Seaside postcard: Rye Class. Sheer class. There's nowhere quite like Rye anywhere else on the coast of southeast England - not that I've yet found. I can best describe Rye as a "cobbled timewarp hilltop", and a damned elegant one at that. Indeed the former Cinque Port is so classy that today even the English Channel doesn't come here any more. Now Rye is just a gorgeous place to live, or to visit for the day. And yesterday was a perfect day for a visit.
Rye's not an especially easy place to get to. It's on the Sussex coast between Hastings and Folkestone, and the indirect rail journey from London took me two hours. The last bit of the journey across Romney Marsh is single track, and trains run fairly infrequently so a bit of careful planning is required. You can probably get here much quicker by car, or indeed by boat, but not by ship - the harbour's not what it was back in the 16th century.
You might not be immediately impressed on leaving the station but keep going and, as the ground starts to rise, the cobbled heart of Rye should change your mind. There are several streets of shops, generally of a gifty boutiquie bijou nature, but definitely a better and less pretentious breed than usual. There are also plenty of decent-looking places to eat, from tea and pie shops to hotels and fish restaurants (many of which are celebrating "A Taste of Rye" over the next fortnight). And there's quaint street after quaint street of tightly packed cottages, interspersed with the occasional ancient pub, making a delightful labyrinth of desirable properties to explore. Nigh every building in central Rye is either Grade I or Grade II listed, and it shows.
The most enchanting street in Rye is probably Mermaid Street[photo], which rises steeply from the riverside with barely sufficient space for a car to pass. Some of the cottages have quirky names ("The House With Two Front Doors", "The House Opposite") although you'd have to have a sense of humour to put up with hordes of tourists forever walking past your windows. At the heart of Rye society are the houses around Church Square, all endearing cottagettes and half-timbered loveliness. Indeed it was here that former Mayor of Rye E.F. Benson set his series of "Mapp and Lucia" novels. These intricate comic tales of manners and bitchy social climbing are revered by many, although I remember switching them off when Channel 4 dramatised the stories back in the 80s. Standing here in "Tilling", outside dear Elizabeth's "Mallards", I wished I'd paid more attention.
A board outside St Mary's Church claims that the view from the top of the church tower is the best in Rye. They're not wrong. I bought my ticket from a faintly scary man at the foot of the staircase, then made my way up a series of very narrow stone passages and steep ladders to the belfry, and out onto the roof. Wow. From up here you get a real sense of three things. Firstly how far away the sea is these days - there's now two miles of glistening river to negotiate between here and there [photo]. Secondly how wonderfully preserved the buildings round here are - the homogenous expanse of chimneypotted rooftops to the north was a dazzling sight in the midday sun [photo]. And thirdly how loud the bells sound when you're perched in midair on the hour. If you're ever in Rye on a sunny day, the tower is a must.
And there's plenty more to keep visitors busy. Two museums for a start. One's in a 750 year old stone tower overlooking the river, the other's in the heart of town. Both are a bit amateur, the latter more endearingly so, and both close for an hour at lunchtime to allow the lovely volunteers a break. Down by Strand Quay is the local Heritage Centre, a more modern attraction complete with "town model light show". I didn't grace that with my money, but I did love the old amusement arcade upstairs where you can feed early 20th century slot machines with old pennies. Here the opportunity to see what emerges from The Haunted Graveyard, or view What The Butler Saw, or lose your balls in a mechanical bagatelle.
Rye was positively buzzing yesterday, not least because hundreds of bikers had descended on the car park by the riverside chippie and were busy revving round the ring road and surrounding villages. But hundreds more tourists were clearly making a late season return visit to a unique hilltop town they know well and greatly enjoy. I'm pleased to say I've finally caught up.