A Pocketful Of Rye

19th January 2008

Jack Watkins visits two quirky ancient towns on the south coast and find them steeped in history.

Most visitors to the south of England head for the famous seaside resorts - ritzy Brighton, sober Eastbourne, clean, sandy-beached Bournemouth. But Rye and Winchelsea, perched on the edge of the marshes of the East Sussex/Kent border provide more aged links to maritime history, taking you back to the days when this corner of England was on the front line of the defence of the country.

Today the English Channel has receded from these parts, leaving the two hilltop settlements isolated on their respective rocky outcrops. Yet the waves once lapped the southern cliffs of Rye, and the River Brede, at the foot of Winchelsea, was once a port that hummed with activity. It’s hard to imagine, standing beside the still, seemingly slumbering waters of the latter today, that in the Middle Ages, Winchelsea, like Rye, was a Cinque Port, responsible for providing men and ships for the king’s fleet in the days before the creation of the Royal Navy, and that the galleys of great soldier kings like Edward I and Edward III frequently lay up in their harbours.

Both towns suffered horrifically during the Hundred Years War, which raged between England and France intermittently between 1337 and 1453. The French launched major attacks on several occasions which destroyed large parts of Winchelsea and, in 1377, effectively razed Rye to the ground. But while Winchelsea never quite recovered its former pomp, Rye was rebuilt and effectively relaunched as a quirky, bustling little place, full of antique charm, and nooks and crannies bursting with eccentricity.

I find it hard to choose a favourite out of the pair. Of course, there is lots more to do in Rye, which gets all the attention in the tourist books, while Winchelsea is left unnoticed. But I suspect the latter likes it that way, content to meditate on its past and allow the modern era to bypass it entirely. Its sleepy airs are underlined by the almost total lack of shops, although it does possess two very old pubs, the Bridge Inn at the bottom of the hill before you climb to enter the town, and the New Inn, a cosy place on the edge of the High Street. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti stayed here in 1866, when Winchelsea seems to have been scarcely more active. Rossetti referred to its ‘pleasant doziness’ as a civic procession took place, ‘observed by a mob of one female child in the street and by us from the inn window.’

In truth it is more like a village than a town in its atmosphere, with its absence of traffic and people. But the straight, broad streets still keep to the grid plan pattern laid out by Edward I who founded ‘New’ Winchelsea in 1288, when the old settlement, nearer the sea, was entirely washed away.

Rye: The Old Rectory

The buildings were laid out in square ‘plots’ within the overall plan, and occupying the central one is the hulking edifice of St Thomas’s Church and its pretty churchyard. It is the most obvious reminder of the former importance that was attached to Winchelsea, because although barely more than the chancel now survives (the rest having been destroyed in French raids, and subsequent ruination as the population declined), even this is massive. As a complete structure, the church must have had the dimensions of a cathedral.

Step inside and you will see one the finest examples of Gothic church architecture in its ‘Decorated’ phase in the region – more elaborate than the restrained ‘Early English’ Gothic typified by, say, Salisbury Cathedral, but less so than the full blown flamboyance of the later ‘Perpendicular’ of such as Kings’ College, Cambridge, that followed it. The stonework decoration of the tombs is meticulous, especially around that of Gervase Alard, a local merchant who rose to become Edward I’s Royal Admiral of the Fleet.

Opposite the church is the town museum, housed in what is perhaps the oldest building here, the Court Hall, once owned by Alard. Otherwise, it is simply pleasant to wander where you will, taking in the tiled or weatherboarded old dwellings, or the desolate views from the Strand Gate, one of the three surviving portals that are all that remain of the once extensive town walls. Millais painted his famous work The Blind Girl in the fields below.

Unless you’re familiar with its history, Winchelsea’s connection with the sea is not so obvious as at Rye which still retains a boating air. Like Winchelsea, it appeals to day-trippers of the well-heeled variety, and is a pottering about sort of place, where no-one, not even the shop keepers, seems in much of a hurry. Here are second hand bookhops, and genteel tea shops, populated by eloquent, tweedy ladies. In the churchyard of St Mary’s, another huge church with one of the oldest working clocks in the country, an elderly man sits on a bench gazing abstractedly at the nave, oblivious to a flock of starlings kicking up a heck of a racket in a nearby tree. In the Castle Museum, friendly staff tell me about the local ghosts, and the steward-cum-manager of Ypres Tower, which has glared out at the Channel since at least the 14th century, encourages visitors to shut the doors on one of the tiny cells to experience the claustrophobia that, in its later role as the town gaol, prisoners must have felt when they were squashed in four to six persons deep.

People love Rye for the rise and fall of its roof lines, running up and down and around the corners of delightful cobbled alleys, the cottages disappearing behind a profusion of creepers and chirruping birds. The Mermaid Inn, one-time HQ of the notorious Hawkhurst smugglers’ gang, is a feast of darkly medieval oak panelling, its beams sinking beneath weight of its history. Outside, locals who could probably trace their family lines back to a smuggler or two, guffaw over pints of real ale.

One of my favourite areas is Watchbell Street, as picturesque as the name implies, opening up on lovely views of the harbour and across to Winchelsea, and providing a surprise in the beautiful Catholic church of St Anthony of Padua which, with its carved, round arched capitals and marble pulpit, is like a refreshing blast of southern Europe gusting in off the sea amidst all the leafy English half-timber. The River Tillingham which runs below, inspired the Tilling novels of EF Benson, who resided for many years at Lamb House as, at the turn of the 20th century, did Henry James. You can learn more about Benson and his world in the Castle Museum, which has various items of memorabilia. The cult of Mapp and Lucia remains a powerful focus for Rye locals even today, but Benson himself regarded the novels as ‘small beer’.

The fields below Winchelsea, where Millais painted

It’s possible to walk between Rye and Winchelsea across the marshes, though few do I think, save for locals and dedicated walkers. Sadly, the wonderfully antiquated old trains that used to serve Winchelsea are no more, with services along the line largely foregoing to stop in order to provide quicker, more efficient services between Hastings and Ashford International. But trains do stop at Rye, and there are hourly bus services between the two towns. However you get there, don’t fail to take in the wonderfully atmospheric landscape. With its wandering flocks of Romney sheep, its lonely churches and isolated farms, there is an otherworldly feel about this area which is quite fascinating.

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