Last week, I had a marvellous time spending a day in Rye with my relatives visiting from the States and Canada. I wanted to show them a quintessentially English small town, full of character and charm, and I knew Rye would be the perfect spot. I’d never in fact been to Rye myself, but, being a huge fan of E.F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia books, which are set in Rye (scroll down to my ‘what to read’ section for more details), I’d always wanted to go.
Rye is only a short train ride from London and is so worth the trip! I’ve rarely seen such a pretty place, and the sleepy, cobbled streets, ringing church bells and quaint cottages offer a pleasing contrast to bustling, noisy London. Here are some of my tips for what to do, eat, shop & read if you plan on visiting Rye yourself (I’d get booking those train tickets right away – we have a Bank Holiday coming up, after all!).
++ W H A T T O D O I N R Y E ++
1/ Climb to the top of St Mary’s Church for an incredible view of Rye and the surrounding countryside.
I braved my vertigo as I swung myself up ladders in the belfry (thinking rather nervously of Dorothy L. Sayer’s The Nine Tailors as I saw the impressive bells still and quiet beneath me), and it was definitely worth it. I did feel a little wobbly in the knees as I inched my way around the spire, but I soon forgot my qualms as I got to admire a truly stunning landscape.
2/ Stroll down Mermaid Street, arguably the prettiest road in Rye (if not Britain).
This cobbled street looks like a picture postcard, with its vine-covered timbered and Georgian houses flanking either side. It’s an instagrammer’s paradise!
It’s worth popping into The Mermaid Inn for a drink, or simply to look around, as this pub is a Rye institution. First established in the 12th Century, The Mermaid Inn has a long and fascinating history, including being used by a notorious gang of smugglers in the 1700s.
3/ Pay a visit to Lamb House, the former home of Henry James, E.F. Benson and Rumer Godden.
Lamb House is just around the corner from the top end of Mermaid Street and is a must visit for all literature lovers. Henry James moved into the house in 1897, where he wrote some of his most acclaimed novels and entertained many other notable figures of the time, including H.G. Wells, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Rudyard Kipling, and Edith Wharton.
After James’ death in 1916, E.F. Benson lived in Lamb House, and it provided inspiration for ‘Mallards’ – Miss Mapp’s (and then Lucia’s) house in Mapp & Lucia. From 1968-1973, the author Rumer Godden was a tenant of the house.
Although there is not a great deal to see inside the house (only 3 ground floor rooms are open to the public, and their content is fairly sparse), it is interesting to see some of Henry James’ letters and possessions on display. The real treat, though, is the garden, which is glorious. The National Trust make tea and cake available to enjoy on the large lawn, and it’s hard to imagine a more tranquil setting. I think the entrance fee is worth it for access to the garden alone!
++ W H E R E T O S H O P I N R Y E ++
Rye was stuffed to the brim with interesting antique and second-hand book shops, but unfortunately a lot of the shops close at the beginning of the week and tend to have only Wednesday-Saturday opening hours. Even though I couldn’t get into all the shops I would have liked, I still managed to do some shopping, and I’ve included some places I’d like to visit next time on my list.
1/ Rye Pottery.
Rye Pottery is a family run business that has been going for hundreds of years. As followers of this blog will know, I adore attractive ceramics, and I loved Rye Pottery’s simple striped designs in a range of pastels. I picked up a green striped jug in their ‘seconds’ collection (on the second floor and well worth checking out!) and was delighted. The jug was only a second because of its slightly darker green tone than the rest of the collection, but I actually preferred its colour so was thrilled to get it for a bargain price!
Sadly, this shop was closed (Tuesday is the one day they close – typical!), but on peering through the windows I saw a lovely looking collection of homeware, books and prints. I’ll definitely be back (and in the meantime, am lusting after everything on their website)!
This little independent bookshop was charming, with welcoming, helpful staff. Being in Rye, of course we couldn’t resist picking up Mapp & Lucia and a Rumer Godden novel (thank you Grandma!).
A drapers specialising in minimalist sewing patterns and simple, good-quality fabrics. The warehouse-like, rather old-fashioned shop is well worth dropping by, especially if you’re a keen sewer!
++ W H E R E T O E A T I N R Y E ++
Although I think Hastings may be a more exciting spot for food, Rye is certainly full of charming cafes and there are some excellent sounding restaurants I’d like to try on a return visit.
The food here was fairly run-of-the-mill (simple soups, sandwiches, quiche & cakes), but the setting was very charming! We sat around a big table, enjoying a light lunch and a rest as we admired the blue and white china on dressers in the cafe (which felt a little like someone’s private drawing room). Next time, though, I would choose somewhere else to eat and content myself with just a cup of tea.
The cakes displayed in this cafe’s window looked particularly good, although sadly I wasn’t hungry enough to try any. It’s clear I’ll just have to go back to Rye….
We tried to go here for supper, but – story of our day – it was closed! There is a branch of Webbe’s in Hastings too, and I’d heard rave reviews of it from locals during my trip there, so I was keen to try out the restaurant, but…next time!
++ W H A T T O R E A D I N R Y E ++
I always think it’s fun to read books appropriate to the place you’re visiting. Rye is famed for its literary connections, and if I ever make a more prolonged stay in the town, here are the books I’ll be bringing with me.
1/ Henry James
2/ E.F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia series.
In the Mapp & Lucia books, Benson fictionalised Rye as the village of Tilling, and fans of his novels have flocked to Rye ever since. I’m definitely in the mood for a reread of Mapp & Lucia now, and if you’ve never read it then I highly suggest you do! The book (set in the 1930s) follows the hilarious escapades of Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas (‘Lucia’) as they battle for social prestige, constantly hoping to one up each other and prove their right to be crowned societal queen of Tilling.
3/ Rumer Godden.
4/ Beatrix Potter
The cover of her children’s story The Tale of the Faithful Dove is clearly Mermaid Street. Beatrix Potter sometimes holidayed in Rye, and one of her illustrations for The Tale of the Faithful Dove, which shows the view from Lamb House looking towards St Mary’s Church, is currently on display at the house.
Have you ever visited Rye? What are your top tips for what to do when you’re there?
++ Read my post about Hastings as another fun outing that’s very close to Rye ++
If you’d like to easily save this guide, here the handy pinnable image once more: