A pocketful of Rye

In the first of a new series looking at the UK’s smaller and quirkier places, Abbe Bates visits the Cinque Ports town of Rye in East Sussex to reveal how its roots as a naval stronghold led to the formation of the picturesque town you see today.

Rye Harbour

Rye Harbour

As one of the best-preserved walled medieval hill towns in England, and also with a wonderful selection of Tudor and Georgian buildings, Rye has maintained a strong sense of its own identity in an age when many high streets have become carbon copies of one another. One of its great draws is its many independent shops, particularly its antiques outlets; in fact, aside from a spattering of high profile brand names such as Boots (whose store is quite small) along its many cobbled and tightly-packed streets, there are no signs of the major chain stores that have become a familiar sight in most of the UK’s towns and cities.

Looking up Lion Street to St Mary’s Church.

Looking up Lion Street to St Mary’s Church.

Its quirky and fiercely independent character has attracted artists and other creative people for centuries, and its artistic output still flourishes.

Rye became a senior member of the Cinque Ports Confederation, started by the ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich for mutual protection and trade purposes, in the latter part of the 12th century. It was an important supplier of ships to the Crown and a vital defence during the Hundred Years War with France in the 13th and 14th centuries, right up until the formation of a professional navy – the forerunner of the modern Royal Navy – at the end of the 16th century. Today, it is still a small port with a thriving fishing fleet and the post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports – previously held by such illustrious figures as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Sir Winston Churchill and the Duke of Wellington – remains, albeit in a purely ceremonial sense.

For a small town, Rye provides a very good coach park, situated behind the railway station at the foot of the town and is well served by its train links from Ashford International in Kent and along the south coast from Brighton and Eastbourne. Groups are able to pick up a group travel information pack at the TIC in Lion Street by the Town Hall and the groups department of 1066 Country Marketing can assist with any enquiries you may have and arrange preview visits. Additionally, the website www.visit1066country.com has dedicated group travel pages with downloadable itineraries and maps.

Rye Heritage Centre

Rye Heritage Centre

Even though the town’s hill-top location leads to some steep climbs in places, Rye’s size means that it is best explored on foot. It is compact enough to discover at your group’s own leisure, although there are good opportunities for your members to learn about specific aspects of the town with a guide should you wish.

Once you are in Rye, a good starting point is the Rye Heritage Centre on Strand Quay, a short walk south from the railway station. Open daily, a sound and light show centred around a model of the town – meticulously built by two local residents over four years – takes you through 700 years of local history and audio handsets can be hired to use as you walk around Rye, providing insight into the town’s architecture or its ghostly past, depending on your preference. There is also a lovely display of old ‘end-of-the-pier’ machines, which have been fully restored and are in working order.

Just past the Heritage Centre is Mermaid Street, perhaps the most famous of the town’s cobbled streets due to the Mermaid Inn. This was a notorious haunt of smugglers during the 18th century, when the activity was at its peak, and particularly the feared Hawkhurst Gang, who are said to have sat and drunk with loaded pistols on the table! The current building dates from the 15th century when much of the town was rebuilt after a raid by the French in 1377. The inn is now a high quality restaurant and hotel, and is perhaps an option for smaller groups visiting the town. You may even spot film stars such as Johnny Depp in the bar, visiting one of his favourite UK areas!

Lamb House

Lamb House

Mermaid Street is also where you will find the 15th century Hartshorn House and 16th century Jeake’s House. The former was the family home of 17th century diarist Samuel Jeake II and was used as a hospital during the Napoleonic wars; thus, although it is now a private house again, it is still known as ‘The Old Hospital’ and is worth stopping at if only to admire its brick and timbered front and distinctive three gables. The latter property, meanwhile, although known as Jeake’s House, was actually his former wool store and is now a pretty bed and breakfast.

At the top of Mermaid Street is the 18th century Lamb House. Now cared for by The National Trust, it has previously been home to some of Rye’s most famous literary residents. The American-born writer Henry James made it his home from 1898 until he died in 1916 and welcomed many visitors here including Edith Wharton. The prolific novelist and Mayor of Rye in the 1930s, E.F. Benson, lived at the house after James, until 1940. He created the Mapp and Lucia social comedies, which were set in the fictional town of Tilling, based on Rye. Rumer Godden was then resident in the late 60s and early 70s; one of her most famous novels is ‘Black Narcissus’, which was made into a film starring Deborah Kerr in 1947.
It is worth noting that as the house is one of the Trust’s smaller properties, visiting groups are split into parties of 15. A limited number of group visits are also available outside normal opening hours.

Ypres Tower

Ypres Tower

If you make your way up West Street from Lamb House, and turn left into Church Square, you will find the very large 12th century St Mary’s Church at the centre of a series of beautifully preserved medieval buildings, including Fletcher’s House, believed by some to be the abode where the 15th century Jacobean playwright John Fletcher was born, and now a tearoom. Climbing the tower of St Mary’s affords some wonderful views of the surrounding countryside and you can also see the original ‘Quarter Boys’, which stood above the clock face and used to strike each quarter hour, and learn how French raiders stole the church bells in 1377!

