Despite being diminutive in size, there are a (surprising) number of things to do in Rye, East Sussex.
I first visited this corner of southeast England a few years ago; enticed by stories of sparsely populated coastlines, mysterious marshes and medieval boltholes. A place shrouded in swirling sea mists, where smugglers, crooks and ghouls once gathered, there was – I thought – something beautifully bewitching about this mysterious, briny outpost.
Teetering on the East Sussex and Kent border, Rye is a former medieval settlement that shines like a watchtower over the vast, dark marshland that lingers beneath it; a soup of silent wetlands, former ‘lost’ villages and wildlife rich reserves. While the marshes are home to pretty villages and inviting pubs, the area remains thinly populated – lending Rye an even cosier feel.
Yet, and as apparently bleak as this area might sound, it’s a place that’s very mystery makes it so captivating. With Rye standing like a warm inn amongst the cold marshland, a visit here feels a little like being in a Charles Dickens novel – all roaring fires, dark nights and the sound of cawing crows.
Unique, unexpected and incredibly atmospheric, Rye is a place well worth visiting.
Where To Stay in Rye, East Sussex
Before we get onto the subject of things to do in Rye, it might be useful to begin with an idea of the sort of accommodation on offer.
While Rye might be known for its historic inns and half-timbered hotels, there is no shortage of self-catered accommodation on offer. From wind-beaten writer’s studios hunkered down on nearby Dungeness, to architecturally award-winning homes such as the ‘Pobble’, accommodation in Rye is eclectic and diverse.
When we began our own search for somewhere to stay in Rye, we had a vague idea of what we wanted: somewhere remote and quiet, yet a bolthole that still offered the odd dash of luxury. Scouring various holiday lettings companies, it wasn’t long before we came across the perfect contender: Romany, provided by Unique Homestays.
Staying at Romany, Unique Homestays
Hidden down a country lane, in the small village of Brookland, Romany is a white, clapboard-style beach cottage, situated on the brooding marshes of Romney.
The vision of designers, Dave Dave Coote and Atlanta Bartlett, Romney sits on the couple’s own land – with their own vast, enviably stylish New England-esque home set back behind a canopy of trees. Surrounded by a handful of other small buildings – from an artist’s studio to a vintage Airstream caravan – this family venture is one fuelled by creativity and design.
Channeling a sense of Montauk-meets-East Sussex (a niche stye, I’ll admit ), Romany and its neighbours are visions of rustic, luxury living; set against a backdrop of swaying grass fields, quiet waterways and magnificent sunsets. Niche it may be, but it’s also undeniably beautiful.
Our own ‘beach cottage’ was a mesmerising maze of cleverly interlinked spaces, with each and every corner filled with bohemian and romantic decorations. The main lounge, featuring a burning wood stove and warming, Everhot stove, welcomed us immediately; the glow of soft lamps inviting us in from the cold October night.
With a rainstorm already pounding heavily on the roof above us, we explored our cabin: peeking in at the light and airy orangery (perfect for a summer’s day) and discovering a hidden herb garden and hot tub outside.
Back inside and a door led us past a rustic-inspired bathroom and into an enormous master suite; featuring a large roll top bath and barn-style doors that opened up onto the surrounding marshland. The bed (a romantic, four poster affair), was draped in soft linens and warm rugs and throws littered the wooden floor.
Lit only by vintage Anglepoise lamps and filled with eclectic artwork and trinkets, Romany was like nowhere else we’ve stayed before – it truly took our breath away.
Alongside its obvious style and ambience, the little lodge was also replete with modern day luxuries: coming complete with WiFi (albeit, not the strongest of signals), two smart TVs, an iPad and, of course, the bubbling hot tub.
For anyone looking for a romantic and thoroughly windswept place to stay, I could not recommend Romany enough.
Things To Do in Rye
A Short History of Rye
Thanks to its impressive history, there are no shortage of things to do in Rye.
Although now stranded some ‘x’ miles from sea, the historic town of Rye was once an island port; a busy outpost used by the Romans to export everything from iron to timber.
