Tucked away in one of the eastern-most corners of the country, miles from any major road, is the little medieval town of Rye. It’s a slice of East Sussex that seems to have been designed for a picture postcard, full of English cobbled streets, old churches and higgledy-piggledy Tudor houses.
But look just below the surface and you’ll find trendy hotels and a gourmet food scene wedged in among the old buildings and retro tea rooms. It’s here you’ll find London weekenders exploring the little shops and busy high street.
Although Rye is a great place to visit in its own right, it also makes a great base for exploring the wider area, following the coast road past Camber and across the border into Kent. Hythe and Folkestone are less than an hour’s drive and offer a look at another side of coastal Kent, where sea breezes, stunning vistas and delectable seafood are the order of the day.
Where to stay
It wouldn’t be Rye without a stay at The George, a 16th-century coaching inn lovingly crafted into a boutique hotel with an emphasis on design. Each room is different, and even if you don’t stay there, have a drink at the bar and check out the bathrooms downstairs whose walls are completely encrusted with real seashells. The beautiful Georgian building is the real focal point of the high street and one of the best places to eat, with a fabulous restaurant that focuses on amazing local produce (Rye Bay scallops, anyone?) freshly grilled on their wood charcoal grill. A selection of English wines, including Gusbourne, completes the offer.
Just down the road in Camber, a mere 10-minute drive from Rye, is The Gallivant. It’s positioned just the other side of the sand dunes bordering the famous Camber Sands beach, so provides great access to the water for walks, swims, or, for the more adventurous, even kite surfing (lessons can be taken through the Kite Surf Centre). It offers a wonderful combination of top service, but with a casual, comfortable vibe – it’s the perfect place for recharging your batteries by the beach, without losing all your creature comforts. The gorgeous rooms are complemented by spa treatments, yoga on the beach, and a lovely bar and patio for lounging with afternoon tea or a glass of English wine.
Ashford is a maze of roundabouts and retail parks, but it’s got a useful station and is conveniently located near fast roads for getting out to Canterbury, or back inland towards London. In this prime location, Boys Hall is an absolute diamond. It’s the most beautifully restored 17th-century house – now a restaurant with rooms run by an inspired couple who have a way with design. It combines wonderful food, caring service and stunning gardens, with a great location right in the heart of Ashford. A great place to base yourself to explore both the north and south reaches of Kent, without having to do too much driving.
Where to eat
You’d never know about Hide and Fox unless you were a keen follower of the best restaurants in the sticks, or you had a local to tell you. This place is where you go for a very special meal, without any of the pretensions of other restaurants of this stature. It’s basically a really, really good neighbourhood bistro place, but with a Michelin-star. You’ll think you’ve gone to the wrong place, as their residential location in Saltwood, just outside Hythe, makes them look like just another shop on a street. But step inside and you’ll find yourself in a contemporary, airy space, sleekly decorated, attended by sommelier and restaurant manager Alice and her husband, Allister, the chef. There, you’ll be treated to some very, very special cooking, over a five or seven-course set menu, with Alice’s recommended wine pairings – you can’t go wrong.
Back in Rye, I recommend you head to local favourite The Standard. It’s ‘just’ a pub, with good food, great beer and a decent wine list. Add in a dollop of history (it dates from 1420), real fires and a cosy, panelled bar area and it reminds me just how hard is it to find a pub that does all that, in normal life. It’s probably my favourite of the more casual places to eat in Rye – go for Pie of the Day, Catch of the Day or their house burger, accompanied by a pint of local Three Legs Pale Ale, or a crisp glass of Gusbourne. They don’t take bookings, so get there early, or grab a drink and head outside to the little heated pods out back while you wait for a table.
Going further afield, up to Folkestone, you’d be forgiven for wondering why I’m suggesting a visit to the crumbling seaside town that’s been labelled ‘up and coming’ for 30 years. But the harbour arm and surrounding area really are charming and are attracting a new kind of visitor – one looking for awesome views, great art and high-end food and drink. It’s beginning to feel like an undiscovered version of Margate. Park at the East Cliff end of town and walk through the country park down to the harbour arm. Get those views across the harbour by dining on epic local fish and seafood at Rocksalt, one of the places that gives the area its sense of style. Booking essential. Go for lunch, and then move down to the Pilot beach bar for a relaxing sundowner to finish the day right.
Rye Harbour. The Sussex Wildlife Trust has a new Discovery Centre with lovely views across the sea, and plethora of information about the local plants and bird life, and a couple of bird-watching hides. There’s an easy circular walk, and a good café and shop to finish up.
Church Square. A walk around Church Square in Rye, taking in a climb to the top of St Mary’s church tower for far-reaching views. Follow up with a trip to the gun gardens (just by the castle), and a pint of hipster beer or local bitter at The Ypres Castle, hidden down some tiny steps next door.
Winchelsea and Pett Level beaches. Shingle, not sand, but blissfully free of the crowds at Camber in summer. Wait for low tide at the Pett Level end of the beach to see the petrified forest – the remains of a great stone age forest, preserved when sea levels rose and evidence of how much the shape of the coastline has changed around here. If it’s a weekend, get a Pett Leveller (foot-long hot dog), coffee and homemade cake from The Red Pig food truck parked in a layby opposite the beach