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If you want to experience a traditional, historic, picturesque little English town, then Rye is the place. Situated in the south of England, in East Sussex, it is easily accessible by either car or train. I will admit at the outset that I absolutely adore this little town, and it has played a crucial role in my family history, so my opinion is fairly one-sided!
Firstly for some of the historical background. Rye, an ancient Cinque Port Town sits on a sandstone hill, from which you can get fantastic views of the surrounding area, including Romney Marsh and the sea. The positioning of the town was essential for the defensive role it has played, guarding the coast from foreign invasion. It was incorporated into the group of Cinque Ports in 1289, and has firstly helped to protect the country from invaders, and secondly, has contributed to the trade of the country, since it was previously a sea port. Rye has managed to survive many attacks from the French, particularly during the hundred years war, and some of the stone buildings you see still bear these marks of attack.
During the 16th century, at least 200 ships were able to anchor near the Strand Gate, and every conceivable item was traded along Strand Quay. This of course also meant that smuggling was a problem, and apparently, even in Rye today there are still many hidden underground passages. I always find it more interesting to find out something like this – it’s fascinating to imagine what might have gone in the town (and maybe still does!). Apparently there are ghost tours you can take which might give you some further information, although I have never done this.
During the C17th however, the harbour gradually silted up. Today, if you come to Rye, you can see that the town is a real hotch potch of buildings from different historical eras. Tudor buildings stand crowded together either side of little cobbled streets, mixed in with the odd Georgian building. The most famous street in Rye, and one which will you will undoubtedly see reproduced on postcards, paintings and prints from the town, is Mermaid Street. A fairly steep cobbled street, it is incredibly picturesque and is the perfect place to stroll along with your partner on a Sunday afternoon in the summer. Happy memories…
There is an atmosphere of peace, and calm here. There is nothing ‘exciting’ or ‘adventurous’, so this is not necessarily the place to appeal to everyone. If you are happy just to wander around, calling into a quaint English tearoom for afternoon tea, and then maybe visiting the Church, or the potteries, looking round craft shops, art galleries and twisty back streets, possibly buying a locally made ice cream, then you’ll enjoy it here. In the summer you may come across street fairs, one of which (In August) is based around a medieval theme, in keeping with the history of the town. There are also traditional little inns and pubs, serving local ales. Sussex is of course right next to the hop-growing county of Kent.
If you are looking for a tearoom, I highly recommend Simon the Pieman. You will be served tea and a variety of fattening (but yummy) cakes in a very traditional English setting and manner – almost like stepping into a historical film! A complete contrast to the fast food, throwaway, ‘plastic’ way of living that so many people make do with nowadays. Another place well worth a look is “Ye Olde Tucke Shoppe”. I remember when I was small I used to try to persuade my mum and grandmother to buy me little pink sugar mice from here! Always a treat, even now. Ye Olde Tucke Shoppe is a traditional English bakery, with all goods made to old family recipes and cooked in a 200 year old brick oven. Oh and I’ve just remembered, they sell Hedgehog bread! This too used to be a treat – basically it is just bread made into the shape of a prickly hedgehog, but it always tasted better like this! I’ve recently discovered that this bakery is actually owned by a Webb family – I wonder if they are any relations of mine, since our family comes from the Rye and Romney Marsh area.
If you want to get a fantastic panoramic view of Rye, over the town itself as well as further afield, then go to St Mary’s Church, where you can climb up the Tower (warning – wear trousers for this – do not make the same mistake I did and go up in a short skirt and sandals – there are ladders to climb!). Once up on the top of the tower, the view is amazing, you can see directly over the patchwork of historical roofs and streets, and further out, to the Ypres Tower (built as a medieval form of defence and known to the locals as Wipers Tower), and over to the sea, and the Marsh. Take a camera – I have got some spectacular pictures from this vantage point. You have to pay to go up the Tower, but it is only in the region of a pound or so, and well worth it.
Another place well worth visiting is the tourist information centre, situated near to the harbour. You’ll find a model of the town, and a 20 minute audio visual presentation giving you further information about the history of the town. Staff are on hand too if you have any further questions. Maybe once you’ve been here, the harbour will tempt you. Taking a walk along here is always great fun, and there is a little craft shop nearby which sells items made with the theme of the harbour and the sea – crafted from shells and driftwood for example. If you are artistic then Rye may give you some inspiration!
And as a final point, if you are wondering what Rye has to do with my own family history, well, in 1928 there was a famous lifeboat tragedy, on board the Mary Stanford lifeboat, and all those on the lifeboat were killed (17 men). My great grandfather was a member of this lifeboat crew, but was ill in bed the day this tragedy occurred – which, from our point of view, was incredibly lucky! You can find out information about this in the tourist information office.
Overall then, a fantastic little town, well worth a visit for anyone who is looking for a pleasant way to while away a sunny afternoon. You can spend as much money or as little money as you like here, since much of the enjoyment is gained simply from wandering along the historic streets, and looking in the galleries and craft shops. If you decide to visit, have a great time! The bank holiday weekend is looming - this is the perfect place to visit.