A hilltop town with a picturesque jumble of cobbled streets and historic buildings, Rye in East Sussex could be a British costume drama set come to life. It’s got the charm and beauty to match England’s most popular spots, but somehow it’s escaped a huge influx of visitors. So you’ll find unique shops, historic pubs and local restaurants instead of chain stores and tacky tourist attractions. Rye’s located just inland from the sea to the north-east of Hastings. It’s only just over an hour from London too, so would make a great weekend getaway from the capital. So here’s my guide to how to spend 48 hours in and around Rye.
More weekend guides: Oxford, Bath, Cheltenham, Cambridge, Canterbury, Cardiff, Chester, York, Glasgow
Check in to the Cadborough Farm Cottages, a group of self-catering cottages surrounded by countryside on the edge of Rye. There are six cottages which each sleep two people. The buildings are all different and most date back to the 1800s, so each cottage’s layout is individual – from the cosy Daisy and Buttercup studios in the old dairy to the luxurious, newly renovated Coach House with its open-plan living area and private garden. They all come with a kitchen, courtyard or garden, wifi and a TV/DVD player. Prices range from £75 for the studios to £120 for the Coach House, and there’s a three-day minimum stay.
From the cottages it’s about a 15-minute walk into Rye, and you can take the footpath across the fields with great views across to Rye on its hill. Have dinner at The Standard Inn, a restored 15th-century pub in the centre of town that’s bursting with character, especially in winter when the fire’s roaring. Specialities on the menu include lamb from the nearby Romney Marshes and Sussex beef and chorizo burgers.
Spend the morning exploring Rye, starting with the Ypres Tower. The tower’s origins are a bit of a mystery, but it was probably part of the town’s 13th-century defensive walls. It’s been a house, prison and mortuary over the years since, but it’s now the home of the Rye Castle Museum (open from 10am, £4 for adults, £3 for seniors or free for under 16s). Inside are exhibits about the tower and town’s history. There’s also a recreated medieval herb garden and from the rooftop terrace you can look out over the old harbour. In the 16th century Rye was a major port, though it’s hard to imagine now as the sea’s a mile away!
Then at lunchtime head to Chapel Down vineyard, about eight miles north of Rye. The winery’s one of the best-known English wine producers and does good sparkling wines and rosés. They’ve also started making their own beers and ciders if you’re not a wine fan. Chapel Down run guided tours from April to November (book ahead for weekend slots) or you can just try some of their produce in the tasting room. Have lunch in their Swan restaurant, which serves seasonal produce with great views over the vines.
Back in Rye, spend the afternoon wandering around the town’s cobbled streets. Don’t miss Mermaid Street, which has been voted one of Britain’s most picturesque streets. It’s overflowing with charming half-timbered buildings draped with flowers. Stop off for a drink at The Mermaid, a 15th-century inn with sloping ceilings, creaking floorboards, secret passageways and the occasional ghost sighting included. There are also lots of quirky antique and gift shops to check out around town. Try Glass Etc for vintage glassware, Byzantium for jewellery, Rye Pottery for ceramics and the shops on the Strand for antiques and interiors.
Rye has a starring role in the book Mapp and Lucia, which was recently made into a BBC TV series. Author EF Benson rechristened the town Tilling for the book but used a lot of real-life locations from around Rye. If you’re a fan you can do a self-guided tour of locations from both the book and the two TV adaptions. Or there are guided tours running on some Saturdays. Lamb House in Rye features in the series but was also the home of EF Benson in the 1920s. That’s not its only literary connection either as Henry James lived there 30 years earlier. It’s now run by the National Trust and open to visitors (closed in winter, £6.20 for adults or £3.10 for children). Then finish off your day with drinks and dinner at The George, a stylish gastropub with a grill restaurant that serves local meat and seafood from Rye Bay.
Start the day with a coastal walk in Rye Harbour, guaranteed to blow away any cobwebs. Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is a couple of miles out of town, and is made up of 475 hectares of wetlands, salt marshes and coastline. It’s a conservation area that’s home to 4500 different species, including 91 types of bird and rare British wildlife like the water vole. There are lots of footpaths through the reserve, with a two-mile short walking route or a five-and-a-half-mile longer one. The ruined Camber Castle is also part of the reserve, and if you’re visiting on the first Saturday of the month in July, August or September you can take a guided tour (£3 adults, £1.50 seniors, free for children or English Heritage members).
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, stop for lunch at the William the Conqueror pub in Rye Harbour village. It’s been recently refurbished and has lots of cool design touches like decorated oars along the edge of the bar and seaside memorabilia. They serve pub food with a Greek twist, with souvlaki and stifado alongside the gourmet burgers and Sunday roasts. They also have a good range of real ales.
From Rye it’s about half an hour by car (or 50 minutes by train) to the town of Battle. This was the site of one of the most famous battles in English history when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold in 1066. Yes slightly confusingly the Battle of Hastings actually took place in Battle, not Hastings! You can visit the battlefield and Battle Abbey, built by William as penance for killing so many people in the fighting (£10.10 adults, £9.10 seniors, £6 for children or free for English Heritage members). This year is the 950th anniversary so there’s a new gatehouse exhibition and viewing platform along with special events, building up to a recreation of the battle on 15–16 October 2016. Then finish your weekend with a walk around Battle and tea in Bluebell’s Café Tearoom for afternoon tea with sandwiches, scones and cakes.
Have you visited Rye? Do you have any tips to add on what to see, do and eat?
Thanks to Cadborough Cottages for hosting me in Rye. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.