The “Rock of Rye”, as it was known in medieval times, is literally built on a stony outcrop. Once surrounded by sea, this fortified hilltop town played an important role in the defence of the south coast of England. These days, the river no longer harbours warships and is home to the local fishing fleet. From spats with the French, marauders and smugglers, this ancient town is steeped in history. After a three-day stay in 1573, Queen Elizabeth 1 gave Rye the title “Rye Royale”.
A climb up the tower of St Mary’s Church offers wonderful views of the surrounding country: Winchelsea perched on another hill to the west, the meeting of the Rivers Rother and Tillingham, the terracotta roofs of the many timbered houses, cobbled streets and secret passages, once the haunt of smugglers and highwaymen, all regularly attract film crews in search of historic settings for period productions.
The wonderful light and its microclimate have made Rye a haven for artists and writers. Henry James lived in Lamb House, where he wrote several books and E. F. Benson immortalised Rye in his ‘Mapp and Lucia’ books. Rumer Godden, E Nesbitt and John Fletcher are amongst the many celebrities to have lived in or near Rye. The artist Van Dyck was a frequent visitor as he crossed the channel from his native Flanders, which is why he painted so many pictures of ships tied up on The Strand.
Rye is the perfect backdrop for an Arts Festival. It was started in 1972 and is one of the top ten small festivals in Britain, providing a diverse mixture of musical, literary and theatrical events with an emphasis on quality, intellectual weight, style and fun. The visual arts are equally well provided for with local galleries running shows especially for the festival. Venues include St Mary’s Church, the delightful churches in the neighbouring villages of Iden, Playden and Winchelsea and The Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place, where Ellen Terry lived.