Camber Sands evokes visions of sunny days, bright beach towels, fluorescent buckets and spades, children’s faces smeared the colour of ice lollies and adults’ shoulders stained lurid pink with sunburn. Tucked into the elbow-crook of the coastline before it reaches out to Dungeness, Camber offers the only decent stretch of sandy beach for miles, and summer crowds flock here accordingly.
But on this bleak November morning, it is almost deserted. A handpainted advertisement for deck chair hire recalls summers past; a grey wind whips in off the sea. We rug up and wander to the water over the rippled sand, weaving a pattern with our footprints. Here, at low tide, the sea recedes for hundreds of metres. As the sand dries out it’s blown inland by the prevailing wind to join the Camber dune system.
We dawdle west along the beach, looking at shells, seaweed and tidewrack from across the Channel, then clamber up into the dunes. We follow rabbit trails through microclimates of sound: here, the hiss of the sea and the wind; there, the chatter of birds on the golf course; now, a bowl of silence and deep-rooted marram grass pointing to a quiet sky. These dunes are gradually accreting, getting bigger. We make the heroic five-metre climb to the highest point and survey the landscape.
A light mist smudges out the bulks of Dungeness nuclear power station and the cliffs at Fairlight, but Rye is clearly visible, and the harbour arm at the mouth of the River Rother juts out into the sea, black against the silvery water. These dunes were used for military training in the Second World War, and a number of fortifications are still visible on golf-course, some gazing resolutely out at the small platoon of wind turbines across the marsh, others subsiding drunkenly into the shrubs, perhaps still celebrating armistice.
This is a simple walk: turn right on the beach at Camber, then right again at the river, and it’s almost impossible to lose your way to Rye.
A little egret - dazzling white against the tidal mud on the riverbank - picks a fight with a herring gull and wins. A line of birders gazes at a murmuration swooping and bending above Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. Undistracted by avian life, a closely-supervised toddler heaves stones into the river and cackles.
Near the Harbour Master’s office, the path joins a sealed road running on a dismantled narrow-gauge railway through the golf course. The Rye & Camber Tramway opened in 1895 to carry golfers to their sport and closed to the public in 1939. The rails are still visible at some points, and the brightly painted shack behind the Harbour Master’s office is the old station.
At high tide, the wharf at Rye Harbour across the river has the capacity to take ships up to 90 metres long and sees imports and exports ranging from stone to talc to wheat. Today, it is quiet. We pass a pillbox stuffed to the ceiling with rubbish bags. A robin chases a chaffinch. We join National Cycle Network Route 2 for the final stretch into town.
At Rye, we linger over a delicious and well-deserved hot chocolate at Knoops (mine is infused with lavender), then find a viewpoint to look back over the walk. It’s hard to imagine, but several hundred years ago our entire route would have been underwater. Medieval maps show that Rye was originally located on a bay called the Rye Camber - from which Camber takes its name. Knowing what I do about global warming and rising sea levels, I wonder how long it will be until it is covered in water once again.
A walk from Camber to Rye along a beach, over sand dunes, up a tidal river and along an old tramway.
A shorter version of this article first appeared as "Walking the railroad from Camber to Rye" in the Battle Observer, Friday 28 November 2014, p34.
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