With its cobbled streets, castle, and wonderfully preserved medieval, Tudor and Georgian houses, this ancient town situated in the south east of England just so happens to be where I grew up as a little girl, as did my father before me.
Once surrounded almost completely by water, the town dates back to before the Norman Conquest of 1066, and is known historically for being an important member of the Cinque Ports confederation, its role in providing ships for the King in times of war, as well as its involvement with the smuggling trade during the 18th and 19th Centuries, achieved through vaulted cellars, secret tunnels and passageways, many of which still exist today.
The Mermaid Inn, one of the oldest inns in England, has played host to Charlie Chaplin, Pierce Brosnan, Andy Garcia, Johnny Depp and none other than Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth and her mother.
Rye itself has produced a number of well known names, most notably being Sir Paul McCartney. I’m also proud to say that it has been a place of inspiration for a number of writers, including Henry James, Conrad Aiken, Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells.
Bestowed with unseasonably mild temperatures and a few somewhat rare cloudless days, my Auntie and Uncle took my well-timed visit as an opportunity to accompany me around the town to strangely familiar, yet foreign places.
Little things stirred the memory of my childhood self – doorways, a clock tower, cobbled streets, the smell of fish and chips – but it was more the overall ambiance and character of this small historic town that set me reminiscing.
With a population of just over 4000, the town of Rye is about as quaint and as ‘English’ as it gets. Tiny doorways and black beams across white walls line the cobbled streets, whilst behind the medieval church a sun speckled graveyard sits rather beautifully as little red-breasted robins sing happily in the overhead tree branches.
The smell of hot coffee and freshly baked pastries pour out of charming little coffee houses, each furnished with mismatched lounge chairs, the walls lined with bookshelves and antiques.
I can’t help but find magic in the names of places: Lamb Cottage, Mermaid Street, The Mint, Wish Ward, Oak Corner, Watchbell Street. They all sound like names from a children’s fantasy story. Other places have names rooted in history; The Apothecary coffee shop was named after its former use as an Apothecary. Meanwhile, the smell of meat pies oozes from a little shop tucked away down a narrow street, its cast iron sign swinging from the roof identifying it as Simon the Pieman.
I think every town should have a Simon the Pieman.
As you get closer to the water, anchors, antique shops and the smell of the sea are prevalent. I see pottery in shop windows that look much like the Rye pottery we brought over to Australia with us almost two decades ago, and wonder at the lasting trade of some professions.
Meanwhile, the warm and welcoming inns provide hearty meals of roast beef, oven roasted potatoes covered in hot gravy for a late lunch.
Needless to say, I took many photos on this part of the trip and delighted my parents on my return as they scrutinised pictures of a place they once called home, much changed but also very much the same.
Even if I had not spent the first few years of my life there, I’m convinced I’d love it all the same. It has character and charm, but it also has history. The idea of smugglers silently rowing by veil of night into hidden passageways beneath the town is a thrilling thought. Not only that, but the fact that my father recognised buildings, streets and places he used to walk by and play in as a child, is testament to the wonderfully preserved nature of this ancient town.
Yep, there is definitely something special about Rye.