The medieval town of Rye, in East Sussex, is the perfect place to spend a lost weekend. From cosy pubs to boutique shops, here's the definitive guide to what you should see...
The medieval town of Rye is like something out of a fairy tale. Quaint and captivating, yet with a colourful past, this wonderful little place will win you over in a heartbeat.
With its ancient buildings and cute cobbled streets, it’s almost like this East Sussex town has been suspended in time. It’s also one of the few places in the UK that hasn’t been taken over by High Street stores, which makes browsing its boutique stores a double delight.
The ancient town has something for everyone, whether you want to shop ‘til you drop, enjoy its year-round festivals or watch the local fishermen at work.
If you’ve only got a day or two to spare, you can still pack plenty in to your short break so here’s my definitive guide to what you should do, and where you should go.
What to see
First stop should be the Rye Heritage Centre (Strand Quay; +44 (0)1797 226696; www.ryeheritage.co.uk) which will help you find your feet and introduce you to the town.
Here, you will find the famous town model, which was painstakingly built by a local couple and is the centrepiece of the famous sound and light show, which recounts 700 years of Rye’s history.
At the heritage centre, you can also play on working ‘End of the Pier’ models - great fun, no matter how old you are.
Another way to get your bearings is to climb to the top of St Mary the Virgin Church (Church Square; +44 (0)1797 224935).
You have to give a small donation in order to scale the tower, but from here you can enjoy a great view of the surrounding area and even catch the original ‘Quarter Boys’ strike on the quarter of the hour.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Rye on a Thursday or Saturday afternoon, you can go to Lamb House (West Street; +44 (0)1580 762334) the National Trust-owned property, which was once the home of author Henry James.
Another famous Rye resident was the novelist EF Benson, who penned the Mapp and Lucia books and also served as the town Mayor.
The best way to see Rye, though, is to take a slow wander through its cobbled streets and soak up the atmosphere.
Where to shop
There are plenty of boutique shops to explore two of my favourites are Penny Royal (22 High Street; +44 (0)1797 223930) and Wood ‘n’ Things (105 High Street; +44 (0)1797 226090), where you can snap up some great home-made goodies and cute additions to the home.
You’ve also come to the right place if you’re in the market for antiques - most of the specialist stores are housed in the black sheds by Strand Quay, but you should also check out Glass etc (18-22 Rope Walk; +44 (0)1797 226600) where you can snap up some antique treats.
Music lovers will also go crazy for Grammar School Records (High Street; +44 (0)1797 222752), which is packed to the rafters with mounds of vinyl. Housed in the town’s old school for boys, this independent record store is one of the best in the UK and you could literally spend hours sifting through the records, videos and DVDs and stumble across some real gems.
Rye and the surrounding area is renowned for being picturesque, but if you’re keen to get a good keepsake, go straight to the Purdie Gallery (106 High Street; +44 (0)1797 226937). Here, you can snap up some amazing pictures taken by local photographer David Purdie, as well as limited edition prints, keyrings and much more. As you can imagine, some of the works are on the pricey side (think upwards of £150), but if your camera won’t cut the mustard, it’s a steal.
In keeping with Rye’s old-fashioned atmosphere, the town also boasts a couple of traditional sweet shops, where the tasty treats are stored in giant jars. Britcher and Rivers (109 High Street; +44 (0)1797 227152) and Sweet Memories of Rye (High Street) are both brilliant places to visit, especially with kids, and will really remind you of days gone by.
Where to eat
When you start to feel peckish during the day, head straight to the Swan Cottage Tearoom (41 The Mint; +44 (0)1797 222423) for a traditional cream tea in chocolate box surroundings.
Alternatively, try Cranberries (105A High Street; +44 (0)1797 224800) to sample some of the sugary-sweet cupcakes that are so fashionable right now.
Most of the pubs in Rye (and there are quite a few!) serve up top-quality food, but fine dining is never far away - especially in the evenings.
If you’re a fan of Italian food, head to the Tuscan Kitchen (8 Lion Street; +44 (0)1797 223269), which is run by an Italian couple and serves up some of tastiest European fayre you’re ever likely to eat (think £10-12 for a main course).
Alternatively, if you’re a fish fan, try Webbe’s at The Fish Café (Tower Street; +44 (0)1797 222226) an upper-class eatery where you can sample the freshest catch of the day.
Food at the Mermaid Inn hotel and restaurant (Mermaid Street;+44 (0)1797 223065) is also well worth checking out. For around £35, you can expect a mouth-wateringly good three-course meal, served by some of the poshest waiters in town.
Over the years, the Mermaid has played host to everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Michael Caine so if you come here, you’ll be in good company. If you’re not too distracted by its old-fashioned charm, you could spend ages poring over all the portraits and signed photos in the mini ‘hall of fame’ and if you’re really lucky, you might even spot a celeb for yourself.
Where to drink
One of the best things about visiting Rye is its old-fashioned inns. You can’t beat holing up in a good pub to sample the local ales and I can particularly recommend the friendly Standard Inn (The Mint; +44 (0)1797 225996). The pub is run by local councillor, Jonathan Breeds, whose family have lived in Rye for hundreds of years. They have a bit of a chequered past (visit the heritage centre to find out more!), but if you can get to the Standard in January, it may be worth your while. Every year, the pub holds a Grand Prize Draw and in the famous raffle, one lucky person will win free drink for a year - reason enough to visit alone!
The Mermaid (see above for contact details) is another good place to enjoy a nightcap, although the building looks so old, you’ll be amazed it’s still standing! The bar has friendly staff and reasonable bar prices, not to mention one of the biggest open fireplaces in the UK - perfect for snuggling up next to on a cold winter night.
Fans of live music will also love the Ypres Castle Inn (Gun Gardens; +44 (0)1797 223248) on a Friday night. Locals lovingly refer to this pub as ‘the Wipers’ and once a week, it comes alive to the sound of music and almost everyone turns out to support it.
Where to sleep
Rye has plenty of good accommodation. I can highly recommend Willow Tree House (113 Winchelsea Road; +44 (0)1797 227820) a luxurious B&B with a five-star rating and five-star service to boot. Situated just outside the centre of Rye, this gorgeous little place has six bedrooms named after local villages and is spotlessly clean and comfortable.
Rooms start from around £90 per night (including breakfast), but if you’re in town for a special occasion, splash out and book the Fairlight - the hotel's flagship suite with a four-poster bed (£130 per night).
Those preferring to stay in the centre of town should consider The George in Rye (98 High Street; +44 (0)1797 222114), a boutique hotel and restaurant situated right in the heart of the action. The George has received glowing reviews from both national and international publications and its standard doubles start from £125 per room (including breakfast).
The seaside town of Hastings is just 30 minutes up the road and Camber Sands, with its impressive sand dunes, and Winchelsea are nearby. Rye even has its own nature reserve, which is right on the town’s doorstep.
To explore the local area, you can hire bikes from Rye Hire (1 Cyprus Place; +44 (0)1797 223033) at very reasonable prices.
Rye is around 60 minutes from central London by car, and 60 miles from Dover and the Channel Tunnel.
It has excellent road and rail links to other major towns and cities and is well situated to explore the other delights of East Sussex.