“Nice shoes," said one of the Ethels.
“You don’t miss me in these,” I laughed looking down at my battered fluro Converse. I fit in with the colour scheme at Ethel Loves Me, a new interiors store in Rye, East Sussex. It's busy too, always a good sign, which is what drew me in as I wandered up Conduit Hill to Rye's main shopping street. "Come and have a look, it's all work by local artists and makers."
Part art gallery, part lifestyle store & gift shop, plus experimental space, Ethel’s aim is to showcase original pieces and collectables made in Rye. An elegant jumble of arts, craft, curios, upcycled, salvage, vintage and fun fashion - it's a joy to stumble across something handmade that I really don't need but have to have - funky bottles for Fairy Liquid or these fabulous knives (stick 'em in your herbs!). I also love the oversize striped furniture and adventurous paintings by Tina Kaul – (a journey to Berlin, New York and other places she’s lived) and work by former graffiti artist James Tomlinson.
So, I have a rare day to myself in Rye, a very nice feeling. It's been a while since I last visited and I never get bored of coming here as there's always a new shop, gallery or cafe to sit and read in. It's a foodie place (annual Scallop & Oyster festival) and has an entrepreneurial, upmarket vibe. This goes back a long way. It has always been a port town trading in luxury goods and has had to reinvent itself since invasion. Ryers are very proud of the town's 'royal' status, independent shops, literary connections, festivals, and it has some high-end places to stay. With excellent train connections to Brighton, Ashford & beyond (just 38 minutes to St Pancras on the high-speed rail), it's easy to get to from London and there's plenty to do in a day, weekend or longer break.
Ready to hit the Rye Trail? Here are my suggestions...
For book lovers... my first port of call is always Rye Bookshop. I can lose hours in the travel section, browsing biographies, local history and reading their recommendations (I love those handwritten stickers). All genres, regular new stuff and the staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The woman next to me was addressed by her first name. Rye is the setting for the fictional town of Tilling in EF Benson’s popular Mapp & Lucia books (adapted recently by the BBC – a very funny tale of social climbing). The American author Henry James also lived in Lamb House, just around the corner and wrote three bestselling books here (ghostly turns and very atmospheric, it's now a National Trust property which you can visit during the summer).
For local history... Rye Castle - Ypres Tower and Women’s Tower
It's the first time I've had a proper look around Rye Castle Museum and it's well worth it. Ypres or 'wipers' as the locals call it was built in 1249 to help defend the town against attack, and has had many reincarnations since - it's been a private residence, women’s prison (thought to be the only women’s prison to survive unaltered from the 1800s to present day), a mortuary and is now home to the castle museum. Great views of the town and harbour from the top and a humble medicinal herb garden hidden away behind its walls.
For quiet time... St Mary’s Church, Church Square
This is the biggest church in Rye and in a prominent spot at the top of the hill. The only pre-1200 building to survive in Rye and the former lookout point before the castle was constructed. Great views from the top of the tower. My favourite church in Rye, however, is the only Catholic one, St. Anthony of Padua, just opposite on Watchbell Street. It has a welcome sign outside the door in various languages, beautiful stained glass windows and is less busy so more peaceful. It's where I always go to light a candle and say a prayer.
For a pint... Mermaid Street at dusk
I couldn't resist this beautiful photo by Helen Hotson, a landscape photographer based in Cornwall. She has captured Mermaid Street at its best, at dusk when you can nosy into other people's homes (there was scaffolding up when I visited during the day so not quite so enticing to photograph). Once Rye’s main street (Middle Street), this is the vision in all the postcards. Cobbled streets and a pretty steep hill so not great for heels or buggies (took me ages in both). Have a drink in the Mermaid Inn, an ancient pub which is now the main stay for celebrities, festival events etc. Charming house names too, ‘The House Opposite’ … ‘The House with the Seat’. I wonder if the owners get fed up with all the gawping?
For shopping... luxury and vintage goods...
Rye is excellent for homewares, interiors, art, photography, books and unusual gifts. New since I last visited: Ethel Loves Me, Rye Chocolates, WiDEYE, an ethical beauty shop & treatment room, Rye Weddings, Rye Candy, Art & Soul Gallery, and Corridor Café. I'm lusting after several pairs of beautiful retro Italian brogues from Crispin’s of Rye. There’s also Rye Pottery, Glass Etc where misery, moans and frowns are banned – run by the Decanterman Andy McConnell - who once gave a talk at one of my Salons and had us all rolling around on the floor. Byzantium for jewellery and watches, butter knives and Beryl Woods Ware in Crock & Cosy on Strand Quay.
For tea and treats...
It’s a pleasure to wander around Rye on your own but if you want to make a connection with a local to uncover Secret Rye (buildings not open to the public like the Town Hall), I recommend booking a two-hour walking tour from Rye Heritage Centre (Thursdays, Fridays and some Saturdays).
If you're here for longer take a walk or cycle out to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, a conservation area just two miles out of town that's home to 4,275 species of wildlife (more than 300 are rare and endangered in Britain). There are several walking routes depending on energy levels and you can visit the ruins of Camber Castle (guided tours during the summer). I also like to walk or cycle to Camber Sands, about an hour's walk, for book and beach time. A pretty flat track and not that exciting but the view from Camber Sands more than makes up for it.
Getting there: www.visit1066country.com for accommodation and transport.
Photos: Nicci Talbot, Mermaid Street - Helen Hotson, Shutterstock.