For as long as I can remember friends have sent me postcards from The Mermaid Inn in Rye, England, urging me, a Rye, New York native, to visit.
By Karen T. Butler
For as long as I can remember friends have sent me postcards from The Mermaid Inn in Rye, England, urging me, a Rye, New York native, to visit. The opportunity arrived this summer when my husband and I decided to travel to Ireland. Wanting a relaxing journey, we booked a cabin on the Queen Mary II, which was making its 200th transatlantic crossing. The ocean liner disembarks in Southampton, which is just a few hours’ drive to Rye.
The roads leading to Rye are scenic but narrow and winding, which added to the challenge of learning to handle the wrong side of the road. There where many moments when I found myself holding my breath, fearing we might end up in some hedgerow.
The young lady at The Mermaid Inn whom we spoke to from the states had “popped” us an email (they do a lot of popping in England we learned), confirming our deluxe room, ‘Dr. Syn’s Bedchamber’ with “an en-suite bathroom,” something one has to ask for to be guaranteed a private bath.
The old and very charming inn housed a full array of well-documented ghosts, which fortunately we did not run into. We did, however, have a plaque acknowledging the Queen Mother’s visit over our door. We just weren’t sure if that meant she had slept in our bed or just visited. The Mermaid Inn was “rebuilt in 1420,” having burnt down several times before. Our room was brimming with antiquity and secret doors used by pirates, but the en-suite part forgot the shower — there was a handheld shower hose but no enclosure. All worthy of a chuckle or two … or maybe it was meant to be British humor.
Like ice cubes, air conditioning in England is not the norm. The windows in our room did not have screens, which apparently is the norm. In the summer months, the sun does not set until at least 9 p.m. Thus, the seagulls do not go to sleep till then either. The gulls are the very large black backs similar to the ones found on Nantucket Island. An alarm clock for the morning is not needed either, as the gulls do the job. They were all part of Rye’s seaside charm.
Rye, England, as the crow flies is actually closer to the coast of France than London, which has made it easy pickings for the French over the centuries. The name is thought to be derived from the French Norman “la Rie,” meaning bank.
During medieval times this lovely town, originally an island, was a safe haven in the English Channel, where the sea had pounded out a steep embankment that acted as somewhat of a barrier against invasion. This high piece of land met the coast, originally on the English Channel. The Rother River and the harbor were constantly silting up over a 300-year period. Early records show Rye was a seaport and home to many pirates, who were engaged in a booming business that was espoused by the early kings. The Mermaid Inn was the legendary hangout for this sanctioned profession.
The ebb and flow of the land and water due to erosion and monumental storms is indicative of Rye’s complicated history with the French Normans and whoever else was on the prowl moving in and out of Rye. In medieval times, Rye had special privileges as a “cinque port,” which protected the King of England from invasion from the other side of the English Channel.
This hilly island or peninsular, not too different in terrain from Milton Point in our Rye, has one of the largest troves of beautifully preserved medieval homes in England, plus pieces of walls, tower, gates, and a church from over the centuries that attracted the likes of author Henry James. “Ypers Tower” (now a museum) was built in 1249 to defend the town from the French. Also intact is one of the four “Landgates” originally meant to fortify the town’s entrances. The narrow winding cobblestone streets today look out on lush marshland, still creating a bucolic backdrop.
This quaint village has an immense proliferation of flowers everywhere. Any place one could think of to hang or plant a flower, it was there. A common practice in both England and Ireland is to have what they call “Tidy Towne” designation that villages and cities compete to receive. Every home and shop is very neat, sidewalks swept, and flowers in abundance. Wouldn’t be a bad idea for our Rye to embrace.
Is the Rye across the pond like our coastal town? No, its population is a third the size of ours, for one thing, but there are snippets of resemblance. Interestingly, our forefathers named our village Rye not because they came from there, but because it was a town they held in high esteem … pirates and ghosts aside. Rye, England proudly endured. They even have a “Poppy’s” there! Must have copied us Yanks.
Today, tourists are Rye’s stock and trade. The fishing fleets have dwindled, the crown no longer needs to be protected, but there is a lovely historic beauty in this East Sussex town that has survived. After centuries of land shifts, standing at the junction of three rivers — the Rother, the Tillingham, and the Brede — and approximately a mile and a half from the sea, Rye, England, is truly worth the visit.
We saw a sign that read, “There are warnings of sheer happiness as you head towards Rye, where the sun will shine, the sky will be blue, and everything will be rather splendid.” Is that British, or is that British?