Following last year’s trip to Whitstable for dinner this year Heather’s mum gifted her and I an entire night in the quaint old town of Rye. So saw us decamp for a couple of days to explore. While Whitstable offered the sea Rye, despite being a Cinque Port, no longer does—the sea having receded away from it. Nor, despite my insistence on referring to the song, were there ever seven seas. Still, it was a nice place to visit, even if there was only a brief burst of Sun.
Getting to Rye was a bit of a trek, involving too many changes of train. That included having to upgrade our ticket at the rather peculiar Ashford International because we’d taken a “fast” train. We did eventually arrive at Rye’s little station though, and armed with a map headed into the small town. We aimed for the Tourist Information, next to a river (there are too many rivers conjoin in Rye to ever seem certain of which is which). First though we spotted a windmill to be investigated. Though it turns out to be something of a reconstruction it’s still a pretty little landmark.
After the windmill, and delayed visit to the tourist information (which had a strange model of the town downstairs, and some fun old arcade games upstairs) we went to explore the little streets around that area. While a main road runs around the edge of Rye the interior of the town is still a sequence of small winding streets, some (notably Mermaid Street) still cobbled. I got us slightly confused with the map and which direction we were heading but it didn’t really matter as we found our first pub of the trip, the peculiarly shaped Olde Bell. There’s a little patio area outside which must be much nicer in warmer times, while inside was empty and lacking a little in charm (perhaps it just needs more people).
Following the Olde Bell it was back round some more of the streets, passing Lamb House and then down the quite marvellous Mermaid Street, with half timbered buildings and cobbles. It was there that we first noticed Rye’s penchant for naming things rather literally. There is the House With The Seat, which has a seat in the exterior porch, and The House With Two Front Doors (guess). Near the top resides the wonderful Mermaid Inn (opposite which is The House Opposite), once the haunt of smugglers, ancient coaching inn and steeped in history that practically drifts smoke-like from its secret passage concealing walls. Through the wood lined corridors at the rear is a cosy bar, with huge and welcomingly roaring fireplace. There we settled for a bit, to warm up if nothing else!
After refreshing ourselves in the Mermaid we headed down the hill of the street outside before heading back up the side of the cliff, finding the bell which was placed to commemorate that which used to stand at the appropriately named Watchbell Street. This was a reminder of Rye’s once harbour status; below us the sea once came lapping against the town. We headed up the street, calling in the quiet catholic church on the way. At the top of the lane is the further literally named Church Square. Here narrowed cobbled lanes lined by old houses surround the impressive and pretty parish church. Next to the church stands Rye Castle, known as Ypres Tower, a squat square with round towers at each corner.
A tower of another sort stands in the corner of the churchyard, an eighteenth century water cistern. Rye’s water system dates back to the 16th century and the cistern was used to store water pumped up from the water-house down the hill at the foot of Conduit Lane. A strange thing to find in a churchyard!
Around the corner from the church is the Town Hall, with typical open arcading where one can’t help see a market. From there the road leads down to the impressive solid building of the former grammar school, opposite our bed for the night, The George. The hotel has an old frontage covering an even older building, with hints of an internal courtyard speaking of coaching inns, but the feel of the place is actually peculiarly modern. The bedroom itself was in a little complex out back, built in that courtyard, one of a number of wooden “huts”. The room was large, and I suppose luxurious, but after there’s a comfortable bed and a decent bathroom I personally don’t see the point of much beyond that in a space one isn’t going to be occupying much almost by definition.
We decided to have dinner in the hotel (the food had been recommended by various people before they even realised that’s where we were staying) so while Heather got ready I went for another little wander around the town in the fading light. I had a walk down the High Street for a sneak preview of the Landgate and the few remains of the town walls near the station. The Ship Inn provided a convenient if somewhat disappointing rest point before heading back around the darkened Mermaid Street to the hotel.
