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There's everything an anglophile could want, in Rye

By Paul Knowles. Photos by Nancy Knowles.

It could be argued that there are two types of touristy towns in the United Kingdom. There are those that make fine "base camps" for explorations of the areas around them, and then there those that invite the traveller to leave the car in the parking lot, and spend several days simply savouring the community itself.


The town of Rye, very near the southern coast of East Sussex, is quintessentially in category two.

This is not to say that there are no nearby attractions ­ in fact, many of the finest things in south-east England are within easy day-tripping distance, from great gardens to wonderful castles to lovely coastal communities. It's just that, once you have carried your bags into one of Rye's excellent bed and breakfasts or inns, you will cherish the opportunity to explore this fascinating community at your leisure.

Rye's narrow, winding, cobblestone streets are an irresistible invitation to exploration. You can't hurry ­ many of the streets are on a sharp incline, with the cobblestones demanding carefully balanced pedestrian navigation ­ so you might as well take the time to enjoy every step. The town rewards such careful consideration.

A Cinque Port

CrossThe town of Rye is one of the famous "Cinque Ports" of the south shore of England, coastal communities so designated for their important roles in the defence of the realm. The name comes from the French for five ports, so in the truly eccentric style of the British, there are seven. Truth is, while there once were indeed five, since 1289 there have been seven "Cinque Ports" ­ Rye, nearby Winchelsea, Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, Romney and Hythe. The towns were awarded special trading rights and lower tariffs in exchange for providing ships for the defense of the crown; Rye's contract specified that the town would contribute five vessels.

Those vessels were probably used for other, less legal purposes; most of the time ­ this was a town known for various outside-the-law seafaring activities including, of course, smuggling. One of the fine B&Bs in the town, Little Orchard House, has a four-storey smugglers' tower in its garden, originally used to watch for the authorities, today a unique apartment. In the comfortable gardens at Little Orchard House are baskets full of old clay pipe stems, left behind by early "entrepreneurs" who smoked a peaceful pipe while on the lookout for the law.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Rye's status as a "Cinque Port" is that the town is no longer a seaport; the seafront has silted up, extending the coast by several miles, although there is still access to the ocean, and a busy quay on the riverfront ­ which happens to be a great place to eat takeaway fish and chips.

Heritage abounds

The smugglers' tower is in a private garden, but there are plenty of historic buildings and bits open to the public. Visitors can explore the grounds of the Ypres Tower ­ pronounced by all locals as "Wipers" ­ which was built more than seven centuries ago as part of the much larger defenses of the town. Another impressive survivor of that era is the Landgate, arching over one of the entrances to the old town. Camber Castle, of the Henry VIII era, is reached by footpaths across marches outside town.

Of course, while the folks of Rye understand the important of heritage, they also know that travellers ­ and residents alike ­ should never find themselves too far from sustenance of a more practical nature. So adjacent to the Ypres Tower, with its 'Gun Garden' still amply supplied with cannons, is the Ypres Inn Pub, an authentic British pub with a menu of surprising variety and quality. And just down the street from the Landgate is the Landgate Bistro, a higher end restaurant with superb food.

Those kinds of juxtapositions abound in Rye. This town does treasure its heritage ­ one of the more intriguing local attractions is a much-touted "Rye Town Model", a miniature version of the town located (oddly enough) in a modern building on the Quay, where visitors can experience sound and light effects accompanying a narration of the history of the town. So heritage is everywhere ­ but so are restaurants, tea shops, pubs, and the kind of shops that appeal to visitors ­ giftware, antiques, art, books.

Anyone intrigued by any of those categories could spend a very happy day poking about in small shops overstocked with treasures. My personal favourites are the antiquarian book stores and the antique shops. Full disclosure: I have become so carried away with the unusual and rare volumes on the shelves of the used books stores that I once purchased an expensive C.S. Lewis first edition only to return home to discover I had bought the identical book years before ­ in the very same shop in Rye! That¹s the kind of spell these shops ­ and their often eccentric shopkeepers ­ can cast.

Among the very best browsing and shopping opportunities are presented by the antique stores, including the crowded, dusty shops and stalls near the Quay; by the stores selling ceramics, including number plaques for your home; by the pastry shops (including the venerable Simon the Pieman, reputedly patronized by Sir Paul McCartney, who lives nearby. It must be admitted, thought, that it is easier to find people who have heard of his visits than to track down those who have actually witnessed them).

