Take a walk down cobbled streets and visit historic buildings from Tudor times in the medieval gem of Rye.
Daniel Owen recommends Rye
Want to fly away somewhere, but you are tired of modern skyscrapers, huge shopping malls, tooting cars, bustling crowds and restaurants that have music blaring out?
Well, look no further than Rye.
Nearly 700 years ago, this beautiful little town on the south-east coast of East Sussex, England, would have today been described as a seaside town. Time and storms pushed the sea a couple of miles away, but despite this, the busiest workers in Rye and neighbouring villages during the 17th and 18th centuries were still the smugglers.
A number of inns were used by the gangs to store their goods – the most notorious being the Hawkhurst Gang.
Nearly all of the buildings that stood hundreds of years ago remain and are inhabited – and the wonderful streets are still cobbled.
My favourite place
Believe it or not, it is a graveyard. For 900 years, St Mary’s Church has stood proudly looking over the town. I like nothing more than sitting in the graveyard and taking in all that is peaceful and thinking about the history that is all around me. From the top of St Mary’s church tower, you can view the cobbled streets, secret passages and centuries-old houses and inns. The “new” part of the church is a mere 450 years old – the church clock, one of the oldest in the country. You can see the eight bells as you climb the stairs to the top of the church, which is open to visitors all year round. Church Square and nearby streets, including Watchbell Street, are regularly used for the filming of period films or television programmes. Indeed, a television company is there right now filming a new series of one of the UK’s most popular programmes of the 1980s, Mapp and Lucia, based on the books written in the 1920s and 1930s by Rye resident E.F. Benson.
After clearing your head of the world’s troubles and listening to the silence by sitting in the graveyard, you can take the short walk to the Mermaid Inn in Mermaid Street or, in the opposite direction, enjoy a drink and some home-made food in the Ypres Castle Inn, known to locals as “The Wipers”. Take your drink and meal out to the garden and enjoy looking over the Rye Gun Gardens. Look a bit further and you can see Camber Sands, miles of sandy beach. The Mermaid Inn was built in the 1100s and is said to be one of Johnny Depp’s favourite hotels. Other guests have included Pierce Brosnan and many members of the British royal family. And once you see it, you can see why. It has a strong connection with the Hawkhurst Gang who, it is said, used to smuggle their wares through a secret tunnel that led into the huge inglenook fireplace in the hotel. When you first enter the Mermaid, you will see a picture gallery of many of the celebrities who have stayed there. Sir Paul McCartney, a local resident, is a regular visitor.
Hardly any to think of, though the summer months bring with them thousands of tourists anxious to get a look and feel of the history, which is all over this town. So be prepared, which means, of course, that you have to get in early to book a hotel, bed and breakfast or a dinner reservation.
Rye is well known for its pottery and antiques, so you must have a browse in some of the many shops selling such items. If you want to name your home, you can have a house-name plaque or simply just a door number made. Farm animals, plates and cups are also very popular and, because of the name of Rye, hold their value. There are a number of souvenir shops where, if it’s your thing, you can buy usual kitsch offerings such as a tea towel with a map of the town printed on it.
Where to stay
There are so many choices, but the obvious one is the Mermaid Inn. Among its bedrooms – many of which are said to be haunted – are the Elizabethan Chamber and Dr Syn’s Bedchamber, which has a concealed secret staircase behind its bookcase. But, in my opinion, one of the nicest places to stay – and cheaper than the Mermaid – is Jeakes House. Situated on the cobbled Mermaid Street, it dates back to the 16th century and guests are afforded a wonderful and friendly welcome from proprietors Jenny Hadfield and Richard Martin.