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   Chapter 7 A CINQUE PORT.

Faces and Places By Sir Henry W. Lucy Characters: 12579

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Skulls piled roof high in the vault beneath the church tower supply

the only show thing Hythe possesses. There is some doubt as to their

precise nationality, but of their existence there can be none, as any

visitor to the town may see for himself on payment of sixpence

(parties of three or more eighteenpence). It is known how within a

time to which memory distinctly goes the skulls were found down upon

the beach, whole piles of them, thick as shingle on this coast. The

explanation of their tenancy of British ground is popularly referred

to the time, now nearly nine hundred years gone by, when Earl Godwin,

being exiled, made a raid on this conveniently accessible part of

England, and after a hard fight captured all the vessels lying in

the haven. Others find in the peculiar formation of the crania proof

positive that the skulls originally came from Denmark.

But Saxon or Dane, or whatever they be, it is certain the skulls

were picked up on the beach, and after an interval were, with some

dim notion of decency, carried up to the church, where they lay

neglected in a vault. The church also going to decay, the

determination was taken to rebuild it, and being sorely pressed for

funds a happy thought occurred to a practical vicar. He had the

skulls piled up wall-like in an accessible chamber, caused the

passages to be swept and garnished, and then put on the impost

mentioned above, the receipts helping to liquidate the debt on

the building fund. Thus, by a strange irony of fate, after eight

centuries, all that is left of these heathens brings in sixpences

to build up a Christian church.

A good deal has happened in Hythe since the skulls first began to

bleach on the inhospitable shore. When Earl Godwin suddenly

appeared with his helm hard up for Hythe, the little town on the

hill faced one of the best havens on the coast. It was, as every

one knows, one of the Cinque Ports, and at the time of the

Conqueror undertook to furnish, as its quota of armament, five

ships, one hundred and five men, and five boys. Even in the time

of Elizabeth there was a fair harbour here. But long ago the sea

changed all that. It occupied itself in its leisure moments by

bringing up illimitable shingle, with which it filled up all water

ways, and cut Hythe off from communication with the sea as

completely as if it were Canterbury.

It is not without a feeling of humiliation that a burgess of the

once proud port of Hythe can watch the process of the occasional

importation of household coal. Where Earl Godwin swooped down over

twenty fathoms of water the little collier now painfully picks her

way at high water. On shore stand the mariners of Hythe (in number

four), manning the capstan. When the collier gets within a certain

distance a hawser is thrown out, the capstan turns more or less

merrily round, and the collier is beached, so that at low water

she will stand high and dry.

Thus ignominiously is coal landed at one of the Cinque Ports.

Of course this change in the water approaches has altogether

revolutionised the character of the place. Hythe is a port without

imports or exports, a harbour in which nothing takes refuge but

shingle. It has not even fishing boats, for lack of place to moor

them in. It is on the greatest water highway of the world, and yet

has no part in its traffic. Standing on the beach you may see day

after day a never-ending fleet of ships sailing up or down as the

wind blows east or west. But, like the Levite in the parable, they

all pass by on the other side. Hythe has nothing to do but to stand

on the beach with its hands in its pockets and lazily watch them.

Thus cut off from the world by sea, and by land leading nowhere in

particular except to Romney Marshes, Hythe has preserved in an

unusual degree the flavour of our earlier English world. There have

indeed been times when endeavour was made to profit by this

isolation. As one of the Cinque Ports Hythe has since Parliaments

first sat had the privilege of returning representatives. In the

time of James II. it seems to have occurred to the Mayor (an

ancestor of one of the members for West Kent in a recent

Parliament), that since a member had to be returned to Parliament

much trouble would be saved, and no one in London would be any the

wiser, if he quietly, in his capacity as returning officer,

returned himself. But some envious Radical setting on the opposite

benches, was too sharp for him, and we find the sequel of the story

set forth in the Journals of the House of Commons under date 1685,

where it is written--

"Information given that the Mayor of Hythe had returned himself:

Resolved by the House of Commons that Mr. Julius Deedes, the Mayor,

is not duly elected. New writ ordered in his stead."

Hythe is a little better known now, but not much. And yet for many

reasons its acquaintance is worth forming. The town itself, lying

snugly at the foot of the hill crowned by the old church, is full

of those bits of colour and quaintnesses of wall and gable-end

which good people cross the Channel to see. In the High-street there

is a building the like of which probably does not anywhere exist. It

is now a fish-shop, not too well stocked, where a few dried herrings

hang on a string under massive eaves that have seen the birth and

death of centuries. From the centre of the roof there rises a sort

of watch-tower, whence, before the houses on the more modern side of

the street were built, when the sea swept over what is now

meadow-land, keen eyes could scan the bay on the look out for

inconvenient visitors connected with the coastguard. When the sea

prevented Hythe honestly earning its living in deep-keeled boats, it

perforce took to smuggling, a business in which this old watch-tower

played a prominent part.

