Heading for London? Have a day to spare? Here's a wonderful one-day excursion to one of England's most charming villages, taken directly from the pages of our guidebook Daytrips London and slightly modified for web use. Print it out, take it along, and enjoy the trip!
A relic from the Middle Ages, the once-great seaport of Rye got stranded when its harbor silted up in the 16th century. Today, only small craft can sail the two miles up the River Rother to the town's quayside. In a way, this is fortunate, as it left England with a well-preserved port that still clings to its salty past. Rye is alive with the smell of the sea, and working fishermen still walk its ancient streets, side by side with their many visitors. For tourists, it easily ranks as one of the most enjoyable towns in Britain.
Trains depart London's Charing Cross or Victoria stations frequently for either Ashford or Hastings, where you change to a local for Rye. The total journey takes less than two hours. Return trains run until mid-evening, with reduced service on Sundays and holidays. Current schedules and routes are available on the web at nationalrail.co.uk.
By Car, the shortest route is to take the A21 from London to Flimwell and change to the A268. Rye is 63 miles (100 km) southeast of London.
Rye may be savored on a fine day in any season. The local Tourist Information Centre, T: (01797) 226-696 or W: visitrye.co.uk, is at The Quay in the Heritage Centre. They offer an audio walking tour of the town, available in English and other languages. Outdoor markets operate on Thursdays near the train station. The annual Rye Festival, held for two weeks in early September, offers music, literary events, films, visual arts, workshops, and children's events, W: ryefestival.co.uk. Rye is in the county of East Sussex and has a population of about 4,500.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Rye has plenty of quaint old inns, tea shoppes, and pubs. Some choices are:
Flushing Inn (Market St., near the Town Hall) A 15th-century inn noted for its seafood. T: (01797) 223-292, W: theflushinginn.com. X: Mon. eve., Tues. £££
Mermaid Inn (Mermaid St.) An old smugglers' haunt from the 15th century. T: (01797) 223-065, W: mermaidinn.com. £££
Fletcher's House (Lion St., just north of St. Mary's Church) Enjoy meals in an historic medieval house. T: (01797) 222-227. X: weekdays. ££
The Lemon Grass (1 Tower St., just outside the Land Gate) Tasty Thai cuisine; seafood, meat, poultry, or vegetarian. T: (01797) 222-327. ££
Ypres Castle (Gun Garden, below Ypres Castle) A cozy pub with good lunches and a great view. Dine indoors or in the garden. T: (01797) 223-248, W: yprescastleinn.co.uk. £ and ££
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Leaving the Train Station (1), walk straight ahead and turn left on Cinque Ports Street. In a few yards you will pass remnants of the original 14th-century town walls, just behind a parking lot. The Land Gate (2) is the only remaining town gate of the three that once protected Rye. It was probably constructed about 1340 and originally contained machinery for a drawbridge scross the town ditch.
Walk uphill along Hilder's Cliff, enjoying the marvelous views across the Romney Marsh. Much of this lowland was once an open ocean, but that was before the sea receded as the River Rother silted up and the tides washed countless pebbles onto the shore.
Make a right down Conduit Hill to the Augustine Friary (3), commonly known as The Monastery. Originally built in 1379, it served as a refuge for persecuted French Huguenots in the 16th century. Today it houses a pottery that's open to the public. Now return to High Street and follow it to the Old Grammar School, erected in 1636 and immortalized by Thackeray. Opposite this is the 400-year-old George Hotel.
A left onto Lion Street leads past Fletcher's House, once a vicarage and now a restaurant. The dramatist John Fletcher was born here in 1579. At the corner of Market Street stands the Town Hall (4), which contains some interesting artifacts including the gruesome gibbet cage with the remains of a notorious 18th-century murderer who was executed in the town.
