From Wikishire
Jump to: navigation, search
Rye panorama.jpg
Sights of Rye
Grid reference: TQ920206
Location: 50°57’0"N, 0°43’48"E
Population: 4,108  (2007 est)
Post town: Rye
Postcode: TN31
Dialling code: 01797
Local Government
Council: Rother
Hastings and Rye
Website: Town Council

Rye is a small town close to the coast of Sussex. It is a seaport, which stands some two miles from the open sea but at the meeting of three rivers: the Rother, the Tillingham and the Brede. In the Middle Ages it was an important member of the Cinque Ports confederation, standing at the head of an embayment of the English Channel and almost entirely surrounded by the sea.

At the 2001 census, Rye had a population of 4,009; a respectable small town and if declined from its great days as a port, it is still well-to-do today. During its history its association with the sea has included providing ships for the service of the King in time of war, and being involved with smuggling gangs of the 18th and 19th centuries such as the notorious Hawkhurst Gang who used its inns such as The Mermaid Inn and The Olde Bell Inn, connected by secret passageway.

Those historic roots and its charm make it a tourist destination, and much of its economy is based on tourism: there are a number of hotels, guest houses, B&Bs, tea rooms and restaurants,[1] as well as other attractions, catering for the visitor. Paul Theroux was less faltering of the town ("museum-like in its quaintness... It had the atmosphere of a china-shop.")[2] but visitors may disagree, or at least they may enjoy a good china-shop.

There is a small fishing fleet harboured at Rye. Rye Harbour also has facilities for yachts and other vessels.


Location of mediæval Rye

The name of Rye is of unknown origin. Some locally say that it comes from the Norman French rie meaning a bank,[3] though there are several possible Old English origins for the name.

Mediæval maps show that Rye was originally located on a huge embayment of the English Channel called the Rye Camber, which provided a safe anchorage and harbour. Probably as early as Roman times, Rye was important as a place of shipment and storage of iron from the Wealden Iron Industry. The Mermaid Inn originally dates to 1156.

Rye, as part of the Saxon Manor of Rameslie, was given to the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy by King Æthelred; it was to remain in Norman hands until 1247.

As one of the two "Antient Townes" (Winchelsea being the other), Rye was to become a limb of the Cinque Ports Confederation by 1189, and subsequently a full member. The protection of the town as one of the Cinque Ports was very important, due to the commerce that trading brought. One of the oldest buildings in Rye is Ypres Tower, which was built in 1249 as "Baddings Tower", to defend the town from the French, and was later named after its owner John de Ypres. It is now part of the Rye Museum.[4] Rye received its charter from King Edward I in 1289, and acquired privileges and tax exemptions in return for ship-service for the crown. The "Landgate" (the only surviving one of four original fortified entrances to Rye) dates from 1329 in the early years of the reign of King Edward III. It is still the only vehicular route into the mediæval centre of Rye and is suitable only for light vehicles.

The River Rother originally took an easterly course to flow into the sea near what is now New Romney. However, the violent storms in the 13th century (particularly in 1250 and 1287) cut the town off from the sea, destroyed Old Winchelsea and changed the course of the Rother. Then the sea and the river combined in about 1375 to destroy the eastern part of the town and ships began use the current area (the Strand) to unload their cargoes. Two years later the town was sacked and burnt by the French, and it was ordered that the town walls be completed,[5] as a defence against foreign raiders.

The South Gate at Rye, 1785, by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm

Rye was considered one of the finest of the Cinque Ports even though constant work had to be done to stop the gradual silting-up of the river and the harbour. There was also a conflict of interest between the maritime interests and the landowners, who gradually "inned" or reclaimed land from the sea on Romney and Walland Marsh and thus reduced the tidal-flows that were supposed to keep the harbour free of silt.[6] Acts of Parliament had to be passed to enable the Rother to be kept navigable at all.

With the coming of bigger ships and larger deepwater ports, Rye's economy began to decline, and fishing and particularly smuggling (including owling; the smuggling of wool) became more important. Imposition of taxes on goods had encouraged smuggling since 1301, but by the end of the 17th century it became widespread throughout Kent and Sussex, with wool being the largest commodity. When luxury goods were also added, smuggling became a criminal pursuit, and groups - such as the Hawkhurst Gang who met in the Mermaid Inn in Rye - turned to murder and were subsequently hanged.

Since 1803 there have been lifeboats stationed at Rye[7] although the lifeboat station is now at Rye Harbour, some 2 miles down-river from the town.[8] The worst disaster in its history occurred in 1928, when the Mary Stanford Lifeboat sank with all hands. The incident is recorded by a tablet at Winchelsea church; and by the folk-song The Mary Stanford of Rye.[9] A new RNLB Mary Stanford was commissioned by the RNLI two years later and stationed at Ballycotton on the coast of Ireland.

Between 1696 and 1948 there have been six ships of the Royal Navy to bear the name HMSRye.

