Back in the Middle Ages, the French made several forays across the English Channel to sack the picturesque little Sussex town of Rye.
These days they arrive on a more frequent basis – to buy the most succulent scallops I’ve ever tasted, because the arc of Rye Bay is to this prized mollusc what crabs are to Cromer and oysters to Galway.
This pre-eminence is celebrated each February at the annual Rye Bay Scallop Week, which this year celebrated its seventh annual staging.
Scallops with black pudding bon-bons and roast parsnip purée at the ancient Mermaid Inn; wood roast scallops flamed on the shell with pastis and shaved fennel, dill and lemon at the elegant George Grill; seared scallops with Jerusalem artichoke, Serrano ham and squid ink sauce at the homely Ship Inn; scallop, potato and watercress chowder at trendy Webbe’s In Rye – the choices were certainly multiple, with 24 venues across the district taking part and with concurrent attractive accommodation packages offered at 22 hotels, pub and B&B establishments. Even the tiny Marino’s fish and chip shop, on The Mint, in the heart of the town, was offering battered scallops.
A hilltop settlement of great antiquity, Rye guards the River Rother flood plain and is now seven miles inland from the sea that once lapped at its feet. A challenge for your own feet, its steep streets, with their flintstone cobbles, create an enticing web of narrow lanes and alleys that are said to be under-scored by a subterranean network of priest holes radiating from the sturdy Norman church that crowns the hill like a beacon.
On one of the back lanes stands the Mermaid Inn (www.mermaidinn.com), which was already 150 years old when Queen Elizabeth I stayed there in 1573. A notice on one of the black and white half-timbered walls proclaims proudly that the inn was “Re-built in 1420” – having been burned to the ground by French Corsairs, the cellars being the only part of the original 1156 building to survive.
As one writer exclaimed: “The Mermaid is unquestionably the most beautiful of all smugglers inns and undoubtedly one of the loveliest of all the inns in England. It stands on Mermaid Street, for which thoroughfare its is claimed – and justly claimed – no other street in the world exhibits such a wealth of antiquity and of this the best specimen is the Mermaid Inn.” Hyperbole? Well, maybe, but as you wander the rooms where excise dodgers and pirates once hatched their plots and spent their proceeds it’s hard to resist being mentally swept back to an earlier, more romantic age. Of course, spending the night in a room replete with oak panelling, period furniture and a massive four-poster bed helps the mood no end!
A treasure trove of bric-a-print and original old oil paintings, the Mermaid is a visual feast, as is the superb cuisine offered in the inn’s luxuriant, atmosphere-charged three AA rosette restaurant.
On your entry into Rye, head for the shop-jammed High Street through the massive stone-built Landgate – the survivor of the four imposing fortified gates that once defended entrance into the then completely walled town – and I trust you’ll be pleased by the total absence, apart from Boots The Chemists, of the all too familiar high street multiples, shopaholics needs being amply serviced by a wonderful range of local family owned emporia.
Branded hotels and chain restaurants are also absent and there's not a Costa or Starbucks in sight but as you pass through Landgate you’ll find on your left Knoops (www.knoops.co.uk), a specialist hot chocolate purveyor operated by an enterprising young German from Hamburg who is passionate about that luscious dark brown beverage and offers it in more than 70 wickedly indulgent dark, milk and white chocolate combinations and lets you sample the chocolate first to ensure your taste is met – and whose flavours extend to such exotic choices as sea salt, chilli and cinnamon, lavender and lemon zest and marshmallow.
Specialist shops abound, selling everything from tin toy soldiers, locally made costume jewellery and pottery to deli delights and rare secondhand books and vinyl records.
The useful free “Discover Rye Bay Inside & Out 2014” guide (www.visitryebay.com) details, amid hosts of other information, the 22 shops and two markets that form the Rye Antiques Trail but, be warned, given the town’s tourist resort status, prices tend to be top end.
Eating out is something else that’s well catered for with everything from a pie shop, sandwich bars and coffee shops to bistros, brasseries, fine dining and oriental cuisine.
Sadly we could not stay for the whole of Scallop Week but over two days we certainly got an enticing taste of the best Rye has on offer.
The George (www.thegeorgeinrye.com), centrally located right on the High Street, is renowned as one of the finest hotels on England’s South Coast and the only one in Rye to hold a four-star rating, its exquisite contemporary décor being frequently featured in design magazines. Famed for its wood-fired oven, the hotel’s buzzing grill features a modern take on Mediterranean cuisine, heavily featuring local produce, including the freshest of fish, straight from Rye Bay.
We also fine dined at The Mermaid and took lunch at the friendly Ship Inn (www.theshipinnrye.co.uk), which was packed with happy families and a group of middle-aged Dutch motorcyclists who, for some bizarre reason, were all sporting bowler hats!
Here the 10 en-suite bedrooms are stylishly contemporary, light and airy chic, the dining rooms full of atmosphere, with wooden floors, window shutters and mix-and-match furniture – charmingly quirky and seasidy, as someone described it to me.
Who better to give me the restaurateur’s view of the Rye Bay Scallop Week and its impact on the local gastronomic scene than Paul Webbe? – a mercurial 47 year old owner/chef who specialises in outstanding fish dishes at his bustling 150 seat Webbe’s Fish Café In Rye eaterie (www.webbesrestaurants.co.uk) and is widely regarded as the Rick Stein of the South Coast: “It’s made an enormous impact in focusing local, national and international attention onto the town’s remarkably vibrant gastro scene, as well as demonstrating what a versatile ingredient the peerless Rye Bay scallop can be,” he told me proudly, adding, “It’s an event that brings cheer to the depths of winter.”
Our first overnight, at The Mermaid, was a hard act to follow but the second, two miles down the road, on the outskirts of the picture postcard little Mediaeval village of Winchelsea, met the challenge – dating from around 1425 and being equally heavily beamed and quirky, and even sporting the same fleur de lys patterned carpeting as we’d admired at The Mermaid and, in our bedroom, an even more imposing Tudor-style four-poster (as well as a resident Teddy Bear).
As someone who lives in a 16 Century cottage, it’s a style I love but what wowed me even more at the Strand House B&B (www.thestrandhouse.co.uk) was the stunning, thoroughly modern, white-on-white décor of the extra bedrooms, located in the adjoining annexe house, bringing the total number of letting rooms on offer up to 10, each of them individually styled.
Proprietors Mary and Hugh offer an adventurous slant on home cooking, fitting for an establishment that’s more like a well-loved family home than a mini hotel.
Like Rye, Winchelsea has the status of being a Cinque Port, of which, as the name implies, there were originally five towns – latter expanded to 13 – which, in exchange for tax exemptions, pledged to take care of the defence of the realm against any threatened French invasion.
Again like Rye, Winchelsea stands on a hilltop that’s now a long way inland but it still reflects its strong maritime heritage.
Back in Rye, must-sees include the Rye Heritage Centre’s town model, with its fascinating ghosts, smugglers, invasion and murder shows, which run every half hour, and a brilliant collection of fully restored and playable working seaside pier fun machines; the Ypres Tower, with its Rye Castle Museum; the riverside, and the gloriously haunting scenes in and around Rye that inspired artists like JMW Turner and the American-born James Whistler and such writers as Henry James and Rumer Gooden and notable locally born playwright John Fletcher, a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Rye was also the long-time home of John Ryan, creator of the Captain Pugwash childrens’ character. Close by are the rich bird and wildlife packed living landscapes of the Romney Marsh and the myriad delights of the Kent and Sussex coastline.