The road westward peters out into the countryside, and you retrace your steps a little back towards the bridge. Do not cross it, but walk on a little way along the track on the south side of the town ditch. In front of you is a horse pond, and next to that the town’s bowling green. Here the yeomen, having refreshed themselves at the inns, are now gathering, while their mounts drink at the pond. Bowling is a respectable and popular pastime, and the yeomen are joined by tradesmen who have finished work early today, and by two or three gentlemen of the town. Their wives, their marketing finished, arrive in ones and twos to watch the match, which in summer always follows the market. The gentlemen’s wives sport real farthingales, not the bum rolls of their humbler cousins. These contraptions of wire or whalebone are wheel-shaped: the woman’s waist forms the hub of the wheel, which has a slight tilt behind. The skirts spread out over this at right-angles to the body then fall straight to the ground. The gentlemen are in suits of clothes, with matching or toning breeches and doublets; their shirts and ruffs are of fine cloth, and spotless and their stockings of the finest wool and in the brightest shades. This is an age when manly ostentation is positively encouraged.
The term ‘gentleman’ is fairly loosely applied and lacks a clear definition, and in any case, small towns tend to inflate honours and the title of ‘gentleman’ here probable has little validity in the wider world. The likes of William Knight and Arthur Blechinden, who have some land which they do not physically work themselves and live in big houses with servants, and call themselves gentlemen, would in London just be two more country bumpkins. John Grove describes himself as both a physician and a gentleman. The awkward facts of his conviction for malpractice and subsequent imprisonment do not quite sit comfortably with your own notions of gentlemanly behaviour.
You tire of the game and see that there is a track leading away southwards towards the sea. Take this now. A lot of the land here, once under water, has been ‘inned’ and sheep graze on the acres of grassland. The salty soil on which the grass grows is supposed to give the mutton a particularly fine flavour.
The way follows the path of a narrow waterway, which flows down to what remains of the haven. Over to your left is a windmill, built by Reignold Robyns, the husband of Alice Robyns, the haberdasher you saw earlier. She is saving the proceeds of her business to enable her to lease back from the corporation the land on which the mill stands. She is a clever woman and will ensure that both her daughters have a title to the land for life.
You reach now the sorry remains of a once prosperous haven. It used to be a thriving harbour, with warships, merchant men and fishing vessels sheltering from the open sea, but it has been silting up for the last hundred or more years. It is not alone, and the once thriving ports of Romney, Rye and Sandwich suffer the same fate. The haven at Hythe was cut out and repaired only a few years ago, and at present, is just about hanging on as a going concern
You wander along the shingle beach towards some signs of activity. You will not find any sunbathers or families picnicking on this beach, or anyone taking a dip. The notion of the seaside holiday, like that of the weekend, is far in the future. The sea is regarded as intrinsically alien and highly dangerous. Charts show that the sea, even quite close to land, is infested with strange and ferocious monsters and the burial registers at St Leonard’s record the deaths of those who were foolish enough to ’venture into the sea’. In fact, this would make a very unpleasant bathing beach, as it is used as a rubbish tip by the inhabitants of the town, which is quite sensible, as most of the detritus is swept out to sea by the tide.
The activity you have noticed is the solution to the lack of a decent haven, for the fishermen, at least. Some poor nags known as sea horses are turning capstans to haul a fishing boat, the ‘Marygold’ from the water onto the open beach. This landing place is called the stade, and its existence ensures that fishing continues to flourish in Hythe despite the decline of other commercial markets. Next to the stade are a few store houses where nets and fishing tackle are stored, and occasionally other goods, intended for illegal exportation. Smuggling is a locally sanctioned way of supplementing income, and now that you have seen what poverty means in the seventeenth century, you may be inclined to believe that it is a perfectly valid alternative to penury.
The ‘Marygold’ has been fishing conger in home waters, and its load must be quickly processed to get it fresh to the London markets, so the boat owner’s entire family, from the youngest to the oldest are here to do the work. This is the only boat on the stade at present. Most of the larger vessels have headed north to catch cod and ling off Scarborough, but as you look out to sea you spot another vessel approaching. It is a three masted square-rigged ship, of about three to four tons, a collier from Newcastle bringing coal to the town. It has been spotted from the town, too, and men and boys on wagons are coming to unload it, to take coal to Guy Wilmot, John Oldfield, John Gately, the bakers, the tallow chandlers, the malsters, and all the other tradesmen who will ensure that Hythe, though struggling, will not sink.
Your imaginary walk has finished. The next post will deal with historical facts and what really happened to the poor in Hythe