The Wonders of Historic Rye

The Wonders of Historic Rye

Rye stands at the Eastern end of the English Channel where the crossing to the continent is at its narrowest. The “hilltop towns” of both Rye and Winchelsea were rebuilt on hill tops in the 13th century to protect them from the ravages of the sea and invaders as Rye’s strategic position on the south coast has given it a turbulent history. Romans, Saxons, Jutes, Danes and Normans all landed here. The most serious attacks, however, were the frequent French raids during the Anglo-French wars in the 13th and 14th centuries; the most devastating being in 1377 when every wooden house was burned to the ground. After this, stone walls were erected for fortification and as you stroll through the narrow streets and cobbled lanes today, you will catch sight of the town’s defensive walls and 14th century Ypres Tower; the second oldest building in Rye itself.

Originally a peninsular, the former ports are now some distance from the sea as the estuaries have silted up and the marshland has been reclaimed for pasture. The area is still prone to flooding as it is low lying and drains the water from three rivers. The Anglo Saxons were the first to build earthen seawalls to control flooding and to reclaim the fertile marshes. During the 14th century, a special land reclamation body was set up to oversee the work. It continued to be managed by the Jury’s Gut Catchment Board until 1932.

Rye is part of The Confederation of Cinque Ports - a historic series of coastal towns in Kent and Sussex, with Dover, Hythe, Romney, Sandwich and Hastings as founder members. The fortunes of the ports constantly changed as the sea currents altered or disasters occurred. In the 12th century Rye and Winchelsea were growing in importance and, in 1156, were invited to join.

During the Anglo-French wars, Cinque Ports’ ships were the main vessels available for battle as the King did not yet have a Royal Navy. In return for supplying a fixed number of manned ships, the ports enjoyed many privileges. These included freedom from trading dues and taxation, landing rights for the Yarmouth herring catch and honours at court (these still exist in a limited way with the Ports’ representatives attending the coronation service in Westminster Abbey).

By the beginning of the 15th century Rye was declining due to the continuing French raids and relentless sea erosion. It did provided a ship to fight against the Spanish Armada but the harbour was silting up and was soon too shallow to hold such large warships. Nevertheless, Rye was an ideal commercial port and the shipbuilders turned to making smaller merchant ship. Trade was boosted with the arrival of European refugees fleeing religious persecution, as they brought over improved craft skills and trade links. It was not just legal trading that thrived - the area was equally appealing to smugglers. There were many willing to risk their lives for a share in the great profits available. The flat expanse of Romney marsh with its network of ditches and channels was the sight of many illicit landings under cover of darkness.

Nowadays, Rye retains its strong maritime feel although the sea receded long ago. Fishing boats continue to come up the Rother to unload and a few boatyards remain. Looking out from the town to the estuary, the tall masts of sailing boats still dominate the skyline. The charm of the old town and the mystique of the surroundings areas have attracted visitors that include artists and writers for centuries. Antony Van Dyck, the 17th-century Dutch painter, made four drawings of Rye. Turner, Millais, Thackeray and Ruskin were drawn to the beauty and calm of Winchelsea. The writer Henry James lived in Rye and, more recently, E F Benson set his ‘Mapp and Lucia’ stories in the town, which were televised only last year. And so an active group of present day artists and writers continues the tradition.