Rye, East Sussex: Wikis


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Coordinates: 50°57′N 0°44′E / 50.95°N 0.73°E / 50.95; 0.73

Rye panorama.jpg
The Ypres tower, Rother, Rye Harbour and marshes seen from the tower of St Mary's church, Rye.
Rye is located in East Sussex

 Rye shown within East Sussex
Area  4.2 km2 (1.6 sq mi[1]
Population 4,108 (Parish-2007)[1]
    - Density  978 /km2 (2,530 /sq mi)
OS grid reference TQ920206
    - London  53 miles (85 km) NW 
District Rother
Shire county East Sussex
Region South East
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town RYE
Postcode district TN31
Dialling code 01797
Police Sussex
Fire East Sussex
Ambulance South East Coast
EU Parliament South East England
UK Parliament Hastings and Rye
Website http://www.ryetowncouncil.gov.uk/
List of places: UK • England • East Sussex

The small town of Rye, in East Sussex, England, now stands approximately two miles from the open sea and is at the confluence of three rivers: the River Rother, the Tillingham and the Brede. In medieval times, however, as an important member of the Cinque Ports confederation, it was at the head of an embayment of the English Channel and almost entirely surrounded by the sea.

Rye is officially a civil parish but with its historic roots has the status of a town; it has a population of 4009 (2001 census). During its history its association with the sea has included being involved with smuggling gangs of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Those historic roots and its charm[2] make it a tourist destination, and much of its economy is based on that: there are a number of hotels, guest houses, B&B's and restaurants [3] , as well as other attractions, catering for the visitor. There is a small fishing fleet, and Rye Harbour has facilities for yachts and other vessels.

A known demonym for the people who live in the town is 'Ryers' and in Sussex they are sometimes referred to as 'Mud Heads'.[4]



Location of medieval Rye

The name of Rye is believed to come from Norman French "la Rie" meaning a bank.[5] Medieval maps shows that Rye was originally located on a huge embayment of the English Channel called the Rye Camber, which provided a safe anchorage and harbour. Probably as early as Roman times, Rye was important as a place of shipment and storage of iron from the Wealden Iron Industry.

Rye as part of the Saxon Manor of Rameslie was given to the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy by King Æthelred and this was to remain in French hands until 1247.

Rye, as one of the two "Antient Townes" (Winchelsea being the other) was to become a limb of the Cinque Ports Confederation by 1189, and subsequently a full member. The protection of the town as one of the Cinque Ports was very important, due to the commerce that trading brought. One of the oldest buildings in Rye is Ypres Tower, which was built in order to defend the town from the French in 1249 as "Baddings Tower" and later named after its owner John de Ypres. It is now part of the Rye Museum[6]. Rye received its charter from King Edward I in 1289, and acquired privileges and tax exemptions in return for ship-service for the crown. The "Landgate" (the only surviving one of four original fortified entrances to Rye) dates from 1329 in the early years of the reign of King Edward III. It is still the only vehicular route into the medieval centre of Rye and is suitable only for light vehicles.

The River Rother originally took an easterly course to flow into the sea near what is now New Romney. However, the violent storms of the 13th century (particularly 1250 and 1287) were to cut the town off from the sea, destroyed Old Winchelsea, and changed the course of the Rother. Then the sea and the river combined in about 1375 to destroy the eastern part of the town and ships began use the current area (the Strand) to off-load their cargoes. Two years later the town was sacked and burnt by the French, and it was ordered that the town walls be completed, [7] as a defence against foreign raiders.

Rye was considered one of the finest of the Cinque Ports even though constant work had to be undertaken to stop the gradual silting-up of the river and the harbour. There was also a constant conflict of interest between the maritime interests and the landowners, who gradually "inned" or reclaimed land from the sea on Romney and Walland Marsh and thus reduced the tidal-flows that were supposed to keep the harbour free of silt.[8] Acts of Parliament had to be passed to enable the Rother to be kept navigable at all.

