Four hundred years ago, John Cheston decided to demolish his house, overlooking the cemetery of St Mary’s church in Rye. He’d just removed the first roof tiles when a cry came from the burghers below, ‘Desist, thou scurvy varlet! (or words to that effect) Thou despoileth our streetscape and wrecketh our potential tourism industry.’
The city fathers invoked a 1606 heritage law, thus sparing Mr Cheston’s house, and securing Rye’s future as a centre for artists, writers, musicians and miscellaneous bohemians. It has become a perfect location for filming British costume dramas and a very popular short trip out of London.
Rye claims to be England’s best preserved village, and who am I to argue, not having seen the other contenders. The Ryers (or ‘Mud Heads’ as they’re uncharitably known in the rest of Sussex) have been particularly sensitive about building conservation since 1377, when some rowdy Frenchmen cruised across the Channel, literally set the town alight and nicked the church bells as souvenirs. A heavily-armed delegation paid France a return visit and brought the bells back. Rye was restored to its former glory and now boasts more historic buildings than any town in Britain.
The village is almost too cute to be true. An elegant white windmill neatly balances the cluster of black wooden huts where fisherman used to hang their nets. Steep, narrow streets wind between houses with the Tudor timber frames and slate roofs we tourists love. The battlements of Ypres Tower and Landgate Arch, and the aforementioned St Mary’s church are striking remnants of the town’s medieval past.
Rye was once a major harbour for warships, an important member of the Cinq Ports, and given the title ‘Rye Royale’ by Elizabeth I. But eventually the sea gave up the battle against the silt and beat a retreat. Now at low tide small fishing boats lie on their sides in a muddy channel while sheep graze on the Romney Marsh between Rye and the nearest beach, several kilometres away.
Nobody seems to miss the sea too much. Tourists still flock to hobble over Rye’s cobbles, browsing the galleries and pottery shops and drinking traditional English coffee (a tasteless, milky liquid that pre-dates the modern macchiato) in charming traditional tea-rooms.
It’s all very genteel these days, but Ryers also take pride in their grimy past, the smuggling era in particular. Rye was the haunt of the owlers, as smugglers were known in the eighteenth century. In dark back rooms, deals were done on smuggled liquor, tea and luxury goods, and also on wool and banned English language bibles. ‘Pssst – wanna buy a cheap bale of Romney Marsh and a couple of gospels?’
The Mermaid Inn, now an upmarket hotel, was the hub of these nefarious activities, and night ghost tours are run through the secret passages of the town. Inspired by a visit to Rye, Rudyard Kipling wrote A Smuggler’s Song, ending, ‘Them that asks no questions, isn’t told a lie, So watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!’
I also heard the macabre story of a girl called Amanda and a young monk named Cantador, who were bricked into a wall as punishment for their illicit love affair. Apparently Cantador’s ghost often sings in Turkey Cock Lane, now a carpark behind Rye Lodge Hotel, though he was taking a break when I visited.
I loved the permanent exhibition of penny arcade machines in the Rye Heritage Centre. I’m such a sucker for these things. I bought seven old copper pennies to feed into the slots of my choice. The fortune telling machine issued a card that assured me: ‘You will discover easy methods of making money,’ which was encouraging news for someone who’d just swapped a perfectly good pound for a measly 7 pence.
My remaining six coins I invested in storytelling dioramas, where little models move around when the penny drops. The fun comes not because these things are so ingenious; it’s because they’re so unbelievably tacky that we’re delighted when they do anything at all.
For instance, I watched a miniature miser refuse a donation to a tiny Red Cross nurse rattling a tin. The devil popped up and a bag of money disappeared from the miser’s safe. Then there was the totally non-PC ‘George and Mabel in the Park’. George raised his hat to the attractive girl on the bench beside him, while surreptitiously lifting her skirt with the end of his walking cane. All good, naughty fun.
Back in the town, I shared a stroll with my fellow tourists, English, French, German and Dutch, noting the plaques on houses testifying to former residents. For a place with a population of less than 5,000, Rye has had an extraordinary number of celebrity Mud Heads. Jacobean playwright John Fletcher, Joseph Conrad, G.K.Chesterton and H.G.Wells all lived here. American novelist Henry James spent his final years in the impressive Lamb House.
More recently, Sir Paul McCartney sent his kids to local Rye schools and Spike Milligan was vice president of the Rye Rugby club. He’s buried in nearby Winchelsea, below the world’s wittiest (self-written) epitaph. Church authorities would only let the family inscribe it on his headstone in Irish, but translated into English it reads, ‘I told you I was ill.’
Mine was a fleeting visit, but I can see why they all came to Rye, and I can guess why they stayed.
The writer was a guest of 1066 Country Tourism.
Getting there: Trains leave at least hourly from London Charing Cross to Rye, take just over 2 hours and cost from GBP24 off peak, one way. See nationalrail.co.uk
Staying there: For numerous accommodation options, see visitrye.co.uk
Further information: Entry to the Rye Heritage Centre is GBP3, town audio guide costs GBP3.50. For other activities in Rye, See visitrye.co.uk and 1066country.com
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney