Edith Nesbit loved the spectacular Kent coastline and celebrated it in her beautifully illustrated seafaring tale, The Pilot (1893).
Images from The Pilot by E. Nesbit (1891)
In 1893, Nesbit chanced upon her favourite holiday destination, the coastal village of Dymchurch in Kent. She returned again and again, and she was there when she dedicated The Phoenix and the Carpet: “TO My Dear Godson HUBERT GRIFFITH and his sister MARGARET”.
The summer of 1893 was unusually hot and England was gripped by drought from April to August. Keen to escape the oppressive suburbs, Nesbit took her son Paul, aged thirteen, and daughter Iris, aged eleven, to the coastal town of Hythe on the edge of Romney Marsh. Hythe had been one of the original Cinque Ports granted limited autonomy in exchange for defending the country against invasion. By 1893 it was a bustling seaside resort with shingle beaches, an esplanade, bathing machines and donkey rides. Keen to escape the hordes of holidaymakers, Nesbit and her children took an excursion to Dymchurch, a tiny fishing village five miles down the coast.
Dymchurch, a lovely, unspoiled village, was built on reclaimed land. A sea-barrier constructed by Roman invaders is maintained to this day. The name derives from Deme, the Old English word for judge or arbiter. In medieval times, Dymchurch was the administrative seat of Romney Marsh. The head magistrate was the ‘Leveller of the Marsh Scotts,’ and a tax known as a ‘Scott-tax’ was levied on residents to fund the upkeep of the sea wall. People who lived just beyond the boundaries and were not liable for this tax got away ‘Scott free’.
Nesbit’s first impressions can be judged from Katherine’s reaction in The Incredible Honeymoon:
They sped on; through Dymchurch, where the great sea-wall is, and where the houses are built lower than the sea, so that the high tide laps against the sea-wall level with the bedroom windows that nestle behind its strong shelter. It was she who spoke then ‘Isn’t it a dear little place?’ she said.
A staunch Martello tower stands sentinel behind the sea wall, one of seventy-four built along the south coast between 1805 and 1812 in order to repel a French invasion. Katherine describes it in The Incredible Honeymoon:
Wouldn’t you like to live in a Martello tower? They have one beautiful big room with a Norman-looking pillar in the middle, and a down-stairs part for kitchens, and an up-stairs, where the big gun is, that you could roof in for bedrooms. I should like a Martello! Don’t you want to buy one? You know they built them to keep out Napoleon – and the canal as well – but no one uses them now. They just keep fishing-nets in them and wheelbarrows and eel-spears.
Katherine’s companion, Edward, suggests that it is haunted: “A soldier’s ghost walks there; the village people say, ‘it’s one of them there Roman soldiers that lived here when them towers was built in old ancient Roman times’.”
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dymchurch was a haven for smugglers. In The New Treasure Seekers, an old man relates this dark history to the Bastable children:
‘There used to be lots of smuggling on these here coasts when my father was a boy,’ he said; ‘my own father’s cousin, his father took to the smuggling, and he was a doin’ so well at it, that what does he do, but goes and gets married, and the Preventives they goes and nabs him on his wed- ding-day, and walks him straight off from the church door, and claps him in Dover Jail.’
When Nesbit arrived in the summer of 1893, the village still had a windmill, but it had stopped working in 1882, and it was demolished in 1905. One of the first properties she rented was Mill House on Mill Street. She put it into The New Treasure Seekers as the home of Miss Sandal and Oswald Bastable describes it to readers: ‘It is before you come to the village, and it is a little square white house. There is a big old windmill at the back of it. It is not used any more for grinding corn, but fishermen keep their nets in it.’
That first summer, Edith took rooms in a house on Marine Terrace. Once she had settled in, she sent for the rest of her family. Hubert’s beloved mother, Mary Ann Bland, had just died so he welcomed the opportunity of a long seaside holiday. In late October, he sent a note to Edward Pease asking if he might be excused from the next Fabian meeting: ‘We are having a very good time down here, shrimping, eeling, swimming, etc.,’ he wrote.
Although Nesbit enjoyed the seclusion she found in Dymchurch, two years after she first arrived, in 1895, the wealthy Stoakes-Jones family commissioned a development that included the Arcade Gift Shop and a cluster of holiday houses, the first to be built in the village. Nesbit must have cut a dash as she cycled down to the seafront in her billowing Liberty frocks. She would perch on a rain barrel chatting to the vicar, her amber cigarette holder clenched between her teeth, or wander arm-in-arm with Mrs Fisher, the woman who cleaned her house. She organised fundraising theatricals for local causes and petitioned for the first dustcart for the village. It was given a heroic role in The New Treasure Seekers:
We heard afterwards that poor, worthy Mr Sandal had climbed a scaffolding to give a workman a tract about drink, and he didn’t know the proper part of the scaffolding to stand on (the workman did, of course) so he fetched down half a dozen planks and the workman, and if a dust-cart hadn’t happened to be passing just under so that they fell into it their lives would not have been spared.
It was while she was in Dymchurch that Edith invented her terrifying Ugly-Wuglies when a scene they were acting out required more characters than they had people. She painted paper faces and mounted them on coat hangers that were hung with clothes, just as her children did in The Enchanted Castle.
