Perched on a hill above the surrounding mysterious Romney Marshes, Rye is one of the most picturesque towns in England, with 18th century hilly cobbled streets and 16th century timbered houses. It stands near the mouth of the River Rother, two miles inland, but was one of the original Cinque Ports before the sea withdrew and the harbour silted up in the 16th century. It is almost encircled by three rivers – The Rother, The Tillingham and The Brede.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, Rye was frequently attacked by the French. In 1377, the town was burnt to the ground, apart from a few stone buildings, including what is now known as the Ypres Tower. The church bells were looted by the raiders. Ypres Tower was the old town fort, built in the 13th century, when it was called the Badding Tower. It was purchased by John de Ypres in the 15th century, but reacquired by the authorities in 1518. For three hundred years, it served as a prison, but now contains Rye Castle Museum. Below the Ypres Tower is Gun Garden, a terraced garden with a view over the river where once a battery of cannon was kept.
The Landgate is a medieval gateway, built in 1329 by Edward III. At high tide, Rye was surrounded on three sides by the sea, the only means of entry being through the Landgate. The Parish Church of St. Mary dates from the 12th century and although severe damage was done by the French in 1377, some of the original structure survives. Major restoration was done in the 19th century. The clock is claimed to be the oldest church turret clock in England, still working with its original mechanism, which was made in 1560. The painted clock face is distinctive with the figures of two boys either side, who strike the bell on the quarter hours, but not the hours, thus they are known as Quarter Boys.
Mermaid Street is probably the best known of the streets in Rye. The Mermaid Inn in the 18th century, was the headquarters of the Hawkhurst band of smugglers. The back of the Inn is largely unchanged since those days. Across the street is the House Opposite, which was so called because of the number of people enquiring where the Mermaid Inn was.
Lamb House in West Street, is now owned by the National Trust. It was built in the early 18th century and from 1898 until 1916, was home to Henry James, the American novelist. Later, E.F. Benson lived there and it is featured in his novels, “Mapp and Lucia”, where he called Rye, “Tilling”. In 2014, BBC television’s adaptation of his novels was filmed in Rye. In the 1930s, Paul Nash, the World War One artist, lived in East Street.