It’s a warm July afternoon on the southeast coast, the sun bright off the sea. I’m walking across a field in a train of people on a guided tour, bouncing on thick grasses combed flat by the wind. We’re heading towards a marker post in the distance, a post painted mustard yellow, easily visible against its backdrop of velvet hedgerows and even darker trees. Though patchy sections of grass reveal parched earth, a clay soil cracked by the heat, this is a landscape defined by water, a marsh now drained and criss-crossed by ditches. On the horizon is a gentle rise crowned by a patch of nettles. This is the site of the deserted medieval village of Northeye, East Sussex.
Northeye is a ghost, a remnant, a shadow in the pasture, a flicker on the tongues of cattle. But this has not always been the case. Recorded as Nordeia in 1188, Northye or Northie in 1264, Norzie in 1341 and Northey in 1724 it was probably already established as early as the eleventh century, its church perhaps one of the two in Bexhill mentioned in the Domesday Book. Its tiny chapel dedicated to St James was rebuilt in the thirteenth century and served by a priest until the sixteenth, after which it fell into ruin. The stone was gradually robbed out and reused by locals. In 1857 an artist recorded its last standing section of masonry, the drawing later engraved and published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections. This shows a sorry piece of masonry top heavy with vegetation, ‘the walls … composed of flint boulders and very thin bricks’, its rubble core exposed, a small window like an open wound. Two years later even this had gone, and by the time the twentieth century rolled into view only the foundations remained.
Then come the murky excavations, two of them, one in 1938 by a local school under the direction of an enthusiastic teacher, the other in the early 1950s. The first ends abruptly with the outbreak of war, the second unpredictably with the loss of most of the finds and the original report. A photograph from the latter shows the men in thick flannels and tank tops, hair slicked back, a plan or map open before them. In another sections of carved architectural stones are stacked up beside the trench as they stoop to light a pipe or lean on a shovel. What happened to these fragments? Are they really, as some rumours suggest, beneath someone’s driveway? The other finds? Even the archaeology has been bent to the will of the place, contributing more stories, more half-truths. In a transient landscape expect nothing solid it seems to say. Northeye is a place of disappearance.
Despite growing up in Bexhill, only couple of miles and a seven-minute train journey away, I’ve never been out in the marshes to look for the original Northeye before now. The name has always intrigued me though. Northeye. A small hill of Wadhurst clay peeping above the once waterlogged levels. Trace the contours on an OS map and its possible to reconstruct the medieval coastline. There are several ‘eyes’ or islands in this part of the world: Horse Eye (the island for horses), Manxeye (the monk’s island), Langneye (the long island). Sometimes they are spelt without their final ‘e’, like Pevensey or Rickney. Each only a few metres above sea-level, most simply small areas of permanent dry land in the marsh big enough for a few houses or livestock.
Post-medieval Northeye must have been an increasingly melancholy sight. Lumps of houses, drifting livestock, a crumbling chapel silhouetted against the silver sea. Today the most successful inhabitant of the levels is the rare and internationally protected Fen Raft spider, a generous-sized semi-aquatic species able to swim and catch small fish. If the water has disappeared into ditches and drains, managed by pumps, it has nonetheless left behind a legacy of secrets. HMP Northeye (1969–1992) was built on high ground a mile or so north east of the medieval site on a former MoD radar station. In my developing mind the marsh was a land of escaped prisoners and empty old buildings, a place where the real and the fantastic overlapped. Perhaps this is because deserted places and ruins are like flashpoints where the undercurrents of the past threaten to surface. These unstable locations, seesawing between the known and unknown and open to perpetual re-interpretation, generate a kind of gravitational pull. I’ve always been drawn in with the prospect of standing in a different moment, outside the present, or at least in a different stream of it.
In the deed of endowment of the chapel, drawn up in 1262 between John Clymping, the Bishop of Chichester, and William de Northeye, it is written that ‘the said chapel be illuminated with three pounds of wax tapers annually on the Feast of St James’ and that this ‘be in force forever’. The feast of St James falls on July 25th, a few days after our excursion into the heat of the marshes. The lights went out over five hundred years ago, but I’m tempted to wonder if there isn’t some imprint of their lighting in this summer pilgrimage. We walk back past edgy cattle and through yellow vetch to a path fringed with head-height nettles and welcome trees. In the carpark at its end mirrors and windscreens and metal glitter with spikes of sun.