Dinner was indeed as lovely as had been promised and came with a pitcher of water in the local style “gluggle jug” (or gurgle fish as I christened it)—something we were so taken with we would later buy one from the shop attached to the hotel. The whisky to send me to bed was nice too.
After breakfast in the hotel and leaving our few bags in their care we headed out to have a proper look at some of the highlights of the town. First I had to drag Heather out of a craft shop on the High Street, to walk along to the extant gate of the town wall, the Landgate (obviously so called because it was the gate leading in from the land, rather than the sea). It’s a solid building, it’s once portcullised gateway flanked by round towers, machicolations still present on the outer face. Along the road from the Landgate the last remains of the town walls stand, looking somewhat less impressive and forlorn. It’s a short stretch, ending at Conduit Lane, opposite which stands a pretty and quirky little building, a water house connected with Rye’s ancient water distribution system.
If there’s one landmark dominates the town it’s the church, so we headed up there for a closer look. It’s strangely crowded on the main town side, the town hall sitting immediately adjacent and close, while behind it opens up to the churchyard and the square around it. Within it’s a normal, if quite large, parish church (it was at this point my proper camera battery died and I realised rather annoyingly that I didn’t have a spare, even having returned to check the bags at the hotel). One interesting feature is that there are a couple of statues which stand atop the tower, to ring the quarter bells. The originals of these are inside the church, replicas now braving the weather.
That tower is open for a small fee, and we went climbing up the narrow passages and stairs, past the bell ringing stage and the bells, to the very top. It’s certainly worth it for the views, so long as one times it to not be next to the bells on the hour! The weather was conspiring to not be so miserable as it had been, with breaks in the clouds, as we gazed out across the flat lands that had once been sea. The river ran away below, the current line of the sea could just be glimpsed and in the middle distance the later artillery fort of Camber Castle could be seen.
We clambered back down the tower and, after a quick stop in a nearby gift shop, made our way under an actually sunny sky around Church Square to the other major landmark of Rye, the already mentioned Ypres Tower. The thirteenth century tower looks strangely isolated and vulnerable now the sea has gone far away, despite its strong round towers to each corner. Where once it loomed over and protected a busy harbour now there is a road and allotments, an open field and children’s playground. From the landside the tower seems dwarfed by the adjacent church. Before going in we had a bit of a break in the nice enough Ypres Castle Inn next door, where people had to sit at a very specific table for food.
Inside the castle is a mishmash of displays covering the various stages of its history (though sadly there’s no guidebook). As well as being a defensive bastion ready to repel the French (though it basically failed miserably to do so) the building almost inevitably became a prison (having been a private house for a while) and then slightly more unusually a morgue until surprisingly recently. The ground floor seems mainly given over to its history as a prison, with a dark and dank holding cell. There’s also a reproduction of the gibbet of John Breads, locally famous convicted murderer who’s body was left to hang in its cage (in a conflict of interest so common of the times the judge at his trial was the man Breads actually meant to kill!)
Upstairs there are some medieval weapons to look at and heft (chained safely away behind a screen with hand-holes) and a basic but informative interactive model of the surrounding countryside, which can be made to display the old shoreline and indicate surrounding towns. There’s also a viewing platform in the open air, giving a look over the farmland which would have been the sea (the view probably wasn’t quite so impressive having just come from the top of the church tower). There are a few more displays down in the bowls of the castle—it’s not the biggest or most exciting of places but its compactness does lend it a certain charm. Outside, alongside the main castle, is a later tower, built as a women’s prison and the far end of what was an exercise yard, now given over to a walled garden of sorts.
After all that we were thirsty and so the Mermaid couldn’t be resisted, heading down the hill to sit again by its huge fire as the weather turned back to damp and cold. I left Heather there briefly to go and collect the bags from the hotel, hurrying back to that fire! We were going to have dinner in the Mermaid but it turned out the restaurant opened just a bit too late so we made our way down to the rather average Simply Italian near the river. Following dinner it was time to head home. There was just time to stop in the Cinque Ports near the station before the trains took us through the night and home.
As usual, a big collection of photos