Touring the Cinque Ports - the maritime history of Kent and Sussex

Tour the Cinque Ports and unlock nearly 1,000 years of exploits on the frontline of England’s history. It’s a journey that takes you right back to Edward the Confessor, when select ports in Kent and Sussex first provided ‘ship service’: supplying vessels and crew for the king’s use, in return for special privileges and trading concessions.

Explore the original Cinque Ports: Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings (‘cinque’ pronounced ‘sink’ comes from the Norman French for five) and discover how nearby towns and villages were enlisted as ‘limbs’ or members to help in their duties. Prince Henry, later Henry VIII, is just one powerful figure who, in the role of Lord Warden, oversaw the Confederation of the Cinque Ports and seaboard defences. As ‘Father of the English Navy’ Henry also helped develop a permanent fleet, inspired by the historic efforts of the Kent and Sussex ports.

Our itinerary visits the 14 members of the present day Confederation, forever linked by their strategic coastal locations yet so diverse in character. Modern Cinque Port activities may be largely ceremonial, but the spicy tang of an unrivalled maritime heritage abounds in each of these coastal settings. Pick and choose what you do in each destination – there’s so much to experience that no one trip will ever be the same.

Day One

Enjoy a day that begins with Armada tales and historic ales, and concludes with royal armies and superb medieval architecture.

We begin in the historic market town of Faversham, known as The King’s Port from when its tidal creek bustled with vessels and trade. By the 13th century it was the ‘limb’ of Dover and to this day the TS Hazard warehouse recalls the vessel Faversham supplied to fight the 1588 Spanish Armada. Follow the town trail and uncover stories of press gangs, smuggling and oysters. Watch leisure craft on the creek where Thames barges once sailed. Charming Abbey Street is among Britain’s finest medieval streets, while Shepherd Neame Brewery on Court Street is the country’s oldest brewer – take a tour and savour a tipple. Then drop into 18th-century Chart Gunpowder Mills: the oldest of their kind in the world, they made powder for Nelson at Trafalgar and Wellington at Waterloo. Few people know that Faversham was the main centre of Britain’s explosives industry!

If you’re feeling energetic, explore the Creeks and Country cycle route that runs through the area. Or, head straight for the fresh sea air of Margate. Kick off your shoes and stroll Blue Flag and award-winning beaches where the Spanish Armada planned to land – before it was defeated in the English Channel. From 1229 Margate was another limb of Dover, but the town’s enduring fame has grown from its 18th-century reputation as the first seaside resort for Londoners. Share the story of its fashionable development in Margate Museum, indulge in today’s traditional seafood pleasures and soak up the atmosphere of the revitalized Old Town. Erstwhile resident JMW Turner, one of the greatest painters of seascapes, was inspired here by ‘dawn clouds to the east and glorious sunsets to the west... the loveliest skies in Europe’. Check out the exhibitions and events programme of Turner Contemporary, which celebrates his affection for the town.

The Viking Coastal Trail offers cyclists a route past beaches and bays to Ramsgate, and it’s also a breeze to get there by car. Feast your eyes on the handsome Victorian and Regency architecture that gives the town its splendid character, including work by leader of the Gothic Revival Augustus Pugin highlighted on The Pugins trail. A present day corporate member of the Cinque Ports, Ramsgate was a garrison town during the Napoleonic Wars. Visit Ramsgate Maritime Museum for further insights into its wave-lashed history, local wrecks and rescues, plus how the town boasts its very own Mean Time. It also enjoys the kudos of having the only Royal Harbour in mainland Britain, an honour granted by King George IV in 1821 – come and find out why. Today’s Royal Harbour scene, lively with pavement cafés, bars and restaurants overlooking the beautiful marina, is a fine place to unwind.

Now drift along the coast to Sandwich, where the Guildhall Museum displays much of the town’s fascinating history as one of the original Cinque Ports. It’s a delight to explore the maze of ancient streets – Sandwich has the highest density of listed buildings in any English town and the greatest number of medieval structures. Everywhere you’ll find clues to its captivating maritime past: the Quay from which medieval kings left with their armies for wars in France, Kings Lodging where Henry VIII and probably Elizabeth I stayed, and the Barbican built as part of Henry’s famous coastal defences. Due to silting, the town is now two miles from the sea, but reminders of dramatic raids live on – Mayors of Sandwich still wear black robes in memory of one notorious 15th-century attack by 4,000 Frenchmen who pillaged the town and killed Mayor John Drury.

