Whilst I have spent a lot of time visiting places in East Sussex, I had never been to the eastern part of the county specifically to Winchelsea and Rye, so last July, booked a few days away to explore them.
Winchelsea sits atop a hill overlooking rolling countryside
Winchelsea is situated on Iham Hill and has spectacular views to the sea and inland across the Brede Valley. The town is one of the best preserved Bastide or fortified towns and was established as a port in the late 13th century by Edward I.
The town today replaced “Old Winchelsea” which was lost to rising sea levels and is claimed by some residents as the smallest town in Britain. It still has its own Mayor and Corporation which is a throwback to its days as a “rotten borough” or “pocket borough”. These were boroughs with a very small electorate which could be used by a patron to gain unrepresentative influence in the House of Commons prior to the Great Reform Act (or Representation of the People) in 1832. Today Winchlesea’s Mayor is elected by members of the Corporation known as Freemen and it has lost its civil and judiciary powers but its status is preserved as a charity in order to maintain its membership of the Cinque Ports Confederation.
My first stop was a visit to the parish church St Thomas the Martyr to find a particular gravestone.
St Thomas the Martyr church today, its first recorded mention came in 1215
Spike Milligan the comedian and member of “The Goons” lived nearby and is buried in the churchyard.
He had once quipped that he wanted his headstone to bear the words “I told you I was ill” but the Chichester diocese refused to allow this epitaph. A compromise was reached with the Irish translation Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite and in English, “Love, light, peace”. The additional epitaph “Grá mór ort Shelagh” can be read as “Great love for you Shelagh” his late wife.
Spike Milligan’s gravestone found and off to explore the church….
The transepts and windows today are in ruins and only the chancel and the chapels are in use. John Wesley preached his last open air sermon under an ash tree in the churchyard in 1790
It is renowned for its 20th century stained glass windows by Douglas Strachan…
…and its medieval Alard tombs dating from 1312
As a long time admirer of Pre Raphaelite art, I was amazed to find a copy of the painting of the Blind Girl by John Everett Millais! I have spent many hours looking at this painting which is in the collection of Birmingham Art Gallery and never realised where the background was…Winchelsea no less!
The Blind Girl by J E Millais
Millais visited Winchelsea in 1852 and liked the town so much that he incoporated the town and its meadows into the background one of his most famous works.
Time to move on and to drive a short distance to Winchelsea beach and on to Pett Level where I found an unspoilt shingle beach running westwards towards Cliff End and one end of the Royal Military Canal.
This 28 mile long canal was constructed following the old cliff line that borders Romney Marsh from Cliff End to Seabrook near Folkestone as a defence against possible invasion of England’s shores during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Royal Military Canal is now a haven for wildlife
Begun in 1804 this defensive barrier was constructed and progress was slow, contractors were dismissed, the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger intervened and finally civilian navvies were hired to dig the canal whilst soldiers built the ramparts. Finally completed in 1809 at a cost of £234,000 it was hoped that the tolls from the waterway and the adjacent inland road would help to defray the costs. It never saw military action but was used again during World War II for preparations against a threatened German invasion. Today the canal has a public path running its entire length which forms part of the Saxon Shore Way and is an important habitat for wildlife.
Information panel showing the route of the Royal Military Canal
Opposite the canal and behind the Smugglers public house, I came across a truly miniature church dedicated to St Nicholas the patron saint of sailors and children among others, literally on the beach! Opened in 1935 only the cross on the gable end and the sign reveal its function. This building was known as the Rocket House as it was formerly a store room for rocket apparatus used by coastguards.
St Nicholas Church Pett Level
Pett Level beach near to the cliffs at Cliff End is a must visit location for fans of David Bowie. The video of his hit record and second UK number one single “Ashes to Ashes” was filmed here.
Ashes to Ashes solarised pop video stills
It was one of the most iconic and expensive pop videos of all time and featured Bowie dressed in a pierrot costume along with Steve Strange and other members of the London Blitz scene walking in front of a bulldozer along the beach. Apparently the bulldozer is still kept at Rye Harbour and is used to move the beach shingle in preparation for winter storms!
Pett Level looking towards Cliff End
The following day a short three mile drive away I went to explore Rye…
The windmill at Rye on the River Tillingham is no longer working but is available as bed and breakfast accommodation
Rye lies at the confluence of three rivers, the Rother, the Tilllingham and the Brede and is now some two miles from the sea. In medieval times Rye was an important member of the Cinque Ports along with Hastings, Hythe, New Romney, Dover and Sandwich. The Cinque Ports (from the Norman French meaning “Five Ports”) were originally set up for military and trading purposes but today the confederation is entirely ceremonial.
