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Visiting Winchelsea

Winchelsea town with sign in spring and church walls by ancient houses in East Sussex
Winchelsea town | © National Trust Images/Nick Dautlich

Once one of the busiest ports in the country, Winchelsea may now appear quiet but look around you and the evidence of its importance during the medieval period can still be found. The variety of habitats surrounding the town also makes it a haven for wildlife. Criss-crossed by a network of footpaths, Winchelsea is a great place to explore.


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The National Trust’s Winchelsea Landscape Revival Project information

The ancient town of Winchelsea

Created by Edward I in 1288 as a replacement for Old Winchelsea, which washed away during heavy storms, the town sits on top of Iham Hill, overlooking the English Channel and the Brede Valley.

The hill already held a small settlement, including the church of St Leonard, but Edward had grander ideas. Three men, Stephen de Pencester, Henry le Waleys and Gregory de Rokesle, were instructed to design streets and lanes, a market place and sites for two churches. Altogether Edward took 149½ medieval acres, keeping 12 acres for himself.

Winchelsea became a Cinque Port in the twelfth century and The Corporation continue the tradition of electing a mayor and jurats.

Visiting Winchelsea

Laid out in a grid pattern with the church at its centre, the town is easy to explore. Winchelsea railway station is a 15-minute walk from the centre and buses from Hastings and Rye also stop in the town. By car, Winchelsea is located on the A259 between Hastings and Rye and on-street parking is available.

Historic buildings in Winchelsea

Small but beautiful, Winchelsea is full of interesting buildings, including some cared for by the National Trust, such as the Rookery and Blackfriars Barns and Salutation Cottages.

If you follow the 1066 Footpath south-westward you will pass the remains of St John’s Gable, formerly a medieval hospital, and arrive at the magnificent Wickham Manor (not open to the public).

This medieval manor house was once owned by the Penn Family, founders of Pennsylvania in the United States of America. Continue on, and a glorious view of the Pett Levels and the English Channel opens up, underlining the strategic importance of the town’s location.

Walking on history

Follow Mill Road westward from the town, taking care as you cross the A259, and you will arrive at the Beacon. This mound was the former site of a windmill and before that, St Leonards Church. There are great views of the Brede Valley from here and the network of ditches that drain the land can be clearly seen.

Look harder and you may spot the remains of the former tidal creeks that flowed here. With an original estimated population of between 4,000 – 6,000 people, much of this land contains undiscovered archaeology - you will be walking above long-forgotten streets and houses.

Medieval cellar tours

Step into the story of this ancient town with a tour of its medieval cellars. Winchelsea has some of the finest medieval cellars in the country, dating back to the foundation of the town in about 1290. Although the cellars have been in use for centuries, it's thought that they were mainly used for storing wine imported from France during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Today you can still marvel at these hidden wonders on a guided tour, which take place on most Saturdays between April and October. For dates and times see Winchelsea Cellars tours website.

Please note that these tours are not operated by the National Trust and there is a charge, including for National Trust members.

Wickham Manor Farm buildings seen in the distant countryside, near Winchelsea in Sussex
Wickham Manor Farm near Winchelsea | © National Trust Images/David Sellman

Winchelsea Landscape Project

With a significant proportion of farmland having come back into the direct care of the National Trust, we now have an exciting opportunity to re-look at how we manage the landscape around Winchelsea.

The area is special. It is home to a diverse range of rare or threatened wildlife including skylarks, water voles and dragonflies, as well as protected archaeological features. With the world in a biodiversity and climate crisis, the National Trust, as the largest conservation charity in Europe, sees Winchelsea as part of the solution.

Our vision is to significantly increase biodiversity within the Winchelsea and Brede Valley landscape by restoring natural processes to our land holding, allowing nature to recover, wildlife to thrive and climate and the environment to become more resilient.

By devising a scheme that combines regenerative farming techniques with natural recovery we will maximise the benefits for people, carbon, and nature.

“The National Trust was set up as a charity to look after places of historic interest, natural beauty and nature. 128 years on and nature in the UK is in a perilous place; the common is becoming rare, and the rare is threatened with extinction. The Trust is committed to respond to this crisis and this will require action on a large scale to revive landscapes so that nature can thrive.

I am delighted with the proposals at Winchelsea and am really looking forward to seeing how nature responds as the project develops.”

Harry Bowell

Executive Director of Land and Nature for the National Trust

Image of a healthy water course in Winchelsea
A healthy water course in Winchelsea | © NT / Michael Howard

Winchelsea Landscape Project - timeline & blog


More fencing

Due to the extremely wet weather so far this year, the fencing project has slowed down considerably, as the fencers just can’t get the materials on site without churning up the fields. However, some progress has been made, and a large field in the Crutches Farm area has now been completed. The Sussex Cattle, that have been grazing the slopes to the west of the town, have now been moved up to this newly fenced area, so will only be seen from a distance for the time being.


Laying hedges

Last month we started having some of our hedges laid. Laying a hedge involves cutting the trunk of the tree low down and then carefully laying the tree down to approximately 45 degrees. Then stakes are used to weave the trees into the hedgerow. This process makes it not only a thick, livestock-proof barrier, but also creates a really good habitat for many species including Bank Voles, Hedgehogs, Yellowhammers, Whitethroats and many different insects.

We hope to lay more hedges this coming autumn/ winter.

Sussex cattle laying in a field with a valley and ditches beyond
Sussex cattle in Winchelsea | © NT/ Andrew Dyer
Two hedge-laying men stood in front of a recently laid hedge
Hedge-layers in-front of a newly laid hedge | © NT / Andrew Dyer

The National Trust’s Winchelsea Landscape Revival Project information

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