Seaside postcard: Camber Castle Now this is a particularly unhelpful report. Camber Castle is only open to the public on weekend afternoons in July, August and September, so I'm about to tell you about an attraction which won't be accessible until the second half of next year. But it was open for the last time this season on Sunday. And, if you like what you hear, you could always put Saturday 4th July 2009 in your diary now.
A mile out of Rye, in the middle of a very big field, stands one of Henry VIII's most important coastal defences [photo]. Camber Castle is a squat cinquefoil fort with a central tower, hurriedly knocked up to protect the south coast from invading Spaniards. But the Catholic fleet never came, and the cannons probably wouldn't have been accurate enough to sink them anyway. The castle was eventually defeated not by an attack but by a retreat. Its original location was at the end of a long headland sticking out into the vast expanse of Ryeharbour, strategically placed and surrounded on three sides by water. But storms and longshore drift caused the harbour waters to silt up, and within a couple of generations the coast had shifted far southward taking Rye's prosperity with it. Which is how Camber Castle came to be abandoned in an expanse of shingle-ridged marshland, quietly crumbling and nibbled by sheep.
I was relieved to find the front gate unlocked when I arrived, and a slow steady stream of Sunday strollers trickling inside. A husband and wife team from the Rye Marshes Nature Reserve were overseeing affairs - he running the guided tour and she at the entrance collecting the money. Just two quid to get in, now there's a genuine bargain, and the full colour mini-guidebook for £1 was possibly the best value for money I've seen all year. Visitors can explore the inside of the castle on their own but I plumped for the free tour, ably run by a knowledgeable showman who clearly adores being given temporary custody of this ancient structure.
The interior of the castle, or at least what's left of it, is a bit of a maze. There's only one way into the central tower, along a low vaulted underground passageway, cunningly designed to force invading soldiers to duck. Around the perimeter is another circular passage with, if you're shown where to look, a hastily-etched caricature of piggy King Henry scratched into the wall. Our guide delighted in showing us these human historic features - a mason's mark here, a surviving hinge there, and an intricate Tudor Rose carved into a sheltered wall up there. Even the garderobes and bread ovens were described with due awe and reverence, interspersed with the more traditional story of the castle's rise and fall. Indeed it was the 90 minute tour that really brought the place alive - otherwise I could easily have explored every nook and cranny without fully understanding what actually went on here.
I never expected to spend quite so long inside this not terribly big castle. I had been planning on walking further round the bird reserve and maybe even strolling to the coast, but there was no time. Instead I had to walk swiftly back across the reclaimed marshland, across the waters of the former harbour, past sheep and lagoons and flocking birdlife, to ensure that I didn't miss the hourly train home. I'm not convinced the walk would have been quite so idyllic in cloud, mist or driving rain, but on the last day of summer there really was nowhere better.