Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Film, History, Literature, Maritime History, Motoring History, Rural Heritage, TV Programme, Vintage, Vintage Retail, World War One, World War Two

Rye, East Sussex: Hideout For Smugglers & Haven For Writers

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  • Mermaid Street, Rye, East Sussex.
Illustration of Mermaid Street, Rye from Rye and District Holiday Guide (1950).
Illustration of Mermaid Street, Rye from Rye and District Holiday Guide (1950).

Through the ages – sackings and burnings, invader and pirates, smugglers and highwaymen, Kings and Queens, statesmen and reformers, and, in more recent years, threats of invasion, bombs and incendiaries, to say nothing of “doodle bugs.”

And yet through it all Rye seems to stand quite imperturbable and seemingly unconcerned with the passage of time, for we read that in 1263 the Friar of the Sack were allowed “to dwell in peace and quietude… in the Town of Rye,” and we can stand in the same street to-day and feel the same sense of “peace and quietude” and realize that nothing seems to have altered in the last 700 years. The peculiar appeal of Rye is that inasmuch as other towns take you back to the past, Rye brings the past ages right into the present day.

(Handbook and Guide: Rye, Winchelsea & Northiam by L.A. Vidler and W. MacLean Homan, 1950)

I spent my childhood in East Sussex, it is a picturesque county with a fascinating history dating back to the 5th Century AD when South Saxons settled there following the Romans’ departure.  The ancient town of Rye, close to the East Sussex coastline, was once contained in the Manors of Rameslie and Brede. I visited Rye many times with my family and is a town that remains close to my heart.

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In my collection of vintage publications there is a 1950 copy of the Rye & District Holiday Guide. It is a joy to dip in and out of this little book, a slice of nostalgia from post-war Britain. For a majority of Britons, 1950 was not a time of prosperity, food rationing was still in place and petrol rationing did not end until 26th May that year. During the early 1950s, many Britons chose to spend their holidays or days out close to home. Guidebooks, such as this one, became an invaluable resource. It was not until the end of the decade that one in three British families owned a car and venturing outside of one’s locality became the norm.

Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).
Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).

The guidebook is jam-packed full of advertisements promoting local tourist attractions as well as establishments offering that ever popular British staple, afternoon tea. In the back section there is a comprehensive accommodation list, some of the descriptions given are so charming, I thought it would be nice to share some of my favourites with you:

Illustration from Rye & District Guide (1950).
Illustration from Rye & District  Holiday Guide (1950).

The Mill, Iden-by-Rye. An old Millhouse all on one floor, rooms of good size and comfortably furnished. On Bus route 2 miles from Rye and situated in country surroundings. Our own farm produce. Sandwiches willingly packed. Inclusive terms. 

Illustration from Rye & District Guide (1950).
Illustration from Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).

Monastery Guest House, High Street, Rye. Principal rooms overlooking secluded garden flanked by the original old Monastery Chapel wall (1379). Spend a restful holiday in a happy atmosphere with comfort, courtesy and consideration.

Illustration from Rye & District Guide (1950).
Illustration from Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).

Thornton House, Northiam (near Rye). Ideal for country holidays. Good food, a happy atmosphere and every consideration. Bus and London coaches pass the gate. Inclusive terms from 4  1/2 guineas weekly.

Robin Hill is a Guest House unusual – antiquity with fine old oak beams and timbered rooms with cosy chimney corners, yet possessing every modern convenience.

Rye as a touring centre is ideal for walkers, cyclists and motorists. Rolling wooded country North and West of the town, the sea to the South, and the wonderful Romney Marshes to the East. Good roads radiate in all directions with country lanes and paths in profusion.

Advertisement from Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).
Advertisement from Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).

Rye together with its surrounding area, has long been a mecca for literary types.  Playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625) was born in Rye in 1579 at the Old Vicarage House and at which his father, the Rev. Richard Fletcher, then resided as minister and preacher during the vicariate of Rev. Richard Connope, an absentee; as he would not resign in Mr Fletcher’s favour, the latter left Rye when his famous son was two years old. John Fletcher’s birthplace was pulled down in 1699 and a new house re-erected in 1701.

Illustration from Rye & District Guide (1950).
Illustration from Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).

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  • Henry James poses outside Lamb House c.1900. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images).

Lamb House (National Trust), Rye was home to American novelist Henry James (1843-1916) from 1897 until his death. James wrote The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904) in house’s garden room (destroyed by a bomb in World War Two). Lamb House featured as Mr Longdon’s home in The Awkward Age (1899).

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  • E. (Edward) F. (Frederic) Benson, c.1915. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

E. F. Benson (1867-1940) moved to Rye in 1919 and lived at Lamb House. He wrote six novels and two short stories in the popular ‘Mapp and Lucia’ series. These quintessentially English novels depict life in a 1930s provincial market town. Four novels are set in Tilling, a fictional location based upon Rye. Lamb House became the model for Mapp’s, as well as for a little while, Lucia’s home, ‘Mallards’. Benson was Mayor of the Borough of Rye from 1934 and accorded Honorary Freedom of the Borough on March 22nd, 1938.

The main protagonists of Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books are two sharp-tongued, well-healed ladies, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) who both jostle for pole position in Tilling society. Newcomer to Tilling, Lucia, sets out to topple the town’s resident queen bee, Mapp. There are plenty of jolly japes and cutting remarks along the way too.

A new adaptation of Mapp and Lucia aired on BBC One, Christmas 2014. A three-parter written by Steve Pemberton (who also plays flamboyant Georgie Pillson, Lucia’s sidekick) and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence (Desperate Romantics, Anglo Saxon Attitudes, Little Dorrit).

  • ‘On location with Mapp and Lucia’, behind the scenes with the BBC cast and crew in Rye. Uploaded to You Tube (17.12.14) by National Trust Charity.

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Illustration from Rye & District Guide (1950).
Illustration from Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).
Illustration from Rye & District Guide (1950).
Illustration from Rye & District Holiday Guide (1950).

In 1773, theologian John Wesley (1703-1791) visited Rye, East Sussex, and wrote in his diary: ‘I found the people willing to hear the good word at Rye but they will not part with the accursed thing, smuggling.’ During the eighteenth century, Rye and nearby Romney Marshes were awash with smuggling activities. Bandits would smuggle goods such as brandy and tobacco in at night by boat from France to avoid high import taxes.

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  • Arthur Russell Thorndike (1885-1972), English actor and novelist, early 20th century. Thorndike was the brother of Dame Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

One of the most notorious gangs of smugglers was the Hawkhurst Gang who frequented The Mermaid Inn, Mermaid Street, Rye. Actor and author Arthur Russell Thorndike (1885-1972), born in Rochester, Kent, wrote a series of books, known as the Dr Syn series, based upon eighteenth century smuggling activities on the Romney Marshes. The main protagonist is the swashbuckling Rev. Dr Christopher Syn who leads a rebel band against the King’s press gangs.

Books in the Dr Syn series are:

  • Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh (1915)
  • Doctor Syn on the High Seas (1935)
  • Doctor Syn Returns (1935)
  • Further Adventures of Doctor Syn (1936)
  • Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn (1938)
  • Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn (1939)
  • Shadow of Doctor Syn (1944)

  • Clip from The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh , a television adaptation of Thorndike’s concluding Dr Syn novel (but written first). This television series aired in three parts in 1963. Uploaded to You Tube 23.4.11.
Illustration from Rye & District Guide (1950).
Illustration from Rye & District History Guide (1950).
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