Could Rye be the prettiest town in East Sussex? It has a lot of strong competition for that particular crown. Rye is a unique coastal town, sitting on the edge of the county the town is a perfectly preserved time capsule from an earlier age. Once completely surrounded by the sea, the community sits perched on top of a rocky outcrop and offers visitors amazingly picturesque views of the local countryside. In fact, many believe it is this outcrop that gives the town its name. In Norman French, the word ‘rie’ means bank, although others suggest it is a mangling of the Saxon word for ‘an island.’ The cobbled streets maybe hard to walk on but the visual effect is stunning against the huge collection of beautiful ancient buildings that include the magnificent St Mary’s Church. Inside visitors to this 12th Century building can often see and, perhaps more importantly, hear amazing classical concerts whilst others may chose to climb the hundreds of steps inside the tower to reach the top. After some degree of gymnastics and climbing visitors can from this vantage point, a further fifty odd feet from the ground, see the vista of East Sussex and the distant Romney Marsh and the English Channel can be seen.
For such an ancient town, there is a wealth of interesting places to find; The Mermaid Inn, where one can enjoy a refreshing drink, claims to have some of the oldest cellars in the country dating back to 1156. With the creak of the floorboards it’s easy to imagine sharing a brew or two with history in the Grant’s Fireplace Bar. In the 1730’s and 1740’s the bar was the haunt of the notorious Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers who caroused in the bar while avoiding the attention of the authorities.
Another pub in Rye worthy of mention is The Standard Inn, a relative newcomer dating back to the 15th Century, but it has been featured in The Times top 25 best places to eat in Britain. The food is exceptionally fresh and local with lamb from the Romney Marsh and fish brought ashore in Rye Harbour, less than half a mile away.
Step away from the busy High Street and the back alleys and passageways come alive as you walk carefully from one picture perfect cobbled street to another. Traditional butcher’s shops, bakeries, and small independent businesses offer tourists an incredibly diverse range of goods from essentials to the downright quirky. You cannot fail to notice Rye’s impressive fortifications built to protect the town from marauding bands of French pirates from the time when Rye was one of the southeast’s most important trading ports in the 11th Century. Of the original four gates to the town, only Landgate survives today, but if you look closely at the fabric of Old Borough Arms Hotel, you can still just make out some remains of the destroyed Strandgate tower. Ypres Tower was added to the defences in the 13th century and has had a chequered history serving as defences, court, soup kitchen, mortuary, as a prison but today is a wonderfully enlightening museum. Originally it was known as Baddyngs Tower but in 1430 was leased to John de Ypres, hence the name. During its time as a prison you can hear and see the grizzly tale of murderer John Breeds along with his skeletal remains.
Rye has long been a place that inspires art and literature with J M W Turner having painting a great many landscapes across the area as did the influential artist James Whistler. In Lamb House an 19th century artists colony was established and amongst the notable greats who called Rye home was Henry James, author of Portrait of a Lady and Turn of the Screw. Lamb House later became home to brothers A C and E F Benson who penned the Mapp and Lucia stories. Between 1967 and 1974 the author of Black Narcissus, Rumer Godden also called Rye home. When it comes to modern art then the cartoonist who brought the Captain Pugwash stories to life, John Ryan provided the images for 126 episodes of the classic children’s tales.
Descend to the harbour side where antique dealers are plentiful. Then take a leisurely stroll out over the salt marshes to the ruins of Camber Castle. Looming in the distance like a pile of tidy stones the castle has long been abandoned but was originally built by King Henry VIII to defend Southern England. Back when it was built Rye was one of the important Cinque Ports and was deserving of its own large castle that was, at the time completely, surrounded by water. Today the castle sits in the middle of farmers’ fields and whilst not usually open, the public are allowed in on special, although rare, tours of the site.
Rye is a fascinating and bewitching town with feet firmly set both in the present and the past.