During the 1802-1803 Napoleonic invasion threat, Rye, Dover and Chatham were regarded as the three most likely Invasion Ports[10] and Rye became the western Command centre for the Royal Military Canal. The canal was planned from Pett Level to Hythe as a defence against a possible French invasion. How a 20-yard ditch was supposed to have stopped the finest army in Europe, and one which had already crossed all of Europe's great rivers at one time or another, was not clear. In the event, the canal was not completed until long after the need for it had passed.

Gibbet Mill

Borough of Rye

Historically Rye was an independent borough, granted rights of self-government under its charter of 1289, with its own appointed Mayor and chosen Jurats (magistrates). The corporation of the borough was represented amongst the Cinque Ports.

Rye retains a Town Council, amongst whom is elected the Mayor of Rye,[11] in unbroken succession to the Mayors of Rye going back to the 13th century, as listed proudly in the Townhall.[12]

Of Rye's past two gruesome relics remain: the gibbet cage which was famously used to display the hanged body of the murderer John Breads in 1742, and the pillory last used in 1813 in the case of a local publican who assisted the escape of the French General Phillipon.

Rye Royal

Rye, being part of the Cinque Ports Confederation and a bastion against invasion on the Channel Coast, has always had close links with the crown. It was King Edward III and the Black Prince who defeated the Spanish in Rye Bay in 1350 in the battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer. But it was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the town the right to use the title "Rye Royal" following a visit in 1573. King Charles I described Rye as "The cheapest sea-towne for the provision of fish for our house". George I whilst returning from visiting his continental possessions in 1726 was grounded on Camber Sands and spent the next four days in Rye, being accommodated at Lamb House.


Rye is located at the point where the sandstone high land of the Weald reaches the coast. The mediæval coastline (see map above), with its large bay, enabled ships to come up to the port. The original course of the River Rother (Rye) then reached the sea at Romney to the northeast. The storms in the English Channel in the thirteenth century, coupled with reclamation of the bay, brought huge quantities of gravel through longshore drift along the coast, blocking the entrance to the port. The course of the river has also changed over the centuries so that Rye now stands on the river at the point of its confluence with the River Tillingham and the River Brede. The Rivers Brede and Rother also form part of the Royal Military Canal between Winchelsea and Iden Lock. Though not considered isolated, the town is nevertheless situated in the remotest and least populated area of southeastern Britain, on the edge of Romney Marsh and within 2 miles of the coast.

The river itself, now flowing southward into Rye Bay, and the environs of Rye Harbour, are managed and maintained by the Environment Agency[13]

Mermaid Street showing typically steep slope and cobbled surface

Most of the town lies on the original rocky heights and contains the historic buildings including St Mary's parish church, the Ypres Tower (part of the Town Wall), Lamb House and many of the houses on Mermaid Street, Watchbell Street, and Church Square. The main road skirts the town to the south after crossing the river; before that point there is some ribbon development along the Hastings road.


Rye, over the centuries has successively been an entrepôt port, a naval base, a fishing port, an agricultural centre and a market town. Today, more than anything, Rye depends on its tourist appeal, which attracts traffic from all over the world. The old part of the town within the former town walls now offers a wide range of antique shops, art galleries, gift shops, restaurants and a guitar shop in Lion Street near the church.

Since the last war Rye has also become a renowned centre for ceramics.[14]

Rye, apart from its tourist base, continues to operate as a port. There has been considerable investment in facilities for both the fishing fleet berthed at Rye and the commercial wharves at Rye Harbour. Rye fishing boats are code-lettered RX, Rye, SusseX (which registration is also used by the Hastings fishing fleet) and land fish daily. Some is sold at the quayside though most is sold through the great regional market in Boulogne.

At Rye Harbour, the Rastrums Wharf (which was renovated in the 1980s) has the capacity to take large ships up to 260 feet on a high tide.

Rye also is an important yachting base, offering the only safe haven for many miles in either direction along this section of Channel coast. Yachts may currently moor either at Rye Harbour or at the Strand Quay at the edge of the town[15] There have been numerous plans proposed for a modern yacht marina to be built at Rye, but each has foundered on economic or planning grounds.


Churches in Rye include:

  • Church of England: St Mary's; the parish church, of Norman origin[16]
  • Baptist: Baptist chapel
  • Methodist: Methodist chapel
  • Roman Catholic: St Anthony of Padua

In and about the town

Rye is a local commercial centre for the Romney Marsh and Walland Marsh area as well as being a tourist spot. Rye Farmers' Market[17] takes place on Strand Quay every Wednesday morning. Rye has a well-established reputation as a centre for shops trading antiques, collectors' books and records, and has many art galleries selling works by local artists and potters with changing exhibitions throughout the year.

Rye's general weekly market takes place on the marketplace car park by the station every Thursday. Until the Foot-and-Mouth disease crisis in 2001 (which closed all livestock markets in England) there were frequent livestock sales at Rye.

Rye Castle Museum is located on two sites, in East Street and at the Ypres Castle.[18] One of the tourist websites includes a picture tour of the town[19] Rye Art Gallery was established as a Trust in the early 1960s. Located at 107 High Street it provides a focus for contemporary visual art, which it exhibits alongside heritage artworks from its Permanent Collection.