Eventually becoming a Royal Dockyard in the 14th Century, Rye soon took on the prestigious role of a Cinque Port (replacing nearby New Romney after a terrible storm left it effectively land locked). Along with five other ports along the southeast coast, Rye was bound to provide a certain number of ships for The Crown to use in times of need, in return for a number of privileges (tax exemption, for example).
Indeed, little Rye – decorated with its pretty cobbled streets and learning timbered buildings – was an incredibly important town once upon a time.
Alongside this regal history, however, the town has a much darker (and more exciting) side. Throughout the 13th Century, Rye became an infamous pirate port – a place from which tales of violence, bloody deaths and atrocities emerged. Smugglers descended on the little town, discovering that the bleak and desolate marshes that surrounded the town were the ideal place to hide smuggled treasures – from wool, to people.
One of the most notorious gangs at this time were the Hawkhurst Gang – who regularly met in Rye’s historic Mermaid Inn (and were eventually hanged for their violent crimes). Riding through the night and terrifying local residents, their reign over Rye and the local area was one of the town’s darker chapters.
On our first night in our little log cabin, a thin fog settling over the cold marshes, it was all too easy to imagine these thieves and criminals making their way through the dark; hauling their smuggled goods as they went.
Eventually, it was smuggling that would see to Rye’s downfall; as the bigger and safer ports in the area began to receive the country’s most lucrative commodity at the time – wool.
Rye, a small place with a big history, has since settled back into life as quiet, market town; a place popular with tourists and location scouts. With the original town gates still in tact and offering beautiful views out across the former harbour (the sea has since retreated, sadly), today the town is a postcard from a former age; one of elegant street lamps, cobbled streets and candle-lit inns.
Things To Do in Rye Itself
A Visit to the Mermaid Inn (& Mermaid Street)
A curving, cobble road, decorated with leaning half-timbered buildings, Mermaid Street is Rye’s resident celebrity. Quirky, quaint and beautiful, the street is lined with houses with eclectic names, including the ‘The House with Two Doors’ and ‘The House Opposite’.
Apparently once one of the shadier parts of town – where deals were struck and even a Russian performing bear once lived – today Mermaid Street is one of Rye’s most expensive to live on.
In part, this might be to do with the street’s famous resident – the historic Mermaid Inn. The place where the Hawkhurst Gang, the Inn has an incredible history and is a brilliantly cosy, atmospheric and of course, slightly cosy, spot to visit for a drink or a bite to eat.
With parts of the Inn dating back to the Tudor times, there are even rumours that parts of the Mermaid Inn might just be the most haunted Inn in England. It’s said that many of these ghouls relate back to the Hawkhurt Gang, and include murdered victims and gang members. If you stay in The Kingsmill Room, for example, it’s said you might be visited by the former wife of gang member, George Gray.
Sitting in a rocking chair, it’s said she will sit and watch you as you sleep; plunging the room into freezing temperatures.
In terms of things to do in Rye (especially around Halloween), a visit to the Mermaid Inn is definitely a must.
Rye Harbour Nature Reserve
Thanks to the shifting sands of Rye’s landscape, its harbour – and the sea – can now be found around three miles from the actual town – a memo we didn’t get when we began our (lengthier than expected) walk there.
Although Rye has long ceased to be an active harbour, today its shoreline has been replaced with something even better – one of the country’s most important nature reserves.
Made up of salt marshes, drainage ditches, marshland, woodland and scrubland, the reserve spans 1,149 acres and is home to nearly 4,000 different species. Although perhaps not the prettiest of places – this is an area of vast, flat planes and howling winds – for nature lovers, there’s no better place to come for a bit of birdwatching.
Filled with quiet trails and five birdwatching hides, the Reserve is also planning the launch of a new Discovery Centre, that is perfect to pop into for a cup of tea and nice slice of cake.
A map of the entire Reserve can be found here. The ‘short trail’ is around 2 miles and the ‘long trail’ just over 5 miles.
Visit Ypres Tower
Like Rye itself, the town’s historical sites are small and perfectly formed. This is definitely the case with Ypres Tower (also known as Rye Castle, which is perhaps a bit of a big name for a building so small).
