Exploring Rye, England
Updated: Apr 18, 2019
Whenever I travel and have some free time, I try to visit some place that I have not yet experienced. Two weeks ago, I was in London on Business and thought that I should visit a town in East Sussex that I have heard a great deal about buy never had the opportunity to see.
I visited the town of Rye.
Rye is a small coastal town (population 4800) in East Sussex, England. It sits about two miles from the English Channel on a small fortified hilltop. It used to sit on the coast but centuries of silt have left it landbound, alone and quite beautiful.
Over the years, I have heard that it was a quiet place with a mixture of medieval to Victorian buildings with small cobble stoned streets and charming shops and restaurants. It turned out to have so much more as you will soon see.
First, let me start by talking about the logistics of a trip to Rye. It is very easy. It is an hour and ten minutes by train with one small change over and it is a walking town. Bring good shoes and be prepared for an English summer (lots of rain).
When you arrive at the town, you will find yourself in a small Victorian train station with a café. The train station is located at the bottom of a hill and adjacent to a river (all of which you will explore). Start your journey by going inside the station and asking for a map.
The town council has created a very thoughtful hand drawn map that is designed to take you to all of the sites of the town. It is also designed to go along with an audio book tour of the town. You can purchase that at: https://www.ryesussex.co.uk/audio-tours.asp. The audio tour is well produced and one of the best I have used. It’s a great buy at £2.99 plus, the money you spend supports the upkeep of the town’s historic sites.
The tour corresponds to the map that all of the shops provide. To follow it, simply follow the numbers. It could not be easier.
Fortified with my map and guide, I set forth on my journey through the town of Rye.
The best place to start the walk is at the Heritage Centre. You need to check the hours that it is open (generally only during the summer). It is run by town locals who would like nothing more than to share the history of the town and recommend additional places to visit and eat.
Directly up the street from the Heritage Centre is the first stop…The Old Borough Arms (#1).
This is site offers a great view of what made the town so successful in its heyday…the river. This was a trading town that used to sit on the sea. The river has now silted up so the town is 2 miles removed from the sea but in its day, it was a busy port. In 1580 A.D., it was the largest trading port in the region. The Old Borough Arms was exactly the type of place where a sailor would stop, sleep for the evening or catch a pint.
From there, I walked to The Old House. The street is called, The Mint. It earned its name because silver coins were struck here during the 12thcentury. There are several medieval buildings on this street.
The next stop, just a few feet up the street is called the Needles Passage. The buildings around the passage were from the days of smugglers who would use over ground and underground passages to move their wares away from prying eyes. It reminded me of the Snickleways of York.
Up the hill, was my next stop…the Mermaid Inn (#4). This was a smugglers inn that would use to coordinate activity across the region. Be sure to explore the building and read the plaques. A LOT of murders happened here!
Through the arches of the inn and to the right is Mermaid Street. This street is worth a long pause. It is a traditional cobblestone street with an incredible array of beautiful historic buildings.
The tour took me to Hartsworn House. This building was used as a hospital during the Napoleonic War. A bit further on is Jeake’s House, the home of Samuel Jeakes the 2nd. He wrote an important journal on the live of a merchant and later helped to found the Bank of England.
I worked my way up Mermaid Street to West Street where I found Lamb House (#6). This house was built in 1733 by James Lamb. He was a mayor of Rye and his family came to dominate the role for 137 years. Later, in 1898, the house was occupied by the celebrated author, Henry James (an American) who wrote some of his most famous works here. Other authors, such as H.G. Wells came to stay with him here. Henry James died in 1916 here is Rye and was memorialized in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.
My next stop was on the corner of Lion Street and High Street (#7), just past the George Hotel. High Street is the main street through the middle of the town and it is traditionally where the majority of the town merchants sold their goods. If you are standing on the corner and look across the street, you will see a beautiful red brick building - the old grammar school, constructed during the reign of Charles I. There is an old record shop in the building (today) that is well worth a visit.
The next stop is the corner of High Street and Conduit Hill (#8). From here, there is a row of Medieval shop fronts. Be sure to pay close attention to the old butcher shop with the meat hooks hanging from the outer roof to display game. You can also see the old apothecary show which displays its function by hanging a giant picul and mortar on the wall.
From there, I walked down Conduit Hill with my trusty map in hand. About mid-way down the path, is an old brick building that dates back to King Henry the 4thto the year 1378. It was a Augustinian Friary. It was later used to house Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution from France. Later, there was a scandal involving Friar Cantato (famous for his singing voice). He was caught by is fellow monks having an affair with a young town girl and for his sins, was bricked up alive in one of the walls of the Friary. SOME SAY THAT YOU CAN HEAR IS SINGING ON A WINDY EVENING!
