"Serve God Honour the Queen
But First Maintain the Wall"
Romney Marsh motto
A frontier land facing the English channel, the coast of Romney Marsh has long been the last line of defence against foreign invaders. Strong fortifications — the round, brick masses of Martello towers, a redoubt fort atop a grassy mound at Dymchurch and, closer inland, a military canal — still stand, centuries after they were built to withstand the advances of Napoleon, an enemy who never came. It was this lonely, windswept stretch of coast, on the edge of the country and on the way to nowhere, where the painter Paul Nash chose to recuperate after witnessing first-hand the brutalities and destruction of the first world war, first in the trenches at Ypres and then as an official war artist.
On the bleakest of days, the grey of the sea wall reinforces the grey of the sea beneath and the sky above. Nash’s seascapes are often empty and stark, their colours hyperreal (see the dark greens, mustard yellow and forceful black of ‘Sea by Night, Dymchuch/Night Tide' or ‘Wall Against the Sea’, which casts the bay in the type of ominous, sickly glow that only occurs preceding a storm). Forms are simplified and suggested; the manmade and the natural merge into one. In ‘The End of the Steps’, a quiet scene dominated by the bulk of an impenetrable-looking concrete defence, the sharply angled sky looks as much of a construction as the manmade object. In ‘Winter Sea’, a fragmented sea sets out in massive slabs, shaded grey, black and white, towards a faint moon, like the regular descent of stone steps. When figures appear, as in ‘Promenade’, they turn their backs to the viewer, just as the wall turns its back on the village. In ‘Night Tide, Dymchurch’, the solid back of the solitary night time walker appears as just another line in the defence. It's this sparseness that makes Nash's seascapes the most powerful of his paintings: the emptiness of the sands amplifies feelings of solitude and loneliness, emphasising how small the human is in relation to the vast natural world, and brings to mind the strange semi-silence in the air, found only by the seaside, that multiplies the lone walker's thoughts, doubts and preoccupations into a background roar as inescapable as that of the sea.
The war was won but the fight against the sea goes on. In the past decade, the sea wall has undergone extensive renovation, using precast and poured concrete and steel reinforcement, and was reopened in 2011. It’s a battle that will never finish: the metal has already started to rust and bleed into the wall, and the concrete is taking on the sea’s bright green, mossy sheen and dappled black and yellow bloom.
Related but unrelated:
Some Pathe newsreels of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, a miniature railway between Hythe and Dungeness in Kent (via Dymchurch), which was put to use during the second world war:
TOY TRAIN GOES TO WAR
WORLD'S SMALLEST TRAIN DEMOBBED