Trouble on the Marsh, Rudyard Kipling

Romney Marsh

Here Puck, a character from Kipling’s short story 'Dymchurch Flit', describes Romney Marsh, a dwelling place for marsh men, fairies, smugglers, seekers, witches and will o’ the wisps.

'Have you ever bin in the Marsh?' he said to Dan.

'Only as far as Rye, once,' Dan answered.

'Ah, that's but the edge. Back behind of her there's steeples settin' beside churches, an' wise women settin' beside their doors, an' the sea settin' above the land, an' ducks herdin' wild in the diks' (he meant ditches). 'The Marsh is justabout riddled with diks an' sluices, an' tide-gates an' water-lets. You can hear 'em bubblin' an' grummelin' when the tide works in 'em, an' then you hear the sea rangin' left and right-handed all up along the Wall. You've seen how flat she is - the Marsh? You'd think nothin' easier than to walk eend-on acrost her? Ah, but the diks an' the water-lets, they twists the roads about as ravelly as witch-yarn on the spindles. So ye get all turned round in broad daylight.'

Dymchurch Flit, this rambling, dialect-ridden fairy tale featured in the Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) short story collection, bears the hallmarks of Rudyard Kipling’s rich imagination. It features the widow Whitgift, a wise woman and seer who lives under the sea wall at Dymchurch and senses ‘trouble on the marsh the same as eels feel thunder’. She is sought by a dream that taps on her window, and a voice asks her to make things right for the old fairies, the ‘people of the hills’ – potentially at a terrible cost to herself.

The story is set during the English Reformation in the 1530s, a time of religious conflict and persecution. Greatly troubled by the cruelty and suffering they witness, the people of the hills wish to ‘flit’ to France. From all over England they have swarmed into the Marsh at the very edge of the country. Their little green lights and comings and goings disturb the animals and frighten the wits out of every man, woman and child.

‘Will the sea drown the Marsh?‘, asks the widow in a panicked response to the tap on her window. She is assured that it will not but is asked to allow her two sons to sail the fairies across the sea. One son is deaf and the other blind, so they are considered ideally suited to the task.

Romney Marsh

The ancient wetland of Romney Marsh, on the borders of East Sussex and Kent, lies low behind a sea wall. Once a breeding ground for malaria, the Marsh was formed by an accumulation of silt and shingle swept in by the tides of the English Channel, lending it a tenuous feeling, as though it might be easily reclaimed by the sea – as the widow Whitgift fears has happened in the story. In the Middle Ages thousands of Romney’s inhabitants were lost to the Black Death. The disease was thought to have been brought by the smugglers who operated freely in this sparsely populated area. Whole villages were abandoned as a result of the plague and in some cases the churches are all that remain.

Living in nearby Burwash, Kipling knew the Marsh well. He wrote Puck of Pook’s Hill for his children John (later killed in the First World War) and Elsie. The stories begin with siblings Dan and Una who, after acting in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, encounter the real Puck, a fairy-like being who describes himself as ‘the oldest Old Thing in England’. Puck, with the help of a number of characters, tells the children a series of fantastical stories, rich in historical detail, involving lost treasures, doomed generals, ancient Romans, seers, pirates, sorcerers and battles.

Early days in Burwash

Kipling wrote Puck of Pook’s Hill fairly soon after moving to Bateman’s, a beautiful if uncomfortable Jacobean house in Burwash, East Sussex. He was still only thirty-six when he first moved in, but it became his refuge until he died. He was by all accounts a man of monstrous opinion (racist, colonialist, imperialist, war mongering). Yet he was a prodigiously gifted writer, with a great sympathy for children. His biographer Angus Wilson points out that his imaginary genius was always concerned with diversity, paying particular attention to those who are ‘lost and twisted and anxious and, above all, alone’, as against the gregarious conformists of the world, because he was aware of those ‘potentially tragic depths in himself’.

He had arrived in a wounded state following the death of his eldest daughter, Josephine, from pneumonia. She had been an unusually lively and witty child and neither Kipling nor his wife Carrie ever fully recovered from their loss. He confessed to his mother that he saw Josephine

when a door opened, when a space was vacant at table, – coming out of every green dark corner of the garden – radiant and – heartbreaking.