Just before the bottom of the hill is a narrow path that leads to a medieval gatehouse (#10) called Turkey Cock Lane. The path is worth a very slow walk as it is extremely beautiful. As you walk down the path, you get a great view of the backs of the various town buildings and a strong sense for how people in the town really live on top of each other.
At the end of the lane is the medieval gatehouse called The Landgate. It is the only surviving gateway of the original 4 that led into the town. Take some time to look at the stonework. It is a beautiful example of medieval architecture. Unfortunately for the town, the walls and gates did little to deter attack. The town has been burnt out at least twice and sacked at once during its long history. A funny side note, the people of Normandy attacked and stole many artifacts from the town that were later recovered when the town sent a raiding party to Normandy. Tit for tat.
After examining the gatehouse, walk up Hilder’s Cliff back to High Street. There is a lookout point (#11) where you should stop to look out at the marshland and the sea. You also get a great view of some of the other town fortifications from the point. When I stopped here, I had lunch. It is a peaceful and beautiful place to sit and talk with the locals. I took at quick walk down High Street to Market Road where I picked up a sandwich form Rye Deli and took it back to the look out point. The deli is a local spot and well worth the visit for a simple meal.
After my break at the lookout, I walked back down High Street and took a left hand turn onto East Street which after a bit will turn into Market Street (#12). There are a number of blue wall plaque showing where a number of famous people lived. One of the most interesting is the house of Paul Nash. He was a famous war artist for WWI. A great deal of his work can be seen at the Imperial War Museum in London.
I continued my walk down Market Street and found myself at the town hall (#13). The town hall is a beautiful stately building that seems over stated for such a small town. I happened to run into several members of the town council as they were leaving the building and received an impromptu history of the city. There is a pigeon loft nearby and apparently this was the first place in the UK to receive word of Wellington’s victory in Waterloo.
A few feet away from the town hall is St. Mary’s Church (#14). The clock turret dates back to 1651 and is still functioning. For a few pounds, you can climb up the narrow passage, into the belfry and onto the turret where you will be rewarded with the best view in the town.
I stayed here for almost an hour to admire the view. If you brave the climb, look out towards the marshland and you will see a small castle directly down the hill. You will have a chance to visit the castle shortly. Give this stop a good long visit. If you are a fan of architecture, you will be very excited to see the inner-workings of the bell tower. Beware, it is an incredibly narrow walk and very steep.
Around the corner from St. Mary’s Church is a very interesting structure built into the ground. It is the water cistern for the city (#15). The cistern received its water by using mules that would tirelessly walk around a wheel that would pump water up Conduit Hill. In 1754, a city worker found rotting cow parts floating in the cistern. This resulted in legislation protecting the towns water supply. The culprit was never found. Just up from the Georgian cistern and pump house is a war memorial and Ypres Tower (#16).
The Tower is actually a small castle. It was built in 1250 as a defense against invasion. It has served as a defensive works, a prison, a residence and a store house. The tower and its grounds are well worth exploring. In particular, I enjoyed the balcony on the second floor with affords an expansive view of the marshland and coast.
There is also a small gun position (#17) just beneath the tower along with public restrooms (take advantage of them while you can as there are few public conveniences in the town). You will need around 30 min to properly explore this small but interesting castle and defensive works.
Leaving the grounds, I found myself at the back of St. Mary’s church and the war memorial (#18). The memorial celebrates the lives of the 195 members of the community who died during the two world wars and more recent conflicts. It is common to see flowers on the memorial as loved ones frequently visit the memorial.
If you continue to walk along the path around the back of the church, where you will find a large graveyard. And…on this site, there was a murder involving the Mayor…I will not spoil the story for you but if you visit, the audio book or one of the locals will explain. At least two people shared the story with me. A strange point of community pride!
I continued down the diagonal path to a building labeled The Old Custom House (#20). The house was the site of royal visits. Be sure to look at the chimney which seems to defy gravity. Just down the way from The Old Custom House is Watchbell street, the Friars of the Sack (#21) and the St. Anthony of Padua Church (#22). The Friars of the Sack is one of the few stone buildings in the town that survived the French attack in 1377. It is the oldest house in Rye. St. Anthony of Padua Church is a rare catholic church (rare for England).
My journey through Rye came to an end at the bottom of Watchbill Street. There is another city lookout point there (#23) that provides a rare view of Henry the 8th’s Camra Castle. The castle was originally built next to a town that was washed away in the 1600s. The castle is now part of the marsh land having been cut off from the coast by storms and silt from the river. Changing topography destroyed its reason for being.
After a long pause to enjoy the view, I made my way back to the train station and ultimately back to London. If you are making your way through the South of England or simply have an extra day in London and want to see something new, Rye is a great place to spend a day.