It starts with a few drops of water plunking on the road. Then, as we turn up the path, the storm begins. The rain is so heavy I feel like I’m standing under a cold shower. The wind picks up, then picks up again, lashing around us. The path is muddy and uneven. I fall over.
I figure things can only improve from this point. “Less than three hours to go,” I chant under my breath as we brace ourselves against the headwind and squint into the face-stinging rain. “Just enjoy the experience,” I tell myself. “Getting drenched is all part of the adventure.” I tighten my hood, pull my collar up and my beanie down, and settle in for a long, cold, wet walk.
At one point, I turn my back to the squall and look back along the path. With a sinking heart, I realise we’ve walked less than 200 metres. “Well,” I think, “we only have to do that another 49 times this afternoon and we’ll be finished.”
To be clear, this was not some epic trek through the peaks or fells. In fact, Walland Marsh is the exact opposite of mountains: it’s part of the large, flat expanse that stretches about 30 kilometres (20 miles) as the crow flies from Rye in East Sussex over Romney Marsh to Hythe in Kent. The marshes are bordered to the south by the English Channel and to the north by an escarpment and line of small hills that once marked the edge of dry land. Just beneath that escarpment runs an odd relic of history: the Royal Military Canal.
Canals aren’t something I associate with this part of the country. This one starts and ends at the sea, doesn’t link into a canal network and a quick glance at the surrounding geography and topography shows that, unlike many other canals in the UK, it was surely not designed to transport goods during the industrial revolution. The biggest clue to its purpose is in the name. The Royal Military Canal was constructed between 1804 and 1809 as a defence against a potential invasion by Napoleon’s army.
One of the ideas behind microadventures is to get out and explore your local area in more depth. Despite living about half an hour away and despite being keen canal walkers (they’re flat and there are usually lots of boats and locks and birds and old industrial buildings to look at), we’d barely set foot on the Royal Military Canal. We decided it was time to rectify this absurd state of affairs.
The Met Office had forecast a clear afternoon. We parked in Rye, took the train to Appledore Station and congratulated ourselves for getting out of the house. We had lunch at Miss Mollett's High Class Tearoom and set out to find the canal path.
It was then, dear reader, the mini-blizzard struck. You will recall, we left our brave heroes struggling against the elements. They considered taking shelter in a nearby pillbox, only to find the floor strewn with crisp packets, cans and toilet paper . . .
. . . and then the rain disappears. The path stretches out ahead, clear and straight, on a green bank raised between twin strips of silver: the shimmering canal on the left and the gleaming road on the right.
The wind is still pummelling us, but now we have a view over the sheep pastures up to the Stone-in-Oxney church, across the levels to the wind farm and, most excitingly, up through multiple storeys of vanishing cloud to blue sky.
At first, with few landmarks to mark our pace or distance, the going seems slow. But sometimes these stretches of almost meditative blankness sharpen the mind, so that new details come into focus.
Only on such a long stretch of apparently straight path would I notice the small kinks in the canal, a defensive design to allow a clear firing line over each stretch of water should the feared Napoleonic invasion take place. Only in such an empty place would my eyes catch a flickering flock of long-tailed tits. Only here would I linger for so long at a strangely shaped border marker, tracing my fingers along the carvings until I realise that it is a date - 1806, the year when the canal must have made it from Kent into Sussex. And only after walking for an hour or so in these conditions would I greet the appearance of a disused lock with such enthusiasm.
Iden Lock marks the point at which the canal joins the River Rother. We sit on moss-speckled concrete slabs for our customary tea and biscuits, watching geese and shags fly overhead and gazing at the wind turbines, which shine brilliantly white on the horizon. Iden Lock collected its last toll in 1909 and it’s now no longer operational for passage. But the section of river we are approaching is speckled with small leisure boats - some overturned and half-submerged after a few months of wild winds.
After another mile or so we reach Scots Float sluice, where the river becomes a different creature entirely. This stretch is tidal, open to the sea, and the tide is out. We are treated to mudbanks and flats sparkling with little ponds and lagoons.
Little birds dart through the reeds or pick their way over the mud. As well as the usual suspects, we watch a small formation of pointy-winged birds zoom past, low over the water. Later, the nice person on the Sussex Wildlife Trust Twitter account told me they were probably ringed plover - the stripe on the edge of their wings when in flight is a good identifying feature.
The silhouette of Rye, easily identified by the distinctive hill-top tower of St Mary’s, has been visible on the horizon for a little while. Now we are approaching it at speed. The path becomes well-trampled - a sure sign that we are nearing civilisation - and we pass under the rail bridge, read an interpretation sign and cross the river into town beneath a pretty winter sunset.
From our long list of microadventure ideas, we chose "walk along a canal" as our fifth challenge of the year.
This microadventure cost about £25.75 for two of us (petrol, parking, train tickets, lunch, tea and biscuits).
We declared our expedition to be a microadventure success! We would not have gone out in such dicey weather if we hadn't had a challenge to pursue. In the end, after the initial excitement, it turned into a beautiful afternoon and we were glad to be out and about.
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