HOME AT FIRST'S
the Perfect English Village
THIRD OF A SERIES
ethereal community, the imaginary perfect English village — what would
its components be? There would surely be a village green. Of course, the
greengrocer will display the freshest fruit and veg along the footpath
in front of his tidy shop. All the call boxes will be painted with the
traditional red lacquer and the pub must have windows of leaded glass
and a mahogany interior. Shouldn't the stone church tower be the highest
structure in town? And flowers! There must be climbing roses of all
colors at all times of year, and lilacs and others to festoon the roof
eaves and drip over the garden walls. But the architecture — what should
it be? Half-timbered Tudor? Honey-golden limestone? Thatched
gingerbread? Elizabethan? Georgian? Edwardian? Regency? Medieval?
Join us as we again stalk
the perfect English village. This, our third nominee, is:
FIRST APPEARED IN JANUARY, 2003.
MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2014.
Rye is a quiet gem, full of hidden history. Cobblestone streets and smugglers inns
give away the past in this once important port, now two miles from the Sussex coast. Rye
(population 2,700) is small, quaint, and very walkable. Rye is partially walled
(discouraging auto traffic). You can stroll the streets, stopping at the baker,
greengrocer, or dairy. Local folks practice this, not as a daily chore, but rather as a
way of catching up on local happenings, chatting as they go. The resulting rural pace and
friendliness of the town presents a stark and welcome contrast to the anonymous hurry of
modern English urban life.
ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF HISTORY
Rye is located on Englands county of East
Sussex, which is on the English Channel directly north of France. It was in 1066 at nearby
Hastings that William of Normandy's invaders overwhelmed English King Harold's tired army
to make William the Norman conqueror of England. Some ninety years later, Rye then a
busy coastal harbor town was made one of the Cinque (Five) Ports designated to help
defend southern England against further invasions from France.
Rye has important buildings: the impressive
medieval St. Marys Church; an Augustinian Friary (1379), now housing one of
Ryes celebrated potteries; the Lamb House, residence of Henry James when he wrote Turn
of the Screw; and Ypres Tower (1249), a former fortress which now houses part of the
towns Rye Castle Museum. The Ypres Tower is a medieval fortress with views over
Romney Marsh and Rye Bay. Over its long history it has been a fort, house, jail, and
mortuary. The second part of Rye's museum, located on East Street, contains the majority
of the museum's collection, including a wide range of items from Rye's past. Here you can
see pottery from Rye, old military uniforms, tools, fashions, even Ryes old fire
Narrow cobbled streets branch off Ryes
High Street and are lined with antique shops, potteries and art galleries. Rye Art Gallery
comprises two historic buildings in the heart of old Rye: on Ockman Lane, and at 107 High
Street. The buildings are linked by a lovely garden. Exhibitions in the gallerys
Easton Rooms feature contemporary art and crafts, especially representing work from
RYE IS KNOWN FOR ITS POTTERY, LIKE THIS DECORATIVE
AND USEFUL HOUSE NUMBER PLAQUE BY DAVID SHARP POTTERY.
THE 'PRETTIEST STREET IN ENGLAND'?
Descending west from Henry Jamess Lamb
House is cobbled Mermaid Street, itself lined with Elizabethan houses and inns, and often
called "the prettiest street in England". The street leads to what had been the
thriving town harbor, before the River Rother silted up and the English coast moved two
miles east of town at about the time of American independence.
This change froze Rye in time, making it a charming time capsule that invites exploration.
The buildings along Mermaid Street still have secret entrances to their cellars where
smugglers did their nightly business. For a glimpse of these times and a good meal or
quenching drink, stop at the half-timbered Mermaid Inn, once the hangout of local
smugglers. Originally built in 1156, the Mermaid fell victim to a French invasion in the
14th century when most of Rye was burned to the ground.
MERMAID STREET, RYE
Photo © HOME AT FIRST
In 1420 the Mermaid Inn was rebuilt, and has
little changed in the six centuries since, remaining the principal inn of Rye. At that
time, Mermaid Street had 20 feet of water at high tide, and there was room to moor 100
ships off Ryes quay. Ships timbers and local Sussex oak beams were used in the
Mermaids Tudor framework. Several fireplaces were carved from the stone ballast of
French ships from the harbor. If you look closely at the fireplace in the main room of the
Mermaid Inn, you will see a hidden staircase in the back of the hearth. This was the
smugglers escape route for when the authorities came.
THE TUDOR MERMAID INN, RYE
Across from the Mermaid Inn is a Tudor house called "Robin Hill", described in
the Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) book, Tale of the Faithful Dove,
and in the old song, "Theres an old-fashioned house on an old-fashioned
street." In the back garden of Robin Hill still grows a 450-year-old mulberry tree
planted under orders of Queen Elizabeth I, who visited the town in 1573 and dubbed it
At the bottom of Mermaid Street on the no
longer accurately named Strand Quay one can visit
the Rye Town Model, a locally-produced multi-media
look at the history of Rye
that helps you imagine the place surrounded by water long ago, with
pirates and smugglers escaping with ease to the safety of the open sea.
GETTING TO RYE AND BACK FROM LONDON
Rye is an easy day trip destination from
by rail. Hourly trains from Londons Victoria Station connect via Ashford to reach
Rye in two hours. Ryes train station is less than 200 yards outside the towns
walled entrance. A return rail journey with a change at Hastings permits a different route
back to London (Charing Cross Station). Connections at Hastings are usually about 30
minutes, but some are as close as 4 minutes. The last practical train back to London
departs Rye via Hastings before 8PM.
You can stalk Rye and many other perfect English villages
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