Rye was originally a subsidiary of New Romney but when this town was damaged by the great storm of 1287 and silted up, Rye took over as one of the five. Supported by the ancient town of Winchelsea, the councils of these ports traditionally maintained defence of the realm of England. They provided the ships and the men who guarded the king from frequent attacks and in return were granted special privileges.
The coastline showing the Cinque Ports before the great storm of 1287…the coastline looks very different today with many of these ports now lying well inland
It is often said that the confederation was the original force behind England’s maritime power and could be seen as the Cradle of the Royal Navy. The ports were required to supply 57 ships each with a crew of 21 men and a boy, for 15 days each year. In return the ports were granted special rights which included amongst other things, exemption from the jurisdiction of certain courts and the right to levy their own taxes. The ships were not only used for warfare but to transport the king and his family between England and Europe with other nearby towns and villages known as “limbs”, (among them Lydd, Margate, Folkestone and Ramsgate) helping to fulfil the quotas of ships and crew.
Arriving early in the morning the bottom end of the High Street was deserted!
I have wanted to visit Rye ever since watching the BBC1 and Channel 4 television adaptations of E F Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” series of comic novels when the quaint cobbled streets and medieval half timbered houses first lodged in my mind. I was not disappointed… packed full of interesting shops and cafes and tea rooms the town is crammed with history and charm. Perched high on a hill, this fortified town feels somewhat suspended in time and with its unhurried atmosphere and enchanting streets it is a popular tourist destination today.
King Charles I described Rye as “the cheapest sea town for the provision of fish for our house”, and Queen Elizabeth I gave the town the right to use the title “Royal Rye” following a visit in 1573.
E F Benson’s books of Mapp and Lucia feature humorous incidents in the lives of upper middle class people vying for social prestige and oneupmanship in an atmosphere of cultural snobbery in 1920’s and 1930’s. Set in the fictional seaside town of Tilling which is based upon Rye (after the River Tillingham) they were written by Benson who lived in Rye and who became the towns Mayor in the late 1930’s. I decided to follow in Mapp and Lucia’s footsteps so got hold of a plan of the locations from the TV series.
The book and the map
After breakfast at the wonderful Apothecary Coffee House, with its huge bow windows and wealth of apothecary jars and drawers inside, being a former chemists, on the corner of East Street and High Street, I set off to explore the narrow cobbled streets.
A good breakfast stop at the Apothecary Shop!
Along the High Street towards Landgate I came across a fabulous door (the first of many I would see in Rye) with a plaque above the letterbox showing one of the town’s famous former residents, Radclyffe Hall. Marguerite “John” Radcliffe -Hall was an English poet and novelist best known for “The Well of Loneliness” considered by some to be the most important lesbian novel ever written. Published in 1928 it was the subject of an obscenity trial and the novels were destroyed. In more enlightened times, it was published again and is still in print today.
Amazing door furniture
Almost opposite, I came across a terrific tiny shop called “Soldiers of Rye” full to the brim with exquisitely handpainted model soldiers by Chris Viner. Along with chess sets depicting conflicts through the ages, the soldiers represent all periods of history and are popular with collectors around the world.
Soldiers of Rye shop window
I walked along the road to the look out a belvedere high above the Town Salts, the low lying area near to the river where the annual fair and bonfire is held.
Sussex towns have a long tradition of bonfire festivals dating back even further than Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt on the Government in 1605. Rye’s bonfires have celebrated victory over the French, and it has seen the burning of real boats and other activities. Today the bonfire has a symbolic boat on top and a local celebrity is “chaired down” from the town carried aloft by sturdy bearers in a type of sedan chair, along with the Dragon of Rye being the main focal point of the festivities.
The Look Out at Hilders Cliff – the Landgate can be seen in the background
At the look out I see from another plaque that I am already following E F Benson’s footsteps…
Armed with my Rye/Tilling plan, I headed up above the High Street through the steep streets towards the citadel of the town, only to come across in Pump Street a curious water cistern near the church.
The domed oval water cistern
Now a Grade II* listed building located in the grounds of St Mary’s church, this was erected in 1735 at the cost of £600 to improve the towns water supply. Technically it is not a water tower as the tank is not elevated and the water is stored in the domed oval brick storage tank. Note the gauge board to show the water level. Apparently its proximity to a butchers yard caused problems when in 1754 several calves feet were found in the cistern!
