Lagoons at Rye Harbour

Wide skies, lonely seas and lagoons form the backdrop to this remote coastal walk, which is excellent for birding.


Rye Harbour


4.5 miles (7.2kms)

0ft (0m)

About the walk

Turn the clock back to the dark days of World War II, and you would find Rye Harbour a very different place. Blockhouses for machine guns littered the coast, and barbed wire and landmines made it a ‘no go’ area. During the hours of darkness, great searchlights swept across the night sky; they were particularly effective at detecting the dreaded flying bombs. Go there now and you can still identify some of these crumbling relics of war. It’s a fascinating exercise to rewrite the pages of history and imagine what might have happened if enemy forces had landed on this corner of England.

World War II wasn’t the first time the area had been under threat. During the Napoleonic Wars, 150 years earlier, Rye Harbour was considered a target for invasion and attack when the Martello Tower, seen by the car park at the start of the walk, became the first of 47 fortifications built in Sussex as a defence against the French. The tower would certainly have been a tough deterrent. The walls are nearly 12ft (4m) thick at the base, and the middle floor would have been occupied by a garrison of one officer and 24 men. Since then, the sea has built up over half a mile (800m) of land in front of it, with violent storms dumping huge deposits of shingle on the shore every winter.

Today, the little community of Rye Harbour is peaceful – and yet, many decades after the end of the war, it still conveys that same sense of bleak isolation. Though not as atmospheric as neighbouring shingle-strewn Dungeness, it does feel very isolated here. Part of a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Rye Harbour Nature Reserve lies at the mouth of the River Rother, which forms its eastern boundary. During its early stage, the walk follows the river, and at first glance the shingle seems so bare and inhospitable that it is hard to imagine any plant could grow here. But in late May and June the beach is transformed by a colourful array of flowers. Delicate yellow horned poppies, sea kale, carpets of seaweed and countless other species of plants thrive in this habitat. Salt marsh, vegetation along the river’s edge, pools and grazing marsh add to the variety, and the old gravel pits now represent an important site for nesting terns, gulls, ducks and waders. Rye Harbour is best known for its superb bird life, and is always very popular with ornithologists. The walk follows the coast for some time, passing the Ternery Pool, originally two separate gravel workings dug by hand early in the 20th century. It continues along the coast before heading inland to some more flooded gravel pits. Here you might easily spot gulls, grebes, cormorants, swallows and reed warblers. Turtle doves are often seen in the fields, and sometimes perch in pairs on the overhead wires.

Walk directions

Keeping the Martello Tower and the entrance to the holiday village on your right, enter Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. The Rother can be seen on the left, running parallel to the path, with a wind farm visible behind. Head for the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve information centre and continue on the firm path, with the Rother still visible on the left. The expanse of Camber Sands, a popular holiday destination, nudges into view beyond the river mouth.

Near the river mouth, the route continues to the right along a private road marked with a 20mph sign, but first make a detour to the beach. Return to the junction and follow the private road, which has permissive access for walkers, and cuts between wildlife sanctuary areas where access is not allowed. Pass the entrance to the New Crittall hide on the right. From here there are superb views over Ternery Pool, and Rye’s jumble of houses can be seen sprawling over the hill in the distance. Continue west on the private road, which gradually edges nearer the shore.

Ahead now is the outline of the old abandoned lifeboat house and, away to the right in the distance, the unmistakable profile of Camber Castle. Keep going on the road.

Just after the fence on the right ends, take the waymarked footpath on the right (by a map information board, running towards a line of houses on the eastern side of the village of Winchelsea Beach) and head inland, passing a small pond on the right. Glancing back, the old lifeboat house can be seen standing out starkly against the sky. Turn right at the next junction along power lines, pass the Watch House and continue on the track as it runs alongside several lakes. Pass to the left of some dilapidated farm outbuildings and keep going along the track. Where the track forks, keep left on the main track, now leaving the power lines. The lakes are still seen on the left-hand side. Begin the approach to Rye Harbour; on the left is the spire of the church.

On reaching the road in the centre of the village of Rye Harbour, turn left to visit the lifeboatmen’s memorial in the churchyard before heading back along the main street and return to the car park at the start of the walk.

Additional information

Level paths and good, clear tracks

Mixture of shingle expanses and old gravel workings, now part of a local nature reserve

Dogs on lead within Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

OS Explorer 125 Romney Marsh, Rye & Winchelsea

Free car park at Rye Harbour

Rye Harbour –turn left out of the car park.

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About the area

Discover East Sussex

East Sussex, along with its western counterpart, is packed with interest. This is a land of stately homes and castles, miles of breezy chalk cliffs overlooking the English Channel, pretty rivers, picturesque villages and links to our glorious past. Mention Sussex to many people and images of the South Downs immediately spring to mind – ‘vast, smooth, shaven, serene,’ as the writer Virginia Woolf described them. She and her husband lived at Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell, near Lewes, and today, her modest home is managed by the National Trust and open to the public.

There are a great many historic landmarks within Sussex, but probably the most famous is the battlefield where William, Duke of Normandy defeated Harold and his Saxon army to become William the Conqueror of England. By visiting Battle, near Hastings, you can, with a little imagination, picture the bloody events that led to his defeat. East Sussex’s pretty towns such as Lewes, Rye and Uckfield have their charms, while the city of Brighton offers museums and fascinating landmarks, the best-known and grandest feature being the Royal Pavilion. 


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