It is probably the most mayhem seen in the town since the French attacks of the fourteenth century.