The valley’s unique character today owes much to its past, its geology, its geography and the way it has been shaped by human settlement. During the Ice Age, when sea levels were sometimes 400ft lower than they are today, the original Brede River cut a channel into bedrock some 60ft below its present level. Later, as the climate grew warmer and sea levels rose, the valley bottom was gradually filled with sediments, producing the present level valley floor, bounded on either side by the steep slopes of the Udimore and Icklesham ridges, a surprisingly wide valley for such a modest river!

From the twelfth century onwards, the marshy valley floor began to be reclaimed for farming, starting with the parts nearer the valley walls and gradually extending closer to the river. However, severe storms during the latter part of the thirteenth century breached the natural shingle barrier across Rye Bay (destroying old Winchelsea in the process) and created a large tidal area extending at high tide as far up the Brede Valley as the present Brede Bridge. Besides flooding much of the newly reclaimed farmland, this inundation also opened up the river for trade between the hinterland and the towns of Rye and the new Winchelsea, reestablished on its prominent hilltop site in 1280 by order of Edward I.

Initially new Winchelsea prospered, but the town soon faced a severe problem: its newly constructed harbour began to silt up. Traces can still be seen of a 1,000 yard bund (the “Damme”) that was built right across the valley, probably with the intention of impounding water at high tide and releasing it at low tide, to scour out the new harbour. As this seems to have proved ineffective, an even more ambitious scheme was undertaken: for some four miles upstream of Float Farm the river was diverted into an entirely new channel, with a flooded tract some 165 yards wide, to increase the force of ebbing tides. Even this did not achieve the desired effect, and Winchelsea’s spasmodic economic decline continued.

The new channel did, however, make the river much easier for boats to navigate. Timber and iron products for shipbuilding were among the cargoes carried downstream by sailing barge to Winchelsea and Rye, and much later coal was shipped upstream from Rye to Brede Bridge, for onward transport to the Brede Pumping Station by light railway. The layby beside the A28 at the foot of Brede Hill continued as a coalyard well into the 20th century.

Easy access by water favoured the siting of great houses along both sides of the valley: William de Etchingham’s moated Court Lodge at Udimore, a moated manor house at Snailham, Crowham Manor, Westfield, and the gracious stone-built Brede Place.

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