Refresh: Enjoy the distinctive seasonal cooking of Michelin-starred David Pitchford at Read’s Restaurant, Faversham. In Margate, The Harbour Café Bar serves all-day breakfasts, lunches and teas in a stylish atmosphere.


Day Two


Threats of invasion constantly hover on the horizon of our second day, but King Henry VIII’s impressive coastal fortresses offer welcome protection.

Travel with Henry VIII to inspect his castle at Deal, the largest of the coastal forts he hastily raised to fend off potential attack from France or Spain. Its squat, Tudor Rose design was at the cutting edge of military architecture and it stood ready again for service in the Napoleonic Wars – when the Timeball Tower, now a museum, sent secret semaphore messages to London. Investigate the town’s heritage of boatbuilding and smuggling at Deal Maritime and Local History Museum, and wander attractive narrow lanes to the shingle beach. A proud corporate member of the Cinque Ports, Deal has a must-visit pier, too: the design of its newly refurbished café has even been the subject of a Royal Institute of British Architects competition.

En route from Deal to Dover, Henry VIII also takes us to Walmer Castle. Another of his coastal chain of forts, it has been the official residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports since 1708. In days gone by the Lord Warden and Admiral of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle (to give the full title) was one of the most powerful figures in the country. As princes, both Henry V and Henry VIII held the post and at Walmer you’ll find mementos of other former incumbents like the Duke of Wellington who died there, and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. Admiral the Lord Boyce currently fulfils the now largely ceremonial office.

And so to Dover, known since the height of the Cinque Ports’ power as the ‘Key to England’. No English fortress boasts a longer history than Dover Castle, reaching back to Roman times. Henry VIII, among others, left his mark with defensive additions, while in the Secret Wartime Tunnels you can view the WWII operation centre where the evacuation of Dunkirk was masterminded. Blow away the cobwebs with a ramble along the iconic White Cliffs and watch the busy activities in the harbour and marina. Compare today’s sleek cross-Channel ferries with the 3,550-year-old Bronze Age Boat in Dover Museum, the world’s oldest known seagoing vessel.

Change mood and scene in Folkestone, where Edwardian seaside elegance and cinnamon brick buildings are complimented by the modern verve of the Creative Quarter, a growing base for artists and creative industries. Take the 19th-century water-balance lift from the harbour up to The Leas, the town’s mile-long cliff-top promenade. Then meander the zig-zag path to the award-winning Coastal Park, a superb undercliff featuring pine avenues, flower gardens, picnic areas and an Amphitheatre that stages summer weekend music and entertainment. Magnificent views along the blue arc of the English Channel are guaranteed to stir dreams of maritime adventure befitting such a progressive corporate member of the Confederation.

Round off the day in the small town of Hythe. In 1341 Edward III threatened to cancel the town’s privileges as a Cinque Port because it was struggling to meet its ship service. The warning must have worked because four years afterwards Hythe sent six vessels to the successful siege of Calais. Chief among visitor highlights today is the Royal Military Canal, originally built to enable swift movement of men and stores to counter threats of Napoleonic invasion in the early 19th century. Now it’s a lovely place to walk, go boating or fishing. You might also want to hop aboard the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch miniature steam railway, which puffs 13.5 miles to Dungeness.

Refresh: Choose from light lunches and main meals at Cullin’s Yard overlooking Dover Marina. Hythe Bay Seafood Restaurant right on the beach serves first-class fish dishes plus meat and vegetarian options.


Day Three

From mysterious marshes and smugglers to the Jewel of the Weald and Nelson’s love child, our third day is full of romance.

Make New Romney, Capital of the Marsh, your first destination. A Cinque Port since 1155, it remained the meeting place of the Confederation’s courts even after the Great Storm of 1287 changed the course of the River Rother and made it an inland town. You can still see traces of old tidemarks on the nave pillars of the Church of St Nicholas, the one-time location for Mayor-making. The flat, hauntingly beautiful terrain of Romney Marsh is perfect for cycling and there’s a circular trail from New Romney around the medieval marsh churches. You’ll be surprised by their curious maritime and smuggling connections!