But feel free to keep an eye out for the former Beatle, as you wander the winding streets of Rye. The old town is practically circular, defined by three rivers that guard Rye on three sides ­ the Rother, the Breede, and the Tillingham, all on a meandering search for the nearby sea. Streets curve and twist ­ and rise and fall dramatically ­ so it doesn't hurt to have a street map in your back pocket on your first excursion or two. The shopping area covers many of these streets, which have evocative, historic names like the High Street, Cinque Ports Street, The Mint, Lion Street, Watchbell, Traders' Passage, Rope Walk, and Mermaid Street.

Accommodations and dining

Mermaid Street is home to Jeakes House, an elegant and beautifully furnished Bed and Breakfast that is one of my two favourite places to stay in Rye (along with Little Orchard House). I enjoy Jeakes House because of its heritage, and its ambience. It was built as a wool store in 1689, and has since been a Baptist school (today guests breakfast in the high-ceilinged chapel). Both Jeakes House and Little Orchard House offer rooms furnished with antiques, four-poster beds and spectacular service. But there is plenty of choice when it comes to local accommodation ­ Rye offers the full gamut of places to lay your head, from modern motels to self-catering homes to ancient inns.

The same variety is true of the dining choices, which are innumerable on most nights, although visitors should check to be sure their chosen establishment is in fact open for business on Sunday evenings or Mondays.

Not to be missed

If you spend several days in Rye ­ and that is truly the only way to really enjoy this historic and welcoming town ­ you will undoubtedly find yourself wiling away the hours over leisurely afternoon teas, or slow pints of local bitter in the early evening. You'll enter a crowded book shop or antique store, and emerge hours later, all unaware of the time passing. But there are some specific attractions that you should not miss.

One local highlight is the church ­ and the Church Square. The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin is a lovely, ancient church that has stood at the high point of Rye for almost 900 years. It is still very much a functioning place of worship, but it understands its dual role as a tourist attraction, with the tower often open to be climbed for a view (at a price), and well-researched guidebooks available for sale.

The church is of interest to fans of architecture, with features like Norman animal heads, flying buttresses, and an ancient clock mechanism featuring the "Quarter-Boys" ­ cherubic figures high on the tower, visible from outside the front of the church as they strike the quarter hours. Recent history is not forgotten ­ the beautiful stained glass of the east window was installed to replace windows destroyed by German bombing in World War II.

One less-noted feature of the church is a small but intriguing used book rack operated on the honour system; I usually come away with a treasure or two, duly paid for in the appropriate slot.

Church Square, encompassing the churchyard, features timbered houses so ancient their entrances are well below street level, presenting a head-bashing danger to anyone entering. Just around the corner, on West Street, is a slightly more modern home ­ Lamb House, once home to novelist Henry James, now a National Trust building rented to a tenant, but open to the public Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. The house is mildly interesting, but the walled garden is wonderful, especially enjoyed by lovers of things horticultural.

When you venture forth

Rye is a perfectly fetching destination in its own right, but it must be said that there are other wonderful attractions within easy reach, during your stay. These would include the famous cliffs and fabulous castle at Dover; the stereotypically perfect moated castle, Bodiam; Battle Abbey, site of the history-altering invasion of 1066; and many great gardens, including Sissinghurst, Scotney Castle, and the tiny perfect gardens of Henry VIII¹s Walmer Castle. Nature lovers will find plenty of eco-attractions in and around the nearby Romney Marsh, as well as at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.

Finally, it's the people

So, yes, enjoy the attractions in the Kent and Sussex countryside around Rye. But be sure to give this town ­ and its people ­ the time and attention they deserve. Rye is, in the current British vernacular, "brilliant". It's everything a visitor to England could want, in microcosm.

And its people tend to be charming, friendly and convivial, from the voluble booksellers to Jenny Hadfield, owner of Jeakes' House; from the volunteers at St. Mary the Virgin church to the aproned waitress in the tea shop found up a pathway from a cobblestoned street; from the clerk at the admission desk at an antique show and sale at the community centre, to the barkeeping owner of Ypres Inn.

Rye is in East Sussex in south-east England, perhaps two hours by car from Gatwick airport. For information about Rye, contact the Rye Tourist Information Centre, Strand Quay, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7AY, U.K., or the very helpful VisitBritain, 5915 Airport Road, Suite 120, Mississauga, Ontario L4V 1T1, Tel: 1-888 VISITUK, web: