Rye, in East Sussex, is one of England’s best kept secrets. Nestled between green rolling hills and the English Channel it’s one of the best-preserved medieval towns in England.
With names like Watchbell Lane, Mermaid Street and Wish Street you can’t fail to be enchanted by a town that time seems to have passed by. Crooked half-timbered houses line a muddle of steep cobbled lanes, there are beach walks, ancient inns and even a castle. All this, and more, makes Rye the perfect place for a laid-back weekend break.
Post Updated Sep 2020
Whenever we have house-guests they’re always keen to visit Rye and Hastings Old Town so I find myself in both towns at least two or three times a year. Here are some my favourite things to see and do when visiting Rye…
Explore the lanes
A wander around the quaint little streets and lanes is the first thing you should do in Rye. This will instantly transport you into its story-book charm. Start at the Landgate. For centuries Rye was an island and at high tide the old stone gate was the only land connection to the mainland.
Explore the steep cobbled lanes leading off the High Street. Listen out for the ghostly footsteps of smugglers that used to run the streets of Rye. Stop for a drink at the 11th century Mermaid Inn, check out the Giant’s Fireplace Bar and see if you can spot the entrance to the secret passage. It’s a wonderful place to stay if you’re looking for an historical inn with plenty of character.
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Rye Castle Museum
Learn about Rye’s history at Ypres Tower. Known as Wipers Tower to locals it’s home to Rye Castle Museum. Discover the Tower’s roles through nine centuries of history; defence, private home, prison, mortuary and now museum. Climb the tower to check out views over the town and out to the river Rother estuary. There are various exhibits in the tower from Rye’s past including a model showing how the shoreline has changed, a rare smuggler’s lamp and a medieval herb garden. The prisoner cells can also be explored.
Explore Literary Rye
Rye has many literary and artistic connections, obviously the town inspires creativity. Learn more about Rye’s literary roots on a visit to Lamb House now owned by the National Trust. The house was home to American author Henry James who wrote three of his novels whilst living in Rye. Mapp and Lucia author E.F. Benson also lived here and based the imaginary town of Tilling on Rye. Lamb House was used as the film location of ‘Mallards’ the home of Miss Mapp. Radclyff Hall and Conrad Aitken were both residents in Rye as was John Ryan who created the Captain Pugwash stories. Spike Milligan was another famous resident of the town.
Shopping in Rye
Most of the shops in Rye are independent and are great for bits and pieces you don’t really need but can’t leave without buying.
The Shop Next Door (to The George Hotel in The High Street) stocks gorgeous home ware and gifts and some of the furnishings and decor that are found in the hotel next door. Down at Strand Quay you can delve through the antique and up-cycled furniture shops. There’s always a gem to be found there.
Crock and Cosy vintage kitchen shop stocks retro kitchenware – just like Granny used to use. There’s a thriving art scene in Rye and you’ll find at least half a dozen art galleries full of work by local artists.
St Mary’s Church
St Mary’s has the oldest functioning church turret clock in the country but I like to visit for a different reason – the views. The The tower can be climbed to see the clock mechanism, the bells and out onto the turret itself for a wonderful view of Rye and the surrounding countryside.
The church is open daily from 9 am – 6 pm (4 pm in winter). Admission is £4 but gives you entry for a whole year.
Reviewed: The Standard Inn, Rye
Rye Harbour Nature Reserve
Head over to Rye Harbour, which runs alongside the river Rother, and if you’re lucky you might spot a seal. Drive or take the number 312 bus from Rye train station. Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is just a few minutes walk from the harbour. So far over 280 species of bird have been recorded in the conservation area.
A network of paths take you past freshwater gravel-pits, lagoons, areas of shingle and salt marsh habitat. Hides are dotted around for wildlife watching or you can just enjoy the fresh sea air and the coastal flowers. Look out for ‘Little Red’ an iconic hut which has been on the site since 1904.
If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air pack up a picnic and head to the beach (Simon the Pieman’s bakery in Lion Street might be able to help you). Camber Sands is a glorious stretch of pale sand with a backdrop of massive dunes. Take buckets and spades for epic sandcastle-making opportunities or just chill out on the beach. The beach can be quite windy so take a wind break.
Precautions should be taken when going into the sea as there are sandbanks under the water. A regular bus service from Rye to Camber Sands means you won’t need a car to get there from the town.
Looking for somewhere to stay in Rye? Check lates rates and availability
Bodiam Castle, a beautiful moated castle and National Trust property is a short drive from Rye. As well as exploring the castle there are interactive activities and medieval character talks for children. The Kent and Sussex light railway runs between Bodiam and Northiam for atmospheric Victorian steam locomotive rides.
Where to eat in Rye
For a light bite or lunch the High Street is overflowing with quirky tea rooms and cafes; both The Fig and Edith’s House are worthy of a stop. If you’re looking for atmosphere then there are pubs with history stretching back hundreds of years. The Mermaid Inn and Ye Olde Bell Inn used to be connected by a secret passage used by smugglers.
Not so secret is the great food they serve in beautiful ancient settings. Both pubs have pretty courtyard gardens – perfect if the weather’s behaving itself. Knoop’s Cafe by Tower Forge serves up the best hot chocolate and milk shakes in the South.
For dinner there’s no shortage of restaurants in Rye but two of my personal favourites are The Devil in Rye where Deb Biswal serves up subtle Indian food with a British twist. For the freshest fish from the local fleet head for Webbe’s at The Fish Cafe.
Where to Stay in Rye
The Standard Inn in the town centre is a fabulous ancient inn with five B&B rooms. Read my review on the Standard Inn to learn more or you can check rates and availability. If you prefer self-catering then Cadborough Farm Cottages are just a 20-minute walk from the town. I’ve stayed there a few times and can wholeheartedly recommend them.
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Festivals in Rye
There’s always a reason to visit Rye and there’s always something going on. Tie in your visit with one of the town’s festivals which take place throughout the year.
- Scallop Festival – February
- Jazz Festival – August
- Rye Arts Festival – September
- Christmas in Rye – December
How to get to Rye
High-speed trains run from London to Ashford International with a journey time of 38 minutes. A further train to Rye takes 21 minutes which makes this pretty, historic town the perfect option for a day out from the city or a for a weekend break.
Parking is known for being incredibly tricky in Rye, however, Station car park in the town centre is reasonably priced at £2.60 per day. This expires at 5am so two days parking will need to be purchased.
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Have you been to Rye? What’s your top tip for visiting the town?
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