Paradise in East Sussex

For a real taste of old-fashioned England, there's no better place to visit than Rye on (or near enough) the East Sussex coast.

"Jutro jedziemy do Rye'u," I said to my wife (who is Polish, by the way). "Do raju?" she asked. Then I realised that to Poles the name of this little town could well be confused with Paradise. I had never been there before, so I couldn't say whether or not Rye might indeed be "raj". But as it turned out, the little town not far from Hastings came surprisingly close.

We didn't see much as we drove through the town. The old central part, "The Town on the Hill", as it is called, is built on a rocky outcrop high above the flat marshes that surround it, and the roadsnakes round beneath the cliffs. Rye is enclosed by three rivers, and was once right next to the sea. The story goes that, in 1287, an incredibly violent storm completely changed the shape of the coastline and rearranged the course of the rivers. The seareceded and Rye ended up a couple of miles further inland than it had been. Some say that it would have taken an earthquake to cause such a violentupheaval, but history maintains it was a storm.

Rye is famous for its beautiful red-tiled houses andquaint littlecobbled streets. We stayed in a bed and breakfast run by a local artist. It was a hugelisted building, with tiny windows and walls that had long ago forgotten they were supposed to be atright angles to one another.

Royalty and rotten fish

Rye is still a port today, but it is no longer on the sea. Only small fishing boats can reach the town by sailing up the river, so it is not the important trading centre it used to be. But back in medieval times, Rye was one of theforemost ports on the Sussex coast. From 1336 it was one of the Cinque Ports (French for five ports), a group of south coast ports, including Dover and Hastings, given special trading privileges bythe Crown. In exchange for these privileges, the ports provided the King with ships and supplies. This got Rye into a bit of trouble, however, when, in 1539, King Henry VIII asked the town to send fish to Dover to provide the food for a reception for his fourth bride, Anne of Cleaves. She was arriving from Holland and Henry wanted to make a good impression. But when the fish were delivered they were rotten and in no fit state to be eaten! Henry was not amused.

Rye's economicprosperity declined in the 17th and 18th centuries. The sea continued to recede, and Rye found itself ever further inland. Camber Castle, dating from this period, demonstrates the movement of the sea. Built on the coast near Rye in the reign of Henry VIII, it now stands about a kilometre inland, between the town and the sea. The castle was abandoned as the sea receded even further because it was too far away from the shore to be of any use as protection.

Lost in the gravel pits

We set out to walk to Camber Castle, but without a map of thehotchpotch of drainage channels and old gravel pits on Rye's seaward side, we soon found ourselves lost. The yellow gravel thrown up by the sea has beenextracted from around here ever since the sea receded. Footpaths and driveways from Kent to the New Forest in Hampshire are all covered in the stuff. But, when abandoned, the pits filled up with water. Walk for several hundred metres in any direction and you'll soon find yourself on the wrong side of one of these man-made lakes.

Dusk was approaching by the time we found the castle, and we had no idea of the way back. As we wandered about trying to find ourbearings, luckily we met a local birdwatcher, who was terribly enthusiastic about having just had a rare sighting of a nestingbittern. We tried to pretend that we, too, were quite thrilled, but then had to admit we had no idea what on earth a bittern was and why the fact that it was nesting was so special. Many areas of Rye's marshes are bird sanctuaries reserved, in fact, as they attract numerous rare species. The birdwatcher showed us the way back, thenshambled off into theundergrowth with his telescope. Birdwatching is a particularly British eccentricity, but I do wonder if I'll ever really understand it.

Panorama of Olde England

The following morning we enjoyed a fine old English breakfast in a dining room filled with all the odd items artists tend to collect over the years. Then we set off for the church tower. From the top we had a panoramic view all the way to the sea, and more or less worked out the way we should have walked the previous evening. The church dates back to 1150 and has one of Britain's oldest working clocks, dating from about 1561. The rest of the day was spentpottering in and out of antique shops, art galleries and tea-rooms. There's no shortage of them in Rye.

The town has a good selection of historical pubs. The most famous is the Mermaid Inn, a popularhaunt for smugglers in the 18th century. Rye wasnotorious for these lawlessbrigands, and records show that between 1723 and 1736, 250 local customs officers were beaten up, while six were actually murdered! Smuggling declined in the 19th century when manycustoms duties were abolished, and Rye became popular with artists and writers. The American writer Henry James lived there from 1898 to 1916 and was regularly visited by other writers of his generation, such as Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells. Unlike most English towns of its size, Rye actually has a railway station, and can be reached from London in two hours. If you want a real taste of old England, Rye has it all -crooked old houses, ruined castles, legends and literature, antique shops and art galleries, great pubs, lovely tea rooms, walks in the countryside, rare birds and, last but not least, the sea. If that isn't an Englishman's paradise, what is?

- Barnaby Harward