Part of the ancient Rye cistern pump
On towards the Castle also known as Ypres Tower which was built in 1249 under the orders of Henry III as part of the defences against frequent French raids. Today it houses a museum.
The Castle or Ypres Tower
View south from the Gun Garden towards the River Rother
Steps up to the Gun Garden
Into Church Square I found a house opposite the church with a very appropriate door knocker!
A tiny Rye Church door knocker
I arrived at Watchbell Street which in the Benson novels was called “Curfew Street” and found the said bell sitting on a wall at Watchbell Corner.
The bell was originally from Playden Church just outside Rye and symbolises the bell that would have been used to warn the townsfolk of invasion from across the channel. It was placed by Rye’s Rotary club to celebrate the Millennium
Watchbell Street or Curfew Street as it was called in the Benson books was home to the character Major Benjy and also the location of the Traders Arms.
A house used in the Channel 4 series looking resplendent with its pink paintwork and its tall verbena!
The Hope Anchor public house – or the Traders Arms in the Channel 4 series
Around the corner into Traders Passage and wonderful cobblestone roads lead to Mermaid Street – known as Porpoise Street in the Benson books!
Another or rather two unusual front doors greeted me at the bottom of Mermaid Street The House With Two Front Doors!
“The House With Two Front Doors” was used by the BBC in their series of Mapp and Lucia to provide the interior shots of Georgie Pillson’s Mallards Cottage
and not far away another odd name – House With The Seat and yes it did indeed have one!
Ghostly tales abound at this medieval hotel
The Mermaid Inn, with its cellars dating back to 1156, the building was rebuilt in 1420 and is possibly one of Rye’s most famous buildings and probably the most photographed. The building is alive still with haunting tales of Catholic priests fleeing persecution during the Reformation and the notorious band of smugglers in the 1730’s known as the Hawkshurst Gang.
Turning right into West Street I reached my next destination. Lamb House now in the ownership of the National Trust. It was the former home of Henry James the American novelist famous for works such as “The Turn of the Screw”, “The Portrait of a Lady” and “The Golden Bowl” amongst others.
Lamb House home of Henry Jame and later E F Benson
He lived in this modest brick fronted Georgian house from 1897 until his death in 1916. In 1917 E F Benson first visited Lamb House as a guest of Henry James and became a part time tenant, after the first world war taking on a lease and living there with his brother Arthur.
Lamb House appears as Mallards in the books firstly as the home of Miss Elizabeth Mapp and later inhabited by Mrs Emmeline Lucas known to all as Lucia. These two central characters were constantly “spying” on the comings and goings of their neighbours eager for items of gossip and once inside Lamb House you can see why its position was ideal. Sadly a Garden Room which had a large bay window was destroyed by a bomb in WWII. A wall plaque occupies the space today.
Where the Garden room once stood now a memorial to Henry James
The Benson brothers also get a mention too!
The downstairs interior of the house and garden is open to the public. Both the BBC and Channel 4 adaptations of the books used Lamb House for interior and external filming.
A wonderful circular window in the dining room looks out onto the garden
On such a hot summers day it was good to take refuge in the garden under the shade of the mulberry tree for a reviving cup of coffee. A rare selfie!
The side of Lamb House as seen from the garden
The productive garden at Lamb House overflowing with summer growth.
Back outside and stepping out from the front door of Lamb House I saw the most bizarre crooked chimney on a nearby house!
Seemingly defying gravity this crooked chimney featured in Mapp and Lucia when Lucia and Georgie sit down with their easels in the middle of the road to paint it. The Church beyond is my next port of call…
For more than 900 years the parish church of St Mary The Virgin has dominated the hill on which the old town stands and due to its grand scale it is sometimes dubbed the Cathedral of East Sussex. In 1377 the town was looted by French invaders and the church was extensively damaged, the roof fell in and the bells were taken to France. The losses were later recovered when Rye men sailed to Normandy, burnt down a town and recovered the items looted including the bells. Perhaps this was the first example of a town twinning and an Anglo French exchange visit!
As I walked into the shade of the church doorway I was greeted by a member of the church staff stopping the huge pendulum of the church clock with a broom attached to a long bamboo pole. She explained that they stop the pendulum once a week so as to keep it in good time and with the aid of the clock on her smart phone she let the the pendulum swing free again!
Stopping the pendulum of the church clock!
