Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

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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.

Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

A string of medieval houses

Jan Baldwin / Narratives

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.

Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

Old Bell inn

Jan Baldwin / Narratives

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.

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Where to stay in Rye

    The George in Rye

    Set designer Katie Clarke and her husband Alex broke the mould in 2006, when they transformed The George in Rye from a place of swirly carpets and tinkling teacups to one of airy, Farrow-and-Balled Georgian modernism. George Clooney stayed in room 32 in 2013 while on location for The Monuments Men; earlier this year, Helena Bonham Carter preferred room eight when filming The Crown. At the restaurant, the menu is classic locavore, heavy on Romney Marsh lamb and Rye Bay scallops that are so good they warrant their own annual festival. And the charming manager lets guests take their G&Ts with black pepper to bed.

    The Mint in Rye

    With three-bedroom holiday rental The Mint in Rye, designers Barrie and Jo Stewart proved that Tudor can be fun rather than fusty. The couple’s three-year restoration of the 15th-century building involved hand-stripping the beams and replastering the original laths in the bathroom with traditional materials such as goat and horse hair. A knee-high smuggler’s door is exposed in the attic, while a marotte wig stand and vintage textiles nod to its past as a wig maker’s and linen wright’s studio. There are more surprising touches, too: a hallway table whose surface curves like a meniscus; a cluster of Peruvian milagro folk charms.

    Address: The Mint in Rye, Rye, TN31


    Website: themintinrye.com


    Price: From £915 for seven nights

    Dom Stay and Live St John

    Round the corner, Dom Stay and Live St John is more conventionally modern, converted from a Fifties St John Ambulance station into an airy, bare-brick four-bedroom house.

    Address: Dom Stay and Live St John, Rye, TN31


    Website: domstayandlive.com


    Price: From £400 per night

    Pictured: A room at Dom Stay and Live St John.

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Where to stay out of town

    The Gallivant

    Rye’s surroundings are also blessed with cool stays. Inspired by Californian road trips, smoothie entrepreneur Harry Cragoe created The Gallivant, a single-storey motel peeping over Camber Sands. Design is elemental – driftwood, marble, patinated copper – and there are framed vintage swimsuits on the walls. Expect to be packed off to the beach with flip-flops, towels and a bottle of British bubbles.

    Address: The Gallivant, Camber, Rye, TN31


    Website: thegallivant.co.uk


    Price: Doubles from £95

    Pictured: A cosy den at The Gallivant.

    Tillingham

    Tillingham, a working farm and biodynamic vineyard in Peasmarsh village, recently added a smart guesthouse, designed by Crane of McCully and Crane, with graphic prints and angular Wassily chairs.

    Address: Tillingham, Peasmarsh, TN31


    Website: tillingham.com


    Price: Doubles from £145

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Where to shop in Rye

    Alex MacArthur Interiors

    Clients from private estates and hotels across the world make the pilgrimage to Alex MacArthur Interiors, a cavernous former monastery that looks like a museum of large-scale curiosities. MacArthur left Brighton purely for the ‘brutalist-meets-14th-century’ space and its attached cottage, which hadn’t been inhabited since the 1960s. ‘Whether it’s a baroque original or a piece of Eighties bling, I only buy what I love, and I take big risks,’ says the designer, who recently sold a pair of lioness and tigress skeletons in glass cases and a sofa set from an 18th-century Italian palazzo. Her current stock includes huge, mid-century Murano chandeliers, 15ft French château doors and an oil painting from the 1600s depicting amorous sheep. Most of it is quirkily off-kilter, like MacArthur, and oversized, like Quin, the resident great dane who is almost as tall as she is.

    McCully and Crane

    Coastal quaintness is forgotten at McCully and Crane on Cinque Ports Street. Walls are covered in Picasso-esque abstractions; there’s a mustachioed papier-mâché head on a table and a blindfolded, taxidermied caribou one on a spike, the latter by Hastings-based Rowan Corkill. East London escapees Marcus Crane and Gareth McCully, the partners behind The George in Rye’s slick interiors, run this eccentric, rough-luxe gallery-store, which displays pieces by local artists such as Luke Hannam, East Sussex’s answer to Matisse.

    Tiny Book Store and Rye Old Books

    At the aptly named Tiny Book Store, owner Antonio Gomez accepts euros and gives old pennies to children with their change. Aoife Coleman at Rye Old Books tells wonderful stories on post-work walks towards the former home of pioneering lesbian author Radclyffe Hall.

    Address: Tiny Book Store, Church Square, Rye TN31 7LB

    Address: Rye Old Books, 7 Lion St, Rye TN31 7LB

    The Confit Pot and Strand House Interiors

    The best take-away treasures are to be found in the bundle of shops near the River Brede at the Strand: The Confit Pot is named for its collection of Provençal stoneware; Strand House Interiors, run by Michele and Keith Banham, veterans of East London’s Columbia Road Flower Market, sells striking antiques such as hand-painted French boulangerie signs and studded leather club chairs.

    Pictured: Strand House Interiors shop

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Where to eat in Rye

    Whitehouse Rye and Tatner’s

    Whitehouse Rye is a bakery with rooms, and also the best brunch spot in town – the halloumi hash is an essential prelude to a blustery walk around the dunes. Wander for long enough and it’s possible to justify slow-cooked beef brisket from Tatner’s food truck, which rolls in at lunchtime, and a pale ale from local microbrewery Three Legs at the Tudor-beamed Standard Inn.

    Pictured: Freshly made sourdough loaves by the Lazy Bakery, based at Whitehouse Rye

    Marino’s Fish Bar and Tuscan Rye

    Three doors away, Neon Poyadjis serves harbour-fresh cod and chips at Marino’s Fish Bar, his sarcasm as saucy as any sauce. At Tuscan Rye, chef Franco Bochicchio does osteria-style ‘cucina povera’, or food of the poor, with such charm that tables were booked up for the next three months at the time of my visit.

    Address: Marino’s Fish Bar, 37 The Mint, Rye TN31 7EN

    Address: Tuscan Rye, 8 Lion St, Rye TN31 7LB


    Website: tuscankitchenrye.co.uk

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    What to see in Rye

    St Mary’s Church

    The top of the bell tower at St Mary’s Church is the go-to place for taking in the town, its reddish rooftops somehow recalling Lisbon. From the platform, beyond the neon sign of Kino arthouse cinema, there’s a tall building with windows on only two sides, thought to have been purpose-built by a jealous man to spy on his unfaithful wife.

    Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

    The river that flows through the town to the Channel runs parallel to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, its wetlands brimming with little tern and oystercatchers, and wooden hides packed with hush-hush twitchers. The nearby dunes of Camber Sands still feel untouched at dawn, when galloping horses’ hooves drum out a bassline in the shallows. Low tide at Pett Level further west is spectacular, too, when a nearly 6,000-year-old sunken forest reveals itself. To the east, the preternatural desert landscape of Dungeness has skeletons of its own: the bones of old ships and fishing winches rust and decay on the shingle.

    Pictured: A view of Camber Sands

    Keep scrolling for more photos of Rye.

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  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Cakes at Whitehouse Rye

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Open-plan living room at Dom

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Rye Bay scallops in puff pastry at Globe Inn Marsh pub

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Grammar School Records on Rye High Street

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Clean design at Dom Stay and Live

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Dom Stay and Live entrance

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    The Mint in Rye

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Antiques on display at Alex MacArthur Interiors

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Tillingham guesthouse in Peamarsh

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    Breakfast in bed at The Gallivant

  • Rye: The medieval seaside town getting a thoroughly modern update

    A french bulldog at Alex MacArthur Interiors