In a few more steps you will come to *St. Mary's Church (5), first erected between 1150 and 1300. Facing the top of Lion Street is the *Church Clock, the oldest in England still functioning with its original works. Two figures above the clock strike the quarter hours but not the hours. A plaque between them proclaims "For our time is a very shadow that passeth away." Climbing to the top of the *Tower is well worth the effort. An extremely narrow staircase leads to the bell-ringing room where various combinations of "changes" are posted. In the same room is the venerable clock mechanism, complete with an 18-foot-long pendulum. A ladder goes to the bell room itself, and another to the roof, from which there's an unsurpassed *view of the entire area. A visit to the church interior is also worthwhile. T: (01797) 222-430. Tower open Mon.-Wed. and Fri. 9-6; Thurs. 10:40-6; Sat. 9-5:30; Sun. 11:40-5:30. ££.
Across from the churchyard stands a curious oval-shaped brick water reservoir, built in 1735 but no longer used. Bear right and stroll down to Ypres Tower (6) (photo, above). Pronounced by the locals as Wipers, this is the oldest existing structure in town. Largely unchanged since it was first constructed as a defensive fortification around 1249, it ceased to have any military value in later years and became home to one John de Ypres. The town bought it back in 1513 for use as a jail, a function it served until 1865. Now part of the Rye Castle Museum, the tower houses artifacts related to smuggling, law and order, and iron work. There is a good view from its terrace. Just below this is the Gun Garden, an emplacement for artillery pieces that once defended England's shores. The rest of the museum is located nearby on East Street. Here you can see local pottery, Rye's old fire engine, fashions from the past, model ships, and much more from the town's illustrous past. T: (01797) 226-728, W: ryemuseum.co.uk. Open April-Oct., Thurs.-Mon. 10:30-1 and 2-5. Closed Tues. and Wed., and Nov.-March. Combined admission ££.
Walk down lovely, cobbled Church Square. This soon becomes Watchbell Street, whose name derives from the warning bell once housed there. Along the way you'll pass a Spanish-style Catholic church. At its end is the Lookout, overseeing the harbor.
Traders Passage leads to *Mermaid Street (photo, above), quite possibly the most picturesque thoroughfare in all England. Go uphill to the Mermaid Inn (7), a famous hiding place for smugglers and highwaymen, first built in the late 15th century and much altered over the years. It is now a hotel and restaurant, the perfect spot for a refreshment break. Walk through a passage into the courtyard for a look.
Continue up Mermaid Street and tuen right on West Street. Here, where the street bends, is the Lamb House (8), formerly the residence of the Lamb family, which for a long time provided several of Rye's mayors. Henry James lived in this house from 1897 until 1916, writing several of his best-known novels here. A later occupant was the writer E.F. Benson, whose Mapp & Lucia stories are set in the fictional town of Tilling — which all his fans know is really Rye. It is now owned by the National Trust. T: (01580) 762-334, W: nationaltrust.org.uk. Open April-Oct., Thurs. and Sat. only, 2-6, last admission at 5:30. ££.
Stroll back down West Street to High Street and turn left to The Mint, then make a right turn into Needles Passage. This narrow lane takes you through a gap in the old Town Wall and down a few steps. Follow the map down Wish Street and turn left just before the bridge, leading onto The Strand. Here you'll find an interesting group of 19th-century warehouses (9) bearing testament to the town's past as a trading port. One of these houses the Heritage Centre and Tourist Office, as well as the acclaimed Story of Rye, a highly-entertaining sound-and-light show enveloping a three-dimensional model of the town. Another attraction is the Old Pier Working Models, a collection of antique penny-arcade amusements that you can operate. T: (01797) 226-696, W: ryeheritage.co.uk. Open daily 9-5:30; 10-4 in the off-season. ££.
Before leaving Rye, you might want to take a delightful stroll in the countryside. From the bridge at the foot of Wish Street it is only about 1½ miles to Camber Castle (10), built by Henry VIII in the 16th century to keep the Pope out. Just follow the map to the public footpath along the River Brede, a well-marked trail leading through pleasant sheep-grazing land. The walk is worthwhile even if the castle is closed. T: (01797) 223-862, W: english-heritage.org.uk. Castle open July through Sept., weekends only, 2-5, last admission at 4:30. £.
Copyright © 2003 Earl Steinbicker. Updated to 2008.
We've replaced the B&W photos in the book with newer color photos obtained from the Rye Tourist Office, colored the map, and updated the factual information.
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