However, with the coming of bigger ships and larger deepwater ports, Rye's economy began to decline, and fishing and particularly smuggling became more important (including owling, the smuggling of wool). Imposition of taxes on goods had already encouraged the latter trade since 1301, but by the end of the 17th century it became widespread throughout Kent and Sussex, with wool being the largest commodity. When luxury goods were also added, smuggling became a criminal pursuit, and groups - such as the Hawkhurst Gang who met in the Mermaid Inn in Rye - turned to murder and were subsequently hanged.

Since 1803 there have been lifeboats stationed at Rye[9] although the lifeboat station is now at Rye Harbour approx 2 miles down-river from the town.[10] The worst disaster in its history occurred in 1928, when the Mary Stanford Lifeboat sank with all hands. The incident is recorded by a tablet at Winchelsea church; and by the folk-song The Mary Stanford of Rye[11] . Between 1696 and 1948 there have been six ships of the Royal Navy to bear the name HMS Rye.

During the 1802-1803 Napoleonic invasion threat, Rye, Dover and Chatham were regarded as the three most likely Invasion Ports[12] and Rye became the western Command centre for the Royal Military Canal. The canal was planned from Pett Level to Hythe as a defence against a possible French invasion. How a 20 mtr ditch was supposed to have stopped the finest army in Europe, and one which had already crossed all of Europe's great rivers at one time or another, was not clear. In the event, the canal was not completed until long after the need for it had passed.

Rye Royal

Rye, being part of the Cinque Ports Confederation and a bastion against invasion on the Channel Coast, has always had close links with the crown. It was King Edward III and the Black Prince who defeated the Spanish in Rye Bay in 1350 in the battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer. But it was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the town the right to use the title "Rye Royal" following a visit in 1573. King Charles I described Rye as "The cheapest sea-towne for the provision of fish for our house". George I whilst returning from visiting his continental possessions in 1726 was grounded on Camber Sands and spent the next four days in Rye, being accommodated at Lamb House.


Historically Rye was an independent Borough granted rights of governance under its charter of 1289, with its own appointed Mayor and chosen Jurats (magistrates). These independent powers were terminated by the Local Government Act of 1973 and, although officially considered to be a civil parish [13], Rye’s governing body - because of its history - is that of a Town Council. That Council has one electoral ward, electing 16 members, one of whom then is elected Mayor of Rye.[14]. In the Townhall[15] there is an unbroken list of the Mayors of Rye going back to the 13th century. There are also two gruesome relics of Rye's violent past: the gibbet cage which was famously used to display the hanged body of the murderer John Breads in 1742, and the pillory last used in 1813 in the case of a local publican who assisted the escape of the French General Phillipon. The current Mayor (2008-9) is Cllr Samuel Souster (Labour).

The Member of Parliament for the combined constituency of Hastings and Rye is Michael Jabez Foster.


Rye is located at the point where the sandstone high land of the Weald reaches the coast. The medieval coastline (see map above), with its large bay, allowed ships to come up to the port. The original course of the River Rother (Eastern) then reached the sea at Romney to the north-east. The storms in the English Channel in the thirteenth century, coupled with reclamation of the bay, brought huge quantities of gravel through longshore drift along the coast, blocking the entrance to the port. The course of the river has also changed over the centuries so that Rye now stands on the river at the point of its confluence with the River Tillingham and the River Brede. The Rivers Brede and Rother also form part of the Royal Military Canal between Winchelsea and Iden Lock.

The river itself, now flowing southward into Rye Bay, and the environs of Rye Harbour, are managed and maintained by the Environment Agency [16]

Mermaid Street showing typically steep slope and cobbled surface

Most of the town lies on the original rocky heights and contains the historic buildings including St Mary's parish church, the Ypres Tower (part of the Town Wall), Lamb House and many of the houses on Mermaid Street, Watchbell Street, and Church Square. The main road skirts the town to the south after crossing the river; before that point there is some ribbon development along the Hastings road.

Demography and economy

Rye, over the centuries has successively been an entrepôt port, a naval base, a fishing port, an agricultural centre and a market town. Today, more than anything, Rye depends on its tourist appeal, which attracts traffic from all over the world. The old part of the town within the former town walls now offers a wide range of antique shops, art galleries, gift shops and restaurants.