During her holidays, Nesbit explored the surrounding countryside by bicycle and dogcart. Several of the stories in her collection Grim Tales (1893) are set in and around Romney Marsh, including the exceptionally chilling ‘Man-size in Marble’ which unfolds in St Eanswith’s Church in the village of Brenzett, which lies just eight miles inland. Her eerie, animated marble knights were suggested by the tomb chest of John Fagge and his son, which dominates the North Chapel. One of these figures rests on his elbow as if he is about to rise.
Nesbit put Dymchurch into several of her stories, but she usually renamed it ‘Lymchurch’. ‘Tomorrow,’ says a wise woman in The House of Arden (1910), ‘the French shall land in Lymchurch Bay.’ In Oswald Bastable and Others, Lymchurch is home to Miss Sandal:
It was the seaside so, of course, there was a beach, and besides that the marsh – big green fields with sheep all about, and wet dykes with sedge growing, and mud, and eels in the mud, and winding white roads that all look the same, and all very interesting, as though they might lead to almost anything that you didn’t expect. Really, of course, they lead to Ashford and Romney and Ivy Church, and real live places like that. But they don’t look it.
Lymchurch also features in her story collection Man and Maid (1906). In ‘The Millionairess’, she included a description of the beach:
The tide was low, the long lines of the sandbanks shone yellow in the sun – yellower for the pools of blue water left between them. Far off, where the low white streak marked the edge of the still retreating sea, little figures moved slowly along, pushing the shrimping nets through the shallow water.
Her fictional Rosamund ‘watched the seagulls and shrimpers from under the sea-wall of Lymchurch’ while Andrew Dornington, a young poet seated beside her, celebrated the landscape in verse:
Now the vexed clouds, wind-driven, spread wings of white,
Long leaning wings across the sea and land;
The waves creep back, bequeathing to our sight
The treasure-house of their deserted sand;
And where the nearer waves curl white and low,
Knee-deep in swirling brine the slow-foot shrimpers go.
Pale breadth of sand where clamorous gulls confer
Marked with broad arrows by their planted feet,
White rippled pools where late deep waters were,
And ever the white waves marshalled in retreat,
And the grey wind in sole supremacy
O’er opal and amber cold of darkening sky and sea.
This Rosamund is staying in ‘a little house behind the sea- wall’. Its door ‘opened straight from the street into the sitting-room, after the primitive fashion of Lymchurch’. Andrew Dornington is at The Ship, a genuine Dymchurch inn. ‘The trees, still gold in calmer homes, stood almost leafless in wild, windy Lymchurch,’ he observes:
In ‘Rack and Thumbscrew’ from Man and Maid (1906), Milly describes Lymchurch as ‘a glorious place to work’, adding: ‘Father did reams down there.’
Nesbit too worked well in Dymchurch. She was not alone. Romney Marsh was a magnet for writers. Henry James, whose writing she emulated in The Literary Sense, lived just sixteen miles away in Lamb House in Rye. Joseph Conrad lived all over Kent and Edgar Jepson remembered meeting him in Dymchurch ‘one hot summer when he came from his home in the hills above the marsh, bringing his family, to spend the day with [author and journalist] Perceval Gibbon’. In 1901, Ford Madox Ford moved to Winchelsea, just a twenty-mile cycle along the narrow lanes leading from Dymchurch. That same year, H.G. Wells, who was plagued by ill-health but found relief after being treated by a doctor in Kent, moved to the coastal village of Sandgate near Folkestone with his wife Jane and their two young sons. They lived in Spade House, a home built to his specifications. Wells was delighted to learn that Edith and Hubert could often be found in nearby Dymchurch, just a few miles along the coast. Wells celebrated the area in his novel Kipps:
There were glorious days of ‘mucking about’ along the beach, the siege of unresisting Martello towers, the incessant interest of the mystery and motion of windmills, the windy excursions with boarded feet over the yielding shingle to Dungeness lighthouse... wandering in the hedgeless, reedy marsh.
In 1903 and 1904, Nesbit received a series of heartwarming letters from Rudyard Kipling, praising her stories for children. Kipling too took inspiration from the coastal Kent landscape. In ‘Dymchurch Flit’, included in his fantasy Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), he wrote about Old Hobden’s wife, one of the ‘Marsh folk’, who hails from ‘Dymchurch under the Wall’.
Nesbit returned to Dymchurch every summer for more than a decade, and her improved finances allowed her to rent ever better holiday homes. In 1899, she received her first commission from The Strand Magazine when she was invited to write ‘The Book of Beasts’, a series of seven stories about dragons (an eighth dragon story was published in their Christmas number). A very generous thirty pounds per story was added to when she collected and published these as The Book of Dragons in 1901.
Nesbit’s friend Edgar Jepson recalled:
In the summers we still went to Dymchurch, where we always found the Blands. In those days Dymchurch was just a village. No strangers came to it for weeks on end, and if you wished to go to any place from it, you had to walk, drive, or bicycle... In those summers there was very good lawn tennis and bridge at the house of the Squire.
Another writer friend, Berta Ruck, described these holidays too: ‘We bathed, we tramped, we played rounders with her on the sands’. Ruck dubbed the houses they rented ‘an annexe to Well Hall [Nesbit’s home in Eltham]’, and the little weather-boarded cottage on the High Street, which they shared with the village post office, became ‘Well Cottage’.
Nesbit, E. The Book of Dragons, 1901.
Nesbit, E. The New Treasure Seekers, 1904.
Nesbit, E. Oswald Bastable and Others, 1905.
Nesbit, E. Man and Maid, 1906.
Nesbit, E. The House of Arden, 1908.
Nesbit, E. The Incredible Honeymoon, 1916.