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South East Rye, East Sussex

Cobblestones, higgledy piggledy houses and smugglers...


Rye stands on a hill above the low lying expanse of Romney Marshes. A thousand years ago it was surrounded by sea and was an important harbour. It became a Royal Borough, running its own affairs raising taxes and operating its own judicial system. It was one of the Cinque Ports, responsible for supplying ships and men to defend the coast against French raiders. A fire following a devastating French raid on the town in 1377 destroyed nearly all the buildings.

The centre of Rye has hardly changed over the years and still has many narrow cobbled streets lined with Medieval, Tudor and Georgian buildings. It is a delight to explore on foot.



There is no by pass and traffic still struggles through the centre of the town with a one way system along Cinque Ports Street and High Street. Although there are small car parks around the edge of the town, there is still on street parking along both these roads, further adding to the congestion.


Rye traffic.jpg

The sea has since retreated and is now about two miles from the town.

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Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is now an important wildlife habitat with shingle beaches, salt lagoons, saltmarsh scrub and reed beds.
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Rye - some history

Rye was an important harbour and safe anchorage, probably as early as Roman times. The Weald was an important ironmaking area and iron ingots were shipped out from here.

By Saxon times, there was probably a small fishing settlement here. After the Norman Invasion, the settlement grew as it was close to the main sea route to France. By the C12th it was important enough to have a small mint.

The south east coast had experience many raids and attacks over the centuries and the Cinque Ports were formally established in 1155, to consolidated the defence of the realm. The five original members were Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. Rye and Winchelsea added later after New Romney got silted up.

The towns had to provide 57 ships for 15 days service to the king annually and provided the professional nucleus of King’s Navy used against against Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, the Low Countries and also Crusades in the Holy Land. In return the Cinque Ports were granted freedom from taxes and custom duties, trading concessions and rights to hold judicial courts.
After King John was forced to return Normandy to the French in 1205, French raids increased and the French regularly attacked the south coast towns, including Rye.

Ypres Tower was built in 1249 as defence against French Raids.


With increasing hostilities, a town wall with ditch and four gates was built in 1329. Only the Landgate survives along with a small section of the wall in Cinque Ports Street dating back to this time.


By 1336, Rye was a royal dockyard and shipyard and, together with Winchelsea, provided half of the ships and mariners for the Cinque Ports.

In a devastating attack in 1377, Rye was almost completely destroyed by fire, and the bells of St Mary's Church were stolen. The following year a revenge voyage saw the bells returned, along with other previously stolen loot. One of the bells was hung at the end of Watchbell Street and rung as a warning in times of attack.

Violent storms in the C13th cut the town off from the sea and changed the course of the River Rother. By the end of the century, the sea and river had destroyed much of the eastern part of the town and ships used the Strand to unload cargoes. Up to two hundred ships could moor up here and it was lined with warehouses.

Although Rye was considered one of the most important Cinque Ports, constant work was needed to stop the gradual silting up of the harbour and river. By 1570, there were complaints about silt causing fishing boats becoming stranded at low tide. Landowners were gradually reclaiming Marshland, which further reduced tidal flows that were supposed to keep the harbour free of silt.

Rye’s importance declined with the arrival of bigger ships needing deep water ports. Ship building was also in decline as iron making in the weald had resulted in a drastic decline of suitable timber. By the C17th fishing and smuggling were more important.

Smuggling began in the C14th when a duty was imposed upon wool, cloth and leather exports and on imports of wine. By the late 1600s smuggling was rife throughout the population and became almost impossible to control. Customs men and the military were either bribed or violently threatened and few people were convicted. In the C18th, many of the houses had interconnecting roofs and attics to aid escaping smugglers. Hoards of booty were stored in old vaulted cellars networked by secret tunnels and passages.

Rye continued to decline in importance although there were still some small shipyards providing vessels for local trade. Now the remaining yards provide dinghies and yachts for pleasure use. Boats continue to use the Strand, despite it being tidal. There is still some fishing with boats mooring along Simmons Quay below Ypres Tower.

