As the car purred southward into the blue distance along the Kent-Sussex border, I felt as if we were gently falling into the sea. As you approach the Marshes, you are approaching a land which has always had an ambiguous relationship with the sea, which has always looked seawards rather than landwards, which bears little resemblance to the gentle English landscapes that surround it. You always feel that these lands so lately rescued from the waters may some day gently subside back below them—as if they had never been, like some latter-day “land of lost content.”

As you get closer, and slip into the winds’, grassy immensity, you relinquish real life with relief. You fall into numinous abstraction, as you look over the bare desolation, and cannot but think of unworkaday things—how the moon rides high and white over the damp levels, of flocks of lapwings (Vanellus Vanellus) breaking the sky, long days of heat-haze above the sheep-dotted flatness, chilly worship in damp churches, and shades of the humble, faceless medieval workers who vet achieved immortality by wrenching a piece of England from the reluctant sea and tilling it into submissive fertility, fighting a generations-long Agincourt of the soil. You can nearly hear church bells tolling, guiding travelers home through the drenching fog, along narrow paths through bogs and over precarious plank bridges above weed-choked dikes full of frogs.

The Marshes have an archetypal, dreamlike quality that encourages such reveries. Although the area is small, and many tourists cross it every year, it manages to preserve an air of ghostly remoteness. “Romney Marsh,” wrote Richard Church in his Kent (1948), “shrinks away from the mob, turning unto itself and the ceaseless music, aeolian harp music, that seems to hover above it in the air.” Even more practical people fall under an enchantment when they visit. “There are northerners who call it too beautiful; we have visitors who cannot keep awake in the strong, soft air coming up from Romney Marsh . . . and who, on waking, eat vastly,” reported H.E. Bates in The English Countryside (1939). Someone who escaped being enchanted was Lambarde, who described the marshes as “evil in winter, grievous in summer, and never good.”

After spending a little time in the much-photographed, tourist-full town of Rye, we headed along the coastal road toward Lydd. The road between Rye and Lydd is sparsely populated, although there are many caravans near Camber Sands. The only sounds to be heard usually arc the songs of larks and the hyperboreal screeching of seagulls. The beaches near Lydd are used for artillery practice (the explosive Lyddite was first used here) and the long fences along the seafront add to the feeling of strangeness. The most interesting building in Lvdd is the Church of All Saints, known as “The Cathedral of the Marshes” (mostly 13th century, but with Saxon remnants). Although Lydd was once an island, and became a full member of the Cinque Ports Confederation in 1155, it lost its harbor after storms in 1287 shoved the shoreline southward.

Even stranger, more remote and more postapocalyptic than the road to Lydd, is the shingle promontory of Dungeness, which is growing seawards at about 20 feet a year. There is an important bird reserve here, two lighthouses, plenty of bungalows, and even a nuclear power station, and it is a favorite place for angling, but it still preserves an aura of frontier territory. Beached boats stand amongst the sea-thistles and the black-painted bungalows, on a sloping, banked beach littered with feathers, driftwood, fish skeletons, crab carapaces, and pieces of lobster pot. A touch of surrealism is added by the tiny railway lines that carry the miniature steam railway across the stony wastes between Hythe and the tip of the promontory. The men digging for lugworms on the tidal flats were suspended in vagueness, as if they were in midair, their very reflections broken by the rippled wet sand.

We went back into the Marshes proper, northwards as the evening started to close in, to St. Mary in the Marsh, with its little Norman church of St. Mary the Virgin. This church is best known as the burial place of E. Nesbit, author of the children’s story The Secret Garden. There are two lovely floor brasses here, one from 1499, the other from 1502. Inside it is tastefully Spartan (the Church of England’s gospel was always: “By taste are ye saved,” according to Emerson), although the ascetic effect was relieved by the Harvest offerings that were ranged around.

We got back into the car and traveled north past yet more fields of Romney Marsh sheep (a distinct breed, probably introduced by Flemish settlers). On the very edge of the Marsh, where the land rises into the Weald, and the remnants of primeval forest still wave ragged defiance of the modern world, and whisper of drowned Dimsdale, stands the hamlet of Bilsington, where the church of Peter and Paul gives you a last taste of Marsh numinousness. The mostly Norman church is up a narrow lane, and is almost invisible from the road. It is surrounded by trees, some of them yews, supposedly planted by pilgrims to Canterbury, who would often stop here for the night.

One of the churchyard epitaphs reads: “Stop stranger, stop and east an eye, / As you are now, so once was I / As I am now soon you will be, / Prepare for death and follow me.” There is a 15th-century bell from the tower on a frame in the churchyard, with the inscription “For many a year John’s bell shall sound.” There is a sign in the porch asking one to be careful to shut the door, so as to exclude sheep from the building. The gleam of encaustics, the faint smell of polish, and the bright colors of the hassocks, even in the declining light, speak volumes for the devotion of the women of the parish. We left the silent, darkening church and stood quietly for a while, watching a tractor ripping up the rich tilth, and beyond, at the whole elegiac expanse of England. The tractor stopped, and now the only sound was the rush of the wind in the black trees, and among the dark grasses.