History, some say, isn’t what it used to be.
Take the case of Rye, in beautiful East Sussex, England, where the town’s rich past included smuggling; gangs; ghosts; secret escape tunnels; a disappearing harbour; and a mass evacuation of sheep.
One of the best preserved medieval towns we’ve visited, Rye draws big crowds of visitors eager for a taste of its colourful past.
The town’s Mermaid Inn – parts of which date to 1156 – offers a peek into the days when the bloody Hawkhurst smuggling gang met in the bar and often left by a secret passageway.
Today, the inn continues to be well known as the site of repeated ghost sightings.
Smuggling is known to have existed in the Rye area since the 13th Century, when King Edward I introduced the Customs system.
Taxation on wool exports made the rewards from illegal wool export well worth the risk of capture.
Rye fronted the English channel and locals knew the shifting and dangerous sands well. Smugglers were able to evade customs officials with relative ease before moving contraband across the misty Romney Marsh that adjoins Rye and covers over 100 square miles.
Rye’s narrow cobbled streets and closely built houses interconnected by attics and cellars, made it an ideal landing place for smuggled cargoes. As import taxes were later imposed on luxury items, the emphasis switched to bringing in tea, spirits, and tobacco.
The murderous Hawkhurst gang – at one stage about 600 strong – was a force to be reckoned with until it was finally crushed in 1747 and many of its members executed. For a time, the gang was so bold that it transported goods in broad daylight in convoys of hundreds of heavily armed men, known as ‘Owlers’.
Coastal defences too
With its channel frontage, Rye was also at the forefront of England’s coastal defences against attack from Europe.
Eventually, the coast shifted, leaving Rye with a dry sea port but three local rivers.
Today, visitors can stand on Ypres Tower – built in 1249 to defend the town – and gaze across the old port area.
The tower has served as a fort, private dwelling, prison, court hall and now finally as a museum. Visit the tower to read a lot about the area’s smuggling past.
With enchanting streets, the 900 year old medieval Church of St Mary’s, restaurants, shops and pubs, and well preserved historic houses from medieval, Tudor and Georgian times, Rye is a ‘must-see’ for travellers in southern England.
Again, we soaked up the town’s history by checking out the Landgate, which built in 1329 and is another remnant of Rye’s earliest fortifications.
And we rambled through the original town and smiled at the quaintly named houses such as ‘The House with two front Doors’ or ‘The House Opposite’.
At the Rye Heritage Centre, there is a sound and light show that brings to life seven hundred years of the area’s history.
World War II
Rye’s dramatic history certainly didn’t end with the smugglers.
In World War II – expecting an invasion by Germany – a radar station was set up near the town, beaches were mined and the Rye area was fortified with wire and concrete pill boxes designed to hold machine guns.
Many of Rye’s residents were evacuated – including tens of thousands of local sheep.
Overall, Rye is fascinating with a capital ‘F’.
The town thoroughly deserves its international reputation for architectual treasures, medieval ‘feel’, specialist shops, art and photography galleries, stunning nature reserves and long beaches.
Rye is in East Sussex, about 75 miles or just over one-and-a-half hours by road from London.
The town is situated on the A259 between Hastings to the west and Folkestone to the east – and on the A268 from the north.
By train, the trip takes a little more than one hour. High speed trains run from London’s St Pancras station to Ashford International, where you change into a train for Rye.
Across Romney Marsh
The visitor can choose from a range of hotels, including the Mermaid Inn and The George Hotel, which is one of the south coast’s most luxurious accommodation options.
Rye also boasts guests houses, B&B’s and self-catering accommodation.
Main photo courtesy Rye Museum