Rye is a corruption of an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning an island. Rye’s historic core, sited on a hill overlooking a landscape of green pastures, was once almost enveloped by the sea. Its position on a narrow neck of land with the wide estuaries of the Tillingham and Rother rivers on each side was significant. It could watch over the surrounding Romney Marsh, and, as a port, it guarded the land from foreign invasion. Still the French were able to burn most of the town in 1377. Three years later the building of huge perimeter stone defences began. Today only the northern entrance, 40-foot high Land Gate, remains intact.
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Rye was designated a head Cinque Port in 1336. Cinque Ports were an ancient confederation of harbours used for defence by Edward the Confessor. Rye supplied ships for the navy. The harbour began silting up in the late 1300s and by the 1600’s the silting became severe.
Today the harbour mouth is two miles away.Secret passageways, steep cobbled streets, old half-timbered buildings, red-tiled roofs and ruined walls transport one back in time. Cobbled Mermaid Street’s medieval buildings mix with Georgian ones. The 15th century Mermaid Inn--originally built of wattle, daub and plaster, but destroyed in the French burning of the town--sports a Norman cellar made of rock with a barrel vaulted ceiling of ship’s timbers and Sussex oak. Old beams and inglenook fireplaces give authenticity to its age. In the 1300s lodging could be had for a penny a night.
This innocent looking inn was once a haunt for a ruthless group of 600 smugglers, the Hawkhurst Gang. They were not above intimidation of the authorities and had the locals in their power. Wool was smuggled out in the 1600s and wine, brandy, tobacco and lace were brought in. Even coffee and chocolate were among the smuggled goods.
The half-timbered Old Hospital was built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Facing Church Square is Georgian Lamb House, built in 1772. It was visited by George I, and the author, Henry James, lived here in 1897.
A Dutch-gabled Old Grammar School, built in 1636, graces the long, winding High Street. Its brickwork is a unique design for Rye. Immerse yourself in more of the past at the Rye Castle Museum at Ypres Tower--a 13th century citadel, once a prison. It was one of only a few buildings that survived the burning of the town by the French.
A large Norman cruciform church, St. Mary’s, holds pride of place at the top of the hill.The church, begun in the 12th century, has a famous 16th century clock with an 18-foot pendulum. Instead of striking the hour, a pair of gilded cherubs strike the quarters. Inside the church are stained glass windows from the firm of William Morris.
Climb the massive church tower to view the land reclaimed from the sea that provides rich pasture for sheep. Canals, wandering lanes and watercourses are an integral part of the landscape. The rolling Sussex hills and the sea add to the beauty of the scenery. Today this formerly fortified hilltop town still retains its medieval charms.
Rye is on the A268 and on the A259, 11 miles east of Hastings.
Rye Heritage Centre is located in the Rye Tourist Information Centre at Strand Quay. It tells the history of Rye with an audio-visual presentation.
Tel. 0 1797 226 696
Rye Castle Museum: local history museum located in two spots, the Ypres Tower and an old bottling factory in East St. On display are medieval pottery, ironwork, smuggling and law enforcement items, pottery and more.
Ypres Tower: open daily in July, Aug and Sep; Nov to March, open weekends, 10:30am-3:30pm
Photos © by Barbara Ballard