14 August 2016

East Sussex: Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

For the first full day of my holiday in East Sussex, Jill took me to the magnificent nature reserve at Rye Harbour. The reserve encompasses a large triangular piece of land, bordered on the east by the River Rother, on the south by the English Channel, extending west to Winchelsea beach and reaching north to the River Brede.

Our day began with a welcome cup of tea at a cafe alongside Rye Harbour, where fishing boats sat askew in the mud of low tide and, remarkably, a grey seal frolicked in the muddy tidal river water.

Refreshed, we headed along the road that leads down towards the sea. Over the millennia, millions of pebbles have eroded from the chalk cliffs all along the English Channel and a huge proportion of them have been deposited by the tides and fierce storms all along Rye Bay, which now forms the largest area of coastal shingle in Europe. In the past, enormous amounts of shingle were extracted from the area for use in building and road construction; now, those large extraction pits have filled with fresh water and form important habitats for local and migrating birds.


Looking left, we could see crowds of holidaymakers enjoying the sunny weather on Camber Sands, with the rather ominous silhouette of Dungeness nuclear power station in the background.

After a brief look at the Lime Kiln Cottage information centre and a glimpse of some wading birds from the first of five bird hides, we walked west along the concrete roadway that runs parallel to the coast. There were many other people enjoying the reserve but it is large enough not to feel crowded.

Looking to the northeast, a picturesque hut made a colourful highlight amongst the shingle banks, with the 26 turbines of the local wind farm as a backdrop.



About half way along the length of the reserve, we stopped for our picnic lunch at the edge of the beach. These are the views east, of Camber Sands and Dungeness, and west towards Winchelsea, showing the now-eroding wooden constructions that were once intended to hold the shingle banks in place.



Perhaps surprisingly, the shingle banks are home to a wide variety of plants and insect life, some rare and found only in this environment. The fresh water ponds were edged with lush reed growth, making the perfect home for the rare and often elusive bittern.

After turning inland and crossing between the ponds, we enjoyed the shade of a leafy woodland before emerging on to the farmland that runs along the northern edge of the reserve. Here we got our first sight of Camber Castle, built between 1539 and 1544 as part of Henry VIII’s coastal defence system.

During Henry’s reign, the castle was on the seashore but, almost as soon as construction was complete, the shoreline began to recede and today the sea is more than a mile away. No wonder, the castle was abandoned in 1642. Although we couldn’t get inside, a wander around the outside of the castle was the perfect way to end a superb day at Rye Harbour, though it’s a place I could easily imagine exploring over and over again.


For a look at some of the birds, insects and wildflowers we saw at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, check out my Earthstar nature blog.