Rye is a quintessential, chocolate-box English town and also one of the country’s best-preserved medieval towns. With a rich history involving maritime conflicts and smugglers, it was once on the coast but, over the centuries, the surrounding marshes have been reclaimed and it now sits on a hill about two miles from the sea at the confluence of three rivers – the Rother, the Tillingham and the Brede.
Make the Tourist Information Centre on Strand Quay your first stop for a map and local info, then wander through the town’s winding cobbled streets where you’ll come across quaint names like Watchbell Lane, Mermaid Street (one of the most Instagrammed streets in Britain), Wish Street and pretty half-timbered houses.
Where To Shop
Dotted on and around the town’s high street, you’ll find small independent outlets, shops selling antiques, vintage pieces and handicrafts, designer homeware stores and art galleries. These are some of our favourites…
Ethel Loves Me is part art gallery and part lifestyle and gift shop, selling original pieces from local makers, artists, craftspeople and creatives. Some of the quirky bits and pieces and homeware make perfect – and a little bit different – presents. We love its ethical approach, including no leather products, eco-thoughtful packaging and a focus on buying local.
WiDEYE stocks its own brand of locally made natural beauty and haircare products. Its USP is that it doesn’t use any synthetic colours or fragrances – all the products are scented with essential oils or natural fragrances. Try the Naked Clay Cleanser, which can also be used as a mask. The team also sells gifts and homeware products such as candles, mists and diffusers. On Saturdays, you can book in for beauty treatments too.
Rye Pottery is renowned for beautiful handmade homeware and decorative accessories. It is one of just a handful of potteries left in the world that continues to produce everything by hand, using a 17th-century decorating technique known variously as Faience, Majolica or Delft. In its Sussex workshop, each piece undergoes a minimum of ten processes, including freehand brushwork by a talented painting team. You can view (and buy) its lovely collections in the shop – we love the festive Christmas baubles.
The owner of artisan chocolate company Rye Chocolates, Paulina Filar, started her business in 2016 selling chocolate from small independent brands, but now creates her own bars in a variety of interesting flavours (e.g. earl grey, peanut butter and honey) using the best ingredients sourced from around the world and wrapped in lovely illustrated packaging.
Puckhaber, based in Fulham, has a second shop in Rye. This mother-and-son partnership sources interesting and quirky French, Swedish and many other continental decorative antiques. Original painted furniture, period mirrors and paintings are also specialities.
Interiors aficionados will love the beautifully crafted statement furniture, unusual lighting and one-off objets at McCully & Crane. It also shows works by emerging artists. A great place to browse.
Ali, owner of Cosy Dot, scours brocantes, fairs and the odd French chateau to source the vintage pieces she sells here as well as online – you’ll find everything from furniture to an iconic French pastis carafe. A real treasure trove.
Vintage, bric-a-brac and antique-seekers should head to Strand Quay, where you’ll find a collection of warehouses full of antique shops, vintage stores and up-cycled furniture shops. Don’t miss Wishbarn Antiques (open at weekends only).
Where To Eat & Drink
There’s certainly no shortage of cafés and restaurants in Rye, and most of the pubs serve good grub. Here are our recommendations…
On arrival in Rye, if you are in need of a mid-morning caffeine hit, the Café des Fleurs (a combo of café and florist) is next door to the train station and a great place to sit down with a drink and a cake surrounded by colourful flowers before you start your day.
The Fig is a chic café that serves an all-day menu of inventive global food, alongside cocktails and locally roasted coffee. It is best known for its brunch, which is served daily until midday. The options include our favourite: flatbread with za’atar, roasted aubergine, poached eggs, labneh, pomegranate and chilli sauce. The lunch and dinner menu has the likes of pulled pork tacos with sour cream mango salsa, as well as a choice of delicious puds.
The Globe Inn Marsh uses fresh and local produce to create innovative home-cooked food (think Romney Marsh lamb chops, south coast catch of the day, and seafood platters, as well as great veggie dishes). At this time of the year, a seat by the roaring open fire is the perfect cosy spot.
Webbe’s At The Fish Café is a lively brasserie with an open kitchen. As the name suggests, the menu features mainly fresh fish from the local ports of Rye and Hastings – we love the pre-starter pots of cockles and bowls of whelks – and there are some decent meat and veggie options too.
For fine dining, head to Landgate Bistro, which is housed in interconnected Georgian shops. Here, you’ll find classic British food with a modern slant. Ingredients are sourced from the local fields, woodlands and waters – from farms just up the road to fish landed a few hundred metres from the restaurant. Expect the likes of pickled wild mushrooms with potato gnocchi; local rabbit with harissa mayonnaise and pickled carrot; and scallops with cauliflower panna cotta, chorizo crumble and honey roasted pork belly.
Step back in time for a drink at The Mermaid Inn, a must-visit pub established in the 12th century with a turbulent ensuing history. The current building dates from 1420 and has some 16th-century Tudor additions, but cellars built in 1156 also survive. The inn has a strong connection with the notorious Hawkhurst gang of smugglers who used it in the 1730s and 1740s as one of their strongholds when Rye was a thriving port. Ghosts of the smugglers and their mistresses are reported to haunt the inn.
Things To Do & Visit
While you continue your walk, you’ll come to St Mary’s Church which has dominated the town for 900 years. Today, visitors come to see one of the oldest functioning church turret clocks in the country, dating back to 1561. You can climb the tower from where you’ll get a panoramic view of Rye and the surrounding countryside. Other sights worth seeing are Landgate, the one surviving stone gate built in the 14th century to defend the town from French invaders. Similarly, Ypres Tower (also known as Rye Castle) was built in 1249 to defend Rye against attacks from across the channel. It has served as a fort, private dwelling, prison, court hall and is now a museum. From the balcony you can look out across Romney. If you’re literary minded, you’ll enjoy a visit to Lamb House, a lovely National Trust Georgian house and the one-time home of Henry James and E.F. Benson.
Down the hill, you’ll come to Rye Nature Reserve – some 450 acres of salt marsh, beach and woodland, and one the UK’s most important wildlife conservation sites. You can walk along its network of pathways – it’s a real birdwatcher’s paradise. If you’re after a longer, bracing walk with sea air, head to Camber Sands, a stunning seven-mile stretch of sandy beach with massive dunes. You can get there on foot (it’s about 3 miles) or there’s a regular bus service from Rye.
This part of East Sussex and neighbouring Kent is famed for its vineyards. Most offer tastings and tours. Chapel Down is probably the best known, about 15 minutes’ drive away near Tenterden. Others close by include Tillingham in Peasmarch where you can stay overnight in one of 11 rooms in what was formerly a hop barn; Charles Palmer in Winchelsea; and Gusbourne in Appledore.
How To Get Here
Rye is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from central London. By rail, it is just over an hour’s journey from London St Pancras International with one change at Ashford International.