Built possibly around the 13th – 14th Century, the Tower is a listed ancient monument and sits proudly at the edge of the town. Thought to be built to help defend the town (Rye was caught up in decades of battles with the French) before later becoming a prison, today the tower – and its maze of uneven floors and twisting staircases – is a perfect introduction to the history of the town.
In terms of educational (and mildly cultural) things to do in Rye, this is a great spot to visit.
Ticket prices: £4 for adults to enter, with children under 16 going free.
A Trip to the Kino Cinema
Thanks to everyone’s least favourite virus, we haven’t visited a cinema since January – something that I found genuinely distressing.
A little bit nervous of the repercussions of sitting in a large, artificially ventilated room with strangers, we’d avoided the big chain cinemas we have at home and were waiting in hope of finding something a little bit smaller, safer feeling – homely.
Thankfully, Rye had the perfect solution, thanks to its independent Kino Cinema.
Operating on a ’boutique’ basis, with just two small screens, the Kino cinema at Rye also offers a stylish spot to enjoy a glass of wine and small plate of food – surrounded by the cinema’s award-winning architecture. The films on offer are a mixture of current releases and old classics (at the moment, for example, ‘Some Like it Hot’, is back on the screen). It’s also the chance to catch up on the latest Indie or Arthouse movie.
We loved our little trip here (in fact, it was one of our favourite things to do in Rye), but one word of warning – there are no trailers or lengthy adverts, so make sure you arrive on time.
Top Tip: on market day (Thursday), the cinema offers a ‘market day special’, with tickets costing just £9.50.
Antiques & Interiors Shopping in Rye
If there’s one thing that Rye does well, its providing its visitors with some fantastic interior design and antique stores.
Walking along Rye’s historic high street, and peeking down its sloping lanes, you’ll spot plenty of these; from high end, minimalistic stores, to old warehouses heaving with eccentric curiosities (these stores can be found largely down by the river).
Some of our favourite spots included Pale and Interesting (also run by the owners of Romany), Mccully & Crane, Puckhaber Decorative Antiques, Grammar School Records, Rye Pottery, Strand Quay Interiors, Merchant & Mills (for fabrics) and the very stylish Hunter Jones.
Visit Lamb House (Museum)
Another sweet little museum, and another popular thing to do in Rye, is to visit the romantic Lamb House.
Situated on one of Rye’s prettiest lanes – tucked away behind the church – Lamb House (now owned by the National Trust), was once something of an accidental writer’s retreat; with world famous authors visiting it in order to pen their latest works.
Such wordsmiths included the American novelist, Henry James and the horror genre writer, James, E.F. Benson.
Although currently closed to visitors due to the pandemic, the House is a really beautiful place to wander around; bringing together a sense of Rye in the Georgian period and its timeless grandeur.
Ticket prices: Adults £7.90 and children £3.95.
Where to Eat in Rye
When it comes to things to do in Rye, there’s one thing you have to make plenty of time for: and that’s sampling the areas fantastic pubs, inns and restaurants. Cosy, eclectic and serving up some great fresh seafood, eating out in Rye is nothing short of a treat.
The Woolpack Inn, Warehorne
We had one of our best meals here during our own stay in Rye and enjoyed the Inn’s cosy, yet refined, feel.
Situated around a 10 minute drive from Rye town, and nestled in the sleepy village of Warehorne, The Woolpack Inn dates back to the 16th century and is a welcoming labyrinth of roaring fires and creaking floorboards.
Offering a fantastic menu (with a slightly different twist – including a mouthwatering burger and hot dog menu), and bookable rooms for an overnight stay, the Inn is both atmospheric and incredibly welcoming.
The Globe Inn, Rye
A firm favourite (in terms of things to do in Rye), is a visit to the eclectic and charming, The Globe Inn.
A sweet, unassuming clapperboard pub, The Globe Inn is a treasure trove of colourful decorations, open fires and quiet booths.
While their dinner menu is great, The Globe also open for a brilliant ‘Breakfast Club‘ (from 8.30am – noon). The ‘Hearty One Pan Rye Breakfast’ is entirely worth a visit in itself.
