Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Pocketful of Rye*

For my birthday, we decided to go on an adventure. Adam had done some research (aren’t we a fine pair!) and discovered a little village called Rye that was supposed to be worth a visit.

We jumped in our car and zoomed off to the M25 and then …. hit a traffic jam. It was a beautiful sunny day and trapped in our hot car we soon started to feel like rotisserie chickens.
The air-con in our car has packed up...
The drive to Rye took just under two hours and when we finally located a lovely shady picnic area we were relieved to be able to unpeel ourselves from the car and sit down on the grass for a picnic lunch. When we felt sufficiently refreshed, we followed a picturesque walk beside a stream and across a railway track into the centre of Rye.

We immediately felt at home when we came across this group of bikers enjoying their fish ‘n’ chips and icecreams in the sunshine. It reminded us of our favourite café in Nelson - Zumo Coffee House - where the local bikies congregate for their Sunday morning latte. 

As we walked around, we discovered the history of this beautiful town.

Before the Norman Conquest, Rye was a small fishing community located on the edge of the sea, but it quickly grew in importance as a trading port. (Over time, the sea has retreated, and the flat land around Rye is now covered with grass and grazing sheep. It still has a fishing fleet, however, as it is located at the junction of three rivers.)

A door suitable for a midget!
Rye was given to the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy as part of the Saxon Manor of Rameslie. It remained in Norman hands until 1247. By the 13th century, Kings Henry III and Edward I had consolidated the defence of the realm with the Charter of the Cinque Ports, under which towns along the coast of Kent and Sussex were to provide safe harbour, a quota of ships, and men to sail them. In return for their support, the ports - including Rye and Winchelsea, defined as 'Antient Towns' - were granted common rights and privileges, with freedom from taxes and custom duties, trading concessions, and rights to hold judicial courts. As a result the Cinque Ports became one of the richest and most important maritime economies in Europe, laying the foundations for Britain's maritime power.

During this period, Rye was fortified and four gates and a town wall were completed around 1380. The French attacked on a regular basis, testing the defences and raiding the port. Even the Spanish tried their luck in 1350, but Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, routed a fleet of 40 Spanish vessels in Rye Bay.

With the coming of bigger ships and larger deep-water ports, Rye's economy began to decline, and fishing and particularly smuggling (including owling, the smuggling of wool) became more important. Imposition of taxes on goods had encouraged smuggling since 1301, but by the end of the 17th century it became widespread throughout the counties of Kent and Sussex, with wool being the largest commodity. When luxury goods were also added, smuggling became a criminal pursuit. Smugglers' hoards were stored in the town’s old vaulted cellars, and tunnels and passageways were used for transferring goods.
The Mermaid Inn
The Mermaid Inn, dated to around 1156, was a popular haunt for smugglers, and it is connected by secret passageway to The Old Bell Inn.  The inn had a strong connection with the notorious Hawkhurst Gang who controlled territory from Kent to Dorset during the 1730s and 1740s. The violent Gang carried out at least two murders, and some members were sentenced to death by hanging.

Rye is now a town of around 4,200 inhabitants and relies on tourism to keep its economy going. One of the oldest buildings in Rye is Ypres Tower, which was built in 1249 as "Baddings Tower", to defend the town from the French, and was later named after its owner John de Ypres. The "Landgate" (the only surviving one of four original fortified entrances to Rye) dates from 1329 in the early years of the reign of King Edward III. It is still the only vehicular route into the medieval centre of Rye.

After exploring the town for a bit, we stopped for coffee and cake, and then summoned all our energy to climb up this hill towards the Mermaid Inn.
Some climb!
Not doing any smuggling at the Mermaid Inn
This pretty window caught my attention
Before returning home, we decided it would be lovely to drive to the coast and see the seaside. It was such a beautiful day that many locals were out enjoying the sun and - for the hardy ones – the surf. We sat and soaked up some rays for a bit, and then we headed home for a tasty birthday dinner.

So as you can see, Rye is a beautiful town with an interesting history. I’d have liked to check out those smuggler’s tunnels, but we didn’t know about them at the time of the visit – so I guess we’ll have to go back sometime and take one of the tours that apparently allows you to view some of these ancient routes.
Me looking excited about the thought of a smuggling adventure.
"Quick! Anne, Dick, George, and Ju - get the bicycles, ginger beer and some canned tongue,
oh and where's that infernal dog?"

*Or, Rye Rye Rye My Delilah; The Birthday in the Rye; Ryeme and reason; feel free to comment and add your own poor puns...

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