Rye - The Prettiest Town in the South of England

Medieval Gate in Rye
The entrance to Rye's upper town is by a gate through its ancient town walls.

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Rye is one of the prettiest villages in England's Southeast. It's the sort of place that visitors who don't want to appear to be tourists wish they didn't like so much. Yes, it is full of tourists and day-trippers. Yes, its high street is lined with such tourist magnets as art galleries, antique shops, twee little tea shops, and craft shops. And yes, on a busy day during the school or summer vacations, it probably gets a bit crowded.

But you must give your inner cynic a rest because Rye is simply irresistible.

Start With a Brilliant Location

The town stands on a hill where the limestone ridge of the mainland meets the flat stretches of Romney Marsh. And it is a small town, not a village, even though Rye's compact Medieval center feels like a storybook village.

St Mary's Parish church, begun in the 12th century, tops the hill. Climb the church tower for views of the sinuous flow of the Rother across the marshes where the delicious salt marsh sheep graze. The church's clock - installed as the "new" clock in 1561, is one of the oldest, still functioning church tower clocks in the country.

Rye was built where three rivers met. Water surrounded and protected it on three sides. It was one of two towns associated with the ancient Cinque Ports federation - a group of seaports on the Kent Coast formed in the 12th century to provide military services to the Crown in exchange for such rights as charging tolls, collecting tax and duties.

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How Nature Preserved a Complete Medieval Town

Houses in Rye

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Rye's early wealth and status came from its protected access to Rye Bay and the sea on the winding River Rother. But keeping access to the bay was a constant battle against tidal silt.  In the late 1300s, a storm finally changed the course of the river and Rye was cut off from the sea.

This probably wasn't such a bad thing. Before then Rye was the first town to suffer seaborne raids from France every time the English Kings and their Norman cousins had a falling out. In one raid, in 1377, the French invaders set fire to the town and carried off eight church bells with their loot. A year later, a party of men from Rye and the neighboring town of Winchelsea raided Normandy and brought back the bells. For many years, one of the bells hung in Watchbell Street to alert the town of French invasions.

Today, the town center that was spared several centuries of battles when the river changed its course is a maze of tiny, steep cobbled streets lined with beautifully preserved medieval houses. If you wander along the prettiest streets - Mermaid Street, Watchbell Street, and Church Square - you'll come across houses declaring they were rebuilt and refurbished - in 1450. Many of the oldest have steeply pitched tile roofs, tiny front doors and neatly maintained black oak timbers. Some have names rather than numbers: The House with Two Front Doors, The House With the Seat, The House Opposite.

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Why Visit Rye Today

Rye High Street

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Rye makes an excellent weekend destination or a stop on a cycle or hiking tour of the Romney Marshes. It's also a good place to warm up with tea and a cake after a bracing day on nearby, dog-friendly Camber Sands.

Though no longer a deep-water port, Rye does have a harbor, about two miles south of the town along the Rother estuary. It supports a fishing fleet that supplies restaurants up and down the Sussex and Kent coasts and across the Channel in France. The town's scallop festival in February launches the season for plump and succulent Rye Bay scallops - best in the coldest months of the year.

About 25 antiques stores are scattered around the town, many of them strung along Cinque Ports Street. There's also a good number of tea shops, seafood restaurants, and pubs. The Old Bell, a 15th-century pub on the High Street, looks just like an old English pub should look - even though you can order tapas there. Its vaulted cellars and underground passages were probably used by smugglers to hide their booty. In the 18th century, Rye was a notorious smuggler's haven.

While you're in Rye, stop in at one of the two branches of the Rye Castle Museum (the Ypres Tower and the East Street Museum), to find out more about this town's fascinating past.

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