Next highlight of this mysterious corner of Kent is the ancient town of Lydd, a limb of New Romney. In the 18th and 19th centuries the town was notorious for the activities of ‘owlers’ (local contrabandists hooted to each other at dead of night), who spirited away golden guineas to France and brought back tea and brandy. Look around All Saints Church, ‘The Cathedral of the Marsh’, which has a soaring 132ft perpendicular tower. At 199ft from east to west, it’s also Kent’s longest church and parts of it date back to Romano-British times.

Head further inland now and spot the pinnacled tower of St Mildred’s Church at Tenterden. It served as a beacon to ships navigating upriver and was used to warn of the approaching Spanish Armada. Horatia, Lord Nelson’s daughter by his mistress Emma Hamilton, was at one time the vicar’s wife. Delve into the town’s past in Tenterden & District Museum, where an exhibition on the Cinque Ports reveals the importance of the busy seaport of Smallhythe and its shipbuilding industry. Granted a Royal Charter of Incorporation by King Henry VI in 1449, Tenterden became a limb of Rye. To appreciate why the town is called the ‘Jewel of the Weald’, simply wander the picturesque High Street, where architecture ranges from smart white weatherboarding and tile-hung fascias to medieval timber framing. Browse specialist and antiques shops, and for a tasty treat book a tour of nearby Chapel Down Winery at Tenterden Vineyard.

Refresh: Savour contemporary British food and fine wines at Richard Phillips at Chapel Down restaurant and bar.


Day Four

Our final three towns, in East Sussex, have been linked for centuries. Rye and Winchelsea first helped Hastings fulfil its ship service as corporate members, but as the latter’s harbour silted up the two ‘antient towns’ became full members of the Confederation, their status equal to the original five head ports.

Get your camera out in Rye to capture pictures of quintessential England: Tudor and Georgian buildings, antiques shops and art galleries, old inns and cobbled streets. Climb the tower of St Mary’s Church for inspiring views and learn how French raiders stole the church bells in 1377 – they were later retrieved with equal audacity. Then unlock the town’s illustrious history in Rye Castle Museum, housed partly in the Ypres Tower of 1249. Rye appears in Cinque Ports Charters as early as 1155 and from 1802 to 1806 its MP was Arthur Wellesley – later the Duke of Wellington and Lord Warden 1829-52. This quaint town is now two miles inland due to silting of the River Rother, but you can still get on the trail of the notorious 18th-century Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers: their favourite haunt was the atmospheric Mermaid Inn on Mermaid Street.

Neighbouring Winchelsea is a true gem and claims the title of smallest town in Britain to have its own Mayor. It’s so tranquil today that you can scarcely imagine it was once the major port of Sussex, thriving on shipping, shipbuilding, trade and fishing, plus occasional wrecking and piracy. Storms devastated ‘old’ Winchelsea in the 13th century and King Edward I provided the site for the ‘new’ town, whose grid pattern is still evident. Find out more in Winchelsea Court Hall Museum, where there’s also a complete list of Mayors dating back to 1430 and a partial list to 1295: a remarkable feat of record keeping. Almost the whole town is a Conservation Area, with interesting historic buildings and medieval town gates. You can even go beneath the streets to view a network of cellars, mostly built at the time of the new town when it played a significant role in the wine trade. In the 14th century four million bottles a year passed through!

Our final destination is Hastings, where William the Conqueror’s army rested on its way to do battle with King Harold’s men in 1066. Take a deep breath of salt air on the shingle Stade (old Saxon for ‘landing place’), where Europe’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet keeps alive the traditions and techniques of 1,000 years. Trace key moments of local history in the Old Town Hall Museum, including the role of the Cinque Ports, life as a Napoleonic garrison, and the rise of the Victorian resort. Maritime traditions are also celebrated in the Fishermen’s Museum and Shipwreck and Coastal Heritage Centre. Explore the narrow streets and twittens (passageways) of the medieval Old Town where smugglers hung out, spot locations from the ITV hit series Foyle’s War, and enjoy cosmopolitan shopping and eating – maybe freshly caught fish with chips.


See also