For many years I lived in an tiny but ancient village of Lydd on Romney Marsh during which time I wrote a regular blog on the history of this unique corner of England. The following article with information compiled from local historians, records, museums and other sources – it is reproduced here for posterity and to help visitors to the area.
“God, to be in Romney Marsh And see the ships above the wall – For just an hour of storm and shower And just a glimpse of Lydd church tower,”
Poem by Ford Madox Ford.
The village of Lydd on Romney Marsh, in Kent, is one of the oldest villages in the country, with evidence showing inhabitation of the area for almost 4000 years, with archaeological evidence from the bronze age and Roman periods; documentary records and physical evidence dating to Saxon times and long before the Doomsday Book while many of the buildings and streets of modern Lydd remain identical to how they looked in Norman and middle ages.
Bronze Age – c1800BC
Evidence of human activity in the area around Lydd has been found dating back to Bronze age. In 1985, five bronze age flint axe heads were uncovered in a quarry just North of the village. These axe heads have been dated at around 1800BC with a further axe head of similar age found nearby in 1991. The thinking is that Bronze ages traders, on their way to from Ireland to the continent, regularly stopped off on the shingle banks that would have marked the area at this time and perhaps hunted nearby – other Bronze age finds include large numbers of animal bones.
The village is believed to have been formed on an island (in a similar fashion to the Houses of Parliament lying on Thorney Island or the Isle of Thorns) in the early lagoons when Romney Marsh was still mostly water, probably around Roman times – approx. 2000 years ago. The Roman armies valued salt (soldiers were given salt as part of their pay, the origins of the word ‘salary’ hinting at this original usage) and the Saline lagoons behind the shingle foreland would have made ideal salt workings. Recent archaeological finds in the area have found Roman artifacts and burial remains on the outskirts of Lydd, in particular at Scotney Court.
All Saints Church in Lydd is the largest church in Kent and is also one of the oldest churches in the county. Recent studies have dated parts to the 5th Century. There are also early records reporting of battles between Saxons and Danes in 904AD when the Barons of Lydd fought so well that they were granted the land now known as the Rype for their valour – the edge of this land being Stone End, in Greatstone.
First Documentary Evidence – 774AD
There were certainly human settlements at Lydd well before the Doomsday book. A Royal Charter of 774AD by King Offa grants the archbishop three sulungs – ‘in occidentali parte regionis quae dicitur Merscuuare‘.
A sulung was an area of land, approx. 160 to 200 acres in size.
In the Saxon and Norman periods Lydd was a thriving town and one of the Cinque Ports . It was a hive of activity with many famous smugglers using it as a base. The George Public House in particular regularly being used as a base for both smugglers and their arch rivals – the customs offices.
The Domesday survey reference to Lydd was in the Hundred of Langport entry with 21 Burgesses and 7 salt pits mentioned.
Lydd – Memories of the Past
Lydd is unusual in that it has managed to escape the high street standardisation that has destroyed many other English towns and villages, with a great many of its houses, buildings and streets retaining their original look and character to a remarkable degree. Skinner House (pictured), on Skinner Road, for example, built by John Skinner – bailiff of the town and captain of the town militia and buried in the church yard of All Saints – looks just as it would have done in the 1700?s while the newsagent in the High Street also looks almost identical to how it looked almost 100 years ago, even retaining some of the original exterior signs.
The George Inn would also be instantly recognisable to any of the smugglers who frequented it in the middle ages, and retains much of its internal structure from this period. Many smugglers would also no doubt also recognise the old Court House – which although now a hardware store on the ground floor, still has the original court rooms on the first floor.
Grisbrook Farmhouse is another ancient building that has escaped largely unscathed from the challenges of modern builders and despite being surrounded by modern houses retains its original character as a farm house, complete with thatched roof. The building is all that remains of the once large Grisbrook Farm that occupied this part of what is now the Rype, with a nearby Grisbrook Farm Close the only other indicator of the farm that once occupied the area hundreds of years ago.
Lydd is also birth place to Lyddite (picric acid), an explosive used to fire shells during South African War and the Great War. It was first tested at the military camp in Lydd in 1888.
Other Historic Buildings In Lydd
With its long history, it’s no surprise that Lydd has a number of ancient buildings. In Coronation Square – previously called Wheeler’s Green – can be found the original court room. Now a hardware store, the building dates back to 1428 and is one of the oldest timber-frame court halls in Kent. While in Lydd High Street, and around a designated conservation area, can be found several significant buildings including the Haunted George hotel, the Guild Hall and old town lock-up and a medieval Court House, originally known as the Common House, to which documentary evidence dating back to 1428 is available. Across the High Street is the Beehive, formerly a public house renowned for bare knuckle fighting elsewhere are a number of fifteenth century houses.
Thanks to the Great Britain Historical GIS Project, a page from Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales of 1870 detailing Lydd is available here.
All Saints – Cathedral of the Marsh
No discussion of Lydd would be complete with mention of All Saints, the church at the center of the town and one of many churches of Romney Marsh. Documentary evidence relating to All Saint’s, in the form of churchwarden accounts, goes back to 1520 with physical evidence in the form of building material in the Church walls indicates a church being on the site from Saxon times.
The Church is the largest in Kent, hence its psuedonym of the Cathedral of the Marsh.
In the graveyard can be found the memorial stones for some of the town’s more notable past residents, including Thomas Edgar, Master of the HMS Discovery, the ship on which Biologist Captain Cook sailed on his last exploration during which he was killed by cannibals in 1779. Thomas Edgar’s gravestone poetically reads:
Tom Edgar at last has sailed out of the world / His shroud is put on and his topsails are furl’d; / He lies snug in death’s boat without any concern / And is moor’d for a full due ahead and astern. / Or’r the compass of Life he has merrily run, / His voyage is completed his reckoning is done. His Will can be read here.
A full list of the memorials and inscriptions in All Saints’ and the church yard is available here.
The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings,F. M. Stenton, The English Historical Review, Vol. 33, No. 132. (Oct., 1918), pp. 433-452.