When Henry James came to Rye, he fell in love with it, and with Lamb House, where he spent the rest of his life. You can see why.
It’s extraordinarily picturesque – all those half timbered houses, cobbled streets and the medieval church with its flying buttresses and gilded angels – but it’s miraculously not-twee. It’s perfect in scale – nowhere is more than a ten minute walk from anywhere else, but it’s big enough to sustain a cultural life and some fabulous little shops. It was once a Cinque Port before the sea retreated, leaving salt marsh to raise some very delicious sheep.
In this charming town the nicest place to stay is in one of those half timbered houses, of which Tudor Cottage (Kip Hideaways), is a fabulous example. Every corner of it could be a World of Interiors shot; the white walls the only possible backdrop for the timber frames, and if the little woodwork pieces on the bathroom wall aren’t actually Tudor, they look it. But to save the place from too much period good taste, there are some nice, contemporary pieces and a couple of pleasant pre-war portraits.
Actually, maybe it would be quicker if I just mention my only reservation, viz, that the small windy staircase isn’t great if, like me, you have vertigo. I’d prefer something more than a stout ship rope on the way down. Oh and the hob is induction, which drives me nuts. But that’s it: the only flaws in an otherwise lovely cottage. It’s so thought through even the games in the sitting room are period perfect – backgammon and dominoes, with a chess set upstairs. (Can I just say that I simply slaughtered my friend two nights running in dominoes?) There’s an actual fireplace with logs for when it’s cold. There are three bedrooms, and in theory the house sleeps six, but it would, I think, feel crowded with that many.
The beds are comfortable, the linen white and luxurious, the windows with wooden shutters, the bathrobes generous and – more good taste – instead of horrid little plastic bottles for your bodywash, you get a sliver of actual soap.
Outside, there’s a little yard with a long table and another little table for drinks in the shade. Inside, there’s a good small kitchen and a generous dining table next to the fireplace (it would be lovely at Christmas). But in summer it’s so inviting outside. We passed on the very decent Hoof burger place a couple of doors away, and the fish and chip shop next to it and the Standard Inn next door, which has a good simple menu, and had local steak and salt lamb from the excellent Rye Butcher ten minutes away, with asparagus, cherries and strawberries from the grocer next door.
Further afield, I’d try Webbe’s Fish Café in Tower Street and I’ve heard good things about The Fig. For a drink, the Standard Inn couldn’t be handier; the Mermaid Inn is lovely. There’s an exemplary large local supermarket, Jempson’s, just by the railway station, which sells local produce and pretty well everything else. Rye Chocolates does fabulous, though not cheap, ice cream, with shards of chocolate. Just up the road from the cottage, the Whitehouse Rye provides the visiting Londoner with their fix of swanky cake and breads, and there’s a very good ordinary bakery just opposite.
In Rye, there’s Lamb House, Henry James’s home, and after him, EH Benson’s (the Mapp and Lucia books are all set in Rye), and the medieval church of St Mary’s. Radclyffe Hall fans may like to visit the little Catholic Church of St Anthony of Padua, which she and Una Troubridge attended and which she endowed with a fine figure of Christ. Your best bet at the outset is to go to the little tourist office in the town hall and get your maps. The museum wasn’t yet open when we were there but it’s worth a visit.
One of the nicest things to do is to make a circular walk to the nearby village of Winchelsea, with its lovely twelfth century church, and return via the salt marshes – which aren’t marshy – with their sheep. If you’re there for a while, you may like to visit Camber Sands or, further afield, Dungeness (which I detested) with its nuclear reactor and Derek Jarman hut. In Tillingham you can eat wonderfully well in the restaurant attached to the local vineyard and farmhouse, closed, alas, when I was there.
But you can be very happy just in Rye, what with all the antique and second hand shops – plus a very good vintage record/CD shop and an actual hat shop.
In peak season, the place will be awash with visitors. In which case, you retreat to your little Tudor cottage. What, I ask you, could be nicer?
Tudor Cottage Rye, Kip Hideaways, £300-£500 per night. kiphideaways.com