One of the many wonderful things about living in the UK is that if you’re not already living in a beautiful little town or village, you’re always just a short drive away from one. Mr Sunshine and I have just returned from a short break in an exceptionally beautiful part of England, and it was less than two hours’ drive away.
Rye is an enchanting, medieval town in the historic county of Sussex. You have only to walk along its cobbled streets and through its narrow alleyways, marvel at its Tudor buildings, and soak in its charm and character to know you’re walking through a town rich in history.
At its heart is the Mermaid Inn, on the beautiful, cobbled, Mermaid Street. Once the haunt of notorious smugglers, the Inn is laden with stories and creaking floorboards. With cellars dating from 1156, the building was rebuilt in 1420. It maintains much of its original character, including crooked walls, higgledy-piggledy staircases and sloping ceilings.
We stopped for a drink in the hotel’s Giant’s Fireplace Bar, which we heard boasts the second largest open fireplace in the UK. The barman also shared with us some history of the hotel, which was frequented in the 1700s by local smugglers – most notably the Hawkhurst Gang. He also stage-whispered the whereabouts of the now-not-so-secret passageway into the bar.
A walk along Rye’s central street introduced us to a range of vintage shops, antique shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and nothing that looked typical of a UK high street. We found Thomas Peacocke’s Rye Grammar School, built in 1636, which is now home to a large store selling second-hand CDs, vinyl and DVDs.
We stepped into Edith’s House, lured by its offering of teas and scones, and it felt like we were sitting in a family home from the 1970s . The walls are papered in textured florals, the crockery and furniture are all a mish-mash of styles and colours, there are doilies on the dining and side tables, an ancient television set, and teapots and old telephones dotted around. Everything about it feels comfortable and welcoming, and the food is outstanding.
We walked past the Wobbly Wardrobe, the Hatters House, Simon the Pieman (the oldest tearoom in Rye), and saw that we could buy fossils, crystals and gifts from A Pocket Full of Rye.
The Parish Church of Rye, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and sometimes known as the ‘Cathedral of East Sussex’, is the oldest building in Rye and dates back more than 900 years. It is told that in 1377, when the town was looted and set on fire by French invaders, the church bells were carried off to France. The next year, men from Rye and the neighbouring seaside town of Winchelsea, sailed to Normandy, set fire to two towns and recovered much of what was stolen, including the church bells.
We heard those bells at close quarters , when we visited the church at noon and climbed the 85 stairs to the top of the bell tower. The stairways, ladders and passageways are very narrow and low, with several cautions to ‘Mind your head’. I enunciated one such warning in English, and my very best French and German to Mr Sunshine, and then stepped up and bumped my own head.
From the top of the tower, the views across Rye and surrounding countryside were stunning. You can see from there the second oldest building in Rye – the Rye Castle, also known as Ypres Tower, which was built in 1249.
As you walk around the bell tower, you can see the three rivers that frame Rye, and in the distance, the sea and a glimpse of Winchelsea.
When we visited Winchelsea beach in the early evening, the tide was low. The pebble beach opened out on to acres of sandy shore and it felt like the sea was miles away. (At high tide, as we saw the next day, the beach was a tenth of its low-tide length, and only pebble.)
As the light faded and the shadows lengthened, we watched lambs gambol and sheep graze in the green fields across the road, as the sun set beyond them.
We found great, character-filled pubs and restaurants in Rye where we enjoyed excellent fare. We explored some of the countryside around Rye, and discovered places of outstanding beauty and views that went on forever. We stumbled upon a most delightful little place in Pett, called the Tic Tockery: a bespoke hair salon, tearoom and giftshop (yes really). Overlooking rolling hills, the tearoom was filled with homemade cakes and treats and colour and character – unfortunately, we couldn’t stay as they didn’t take card payments and we had no cash on us.
And on our drive home, we found the Five Bells Inn in Brabourne in Kent. This divine little country inn not only served excellent food, using only locally sourced, sustainable, traceable and fairly traded ingredients, but it looked like this:
With good food, a peaceful town full of history, beauty and charm, plenty of sleep and some blue sky and spring sunshine, and surprises all along the way, I’m not sure our short break could have been any better. If you get the chance to visit Rye, go.
Sunshine signing off for today!