The centre of Rye remains compact and virtually unchanged with many of its medieval and later buildings surviving. It is a thriving shopping centre with many small independent shops. Rye is delightful and repays exploring on foot.
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A Walk around Rye


The centre of Rye is very compact and comparing it with the model of Old Rye in the Heritage Centre, the street layout is unchanged.

I began in the car park by the Railway Station, a splendid brick building. The Hastings to Ashford Railway arrived in 1851. It survived plans for closure in the 1963 Beeching Report because of poor road connections.


The signal box was built later than the station building and is resplendent in the cream and green livery of the Southern Railway.


Being a Thursday, part of the car park was taken up by Rye Market. This was busy but feedback from those that visited indicated the stalls were the same as in any other market...


I turned onto Cinque Port Street, part of the one way traffic system through Rye, and lined with small shops.


This was outside the line of the town wall and part of it can still be seen in the car park on the street.


The Old Waterworks building dated 1869 is on the corner of Cinque Port Street and Tower Street and is now a micropub.


Just beyond is one of the original brick built warehouses and now a Webbes at the Fish Cafe.


Behind it is a yard with the remains of stables and storehouses.- it repays to explore down narrow alleyways!


Tower Street leads to Landgate, which drops down to a bridge over the railway.


The Landgate is the only one of the medieval gateways to survive.


Through the gateway is Hilder’s Cliff, which really is built on a cliff and looks down across the Bowling green to Romney Marsh beyond.


On the other side are attractive brick or clapperboard houses.


Hilder’s Cliff joins High Street, which is the main shopping street and the other half of the one way system. It is always busy with traffic and parked cars.

Rather than walking down High Street, I turned left onto East Street and past the house where the artist Paul Nash lived.


Rye Town Hall on Market Street is an elegant Georgian building built in 1742 and now houses the Information Centre.


A Walk around Rye cont....

The narrow Pump Street leads to Church Square with views down to Ypres Tower. A castle was built in 1249 to defend Rye against French raids. After harbour had silted up and Rye no longer on coast, the castle was bought by was bought by Jean de Ypres in 1430 and has been known as Ypres Tower ever since. Over the years it has been used as a prison, court hall, soup kitchen and mortuary. It is now a museum.


A gateway leads to the Gun Garden, a ‘walkway’ beneath the tower with views across the marshes. There are examples of different cannons with piles of cannon balls.



St Mary’s Church, surrounded by its graveyard, is built on the highest part of the town, and is the only pre 1200 building to survive in Rye. It is a splendid building, reflecting the status and importance of Rye at the time.


Streets around the church are cobbled and very narrow.


Lamb House on West Street and now in the ownership of the National Trust, was built in 1722 by wealthy wine merchant and local politician, James Lamb. It was bought by the author Henry James in 1849 and he wrote many of his novels here. In 1919, it was bought by EF Benson and his ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels featuring the seaside town of Tilling, closely based on Rye. The classic TV drama was filmed in Rye using Lamb House and adjacent Lamb Cottage.



Leaving West Street, I turned down Mermaid Street which drops down to the Strand and was once the main street leading into the town from the harbour.


With its cobblestones, this is one of the most photographed streets in Rye. It is lined with a mix of timber frame, clapper board and brick houses dating from the C15th.




There has been an inn here since the mid C12th, although the present Mermaid Inn ‘only’ dates from the start of the C15th. It was the haunt of smugglers and particularly the notorious Hawkhurst Gang. It has secret passages, priest’s hole and the reputation of being one of the most haunted buildings in South East England.


Strand quay along the along the tidal River Brede, is lined by large brick and tarred wood warehouses.


There is an attractive grassy walk along the river.


The best views of the river and the Strand are from the bridge on the A259 as it crosses the River. Beyond the main road is Rye Windmill, now a B&B.

