Rye and Camber


For many of us in West Sussex, the hilltop town of Rye with its delectable half-timbered houses and winding medieval streets can seem beyond the borders of the known world. It’s a long way off, after all and, in the considered opinion of the Edwardian writer E. V. Lucas, “the most foreign town in England.”

But when a geography lecturer specialising in landscape history had finished giving a talk about Rye to the Ferring History Group recently, it’s a fair bet that the historic East Sussex town didn’t seem quite so hazy or faraway.

The lecturer was Dr. Geoffrey Mead of the University of Sussex who studied the suburban housing growth of interwar Brighton for his geography doctorate and who’s now renowned for his highly informative walking tours of the city.

Dr. Mead began by making sure that his audience in the Ferring Village Hall knew that Rye, lying at the confluence of the Rivers Rother, Tillingham and Brede, had never been one of the five original Cinque Ports. That’s “Sink” Ports, he reminded his listeners.

The five ports, said to date from the 11th Century, received special privileges from the king in return for providing ships for the navy in time of war. In fact, Rye enjoyed equal status with Dover, Hastings, Hythe, New Romney and Sandwich in the 14th Century when, along with Winchelsea, it became it affiliated with them as an “antient town.”

Noting that the old warehouses on Rye Quay have helped to preserve Rye’s special character, Dr. Mead went on to paint a colourful picture of the town as a thriving medieval and Tudor port beset by foreign raids in its early life and embroiled in vigorous smuggling later on. All the while Rye had to endure the relentless silting up of its harbour that would eventually leave it high and dry and two miles from the sea.

To hear Dr. Meade tell it, Rye’s attractions seem to be unlimited. Three of the best known are the Norman church of St. Mary on the crest of the hill; the 14th Century Landgate, the only survivor of four entrances into Rye’s medieval walls and the 13th Century Ypres Tower. (And that’s “Wipers” if you’re a proper local said Dr. Mead.)

Ypres Tower was one of the very few buildings to survive a devastating seaborne attack on Rye. That, as Dr. Mead explained, was launched by the French in 1377. Astoundingly, the raiders burnt most of the town and made off with the church bells.

Ypres Tower isn’t wholly a 13th Century structure because, as Dr. Mead pointed out, its Women’s Tower was built in the 1830s to serve as a female prison.

Dr. Mead, who not only gives talks and leads walks for history and environmental groups but also trains volunteer rangers for the South Downs National Park, certainly knows his Rye and proceeded to discourse on its fascinating history.

The safe haven it provided for ships was the source of its medieval wealth. As he explained, the town stood where the River Rother emptied into Rye Bay at the head of an embayment that ensured its almost total embrace by the English Channel.
As a consequence, Rye was a busy fishing port, shipbuilding centre and royal dockyard that imported wine from France and exported wool to the continent.

As Dr. Mead noted, the boom years for Rye were in the middle of the 16th Century when over 300 ships often sheltered in a large creek called the Wainway. Rye it seems wasn’t just the largest and most prosperous town in Sussex; it was one of the most important towns in the country.

But as the centuries passed, Rye’s thriving maritime trade began to suffer from longshore drift. That, as Dr. Mead explained, is the term given to the process by which vast quantities of sand and shingle were driven west to east up the English Channel by powerful currents.

He explained that retaining access to Rye Bay as these sediments piled up at Dungeness was a constant battle. Moreover, draining the land for agricultural use didn’t help as the practice reduced the natural tidal flow which kept the river channels clear. Dr. Mead noted that with the passing years Rye Bay gradually began to silt up. By the 17th Century Rye was unable to accommodate as many ships as it had once done or protect them from Channel storms.

Though no longer a deep-water port, Rye hasn’t lost the services of a harbour, as Dr. Mead explained. A 200-year old settlement called Rye Harbour lies two miles south of Rye along the Rother estuary possessed of a huge nature reserve, a brace of World War Two pillboxes, a martello tower and Henry VIII’s Camber Castle.

No talk on Rye would have been complete without mention of its 18th and 19th Century smuggling activities. It appears that Rye, with its closely-packed houses linked by attics and cellars was up to its eyeballs in what Rudyard Kipling portrayed so romantically in his famous poem “A Smuggler’s Song.”

As Dr. Mead noted, the creeks and marshes of nearby Romney Marsh were ideal for spiriting illicit cargoes of spirits and tobacco ashore. He told his Ferring audience that February 11th 1821 was a particularly memorable date in the region’s smuggling annals. On that night preventive officers clashed with a band of 250 smugglers and a running fight developed over Walland Marsh and ended at the village of Brookland in Kent. Five men were killed and twenty-five wounded in the encounter.

The American novelist Henry James (1843-1916) never warmed to the romance of smuggling after he moved into Rye’s Lamb House in 1897. But as Dr. Mead discoursed on the town’s literary and artistic connections, he mentioned that James’s much-loved Garden Room at Lamb House was wrecked by a German bomb on August 18th 1940. It seems that the Garden Room with its spectacular bay window was what first attracted James to the house where he worked on his last three major novels.

