In our new series of guides to Britain’s most fascinating, cultured and historic old towns, we begin with a visit to the East Sussex coast
Perched on a hill above the lowlands of Romney Marsh, this medieval citadel rises up like a historic beacon at the confluence of three rivers. It has been a favourite destination for royalty and writers through the ages, as well as harbouring criminals who used the port for ill-gotten gains. The High Street is one of England’s cutest, filled with quaint independent shopfronts, while the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve has a new Discovery Centre set to open later this year.
The town’s history
Rye is situated along the southern English coast between Hastings and New Romney, two of the five coastal towns that made up the original Confederation of Cinque Ports. This Anglo-Saxon initiative saw the towns receive tax exemptions and other privileges in return for maintaining ships for the crown. Rye began as one of two supporting towns, along with Winchelsea.
However, when New Romney was destroyed in the 1287 storms, the course of the River Rother was also diverted to Rye. As such, the town’s role in the confederation grew and a royal charter from Edward I was granted two years later. Rye would maintain close links with the monarchy thereafter. Edward III fought Spanish fleets off the coast in 1350 during the Hundred Years War, while Elizabeth I visited in 1573 and dubbed the town “Rye Royal” in recognition of the “noble entertainment” she received – that and 100 gold coins, which may also have swayed her favour.
In the mid-16th century revised customs tariffs made smuggling a more profitable business, one that had long centred on Rye anyway, given the proximity to mainland France across the English Channel. British wool was a major trade, while tea, tobacco and silks were all popular illegal imports to avoid the excess duties. One of the most notorious smuggling outfits was the Hawkhurst Gang, who operated from 1735 to 1749 and were known for violence and rowdy drunken behaviour.
A local hero
New York author Henry James first visited Rye in 1896, during which time he fell in love with this “pleasant little old-world town” and Lamb House in particular. He leased the redbrick townhouse the following year and went on to spend the last 19 years of his life there, writing classic early 20th-century novels such as Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors from the detached Garden Room in summer (since destroyed in the war) and the cosy Green Room during the rest of the year. War of the Worlds creator HG Wells and Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad were among the friends who visited Lamb House, while another writer EF Benson moved in following James’ death. Lamb House passed into National Trust care in 1950 and continued to welcome writers for many years. Today it is open to the public and pays tribute to James’ life and work.
Another local favourite is Sir Paul McCartney, who bought a 160-acre farm just outside Rye in 1975. The former Beatle has apparently been self-isolating there with his family during the lockdown and is occasionally spotted in the town.
Things to do
Don’t be disappointed to discover that The Mermaid Inn has been rebuilt. While that may suggest this is a modern tavern, it still dates back to 1420 – and the cellars from the original 1156 inn are still underneath too. With a 600-year history, this timber-framed property is rightly proud of its creaky floors and sloping ceilings. Settle by the fire with a drink or sample a traditional Sunday roast in Dr Syn’s Dining Room.
To find out more about this sleepy yet historic corner of Sussex, head to the Rye Heritage Centre. Alongside local history displays, there is a collection of vintage penny arcade machines drawn from piers around Britain and the famous Story of Rye show. The latter is set in a theatre and uses sound and light to animate a 1:100 scale model of Rye town centre that was handmade by local couple Joy and Ted Harland. And to get a better perspective on the full-size town, climb to the top of Ypres Tower – also known as Rye Castle. This grade I-listed sandstone structure was previously used to defend the coastline and also imprison smugglers. Today it is one of two sites for the Rye Castle Museum, with the second East Street branch featuring maritime and local history displays.
Place to stay
When it comes to distinctive B&Bs, Rye Windmill blows the competition away. This grade II-listed smock windmill has 10 plush en-suite bedrooms, but opt for The Windmill Suite. This unique room is situated across two octagonal floors inside the tower and has a private balcony on which to enjoy views across the River Tillingham and Romney Marsh beyond.
Talking of views, the one down Mermaid Street is perhaps the most picturesque and quintessentially English scene on the whole south coast. This steep, curving cobbled lane tumbles down the hill towards what Henry James called “the bright blue streak of the Channel”, as various ramshackle houses jostle for position along its length.
Extend your trip
Just east of Rye lies Camber Sands, the only proper dunes along East Sussex’s otherwise shingle-filled coast. Further around onto the heel of England and into Kent you’ll find Dungeness, a rather atmospheric corner of Romney Marsh home to a nature reserve, several lighthouses and late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage.
West of Rye is the seaside town of Hastings, famed for the 1066 battle won by the invading William the Conqueror. A 31-mile 1066 Country Walk route, meanwhile, joins Rye to Pevensey Castle.
Set in Rye in 1914, The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson is a poignant and gently satirical novel in the mould of PG Wodehouse. As new teacher Beatrice Nash settles her new life in Rye, Simonson describes the town in picturesque terms as “the pyramid of red-tiled roofs glow in the slanting evening light” and the surrounding fields “breathed out the heat of the day”.
Though not mentioned directly, Rye also doubled as the fictional town of Tilling in EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels – written while the author stayed at Lamb House.