When it comes to things to do in Rye, I normally make the same initial suggestion: grab a delicious hot chocolate at Knoops.
Serving their drinks in giant bowls (in non-pandemic times, at least), Knoops are hot chocolate connoisseurs and the vision of Jens Knoop, a chocolate lover from Germany.
Offering a vast array of chocolate-y options, differing in both cocoa percentages and the country of origin, Knoops takes entire chocolate buttons before melting them down into mouth-watering drinks.
My advice? Start with the 33% milk chocolate and work your way outwards from there. You won’t regret it.
If you love a juicy burger, then look no further than Hoof Restaurant, Rye. Found on the pretty Mint Street, Hoof prides itself on its ‘farm to plate’ attitude to dining and is fiercely independent in character.
Alongside offering mind-blowing ‘freakshakes‘, the restaurant also serves a diverse range of burgers, from a classic lamb burger to the incredibly indulgent brie and bacon burger.
The Fig, Rye
We visited The Fig on our first trip to Rye; arriving early one morning and absolutely starving.
Situated in the centre of town, The Fig is a stylish, hipster-inspired sort of establishment; serving fresh and (mostly) healthy meals. For a sweet treat, you must try their French Toast, complete with salted caramel and hazelnuts.
Whitehouse Rye (Bakery)
Offering both a contemporary in-house cafe, a takeaway option and bookable rooms for an overnight stay, Whitehouse Rye does it all.
We popped in to grab a quick snack to take to the beach and were drooling over their selection of pastries and savoury buns. When we got home, I also had a quick look at their six bedrooms; all of which look beautiful thanks to their minimalist and white-wash interiors.
Things To Do in Rye and the Surrounding Area
Visit Winchelsea: The Smallest Town in England
Just a short drive (or manageable walk) from Rye is the pretty town of Winchelsea.
Once integral to the country’s wine trade during the Medieval period, Winchelsea was a little place with great importance. Designed on an innovative ‘grid system’, the village is surprisingly modern in its layout, with a labyrinth of underground cellars below it (where over four million bottles of wine would once be stored).
Today, England’s smallest town is postcard pretty; filled with beautiful homes, three medieval gates and an imposing medieval church. Visit here for a historic guided walk, pub lunch and chance to tour some of the town’s ancient cellars.
A twenty minute drive from Rye lies the bleak and alluringly apocalyptic landscape of Dungeness.
Found lingering on the southernmost point of Kent, Dungeness is a bizarre, eclectic and divisive sort of place; the sort of spot you either find excitingly postmodern or entirely depressing.
A vast stretch of shingle beach (the longest in Europe, in fact) and featuring a looming power station, a ramshackle fishing village, a Grade II listed Lighthouse and some of the most experimental homes you’ll find outside of London, Dungeness is a mix of the modern and the deserted, the innovative and the worn.
One reason to visit here is to see the isolated cottage once owned by Derek Jarman; a British film-maker. Appearing a little like something from the Wild West, Prospect Cottage is a vision of dark black wood and garish yellow windows; complete with a neat, desert-like garden surrounding it.
Additionally, be sure to visit Dungeness’ imposing lighthouse, before enjoying fish and chips at one of the strip’s many clapboard snack shacks.
One of my favourite things to do in Rye, you can read about our previous trip to Dungeness here.
Enjoy a Beach Walk at Camber Sands
Unlike the other beaches found in East Sussex (all of which are largely shingle), Camber Sands is home – you guessed it – to long stretches of fine, golden sands.
Punctured by windswept sand dunes, this beautiful stretch of beach (five miles in total), reminds me a little of Bamburgh Beach in Northumberland; a place filled with whispering sand grasses and remote spots.
Thanks to the fact that the tide remains out for most of the day, the beach is also incredibly safe and family friendly – offering plenty of little pools perfect for exploring. Although sometimes criticised for its lack of facilities (this is not an area filled with ice cream vans or noisy cafes), the sheer joy of Camber Sands is its remoteness and relative peace and quiet.
For that reason, a visit here is one of my favourite things to do in Rye.