The Rye Heritage Centre is in the Old Sail Loft on Strand Quay and has a very good model of Old Rye.

By then, it was time to head back to the station car park, past this small warehouse on Cyprus Place.

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St Mary's Church, Rye

St Mary’s Church built on the highest part of the town, acted as the town lookout until Ypres Tower was built.

The church was built in the early C12th on the site of an earlier Anglo Saxon building. Side aisles were added in the C13th. Its size reflects the status and importance of Rye at the time. It is the only building of that age to survive.

There was a devastating French raid in 1377 when the town was looted and set on fire. The church was damaged and the roof fell in. The bells were stollen and taken to France. The following year, men from Rye and Winchelsea set sail to Normandy to recover the church bells and much of the loot.

During repair work, flying buttresses were added to the south east end of the chancel.

Following the Reformation, services were held in the nave and the chancel and chancel chapels were cut off. Guns and stores were kept in the South chancel chapel and later it was used as a school room. The north chancel chapel housed the town’s fire engine and is rumoured to have been used for hiding smuggled goods.

The clock on the tower was installed in about 1561 and is one of the oldest church turret clocks in the country still functioning. The present exterior clock face and the original 'Quarter Boys' (so called because they strike the quarters but not the hours) were added in 1760. The inscription above the clock dial reads "For our time is a very shadow that passeth away". The pendulum in the crossing dates from 1810 and replaces an earlier one.

By the late C17th, the church was in such poor condition, people were afraid to attend services. There was an extensive restoration in the late C19th.

It is a large church and almost impossible to photograph.



Entry is through a porch leading into the north transept.


The remains of Norman arches can be seen on the west wall of the north transept. There is a lovely Burne Jones window depicting the Adoration of the Magi in the north aisle.


Immediately facing is the glorious stained glass Benedicite window in the south transept.


It is a large and equally impressive church inside. In the nave, columns of round Norman pillars support transitional arches decorated with nail head carving. The Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Anne is above the chancel arch.


At the west end of the nave is the font which is a Victorian copy of a Norman font.



The west window was donated by the author EF Benson who lived in Lamb House, in memory of his parents. It depicts the Nativity with angels above.


There is a smaller doorway in the south wall beneath a funeral Hatchment.


Near this is the Rye Millennium Embroidery. The panels show scenes from the history of the church and town. The fabric has been specially stained to make it look ancient.


The chancel is simple with carved screens separating the side chancel chapels.


The south chancel chapel is now the Choir Vestry. The The North Chapel, the Clare Chapel, is used for private prayer. On the wall is a statue of St George. The two original quarter boys from the tower clock are on the window ledge.


The church is open daily. There is a charge to climb the tower for 360˚ views. Roads around the church are very narrow and cobbled. There is parking for a couple of cars by the east end of the church, otherwise the only parking is in the public car parks round the edge of the town centre. The nearest post code is TN31 7HF.

Climbing the Church Tower

This is probably the main reason to visit St Mary’s Church. As well as the clock mechanism and bells, there are wonderful views from the top.

There is a charge of £4 and entry is via a door near the north door.


A narrow wooden staircase and an even narrower passageway lead to the the bell ringing chamber with the bell ropes hanging from the ceiling and boards with details of past peels rung.


The clock mechanism is here, carefully protected in a glass case after renovation in 2013. The clock was installed in about 1561 and is one of the oldest church turret clocks in the country still functioning.


Steep ladders lead to the bell chamber with eight massive bells weighing almost 5 tons.

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The bells were cast in 1775, replacing the bells recovered after the French raid in 1377.


An even stepper ladder leads out onto the top of the tower, where a narrow walkway gives 360˚ views over the town and surrounding area. The gilded quarter boys on the clock are modern fibreglass copies. The originals are in the Clare chapel.

There are views across the roof tops towards the station and hills beyond.



There are views down to to River Brede and the strand.


To the south, there are views across the low lying Romney Marsh to Dungeness Power Station.



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