Since the last war Rye has also become a renowned centre for ceramics[17]

Rye, apart from its tourist base, continues to operate as a port. There has been considerable investment in facilities for both the fishing fleet berthed at Rye and the commercial wharves at Rye Harbour. Rye fishing boats are code-lettered RX, Rye, SusseX (which registration is also used by the Hastings fishing fleet) and land fish daily. Some is sold at the quayside though most is sold through the great regional market in Boulogne.

At Rye Harbour, the Rastrums Wharf (which was renovated in the 1980s) has the capacity to take large ships up to 80 mtrs on a high tide.

Rye also is an important yachting base, offering the only safe haven for many miles in either direction along this section of Channel coast. Yachts may currently moor either at Rye Harbour or at the Strand Quay at the edge of the town[18] There have been numerous plans proposed for a modern yacht marina to be built at Rye, but each has foundered on economic or planning grounds.


At the latter end of the 18th century, Rye was connected to the Turnpike Trust system of roads. One of these, the Flimwell Turnpike, took passengers towards London[19]; the second ran from Hastings eastwards through the town. These two roads are now the A268 and the A259.

In addition to the hourly 100/101 Dover-Hastings Stagecoach long-distance service there are a number of buses connecting Rye with other towns and villages, including Tenterden, Hastings and Tunbridge Wells [20].

Rye has a railway station on the "Marshlink" line between Hastings and Ashford.This now provides a through service from Brighton to Ashford International and connects to the Eurostar services to Paris Gare du Nord and the new high speed Class 395 service to London St Pancras. Gatwick Airport may be reached by rail via Eastbourne or Lewes

Rye was also the terminus for the pre-World War II Rye & Camber Tramway, built to serve golf courses and Camber Sands, closed to the public at the outbreak of WWII, never reopened and scrapped in 1947.

Several long-distance footpaths can be joined by walkers in the town. The Saxon Shore Way which starts at Gravesend, Kent and traces the coast as it was in Roman times, passes through Rye en route to Hastings; the 1066 Country Walk leads from Rye to Pevensey; the High Weald Landscape Trail goes to Horsham; and the Royal Military Canal Path follows that waterway to Hythe.


Rye College (formerly called Thomas Peacocke Community College, and before that Thomas Peacocke School) is Rye's secondary school. The two primary schools, Tilling Green Infant School and Freda Gardham Community School, were replaced by a new school, Rye Primary, adjacent to the secondary institution, in September 2008.


Rye is a local commercial centre for the Romney Marsh and Walland Marsh area as well as being a tourist spot. Rye Farmers’ Market[21] takes place on Strand Quay every Wednesday morning. Rye has a well-established reputation as a centre for shops trading antiques, collectors' books and records, and has many art galleries selling works by local artists and potters with changing exhibitions throughout the year.

Rye's general weekly market takes place on the marketplace car park by the station every Thursday. Until the 2001 Foot-and-Mouth disease crisis (which closed all livestock markets in England) there were frequent livestock sales at Rye.

Rye Castle Museum is located on two sites, in East Street and at the Ypres Castle [22]. One of the tourist websites includes a picture tour of the town [23] Rye Art Gallery was established as a Trust in the early 1960s. Located at 107 High Street it provides a focus for contemporary visual art, which it exhibits alongside heritage artworks from its Permanent Collection.

Rye also stands at the centre of a network of nature reserves, some of national importance. The Rye Harbour SSSI lies to the south and includes the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. [24] [25] The neighbouring Pett Levels and Pools, and the Pannel Valley nature reserve are accessible via Winchelsea and Winchelsea Beach a few miles to the west, whilst Scotney Lake lies just off the Lydd road and the RSPB reserve at Dungeness lies a few miles further to the east [26] with the Bird Observatory located in the old lighthouse. [27]

The recent redevelopment of the Rye wharf for the RX fishing fleet has provided modern amenities for the landing and storage of fish. Most is sold wholesale through the regional market in Boulogne, though there is a trend for Rye to develop as a gastronomic centre in the style of Newquay or Padstow, featuring the use of fresh local produce from the sea. The annual "Rye Bay Scallops Festival" [28] which takes place each year in February was first proposed by the then Chair of the Chamber of Commerce, Kate Roy, as a means of promoting the "Rye Bay Catch". Excellent scallops (and flatfish such as sole, plaice and dabs) are to be had in Rye Bay because of the shallow and relatively sheltered water.