This “new” clock was installed in 1561 costing £30, and was made by Lewis Billiard a Huguenot. It is one of the oldest turret clocks still in working order in the country, its pendulum being a later addition. Looking up from outside, the clock shows the “Quarter Boys’ so called as they strike the quarters but not the hours. These were added in 1760 and today if you want a close look, plus panoramic views of the town, you can climb the church bells and see the 8 bells.
In Mapp and Lucia it was from this tower that Miss Mapp spied on Lucia who was sunbathing and skipping in her garden whilst pretending to the rest of Tilling that she was unwell, giving Mapp more ammunition to humiliate her social rival!
The church clock and the Quarter Boys which chime the quarter hours. The tower has been used as a landmark for sailors at sea and is topped with a golden weathervane dating from 1703
Back inside the church there are many fine stained glass windows, including one by Pre Raphaelite artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Other windows were donated by Benson, or Fred as he was known to his family.
Serving three terms as the town’s mayor (like his heroine Lucia who chose Miss Mapp as her Mayoress!) and a magistrate, he was a generous benefactor to the town. Along with the gift of the look out mentioned earlier, he also paid for the renovation of the church organ (another act duplicated by his heroine Lucia!) and gave a massive stained glass west window to the church in honour of his parents.
The magnificent west window donated by Benson in memory of his parents. His father was an Archbishop of Canterbury
Fred Benson’s beloved dog Taffy is also featured…
…as is Benson himself seen kneeling in his mayoral robes.
Another Benson gift was the stained glass south window to commemorate his brother, Arthur, who was a Master of Magdalen College Cambridge and who is noted for writing the words of the song “Land of Hope and Glory”.
My tour of this fascinating town being over I drove some two miles downstream to take in the coastal air at Rye Harbour.
Arriving at the harbour car park I came across one of my favourite coastal relics, a Martello Tower!
Tower 28 the first tower in the numerical sequence of Sussex towers
Now situated on the edge of a caravan park, this Martello Tower is one of a series of defensive coastal towers that were built to protect against possible invasion during the Napoleonic Wars. When originally built it was close to the shoreline, now much changed, and the tower has been nicknamed the “Enchantress Tower”. This is not due to the ivy clinging romantically to its walls, but possibly according to my research originating from the customs ship HMS Enchantress, used to prevent smuggling, that was grounded in the harbour in 1818.
Shaped like an upturned flower pot there would have been two 6 inch guns on the top and the tower would have been home to 20 soldiers when in use, and was surrounded by a moat.
Another of my favourite painters captured Rye Harbour on canvas…Eric Ravilious 1903-1942 grew up in East Sussex and is probably best know for his watercolours of the South Downs. He was a painter, designer and book illustrator and later became a war artist and died when the aircraft he was in was lost over Iceland.
Eric Ravilious painting – “Rye Harbour” in the collection of the Towner Eastbourne
Situated at the mouth of the River Rother, the shingle that surrounds the coastline here has over the past 700 years shifted, reformed and been deposited by the sea limiting the access to the medieval port of Rye.
Over the last 200 years the sea defences have been strengthened and developed, but due to the continuing rise in sea levels, the land and its inhabitants come under threat of flooding. Today the Environment Agency manage the coastline by recycling shingle deposits building up at the river mouth as a result of Longshore Drift and transporting it back westwards in trucks to protect the sea wall at Pett Level.
Today much of the area forms part of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, established in 1970. It is of national and international significance and is home to more than 150 rare or endangered species of wildlife and covers 475 hectares.
Big blue skies and shingle for miles!
I wanted to find an iconic landmark in this area that is much photographed and painted by artists…the red roofed hut.
I couldn’t fail to see it and a tarmac road runs from the harbour right past it
The red roofed black hut is such an iconic feature on this flat expanse of beach
The Nature Reserve has a fascinating mosaic of habitats many of which are scarce in Britain. These range from shingle ridges, saline lagoons, salt marsh and gravel pits and reedbeds.
Teasels seed heads…very popular with goldfinches
The lagoons are home to many birds including Oystercatchers which were in abundance when I visited.
Oystercatchers and a Redshank
More than 90 species of birds nest on the reserve and there is also a Tern colony with Little, Common and Sandwich terns all breeding here. Indeed the silence was broken with the cries of these beautiful birds.
Common Tern with chick
My time at Rye had come to an end and tomorrow I am off to explore Dungeness, just over the county border in Kent, and the subject of my next article. So until then as the Mapp and Lucia would humorously say “Au Reservoir”
But before I close I cannot resist including one more photo of the unforgettable red and black hut of Rye Harbour.