The bicentenary of the death of the little French general is May 5 – a good time to visit this small outpost in French history. When you first arrive, especially if you are coming via Rye, you might be shocked at how quiet it is. Indeed, like any French village, it does not seem to have many inhabitants, except for the strange person who takes care of their hedges. There are certainly less than in medieval times – 600 instead of 6000.
But Winchelsea is full of secrets. There are beautiful gardens behind high walls and some shrub-lined streets can only be reached on foot. I’m lucky enough to be able to visit friends and swim in their walled pool, but for just one day this year, June 19, Winchelsea’s Secret Gardens are open to everyone from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (see ngs.org. uk to pre-book and for a taste).
The boundaries of the old fortified walls and the fact that the town is surrounded by land owned by the National Trust have prevented development, which means Winchelsea feels frozen in time. Some stores have closed – the old butcher’s shop is now on sale as a gem – but there is still a grocery store, as is the 18th century New Inn.
Cellar tours are canceled until next year, but the town museum is slated to reopen in June (see Winchelsea.com) and it’s worth visiting Spike Milligan’s grave, which bears his famous’ Je told you I was sick ”in Gaelic.
Winchelsea is also a fantastic base for avid walkers. There are routes of varying lengths to Fairlight Cliffs, Rye and along the Royal Military Canal, which runs from Hastings to Hythe. Getting to the beach on foot is difficult and visitors are advised to drive to Winchelsea Beach or the sands more sand of Camber Sands.