After James’s death, novelist and biographer E.F. Benson best known for the Mapp and Lucia novels, moved into Lamb House, living there from 1919 until 1940. From 1934-37 Benson put in three terms as the town’s mayor, Dr. Mead added.

Rye has links with an extraordinary number of artists, some of whom lived in the town and others who just visited it. Among those Dr. Mead mentioned were Edward Burra (1905-1976) and Paul Nash (1889-1946). Burra, who grew up in Rye, chose to record its harsher, industrial side at Rye Harbour as did Nash who came to live in Rye in 1929 and painted a bleak, if sunny, view of Rye Harbour entitled “Rye Marshes” in 1932.

As befitting a talk entitled “Rye and Camber,” Dr. Mead then transported his Ferring audience three miles east of Rye to the village of Camber and the spectacular expanse of unspoilt sandy beach called Camber Sands that lies in front of it.

Stretching for two miles from the mouth of the River Rother to the shingle banks of Dungeness against an impressive backdrop of dunes, Camber Sands have been a magnet for holidaymakers for over a century. They’ve also attracted a host of filmmakers.

As Dr. Mead told his audience, Camber Sands stood in for the Dunkirk beaches in the 1958 film “Dunkirk” starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough and doubled as the Sahara when the Carry On crew filmed “Follow That Camel” there in 1967.

Camber started life as a collection of fishermen’s huts and, as Dr. Mead explained, came into its own with the growing popularity of golf. There were two key years in Camber’s history, he told his listeners. One was 1894 when the Rye Golf Club and the Royal William Hotel opened and the latter began feeding and lodging the golfers. The second significant year was 1895 when the Rye and Camber Tramway began delivering the golfers to the links.

As Camber became increasingly popular, its housing development began to acquire a deeply insalubrious reputation. As Dr. Mead wryly noted, what geographers love to call “landscapes of informal settlement” was actually a euphemism for shacks where Camber was concerned.

A caption on one of Dr. Mead’s photographs declared Camber to be a “bungaloid horror of…jerry building.” The same caption might have applied to another photograph of the village in the 1920s. With its ramshackle houses and hotchpotch of parked cars, it might have been a louche rendezvous on some remote beach in Jazz Age America.

Another photograph showed Camber’s bungalows on a sunlit day in the mid-1950s. They looked just as rickety as they had ever done but also blissfully remote and presumably much loved by denizens and visitors alike. In the foreground Walker’s Cafe proudly displayed its comforting Wall’s ice cream sign. Incidentally, Camber didn’t seem to go in for fancy road names. There was First Road, Second Road and Third Road, said Dr. Mead. And that was it.

As Dr. Mead’s stalwart Ferring audience had no need of safe spaces and trigger warnings, he felt at liberty to relate the heart rending story of the Mary Stanford lifeboat of Rye Harbour.

The plucky lifeboat had gone to the aid of the Latvian steamer Alice of Riga that was rounding Dungeness Point with a cargo of bricks when she collided with the German merchant vessel Smyrna in a violent south-westerly gale and driving rain.

Powered only by oars and sails and lacking any radio, the lifeboat set out to rescue the Alice’s crew. Tragically, she never saw the white recall flare and ploughed gallantly on through mountainous seas. Unaware that the crew of the Alice had been rescued by the Smyrna, the Mary Stanford succumbed to the violent storm and turned turtle in Rye Harbour with the loss of all 17 of her crew. The date was November 15th 1928.

Dr. Mead, who suggested that waterlogged lifejackets may have been to blame for the tragedy, displayed a headline from the Daily Express of November 16th 1928. It was from the lead story on page one and it read: “Worst Lifeboat Tragedy for 42 Years.”

As Dr. Mead’s talk drew to a close, he introduced his Ferring audience to Rye’s sinister-sounding blue flint men. It was nothing to do with voodoo. These were the horny-handed sons of the sea who from the early 18th Century to the 1950s collected blue flints from Rye Harbour for use as a flint glaze in the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent. Scooped up at low tide in so-called “boulder boats,” the highly-prized flints were packed off by sea to Runcorn while others went by rail.

One of Dr. Mead’s most striking photographs showed two of the flint men, each with a pair of trugs loaded with flints hanging from yokes. They were walking up perilously narrow planks to tip them into railway wagons. According to Dr. Mead, the last blue flint men hung up their trugs in 1955.

As the the talk ended, there was just time to meet the keddle-net fishermen of Rye Bay. These were (and apparently still are) the fishermen who put up giant swathes of netting on poles at low tide in the hope of reaping the bounty of the sea at high tide. Inspecting the nets the following day they often discovered they had caught whole shoals of herring and mackerel.

On that note the Ferring History Group disappeared into the night no doubt resolving to visit Rye at the earliest possible opportunity.