The town of Rye in East Sussex is exactly what I’d imagine the whole of the UK looked like if I hadn’t lived here all my life. Consisting of historic buildings, chocolate box views and what can only be described as ‘quaint’ shops (even though I loathe that word), this is definitely the tourist board’s gold standard version of the British Isles. A former Cinque Port and part of legacy-rich ‘1066 Country’, it combines maritime heritage with the feel of an Agatha Christie village.
It’s as if the town is actually a well-designed film set and you’ve stepped right into it, complete with extras acting suspiciously like they might just be locals. So, it’s time to get a close-up and find out what there is to see in Rye…
The poetic-sounding Mermaid Street is where you need to start your visit if you’re after those postcard-esque scenes. Home to a clutch of lovingly preserved houses dating back hundreds of years, it’s also the setting of the Mermaid Inn, which had a chequered past thanks to its links with smugglers, in particular the Hawkhurst Gang. This inn is so old that it was actually rebuilt back in 1420 (that makes its current building pre-Tudor, to give you some context), and it’s believed there has been an inn at this spot, in one form or another, since 1156.
Other buildings on Mermaid Street aren’t just background material – most of them carry very unique house names. Look out for quirky titles like ‘The House with the Seat’ and ‘The House with Two Front Doors’. This is a great place to channel British eccentricity and get some interesting photos, especially when the weather’s on your side.
There’s a definite sense of time standing still here in Rye, from the beautiful streets to the contents of the shops. I think it’s really important to retain the character of places such as this, because there’s no need to impose a cluster of big brand names on the high street or solar panels on the rooftops. Some things really don’t need to be modernised.
Ever feel like you’re walking through a museum? Rye was once home to novelists such as Henry James, who lived at Lamb House, and Radclyffe Hall, whose house is a listed building. It’s also packed with antiques shops, giving you the chance to buy into your own piece of the past, and the prices are very reasonable. You can pick up cheap glass bottles, vases and crockery, so make sure you have some small change handy if you don’t want to leave empty-handed.
My final bit of quirk and history comes from The Apothecary, a coffee shop decorated with phrenology heads, old paintings and vintage books, accompanied by comic book cuttings on the ceiling. The building itself is centuries old, but the business is much more recent, having been established since 1999 in the town, though you’d never have guessed from the atmosphere and heaving crowds at lunchtime when I visited. I can recommend the coffee and the gluten-free chocolate cake – the perfect end to a few hours of exploring Rye.
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