Rye, East Sussex is a beautiful, postcard perfect town full of old world charm and fantastic narrow streets to explore. While I’d completely forgotten a visit as a child, I recently went back with a friend for a sunny weekend where we spent most of our time outdoors.
Located north of Hastings in the south-east, we arrived way too early to book into our hotel, the near legendary Mermaid Inn on Mermaid Street, so started early in seeing the sights.
What to see in Rye
If you’re planning a trip to Rye like we were, then you probably have a list similar to ours of what to see in and around the town:
- The Mermaid Inn
- Mermaid Street
- Rye Castle Museum
- Lamb House
- Rye Heritage Centre
- Rye Bay
- Camber Castle
- Rye Town Model Sound & Light Show
- The Parish Church of St. Mary
It’s all doable in a weekend and I’d recommend seeing Mermaid Street first as it can get busy with tourists before lunchtime, and setting-off to the Rye Heritage Centre to pick up a self-guided walking tour map as soon as you can.
The Mermaid Inn & Mermaid Street
The most famous location in Rye is Mermaid Street, the ancient town’s former main road. A cobbled street lined with medieval buildings with unique names and quirks, it’s as good a time machine as I’ve ever seen.
Lucky enough to get a booking at The Mermaid Inn, a grade II listed Inn established in 1420 and famous for housing gangs of smugglers in the 1730s and 1740s, Mermaid Street was our base for the weekend.
Buildings worth noting are The House Opposite (opposite the inn that is), The House with Two Front Doors and House with the Seat. These very descriptive names must have been logical when the original buildings in the area appeared and there weren’t enough houses for a numbering system.
I’ve reviewed my stay at the Mermaid Inn here (link pending) which includes more history about the site and photographs of the accommodation, lounge areas and dining. We booked in advance to eat in the restaurant on the Saturday evening and then retired to an open fireplace with a glass of wine before bed. Idyllic!
Exploring the town
The best feeling was walking the cobbled streets and going into beamed-buildings hundreds of years old. Everywhere you look there’s an interesting or unusual building with it’s own rich history and if you like pubs, there’s lots of atmospheric options.
Lamb House, a former residence of author Henry James, is a red brick, Georgian building now cared for by the National Trust. It sits minutes away from The Parish Church of St.Mary overlooking the town, and across from Lamb House is a green square that eventually leads to Rye Castle Museum. Even over a weekend, it’s easy to see how the small old town is all connected.
This feeling of quick (and comforting) familiarity was amplified by a visit to the Rye Heritage Centre at the bottom of the hill by the river, marked by a large anchor in the pavement. I had been surprised that a model light show was one of the top attractions of the area on Trip Advisor but when I saw it for myself, it blew my mind and was a loving look at the town’s past.
Constructed over many years by a local retired teacher and her husband, all by hand, it’s a realistic replica of Rye and as the lights go out for the show, key areas of interest are highlighted and you learn of failed murder plots, battles and sinners being purposely trapped alive in the walls of a church. It may be an old model telling old stories, but when the lights are out for show it sends a shiver down your spine.
Upstairs you can visit an old penny machine exhibition that houses around thirty of these Victorian examples of entertainment. It’s colourful and somewhat creepy.
Afterwards, walking around Rye felt even more enjoyable and meaningful as we were able to connect past events to what we could see.
Rye Castle Museum has a similar effect; otherwise known as Ypres Tower, it was built in 1249 to defend the town from French invaders and also went on to serve as a male and female prison.
Taking perhaps an hour to view the exhibitions inside and climb the tower to view the gardens and Camber Sands, it’s another highlight of Rye not to be missed. In the main entrance and gift shop, you can view a skeleton held in equipment designed to show off a dead prisoner once they were executed.
Following the self-guided walking tour from the Heritage Centre, we also visited the old record shop that used to be a Boy’s Grammar, the historic water pump and the only existing landgate that was part of the fortifications put in place by Edward III in 1329. Sadly, the vast majority of the wall itself has been destroyed over the years.
In amongst the walking, history lessons and gasping at beautiful buildings, I’d recommend refuelling at the oldest tea rooms in Rye, which are just to the right of the Town Hall and centrally located. If you’re in the mood for a bigger meal, HOOF is a locally sourced burger restaurant on a quieter street.
Walking to Camber Castle
On our second day after watching the town model sound and light show, we faced the drizzle which arrived and walked to Camber Castle. Leaving the old fortified part of the town (only small sections of the wall remain intact) and walking beside the river, the land becomes flat and it’s green and misty as far as the eye can see.
Flagged with sheep (and occasionally cows) in every direction, you can’t help but smile once you realise they aren’t startled and seem quite indifferent to your presence. To go at a leisurely pace and take a good look at the castle (which is shut on Sundays), leave around two hours for this walk.
Enjoying this weekend in Rye was a relaxing, beautiful way to spend 48 hours. It reiterated to me how much Sussex and the UK offers when it comes to taking breaks at home rather than abroad.
Rye has a train station with journeys taking less than an hour from London.
If you have any questions about Rye, leave me a comment below. I’d like to go back in the future so let me know what I should do second time around.
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