13 miles, 1 or 2 days
This stage may be short, allow time to linger. Both Winchelsea and Rye have much to offer a pilgrim and we recommend you explore these deeply historic Cinque Port towns. The main route takes you via Stone-In-Oxney, however you may prefer to traverse the marshes and visit the iconic St Thomas Church, Fairfield instead.
Both Winchelsea and Rye have many options. We recommend Winchelsea Lodge or the New Inn, and in Rye try the Mermaid Inn or Willow Tree House. Waypost Farm offers glamping near Stone in Oxney. Friends of the British Pilgrimage Trust with their own tents can enjoy a night next to the river in a private garden, offered as a camping Sanctuary.
Winchelsea: The New Inn or the Little Shop. Rye has many options. See the google map for our favourites. For groceries, try one of the delis or Jempsons Supermarket, Sussex’s independent grocery store. Stone in Oxney: the Ferry Inn for excellent local seafood. Appledore, the Black Lion, Miss Molletts tea room and the village store.
Spike Milligan’s gravestone in the churchyard of St Thomas. Follow the worn grass path from the church door and you’ll see it. Why not recite your favourite poem?
The hill town of Rye – after exploring its rich culture why not climb the stairs of the St Mary’s for the stunning 360 degree views, looking back to where you have been and forward to where you will go.
The eerie, open marshland. Whether you cross the marsh to the lost village of Fairfield, or head up onto the ridge to the once-isle of Oxney, there is a special feeling in this alien land created by the shifting fortunes of the coast and river which contrasts with the ridgelines of the South and North Downs.
Follow the Saxon Shore waymarkers between Winchelsea and Appledore. There are no named waymarkers to Fairfield, so if taking this alternative route consult the google map below.
There is much for pilgrims to discover in Winchelsea and Rye, the ‘two towers’ of the Old Way, so move slowly here. If you are willing to walk the extra mile, explore Winchelsea’s original settlement of Iham (latterly St Leonard’s Mill, now the ‘Mill Mound’) where a once famous holy well can still be found trickling out the side of the hill nearby. Explaining this now-lost town, the National Trust explains: “The town and port of Old Winchelsea was built on a shingle bar, which made it particularly susceptible to coastal erosion. After devastating storms in the late 13th century, King Edward I decided to refound the town on higher ground at the Hill of Iham. The hill already held a small settlement, including the church of St Leonard.”
Return to town via the Pipewell Gate, pass the Old Town Well and Winchelsea Farm Kitchen. You may also wish to visit the town museum, detailing the extraordinary history of this small town. Leave town via Strand Gate, and make another diversion to St Katherine’s Well if you have the energy.
Follow the slightly busy lanes, parallel with the River Brede, before veering northeast toward Camber Castle, across the majestic open plains between Winchelsea and Rye. This was built on the order of Henry VIII to deter French raiders, but never used in anger or defence. Today it is usually locked tight, but in the summer there are tours run by Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.
Keep an eye out for the clusters of blue flowers that are dotted around this part of the path. It is easy to see why this blue-flowered plant earned the name Viper’s Bugloss, with its pink-tongued flowers and curled heads. They grow where it would be typical to find adders basking, back when they were much more of a common sight. This has given the bugloss positive and negative associations, depending on whether you see snakes as symbols of renewal or sin. In any case, Culpeper used it as a remedy to comfort the heart and expel sadness, and the beauty of the plant as well as the bees and butterflies it attracts may well do the same for you.
Re-meet the River Brede and walk along its banks before crossing the water, and then cross the River Tillingham and enter Rye. Ascend Mermaid Street to St Mary’s Church, where you can (in good weather) climb the ancient bell tower and see almost forever. And, if you are lucky, the bells might ring out as you stand at the top of the tower. There are many places for pilgrims to be refreshed in Rye, but do note that in the summer months, the town can become very busy, as coach day trips often stop here. Plan accordingly!
Consider climbing the bell tower of St Mary’s Church, Rye, before leaving the town through the Landgate Tower, Rye’s surviving ancient gate. There are more convenient ways to leave, such as the wide steps before the gate, but it seems remiss not to walk the way so many pilgrims in the past would have gone.
Take an alleyway to the right, emerge beside a garage, and cross the road to be on the cricket pitch. Head for the bridge over the River Rother. Turn left beside low-key quays, and follow along the bank of the Rother for some miles. Cross the water at the Lock Cottage, but keep to the banks between the water and the road. Cross over a small stile, and take the footpath over the road up the hill toward Stone in Oxney, once an island.
Plants of the Plantain family grow readily on most footpaths and churchyards, and are so common it becomes almost entirely unnoticeable. The Ribwort has long pointy leaves with ribs, the Hoary Plantain small, flat and round, but they both share the “rat’s tail” flowering spike. As with many other wayside plants, it was once an important resource for the traveller on foot. Containing a natural anti-inflammatory, it could be used to line shoes to prevent weariness or relieve swollen feet. A common folk remedy was to chew some plantain leaves and place the paste on a nettle sting, minor wound or blister, making it an important part of the pilgrim’s first aid kit. The Anglo Saxons called it “Waybread” and admired its ability to withstand evil and the “loathed thing which through the land roves”.
Rise toward the church of St Mary’s. Tucked at the back, under all sorts of church detritus, is secreted an ancient Mithraic sacrificial stone, which gives this place its name. Mithraism was a Roman Cult, built around the god Mithras. There are only a few sites mentioned in Britain and there is evidence to suggest that some temples may have had churches built over them after the 4th century.
Continue through the village and over fields to the excellent Ferry Inn. There is a great glamping spot nearby. Continue along the Saxon Shore Way to Appledore, over Mill Mound. Significant in that it is highlighted on the Gough Map’s red line that forms Old Way, the settlement of Appledore boasts the wonderful St Peter and St Paul’s Church, an excellent pub (The Black Lion), a village store and a tea room. All the village classics!
Rye to Appledore via Fairfield
If you prefer to visit the isolated and iconic marshland church of St Thomas à Becket Church in Fairfield, then take this route across the Romney Marsh – sometimes referred to as ‘the fifth continent’. In order to enter the church you will need to pick up the key hung on a nearby house’s wall (see photo below). It is easy walking this way – but wear insect repellant in the spring and summer months. Pilgrims have commented that this is one of the few churches you might need a boat to get to if the weather has been bad… Romney Marsh itself is very flat, and in Roman times the sea flowed around Rye and up to the hills below Bilsington and Lympne. Behind the High street in Hythe there is a mooring bollard.