I hadn’t seen any of the UK’s south east coast until a couple of years ago but it’s somewhere that has since never failed to please me. Pebble beaches, charming seaside towns, proper pubs, the odd artisan homewares store, and obligatory fish and chips stops, what’s not to love? Our latest adventures took us to Rye in East Sussex, where we spent a weekend staying at Tillingham, and explored the local area on bikes. My new Brompton bike [ad — PR product] has made pottering around a new place so easy and enjoyable, and Rye is the perfect destination for a weekend on wheels. There’s a gorgeous coastal cycle path along Rye Harbour Nature Reserve that I’d recommend to anyone (more on that further down) and it’s a direct 1.5hr train from London, with the station right in the centre of Rye, making it a hassle-free adventure. Whether you’ve got a full weekend to fill or just a day to explore, here are my top starting points for seeing the best of Rye…
In Rye itself, Mermaid Street, the olde worlde cobbled street that runs up through the town, is sort of the main event. It’s postcard-pretty and totally charming, though, well documented in guidebooks making it a popular haunt for tourists too! Halfway up, stop to admire The Mermaid Inn, a Grade II-listed inn which dates all the way back to 1420 with a turbulent history and a supposed secret passageway from smugglers’ times.
A natural and well-known choice for wine lovers, but also a must-stop for anyone who wants to learn more about wine, or simply just soak up more of Rye’s glorious countryside, Tillingham is stunning, and by far the best place to stay around Rye. A mere 10 minutes drive from Rye station, Tillingham is a wine estate that’s sprung up in recent years and is proudly doing things differently in the wine world, with a strong focus on regenerative farming and biodynamic production. Much more than just rolling vineyards (though they’re pretty impressive — English vineyards will never not impress me) Tillingham has 11 luxury bedrooms in what was formerly a hop barn, a fantastic restaurant with a fancy but affordable dinner menu, tasting room and bar, and pizza oven — perfect for summer nights outdoors.
Catch Camber Sands on a quiet day and it’s total beachy bliss. Go down on a hot summer’s day and it can be kind of carnage. No secret to locals nor out-of-towners, it’s a gorgeous long soft sandy stretch of beach, located to the east of Rye itself, but in walking distance of the town. Tall, wild sand dunes — great for sitting on or sliding down! — set Camber Sands apart from all the other beaches in East Sussex, and make it feel that bit more wild and rugged. Even on a cloudy day, it’s a perfect spot for a long stroll.
Recommended to us by one of the team at Tillingham, Winchelsea Beach is a much quieter, lesser-known beach, located roughly 5km west of Rye. It’s a vast and open beach with very few facilities (no shops or restaurants) but a great spot for a swim, or a quiet day away from the crowds — just watch out for the very fast rising tides if you’re leaving your things on the beach for a swim! Winchelsea Beach is also the perfect starting point for a leisurely cycle into Rye, which is what took us there. A fantastic cycle (or walking!) path runs right alongside the beach all the way from Winchelsea right into Rye itself. Make the most of a sunny day with a leisurely cycle and plentiful swimming stops — bliss! I’d recommend William The Conqueror pub in Rye as the perfect half-way pint stop, before turning round and cycling/ walking back again.
RYE HARBOUR NATURE RESERVE
The cycle path mentioned above has the beach on one side and Rye Harbour Nature Reserve on the other, making for spectacular scenery right along it. One of the most important conservation sites in Britain, Rye Harbour Nature Reserve can be appreciated from afar, though, its network of footpaths and bird-watching hides are free to visit and definitely worth exploring up close. Calming, coastal and educational too — and all in very easy walking distance of the main streets of town.
The one place we didn’t get to on our trip, so remains high on my to-go list, is Dungeness. If you leave Rye via Camber Sands and keep heading south for another 20 minutes or so by car, you get to Dungeness — a rather strange and surreal headland in Kent made up largely of a shingle beach and low-lying marshland. I say strange without having been myself, because it’s home to a mix of nuclear power stations, old lighthouses and battered fishermen huts, and a sort of vast nothingness that are said to make it seem slightly dystopian. It has its own appeal, one that’s attracted artists over the years. Seek out Prospect Cottage, the much-photographed black cottage formerly owned by film-maker, Derek Jarman. Dungeness Snack Shack is meant to be worth travelling for too.