Rye also stands at the centre of a network of nature reserves, some of national importance. The Rye Harbour SSSI lies to the south and includes the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.[20][21] The neighbouring Pett Levels and Pools, and the Pannel Valley nature reserve are accessible via Winchelsea and Winchelsea Beach a few miles to the west, whilst Scotney Lake lies just off the Lydd road and the RSPB reserve at Dungeness lies a few miles further to the east[22] with the Bird Observatory located in the old lighthouse.[23]

The recent redevelopment of the Rye wharf for the RX fishing fleet has provided modern amenities for the landing and storage of fish. Most is sold wholesale through the regional market in Boulogne, though there is a trend for Rye to develop as a gastronomic centre in the style of Newquay or Padstow, featuring the use of fresh local produce from the sea. The annual "Rye Bay Scallops Festival"[24] which takes place each year in February was first proposed by the then Chair of the Chamber of Commerce, Kate Roy, as a means of promoting the "Rye Bay Catch". Excellent scallops (and flatfish such as sole, plaice and dabs) are to be had in Rye Bay because of the shallow and relatively sheltered water.

Every year in September Rye hosts its annual two-week "Arts Festival" which attracts a world-class series of performers in music, comedy and literature[25]

On the second Saturday after November 5 the "Bonfire Boys"[26] stage their annual torch-lit parade through the streets of the town, supported by visiting Bonfire Societies from all over the Sussex Bonfire Societies Confederation. This is followed by a "gurt 'normous bonfire" where the chosen "effigy" of the year is ceremoniously blown-up, and a spectacular firework display. This event typically attracts over 10,000 visitors to the town, and results in the town's roads, and the main roads to London, Hastings and Ashford, being clogged up and closed to traffic from the early evening onwards.

Rye in literature

There are various mentions of the town by famous travel writers between the 16th and 18th centuries, although not all mentions were good.

  • Sir Robert Naunton (1563–1635) mentions it in his book Travels in England, published sometime between 1628 and 1632: he calls Rye a "small English seaport"; shortly after his arrival he takes post-horses for London, travelling via Flimwell.
  • Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) describes the state of the harbour and its approaches, saying that "Rye would flourish again, if her harbour, which was once able to receive the royal navy, cou'd be restor'd … " but that he thought it very doubtful that large ships would be able to use the port again.[27]
  • William Cobbett (1763–1835) simply mentions it in passing, saying that this area (that including the Romney Marsh) would be most likely to be where the French invaders might land.
  • GK Chesterton began his most celebrated poem:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,

The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.[28]</poem>

Lamb House

Lamb House

Rye has produced and attracted many fiction writers, some of whom lived at Lamb House, one of the town's historic residences and now owned by the National Trust[29] They include:

  • Henry James (1843–1916), the American novelist, who was resident between 1898 and 1916;
  • Rumer Godden (1907–98), the Anglo-Indian novelist; and
  • EF Benson (1867–1940), the British novelist.

Both the House and the town feature prominently in Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels, as Mallards House and Tilling respectively.

Film and television

In the mid 1980s, Rye was used as a filming location by LWT for its adaptation of the Mapp and Lucia novels.

The post-Monty Python film Yellowbeard also had a few scenes filmed on the cobbled street.

The feature film Captain Horatio Hornblower RN was filmed in Mermaid street. It starred Gregory Peck and was made in 1951. Mermaid Street serves as Hornblower's wife and mother's house in Portsmouth.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Rye)


  1. Rye Tourism
  2. Theroux, Paul; The Kingdom by the Sea, 1983:53f
  3. Maritime History of Rye. John Collard
  4. "Rye Castle Museum
  5. 14th century murage
  6. The Gift of the Sea. Anne Roper
  7. History of Rye Harbour
  8. Rye Harbour Lifeboat
  9. recorded by the British folk band Meet On The Ledge, and by the American folk duo William Pint and Felicia Dale
  10. Dan Cruickshank (2009-11-05). "Napoleon, Nelson and the French Threat". BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/french_threat_01.shtml#top. Retrieved 7-Mar-2010. 
  11. Rye Town Council Terms of Reference
  12. [1]
  13. Rye Harbour: Environment Agency website
  14. Rye Potteries
  15. Moorings at Rye
  16. Nairn, Ian; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1965). The Buildings of England: Sussex. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. p. 594. ISBN 0-14-071028-0. 
  17. Rye Farmers' Market
  18. Rye Castle Museum
  19. A Picture Tour of Rye
  20. Rye Bay Wildlife
  21. Wild Rye
  22. Dungeness RSPB
  23. Dungeness Bird Observatory
  24. Rye Bay Scallops Festival
  25. Rye Arts Festival
  26. Rye Bonfire Night
  27. ‘’Vision of Britain‘’ Daniel Defoe, Letter 2
  28. G K Chesterton; The Rolling English Road
  29. National Trust:Lamb House
The Cinque Ports
Cinque Ports Antient Towns Limbs

Hastings  • New Romney  • Hythe  • Dover  • Sandwich

Rye  • Winchelsea

Lydd  • Folkestone  • Faversham  • Margate  • Deal  • Ramsgate  • Brightlingsea  • Tenterden