On the face of it, Rye is Hovis-advert Norman England, an old town set on a sandstone outcrop like a Tuscan citadel, close enough to the winding waterways of the harbour and dunes of Camber Sands that the briny air is often filled with seagull shrieks. The 20th-century poet Patric Dickinson described Rye as a ‘beautifully jewelled brooch worn at South England’s throat’. He wasn’t the only one inspired by the place: JMW Turner feverishly sketched it from the bird-speckled wetlands that run beside River Rother down to the sea, while Henry James escaped London’s literary scene to live and write at the stately Lamb House, where George I also sought refuge when his ship ran aground in 1726.
With all of this historical baggage, and a huge concentration of Grade II-listed houses, the town’s danger has always been that it might ossify into a quaint ghost of itself. Down the road in Hastings, there’s plenty of jaunty seaside Victoriana to retro-gentrify; but no one’s messing with Rye’s higgledy-piggledy Mermaid Street, a regular on lists of Britain’s prettiest strips and best day trips from London. There’s only so much one can do to the timber-framed Mermaid Inn, which dates back to the 1150s and is said to be haunted by a gang of gun-toting, 18th-century smugglers, who built a secret passageway to the similarly ancient Old Bell tavern. When the Mermaid’s owner Judith Blincow discovered a quote from Love’s Labour’s Lost on a wall beneath layers of paint and nicotine, it appeared to be the Bard’s own version of ‘Shakespeare woz ’ere’ from 1597.
Yet Rye feels spurred on, rather than weighed down, by all its heritage, with Toby jugs and tea rooms offset by smart places to stay, eat and buy things to decorate the most modishly curated lofts. A wave of newcomers, many self-declared DFLs (down-from-Londoners), have followed Hackney creatives Katie and Alex Clarke, who reinvigorated tired coaching inn The George more than a decade ago. ‘Rye has always been a gem, but there’s a real buzz about it right now,’ says silver-quiffed interior designer Alex MacArthur, who took over a 14th-century monastery and turned it into a temple of statement furniture. She’s one of many breathing life into ancient spaces. Medieval needn’t mean twee or chintzy; like the stiff westerlies that draw kitesurfers to Camber Sands, it can be bracingly fresh.