Every year in September Rye hosts its annual two-week "Arts Festival" which attracts a world-class series of performers in music, comedy and literature[29]

On the second Saturday after November 5th the "Bonfire Boys" [30] stage their annual torch-lit parade through the streets of the town, supported by visiting Bonfire Societies from all over the Sussex Bonfire Societies Confederation. This is followed by a "gurt 'normous bonfire" where the chosen "effigy" of the year is ceremoniously blown-up, and a spectacular firework display. This event typically attracts over 10,000 visitors to the town, and results in the town's roads, and the main roads to London, Hastings and Ashford, being clogged up and closed to traffic from the early evening onwards.

Rye in literature

There are various mentions of the town by famous travel writers between the 16th and 18th centuries, although not all mentions were good. Sir Robert Naunton (1563–1635) mentions it in his book Travels in England, published sometime between 1628 and 1632: he calls Rye a “small English seaport“; shortly after his arrival he takes post-horses for London, travelling via Flimwell. Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) describes the state of the harbour and its approaches, saying that ‘’Rye would flourish again, if her harbour, which was once able to receive the royal navy, cou'd be restor'd … ’’ but that he thought it very doubtful that large ships would be able to use the port again. [31] William Cobbett (1763–1835) simply mentions it in passing, saying that this area (that including the Romney Marsh) would be most likely to be where the French invaders might land.

Lamb House

Rye has produced and attracted many fiction writers, some of whom lived at Lamb House, one of the town's historic residences and now owned by the National Trust[32] They include Henry James (1843–1916), the American novelist, who was resident between 1898 and 1916; Rumer Godden (1907–98), the Anglo-Indian novelist; and E.F. Benson (1867–1940), the English novelist. Both the House and the town feature prominently in Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels, as Mallards House and Tilling respectively. In the mid 1980s, Rye was used as a filming location by LWT for its adaptation of the Mapp and Lucia novels.

People of Rye

Other residents of the town and environs have included:

  • Conrad Aiken (1889–1973), American writer. Aiken's former home, Jeake's House, is now a guest house.
  • Joan Aiken (1924–2004), children's author, daughter of Conrad Aiken
  • John Christopher (1922– ), science fiction author. The 1980s British television series based on his trilogy, The Tripods, was filmed near his house.
  • Tom Chaplin singer of the band Keane
  • Monica Edwards (1912–1998), children's author who lived at Rye Harbour and set her Romney Marsh novels in the area, renaming Rye Dunsford.
  • John Fletcher (1579–1625), Jacobean playwright and solicitor.
  • Radclyffe Hall (1880–1943), seminal lesbian writer.
  • Monica and Gabriela Irimia (1982– ), the Cheeky Girls who live in cheeky towers in the town.
  • Sir Paul McCartney (1942– ), musician and former Beatle. McCartney's children attended the local schools in Rye.
  • Spike Milligan (1918–2002), comedian, writer, musician, poet, playwright and vice-president of the Rye Rugby Club.
  • John Ryan (1921–2009 ), Although born in Edinburgh, this British Author/Cartoonist famed for his TV cartoon Captain Pugwash, was a resident of Rye.
  • Malcolm Saville (1901–82), author of nearly 80 children's books, largely thrillers and adventure stories. Saville was the creator of the Lone Pine series of books, a number of which were set in Rye, including The Gay Dolphin Adventure and Rye Royal.
  • Russell Thorndike (1885–1972), who set his Dr Syn novels about smuggling on the marshes.
  • Philippa Urquhart (1940– ), British actress.
  • Sir Anthony van Dyck did several drawings of the town, unusually detailed for him, and probably done to pass the time until a ship to the continent arrived[citation needed].
  • Tom Baker


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