Roman Catholics are not welcome in Lewes. In the James Harvey pub off Cliffe High Street, the back room doubles up as storage for the outsized effigies of Guy Fawkes and the Pope (complete with mitre) that are burnt every year on 5th November, along with other gurning Spitting Image puppets of celebrities and local hate figures.
I drank up and headed for the station, muttering my Hail Marys. Still damp from the morning’s ascent of Mount Caburn, I caught the Newhaven train, the line to the coast, skirting the Ouse beyond its confluence with Glynde Reach. Now alone, my plan was to locate the ruined village of Tide Mills in the no man’s land between Newhaven and Seaford.
The train pulled into the tiny station at Bishopstone. It was the Winter Solstice – at barely 4 p.m., the sun was already dipping under the horizon, and the world was taking on the grainy quality of an Instagram photograph. I made for the coastal path, passing between a deserted caravan park on my right and an elevated terrace of bungalows.
Then, at last, the sea…
… not a calm ocean vista but a wall of dark grey lather relentlessly rearing up its waves against the shifting, shingle beach.
The air was choked with salt. I stopped to photograph a digger parked up on the shingle, steadying myself in the wind. A couple were walking their dog in the scrub beyond the beach. I spotted a rusty sign – MARINE PARADE – and turned away, towards the village.
The landscape at the mouth of the Ouse has always been changing, rewriting itself in tides, salt marshes, sands and shingle bars; a precarious zone never quite given up to land. The industrial port at Newhaven, where you can catch a ferry to Dieppe, is true to its name – an artificial, ‘new’ harbour cut in the sixteenth century into the accumulated sediments of a restless estuary. In 1761 the Duke of Newcastle ordered the construction of a great corn mill east of the harbour, where the former mouth of the river remained as a shallow tidal creek. A series of dams and sluices were installed to capture the flood tide, and power the mill wheels. By the nineteenth century a village of more than one hundred people had sprung up around the mill, even serviced by its own railway station – Bishopstone Beach (later Halt). But it wasn’t to last. Decline in demand for corn led to the demolition of the mill in 1901, and after the village briefly served as a racing stables and then a school for crippled boys, the last inhabitants were forcibly moved by the Army in 1939.
What remains of Tide Mills lies at the eastern edge of the mill creek, and so, as the darkness gathered, I stepped onto the narrow track raised above the surrounding scrub. A wooden post marked the route. Obligatory upturned pram sunk in a dip. Sanitary towels caught in a thorn bush. At least it wasn’t raining. I walked as night fell, with the distant lights of Newhaven as my guide. I can think of no better place for a murder than this: a landscape of half-drained marshes, sinister ponds and railway sidings gone to seed. Everywhere the ground looked unstable, as if it might erupt or give way at any moment. Ground that might suck a body under. I could hear rustling in the undergrowth as I passed. Once, turning around in the gloom, I thought I saw something moving across the path… a black shape obscured by rushes. The Beast of Seaford, perhaps? A panther-like big cat is alleged to roam the fringes of the railway between Bishopstone and Seaford, once even entering a house in Fairways Close.
As I reached Mill Drove, the one-track road from the north, I spotted the tell-tale headlights of local doggers parked up in a lay-by. Turning left into the Drove, I entered the abandoned village of Tide Mills. The carcasses of brick buildings emerged from the darkness: first the Stationmaster’s Cottage, then the craggy walls of the Granary and the Mill itself, forlorn and crumbling or half-buried beneath shingle drifts. I took some hurried photos, not wanting to stay long in this eerie ghost town. Visibility was low; the flash of my camera suddenly illuminating the dark interiors – more stumpy foundations, the swirling salt wind buffeting the undergrowth, salt particles on the lens as spectral orbs darting among the ruins. A dog and its owner, an elderly man in a quilted gilet, appeared up the track, our exchange of greetings momentarily breaking the silence before they faded into the night.
At last, the Mill Creek opened out to the west, much longer than I’d imagined; the gaudy lights of Newhaven Harbour shone on its surface (the moon being lost behind cloud). I pictured the bricked-up arches beneath where I stood, where the giant mill wheels once turned in the ebb tide. I switched on my torch and found a route through the rubble away from the village, following the north bank of the Creek until the path was squeezed between the rushes at its edge and the fenced-off railway line. A wading bird sent a ripple across the water. Even the Arctic Snow Bunting stops here sometimes. Beyond the railway, giant gas containers replaced boggy fields as the path petered out and my boots hit tarmac again. With the gloom of the Creek behind me, Newhaven’s empty, floodlit streets seemed as sterile as any place on earth; but I was as glad of their strange magic as the ghostly hush of the village. I made my way past deserted industrial works, skirting the ferry port, where a lone HGV with a Belgian license plate emerged from a side road. The last train to Lewes was pulling in at Newhaven Harbour. On a patch of wasteland, a concrete block emitted a low hum, and I placed my hand flat on its warm, pulsing surface.
The second instalment of Up in the Downs & Down on the Levels.
In the first installment I climb Mount Caburn.