Immerse yourself in Rye’s centuries of history: climb a medieval church tower, visit Henry James’s home, or play on the penny arcades. Then head to the harbour for quiet beaches, wild walks and coastal birdlife.
A separate town to Rye itself, Rye Harbour is where the River Rother spills into the sea.
The nature reserve here, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, consists of more than a thousand acres of shingle, saltmarsh, salty lagoons and reedbeds. It’s best-known for its breeding birdlife, including roseate tern, ringed plover, lapwing and redshank, but the area is great for a walk at any time of year – in early summer, coastal plants such as sea pea bring lots of colour. A network of footpaths cross the reserve.
A new Discovery Centre, with shop, cafe, educational facilities and viewing area, opened in 2021, helping to interpret some of the amazing wildlife to be found here.
An attraction of two halves, Rye Castle Museum encompasses the medieval Ypres Tower, built as part of the town’s defences; and an exhibition area a short walk away on East Street.
The East Street site’s eclectic mix of objects includes the town’s 18th-century fire-engine – its leather hoses still in tact – old toys and games, and ancient pottery.
The tower, used as a gaol for hundreds of years, is a more atmospheric affair with steep, uneven steps and the grisly little cells that were used to keep prisoners. The view from the top is rather good.
The pyramid-shaped roof of St Mary’s church tower dominates the skyline for miles around. This is Rye’s oldest surviving building; begun in the 12th century, its size is a testament to how important the Norman town had become in the defence against the French.
The church is open every day. Its stained glass is a highlight (one of the windows was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones), and the tower offers wonderful views over the rooftops and the marshes.
Running round the building’s perimeter is the picturesque Church Square, packed full of ancient timber-framed buildings.
Formerly the home of Henry James (and later EF Benson, author of the Mapp & Lucia books, set in a fictional version of Rye), this handsome early-18th-century house includes some of James’s possessions.
The large walled garden – unusual for Rye – offers a tranquil change of pace from the town’s narrow medieval streets. James used to write in the garden’s summerhouse, which was destroyed in the war.
Strand Quay’s Heritage Centre is the gateway to finding out about Rye and its history.
There’s a town model, the focus of a 20-minute show with lighting and a commentary on Rye through the ages (hard to put into words… but it’s good), and a penny arcade where you can amuse yourself with novelties such as the famous Laughing Sailor.
This is also the place to hire an audio guide to take round the streets, or pick up a themed map (creative and literary; pubs and grub; saints and sinners; and ghosts and ghouls). The centre also runs winter ghost walks (dates are online) which includes a spell in the Ypres Tower in the dark, if you dare…