This is a special though neglected bit of house architecture in

Hythe. But everywhere, save in the quarters by the railway station

or the Parade, where new residences are beginning to spring up, the

eye is charmed by old brown houses roofed with red tiles, ofte

n

standing tree-shaded in a bountiful flower garden, and always

preserving their own lines of frontage and their own angle of gable,

with delightful indifference to the geometric scale of their

neighbour.

The South-Eastern Railway Company have laid their iron hand on

Hythe, and its old-world stillness is already on Bank Holidays and

other bleak periods of the passing year broken by the babble of

the excursionist. In its characteristically quiet way Hythe has

long been known as what is called a watering-place. When I first

knew it, it had a Parade, on which were built eight or ten houses,

whither in the season came quiet families, with children and

nurses. For a few weeks they gave to the sea frontage quite a

lively appearance, which the mariners (when they were not manning

the capstan) contemplated with complacency, and said to each other

that Hythe was "looking up." For the convenience of these visitors

some enterprising person embarked on the purchase of three bathing

machines, and there are traditions of times when these were all in

use at the same hour--so great was the influx of visitors.

Also there is a "bathing establishment" built a long way after

the model of the Pavilion at Brighton. The peculiarity of this

bathing establishment is or was when I first knew the charming

place that regularly at the end of September the pump gets out of

order, and the new year is far advanced before the solitary plumber

of the place gets it put right. He begins to walk dreamily round

the place at Easter. At Whitsuntide he brings down an iron vessel

containing unmelted solder, and early in July the pump is mended.

This mending of the pump is one of the epochs of Hythe, a sure

harbinger of the approaching season. In July "The Families" begin

to come down, and the same people come every year, for visitors to

Hythe share in the privilege of the inhabitants, inasmuch as they

never--or hardly ever--die. Of late years, since the indefatigable

Town Clerk has succeeded in waking up the inhabitants to the

possibilities of the great future that lies before their town, not

only has a new system of drainage and water been introduced, but a

register has been kept of the death-rate. From a return, published

by the Medical Officer of Health, it appears that the death-rate of

Hythe was 9.3 per 1000. Of sixty-three people who died in a year out

of a population of some four thousand, twenty-three were upwards of

sixty years of age, many of them over eighty. Perhaps the best

proof of the healthfulness of Hythe is to be found in a stroll

through the churchyard, whence it would appear that only very

young children or very old people are carried up the hill.

The difficulty about Hythe up to recent times has been the

comparative absence of accommodation for visitors. Its fame has

been slowly growing as The Families have spread it within their

own circles. But it was no use for strangers to go to Hythe, since

they could not be taken in. This is slowly changing. Eligible

building sites are offered, villas have been run up along the

Sandgate Road, and an hotel has been built by the margin of the

sea. When news reached the tower of the church that down on the

beach there had risen a handsome hotel, fitted with all the

luxuries of modern life, it is no wonder that the skulls turned

on each other and--as Longfellow in the "Skeleton in Armour" puts

it--

"Then from those cavernous eyes

Pale flashes seem to rise,

As when the northern skies

Gleam In December."

This is surely the beginning of the end. Having been endowed with a

railway which brings passengers down from London in a little over

two hours, Hythe is now dowered with an hotel in which they may dine

and sleep. The existence of the hotel being necessarily admitted,

prejudice must not prevent the further admission that it is

exceedingly well done. Architecturally it is a curiosity, seeing

that though it presents a stately and substantial front neither

stone nor brick enters into its composition. It is made entirely

of shingle mixed with mortar, the whole forming a concrete

substance as durable as granite. The first pebble of the new hotel

was laid quite a respectable number of years ago, the ceremony

furnishing an almost dangerous flux of excitement to the mariners

at the capstan. It has grown up slowly, as becomes an undertaking

connected with Hythe. But it is finished now, handsome without,

comfortable within, with views from the front stretching seawards

from Dungeness to Folkestone, and at the back across green pastures,

glimpses are caught through the trees of the red-tiled town.

Now that suitable accommodation is provided for stray visitors,

Hythe, with its clean beach, its parade that will presently join

hands with Sandgate, its excellent bathing, and its bracing air,

may look to take high rank among watering places suburban to

London. But there are greater charms even than these in the

immediate neighbourhood. With some knowledge of English watering

places, I solemnly declare that none is set in a country of such

beauty as is spread behind Hythe. Unlike the neighbourhood of

most watering places, the country immediately at the back of the

town is hilly and well wooded. Long shady roads lead past blooming

gardens or through rich farms, till they end in some sleepy village

or hamlet, the world forgetting, by the world forgot. In late July

the country is perfect in its loveliness. The fields and woods are

not so flowery as in May, though by way of compensation the gardens

are rich in roses. Still there are sufficient wild flowers to

gladden the eye wherever it turns. From the hedgerows big white

convolvulus stare with wonder-wide eyes, the honeysuckle is out,

the wild geranium blooms in the long grass, the blackberry bushes

are in full flower, and the poppies blaze forth in great clusters

at every turn of the road. The corn is only just beginning to turn

a faint yellow, but the haymakers are at work, and every breath of

the joyous wind carries the sweet scent of hay.

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