After her death, he seemed to increase his distance with others, even those who were close. One friend observed that although he had

the same charm, the same gift of fascinating speech, the same way of making everyone with whom he talks show their most interesting side…one was only allowed to see these things from the other side of a barrier.

Carrie sank into deep depression and Kipling was on the receiving end of her frequently difficult behaviour; he also suffered constant pain from a chronic stomach condition. According to his biographer, Martin Seymour-Smith, the creation of these child-like stories helped him to keep despair at bay.

Gifts from the Land and its People

In his autobiography Something of Myself (1937), Kipling describes drawing inspiration for the books from a collection of artifacts found in a well on his property: ‘we had found a Jacobean tobacco-pipe, a worn Cromwellian latten spoon, and, at the bottom of all, the bronze cheek of a Roman horse-bit.’ Further finds were discovered in a drained pond, including two Elizabethan sealed quarts ‘all pearly with the patina of centuries. Its deepest mud yielded us a perfectly polished Neolithic axe-head with but one chip on its still venomous edge.’

His cousin, Ambrose Poynter, had a suggestion for him: ‘Write a yarn about Roman times here…Write…about an old Centurion of the Occupation telling his experiences to his children.’ While Kipling brooded on the idea, a number of things presented themselves that later featured in the stories. An old slag heap on the western border of his land was said to have been worked by Phoenicians and Romans: ‘Every foot of that little corner was alive with ghosts and shadows.’ And when his children decided to give an open-air performance of all they knew of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream the character of Puck seemed to suggest itself to Kipling as a bridge between the past and present; a supernatural being who could bring back the dead so they could tell their stories.

Kipling took an interest in Sussex custom, lore and dialect. He met a local ‘poacher’ and ‘gentleman’ who had advised him when he was having his property landscaped. This man had a special way with trees and planted them in accordance with the phases of the moon. His wife was familiar with magic and witchcraft. She used to produce love potions, for which there had been demand up until the 1860’s, and she described to Kipling a midnight ritual at the cottage of a ‘wise woman’. A black rooster had been killed by the use of strange rites and spells, and ‘all de time dere was, like, someone trying to come through at ye from outside in de dark.’

All these elements came together:

You see how patiently the cards were stacked and dealt into my hands? The Old Things of our Valley glided into every aspect of our outdoor works. Earth, Air, Water and People had been – I saw it at last – in full conspiracy to give me ten times as much as I could compass, even if I wrote a complete history of England, as that might have touched or reached our Valley.

He wished, he said,

…to give children not a notion of history, but a notion of the time sense which is at the bottom of all knowledge of history and history rightly understanded means love of one’s fellow men and the lands one lives in.

On Writing

Kipling believed that his genius as a writer was ‘given’ and that it was his responsibility to follow his Daemon, the one that would tell him what to do with a story. He increasingly relied on this voice and learned to recognise the ‘sign of its approach’. When it was near there could be no holding back, or he would pay ‘by missing what I then knew the tale lacked.’ He said that his Daemon was with him when he wrote The Jungle Book, (1894), Kim (1901), and both Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and its successor, Rewards and Fairies (1910).

Kipling added: ‘and good care I took to walk delicately, lest he (the Daemon) should withdraw.’ He realised that the Puck books should be written for adults as well as children, so he ‘worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal them-selves according to the shifting light of sex, youth and experience.’

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Kipling in 1907 ‘in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration’.

Although his writing for adults has fallen from favour, Kipling’s gloriously imaginative children’s books remain firm favourites across the English-speaking world. Children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliff acknowledged her love of his writing in a small monograph she wrote about him in 1965, explaining that ‘other people write about things from the outside in, but Kipling writes from the inside out.’ In her view, his gift for self-identification, his empathy with the characters and events of his stories find their ‘greatest fulfillment’ when the reader is a child. For this is where

…a child does much of his learning – not only the learning of the mind, but of the emotions, even, maybe of the spirit.

