Rye is the sort of village that visitors who don't want to appear to be tourists wish they didn't like so much. Yes it is full of tourists and day trippers. Yes its high street is lined with such tourist magnets as art galleries, antique shops, twee little tea shops and craft shops. And yes, on a busy day during the school or summer vacations, it probably gets a bit crowded.
But you must give your inner cynic a rest because Rye is irresistible.
The town stands on a hill where the limestone ridge of the mainland meets the flat stretches of Romney Marsh. St Mary's Parish church, begun in the 12th century, tops the hill. Climb the church tower for views of the sinuous flow of the Rother across the marshes where the delicious salt marsh sheep graze. The church's clock - installed as the "new" clock in 1561, is one of the oldest, still functioning church tower clocks in the country.
A Complete Medieval Town
The town center is a maze of tiny, steep cobbled streets lined with beautifully preserved medieval houses. If you take a meander along the most picturesque streets - Mermaid Street, Watchbell Street and Church Square - you'll come across houses declaring they were rebuilt and refurbished - in 1450. Many of the the oldest have steeply pitched tile roofs, tiny front doors and neatly maintained black oak timbers. Some have names rather than numbers: The House with Two Front Doors, The House With the Seat, The House Opposite.
An Important Port and a Target for Raiders
Rye was once at the confluence of three rivers and was surrounded on three sides by water. It was one of two towns associated with the ancient Cinque Ports federation - a group of seaports on the Kent Coast formed in the 12th century to provide military services to the Crown in exchange for such rights as charging tolls, collecting tax and duties. Maintaining access to Rye Bay against the encroaching tidal silt was a continual struggle and in the 1300s, a storm changed the course of the river Rother, leaving Rye cut off from the sea.
This probably wasn't such a bad thing since before then Rye took the brunt of seaborne raids from France in disputes between the English Kings and their Norman cousins. In one raid, in 1377, the French invaders set fire to the town and carried off eight church bells with their loot. A year later, a party of men from Rye and the neighboring town of Winchelsea raided Normandy and brought back the bells. For many years, one of the bells hung in Watchbell Street to alert the town of French invasions.
Why Visit Rye Today
Rye makes an excellent weekend destination or a stop on a cycle or hiking tour of the Romney Marshes. It's also a good place to warm up with tea and a cake after a bracing day on nearby Camber Sands.
Though no longer a deep water port, Rye does have a harbour, about two miles south of the town along the Rother esturary. It supports a fishing fleet that supplies restaurants up and down the Sussex and Kent coasts and across the Channel in France. The town's scallop festival in February launches the season for plump and succulent Rye Bay scallops - best in the coldest months of the year.
About 25 antiques stores are scattered around the town, many of them strung along Cinque Ports Street. There's also a good number of tea shops, seafood restaurants and pubs. The Old Bell, a 15th century pub on the High Street, looks just like an old English pub should look - even though though you can order tapas there. Its vaulted cellars and underground passages were probably used by smugglers to hide their booty. In the 18th century Rye was a notorious smuggler's haven.
While you're in Rye, stop in at one of the two branches of the Rye Castle Museum (the Ypres Tower and the East Street Museum), to find out more about this town's fascinating past.