Rye is a characterful town set on a hilltop overlooking Romney Marsh but many centuries ago it was on the coast of England and was one of the important Cinque Port Towns. In the 13th and 14th centuries Rye was frequently attacked by the French, ending in 1377 when the town was virtually burnt to the ground. Since then the sea has retreated and the town is now encircled by three rivers. With its winding cobbled streets, its timbered houses and historic fortifications Rye is now a popular place to visit in Sussex.
Trading and boatbuilding are what the town of Rye has survived on since medieval times and the black weatherboard houses that can still be seen on Strand Quay would have been used to store goods brought into the town by boat. Strand Quay sits on the Tillingham River which joins the River Rather on the other side of town.
Around the corner is a street named The Mint. It got its name because hammered silver coins were struck here during the reign of King Stephen in the 12th century. There is a very good example here of a jettied medieval building where the first floor overhangs the ground floor.
Take a look at the street, all the upper floors are continuous to allow people to pass from house to house in secret. It is known that smugglers excavated numerous tunnels through the soft sandstone under Rye leading from entrance holes in the cliffs from where they moored their boats and made their way up to the cellars under the inns.
Things like wine, fabric, salt, leather and soap that had been imported were heavily taxed in the 17th century so smuggling was a very profitable business. Men could earn a lot of money and the notorious Hawkhurst Gang controlled a large part of the smuggling activities in the town. The Mermaid Inn was where the gang would meet, always ready to confront anyone who challenged them with loaded pistols sitting on the table. One gang member who was suspected of colluding with the revenue was thrown down a well with the revenue man being buried alive. The ringleaders of this crime were caught and executed in 1748.
Opposite the Mermaid Inn is Jeakes House, the home of Samuel Jeakes the second. His diaries give us a rare insight into the life of a 17th century merchant. An astute man, he married the 13 year old Elizabeth Hartshorne, mainly to gain her dowry, he later became a founder investor in the Bank of England.
Lamb House was built in 1723 by wine merchant James Lamb. For 127 years, from 1705 to 1832, the related Lamb and Grebell families monopolised the position of mayor of Rye. In 1898 the American novelist Henry James lived here and wrote some of his best work including “What Maisie Knew” and “The Golden Bowl”. Many famous writers of the time including Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells visited James here. He died in 1916. After his death, his friends, the brothers AC and EF Benson moved into the house. It was here that EF Benson wrote the famous Mapp and Lucia books. AC Benson famously wrote the words to “Land of Hope and Glory” for Edward Elgar.
The Old Grammar School is a large red brick building with ancient doors at either end and was built during the reign of Charles I, it is a good example of English ornamental brickwork. Magistrate Thomas Peacocke lived here and upon his death in 1638 he bequeathed it to become a free school for the boys of Rye.
On the corner opposite is the Old Apothecary – now a coffee shop – up on the wall of the first floor is a giant pestle and mortar reminding everyone of what the building used to be.
The old Augustinian Friary on Conduit Hill dates from 1378 during the reign of Henry IV. During the Reformation the Friary fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, later it housed Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution in France.
During the 15th century there was a scandal involving Friar Cantator, named on account of his singing voice. He got involved with a young girl called Amanda and planned to run away together. The other Friars discovered their intentions and punished him by bricking him up in the walls of the building where he was left to die. He continued to chant and as he got weaker locals said his voice was like that of a turkey cock. Many years later it was said that a turkey cock could still be heard in the lane and that a hooded monk had been drifting through the chapel gardens. The young girl Amanda died soon after and her ghost has also been seen searching for her lover around the Friary.
During the reign of Edward III in 1329 a grant was given to Rye to construct a ditch, wall and gateways so the town could be fortified. The Landgate which dates from around 1340 is only surviving gateway. The portcullis was removed in 1735 but the grooves in the stone are still visible.
The open land that stretches out towards the sea is the Romney Marsh with the River Rother flowing past the town and out to Rye Harbour. At the time of the Norman Conquest Rye was very different, more or less an island surrounded by salt marsh that allowed boats in at high tide. Farmers “Inned” the marsh by raising the sea wall and building banks, over time shingle piled up along the beaches and the river brought in thousands of tons of silt. By the 16th century most of the marsh land could now be farmed.
On the corner of East Street and Market Street is the house of painter and engraver Paul Nash, it’s marked by a blue plaque. He enlisted in the Artists Rifles and was sent to the Western Front during the 1st World War. His paintings and drawings from that period are considered to be some of the most powerful images from the war.
The current Town Hall was built in 1743 and is where the Mayor and Jurats dispensed their justice. A market was once held in this area selling meat and vegetables and a Butter Market held below the hall selling dairy produce.
Near the Town Hall is the clock tower with its famous Quarter boys. The tower dates from 1561 and is the oldest still functioning church turret clock in the country. From the top of the tower you can see the rooftops of Rye, Romney Marsh and on a clear day Cap Gris Nez on the French coast. The original church on this site was built in the 12th century but was destroyed in the French raid in 1377, it was rebuilt in the 1500’s but suffered neglect until it was fully restored after the Second World War.
On the aptly named Pump Street sits the waterhouse, built in 1735 it’s a fine example of Georgian brickwork. Still beneath it is the underground sistern which still holds crystal clear water and was the main supply for the town.
The Ypres Tower dates back to 1250 during the reign of Henry III and was built as an extra defence against raiders. In its time it’s also been used as a courthouse, a prison, a mortuary, and a private residence. The building suffered substantial damage from a bomb during the last war.
The Gungardens view has changed dramatically over the years. At the time of the Spanish Armada, the high tide would have filled a large estuary with the open sea beyond. Queen Elizabeth I gave Rye six brass cannons to help defend the town, the one’s here today are replicas.
As a town Rye has always been loyal to the crown, it had already been made a Royal Borough by Edward I, but in 1573 it was visited by Queen Elizabeth I who gave it the title Rye Royale. She stayed at Green Hall, now called the Old Customs House.
Another royal visitor arrived in January 1726. George I was returning from Hanover when a storm drove his ship into Rye bay and the king was put ashore for safety. Exhausted he stayed with Mayor James Lamb and his pregnant wife at Lamb House. When the mayoress gave birth the king was made godfather, a silver bowl inscribed “The gift of his His Majesty King George to his Godson George Lamb, Anno Domini 1726”.
The oldest house in Rye was built as a monastery and named after the sackcloth worn by the friars. It was denounced by the Pope for housing monks and nuns on the same premises and so it became a private residence in 1307. It was one of the few buildings to survive the French invasion in 1377.
The church on Watchbell Street is named after St Anthony Padua who was born into the Portuguese nobility in Lisbon in 1195. He is known as the Catholic Church’s “quickest saint” as he was canonised less than a year after his death.
At the end of Watchbell Street, in the distance is Henry VIII’s Camber Castle. It was built to defend the coast but by 1600 it was obsolete due to the gradual silting up of the area. Several violent storms from 1233 to 1288 had swept away the old town of Winchelsea which was originally situated on the coast to the left of the castle. The town was rebuilt in 1292 to the right of the castle on Iham Hill, it is still the smallest town in England.