In view of his almost mystical love of children, I suspect Kipling would be quietly pleased.


Dawn’, The Cinematic Orchestra

This piece seems to have the right ambience for Kipling’s story, evoking, at least to my mind, the bubbling and ‘grummeling’ of the dikes and sluices, tide gates, and water-lets of that intriguing marshland. The Cinematic Orchestra is a British nu-jazz ensemble, led by Jason Swinscoe and Dominic Smith.


Dymchurch on Romney Marsh and its neighbouring town of Rye have attracted writers from all over England and beyond. At the turn of the 19th century a loose-knit writer’s group was based here that included Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad.

Bohemian parties were held at the home in Dymchurch of the pioneering British socialist and children’s author Edith Nesbit (The Railway Children). According to HG Wells, they were so disorganised that as soon as people received an invitation they ‘rushed down from town at the weekend to snatch one’s bed before anyone else got it.’ Ford Madox Ford said of the group, ‘We lived rather in each others’ pockets’. The licentiousness of these occasions was typical of the Edwardian era, that brief fling between the Victorian age and the Great War.

The staunchly conservative Kipling would not have come anywhere near these gatherings. But he was a great admirer of Edith Nesbit, whom Wells described as ‘a tall, whimsical, restless, able woman’. She produced some strikingly original children’s stories and Kipling wrote to her of the joy her serialised tale The Wouldbegoods (1901) had given him and his children:

A kiddy laughing at a joke is one of the sweetest signs under heaven and our nursery used to double up and rock with mirth. They were indignant when the series came to an end.


Staying in Rye, I was up at dawn for a quick tour of this intensely atmospheric, watery landscape, travelling the spindly, twisty roads that Kipling describes. Mist was rising from the water and everything was swathed in spring flowers and golden light. For a delicious few seconds a fox stopped dead in its tracks and caught me in its gaze. I felt as though someone had opened a book of fairytales and tipped me inside.

The beauty of Romney has to do with its windswept emptiness, its vast skies and ancient lichened churches. It is a mysterious threshold place where it feels as though it might be possible to slip seamlessly from one world into another. 

Poet John Betjeman wrote of it:

Romney Marsh, on the Sussex border of Kent and close to the sea. Romney Marsh, where the roads wind like streams through pasture and the sky is always three-quarters of the landscape. The sounds I associate with Romney Marsh are the bleating of innumerable sheep and the whistle of the sea wind in old willow trees. The sea has given a colour to this district: it has spotted with silver the oak posts and rails; it gives the grass and the rushes a grey salty look and turns the red bricks and tiles of Fairfield Church a saffron yellow.

The marsh, protected by coastland borders, extends from Hythe to the stark, desert-like headland of Dungeness. Here, in the last years of his life, film director Derek Jarman created his famous garden and completed his diary/memoir Modern Nature (1991). In an entry on the last day of March he wrote:

Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.

Dymchurch beach, its three miles of sand and shingle stretching between Hythe and St Mary’s Bay, is featured in my photographs.


Puck of Pook’s Hill can be read online at Project Gutenberg.  

For all things about Kipling, visit The Kipling Society.

Bateman’s, Kipling’s Jacobean house in East Sussex is in the care of the National Trust and can be visited nearby.

Read more about Romney Marsh, its history, wildlife, medieval churches, and discover places to stay here.

A wonderful article about Derek Jarman and his garden.


Green, Lancelyn, Roger. Kipling and the Children, Elek Books, 1965

Jarman, Derek. Modern Nature, Vintage Classics, 2018

Jones, Frank. ‘The Literary allure of Romney Marsh’, Los Angeles Times, 10 August, 2003

Kipling, Rudyard. Puck of Pook’s Hill, Dover Publications, 2006

Kipling, Rudyard. Something of Myself and other Autobiographical Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1990

Ricketts, Harry. Rudyard Kipling: a life, Carroll & Graf, 1936

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Rudyard Kipling, St Martin’s Press, 1989

Wilson, Angus. The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His life and works, Viking, 1978

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