Just opposite is Ypres Tower, part of Rye Castle Museum. Built as a fort in 1249 by Henry III, shortly after he restored Rye from French control to the English Crown, it is the second oldest building in Rye open to the public. It was one of the few that survived the French raid of 1377 and has since been used as a home, court, prison and mortuary! Visitors today can see where prisoners were chained, a rare smuggler’s lantern and a relief model that shows the changes to the coastline and the defences against Napoleon. There is also a Medieval Garden at the site and, with notice, an expert on herbs from the period – who actually keeps the garden stocked – can come and talk to groups. Don’t miss the nearby Gun Garden, which provides lovely views out to the coast, giving a good idea of the area Rye used to cover before the sea retreated. The Gun Garden area is the former home of John Ryan, who created the children’s character Captain Pugwash.

Rye High Street

Rye High Street

If you follow Church Square around past the Tower, this leads to Market Street – the former Market Place. Turning left takes you to the Georgian Town Hall, which houses the Rye Gibbet Cage, containing the skull of butcher John Breads who was hung in chains for the murder of Deputy Mayor Allen Grebell in 1742, and can be toured by prior appointment. Turning right brings you to East Street, where the main site of Rye Castle Museum can be found. Here there are exhibitions about Rye’s history and many items from its past including its 18th century fire engine and displays dedicated to fishing, shipbuilding, Captain Pugwash and Rye Pottery, which you can read more about in the panel on page 25. Combined tickets for both sites can be purchased and groups are made welcome with special rates, the opportunity to arrange out of hours visits and guided tours.

Turning left at the end of East Street brings you onto Rye’s idyllic High Street with its eclectic mix of shops. It’s a good place to stop and browse for an hour or two and is home to Grammar School Records, a delightful independent music outlet that is a rare find nowadays, as well as some of the art galleries and antique outlets that you can read more about in the panel on page 25. If you follow High Street downhill, this brings you to the 14th century Landgate, through the town wall. In times past, when Rye was surrounded by the sea, this gate led to the one land access to the town.

Camber Castle.

Camber Castle.

For a group looking to stretch their legs even further, there are some wonderful walks to be had from the town into Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, where there are a network of footpaths on level ground and five bird hides. As well as this, there are block houses, Martello Towers and Henry VIII’s Camber Castle within its boundaries, which provide a physical timeline of the different defences used to protect the coast over the years. For very keen walkers, the 28-mile Royal Military Canal Path begins near Folkestone and passes through Hythe and Rye to Cliff End near Hastings, with many opportunities to spot flora and fauna along the way.

If you are thinking of staying for a few days in Rye, then there are several group-friendly accommodation options in the town and nearby village of Winchelsea, ranging from 18 to 28 rooms in size. If you choose to stay in Winchelsea, don’t miss the chance to explore St Thomas’ Church, where Spike Milligan is buried under the famous epitaph, ‘I told you I was ill’!


Antiques and Art Galleries

Rye is a haven for antiques outlets, art galleries and studios. Rye Tourist Information Centre provides a Rye Antiques Trail leaflet included in its group information pack, which details around 30 antiques shops in the town. They are dotted throughout Rye’s streets but there are a significant number clustered around Strand Quay near to Rye Heritage Centre, and you could easily spend a day exploring all they have to offer.

Rye and the atmospheric surroundings of Winchelsea and Romney Marsh have provided inspiration for many artists, including van Dyck and JMW Turner, and consequently, it has a lively arts scene. Amongst its wealth of galleries and studios is the Rye Art Gallery, on High Street, which was founded by Rye resident and artist, Mary Stormont. It extends over two sections; the Stormont Studio is the historic home of Mary Stormont and houses the gallery’s permanent collection of over 440 works by artists such as Edward Burra, Duncan Grant and Graham Sutherland, whilst the Easton Rooms offer a varied programme of at least six major exhibitions throughout the year including photography, glass and ceramics. Upcoming exhibitions include ‘Summer Show: Golden Heydays’ from 9th July to 4th September and ‘Boys’ Toys and Other Natural Disasters’ from 10th September to 9th October to coincide with the Rye Arts Festival. A great supporter was the animation artist, John Ryan, famous for creating the Captain Pugwash characters.

Rye Pottery is of particular and unique importance to the town and its most significant period was during the 1950s, when its innovative, distinctive and off the wall majolica designs became synonymous with the area. At one time, there were eight individual potteries in the town. Nowadays, you can only find one – Rye Pottery on Wish Ward. Groups are able to pop into the shop for a look around and, with prior warning, can also have a look at some of the artists at work.


Events in Rye

Rye hosts a number of events throughout the year including a Farmers Market every Wednesday at Strand Quay and a General Market every Thursday at the Cattle Market Car Park near the railway station; local fisherman also sell their catch daily from the refurbished Simmons Quay.

For the first time this year, Rye will be host to the Red Arrows on 11th June when they jet to the town following the Queen’s birthday celebration fly-past, and it is hoped the Reds over Rye spectacle will become an annual event.

The Rye Raft Race (17th July 2011) on the River Rother is a local highlight, with competing teams making and entering their own boats, whilst Rye Bonfire (12th November 2011) is part of a succession of events in Sussex throughout October and November organised by local bonfire societies, which date back to Pagan times.

Other staples in the annual event calendar include the Rye Bay Scallop Week in February, Rye Maritime Festival (14th August 2011), Rye Arts Festival (10th to 26th September 2011) and Taste of Rye in October.

Groups wanting further information on Rye can contact:
Rye Tourist Information Centre
at 4/5 Lion Street, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7LB

Tel 01797 229049
Fax 01797 229882
Email ryetic@tourismse.com
web www.visitrye.co.uk