She stands a forlorn figure in Victorian dress, writes Robert Stevens. A small girl with a cane in her hand looking into the depths of the River Rother, with a blank glaze in her eyes. An angler who never left the river.
Cottage Hill in Rotherfield is the source of two great rivers in the South East, the Rother and the Medway. The Rother runs by Mayfield, under the disused Cuckoo Line and on to Etchingham, Robertsbridge and Bodiam, then on to the sea at Rye.
It’s little used now, but the Romans once navigated its waters and at the turn of the 19th century 16 barges plied the river. Its history can be traced by long lost forges, mills, a forgotten Cistercian Abbey at Robertsbridge and, of course, Bodiam Castle.
It was a hot day when she left home, the long summer spent playing in the fields or fishing in the river, and today was no exception.
Armed with a length of cane, some twine and a pot of worms, grubbed out from under stones and plant roots in the garden, she darted out of the door.
“Be home before dark!” her mother cried out. Maybe she did not hear but she was always home on time anyway.
The river at Robertsbridge is in places no more than 20ft across and it hid incredible opportunities for a child armed with even the most basic fishing gear, especially when she knew a spot by a secluded bend even her brothers were ignorant of.
Perhaps a few dace, maybe even a bright silvery brown trout to take home. Anything might lie in wait that afternoon.
As the day wore on the heat became more intense, humid and cloying, a storm brewing. By late afternoon, predictably, the dark clouds started to gather, ominously filling the sky more and more.
And then the rain started, at first in small blotches but then suddenly in torrents. Her mother looked at the sky, the brothers ran home soaked, but where was their sister? Probably in a friend’s house, sheltering on the way home.
The Rother has always been prone to flooding. The river is 35 miles long, the last 14 miles (beyond Bodiam) are actually below high tide level. Prolonged rain, especially combined with a high tide at Rye Bay can mean extensive floods.
In 1960, 31 square miles of countryside flooded, in places for months. The result was the building of 20 pumping stations. Water is also diverted to Darwell Reservoir where it supplies Hastings. In October 2000 drastic rainfall again saw the Ouse in Lewes flood the town. Uckfield town centre was inundated by the River Uck and Robertsbridge by the Rother.
By late afternoon they were getting worried. The rain was still hammering down, the river rising. It had already overflowed its banks.
Farmers were desperately trying to save their livestock, trees floated down under the bridges like giant battering rams. The water started to lap against the door as it got higher and higher.
“She’s with a friend,” said one of the brothers to try to reassure his mother. “I’ll go and fetch her later.”
The hours wore by. Night fell and the water steadily rose and rose. The as they sat by candlelight, there was a noise at the back door. A kind of thud, then a silence then another thud.
The brother walked to the door and pushed it open. “Fetch a lamp,” he said. Several inches of water gurgled over the step, flowing round something in the doorway.
She had come home, carried by the flood, her dead hand floating in the waves ‘thud ... thud ...’ against the door...
More on ghost walks and books at www.sussexguidedwalks.co.uk
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