Rye and Henry James

A walk to a medieval town with cobbled streets and long views over Romney Marshes.




3 miles (4.8kms)

165ft (50m)
1hr 45min

About the walk

Rye is one of England’s most attractive historic towns, set on its ridge with the rivers Rother, Brede and Tillingham winding round it on three sides, and their estuaries forming a natural harbour, the ‘camera’ (the word is preserved in nearby Camber Sands). The name Rye means ‘at the island’, the marks the first island upriver from the sea amid the marshes, which are now drained and mostly sheep pasture.

A medieval 'planned' town

Built in the late 11th century, Rye's rectangular grid of streets is still plain to see. Originally held, along with Winchelsea, by Fecamp Abbey in Normandy, it was taken over by Henry III in 1247 and the town became a royal borough and port. In the 1330s it became a Cinque Port, added as an ‘Antient Town’ along with Winchelsea.

Throughout the 14th century Rye was raided and attacked by the French, who burned it down and stole the church bells in 1377. While there are many timber-framed buildings of the late Middle Ages and Tudor times surviving, it is the stone defensive buildings that remind visitors of these turbulent times. It was a walled town, and the walk passes through the Land Gate of 1381, and south of the church the Ypres Tower, the town’s castle built around 1249. Rye’s medieval prosperity and status is reflected in the remains of two friaries and its fine Church of St Mary. All went well until the harbour began to silt up in Tudor times. Rye later prospered as a market town, with much rebuilding and re-fronting of the old timber houses in the 18th century.

An American in Rye

One of the best of these new 18th-century houses was Lamb House, west of the church. This was the home of American novelist Henry James from 1898, who moved here from nearby Point Hill. He wrote The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl here before returning to the US in 1904. A plaque on the high garden wall fronting West Street commemorates the brothers E F and A C Benson who also lived here. E F Benson, besides being Mayor in the 1930s, made Rye famous with his comic novels about Rye (thinly disguised as Tillingham), the Mapp and Lucia books. Televised in the 1980s, they present a wry but affectionate vision of life in a provincial town with literary and cultural pretensions. Lamb House is owned by the National Trust and can be visited at certain times. Novelist Rumer Godden, best known for her works set in India, also lived here, from 1968 to 1973.

Walk directions

From the car park turn right and just before the River Tillingham sluice go right at the footpath sign. Follow the river, crossing the railway line via gates and passing to the left of the windmill. Over Udimore Road climb a stile, cross a water-meadow and rejoin the river bank. Where the tarmac path veers right go left through a kissing gate to continue along the river bank, leaving it to bear right at a hedged drain towards a farm, Rolvendene Farm.

Keep to the left of the farm, then just after it turn right through a gate on a path that climbs out of the water-meadows alongside a fence to a gate. Through a kissing gate continue uphill between fences, going right just before trees at the footpath sign along Leasam House’s drive. This soon becomes a lane, leading to the A268, where you turn right. Beyond the bus shelter turn left to St Michael’s Church, Playden.

Pass round the right side of the church to leave through a gate ahead, then follow an enclosed path to enter a field. Keep forward along the right edge until a footpath post. Turn left to a gate. Through this go right along a track, keeping forward on a path where the main track bends right. Through a gate admire the views over Romney Marshes, including a huge wind farm, and go right over a stile. Half right across the field descend to a gate. Through this drop to a tarmac lane and turn right on it.

At the road junction by Playden House turn right onto the pavement, going left at a footpath sign, opposite No 24. Through the kissing gate, bear right to walk along the bank of the River Rother. Before reaching the railway bridge the path leaves the river bank to pass behind houses, crosses the railway via two sets of gates on each side, and rejoins the river bank on a tarmac path, soon crossing the A259.

Past the play area go right. Turn right at the A259 to cross at pedestrian traffic lights. Go half right up a sloping path leading into the medieval town on its ridge. 

Turn left at the top, away from the 14th-century Land Gate, along the High Street, then turn left into East Street, passing the Rye Castle Museum. At the house where the artist Paul Nash lived bear right, then left into Church Square. Pass the brick oval Water House, walk round three sides of Church Square, and visit St Mary’s Church; Ypres Tower is seen away to the left. Go round three sides of Church Square to leave the churchyard at its northwest corner (the far end from the church tower) onto a narrow cobbled lane, West Street, and pass Lamb House. Turn left into Mermaid Street and descend towards the quays, passing The Mermaid Inn. Cross The Strand to pass the Rye Heritage Centre, and turn right to return to the car park.

Additional information

Pavements and cobbles in Rye, then footpaths, mostly in pasture, some lanes, several stiles

Fine historic townscape, river banks, sheep pasture and long views

Dogs on lead in the sheep meadows along the River Tillingham and within the town of Rye

OS Explorer 125 Romney Marsh, Rye & Winchelsea

Pay-and-display car park by the roundabout where Winchelsea Road meets Strand Quay

Several in Rye

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