The Road Trip Begins: Rye, England

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While we thoroughly enjoyed our time in London, we were also looking forward to getting out of the city. And today is the first day of our 12 day road trip around the UK! We have lots of exciting stops planned, as well as time to simply see where the road takes us.

Step one was to find our way back to the airport and rent a car. We decided to rent from the airport based on the advice of a guy named David who works at the Burberry perfume counter at Harrods. While sampling perfumes we got to chatting and learned that he was planning his own road trip adventure in the states! He and his fiancé are renting a Hummer conversion camper and spending three weeks out west for their honeymoon. So basically, we had lots to chat about!

The reason to rent from the airport is that Heathrow Airport is outside of the city making it a lot easier to navigate your way out-of-town. He said that starting from inside the city would be confusing. I’m glad we took his advice, navigating our way out of the airport was confusing enough!

For future reference, we should have booked our rental car online in advance. This would have saved us a couple hundred bucks. Ouch! But you live and learn. We waited to rent the car because we weren’t sure where we should choose as the pick-up point due to our lack of knowledge of the area.

We ended up renting a compact hatchback Vauxhall. It was a manual right-side drive, which meant Brandon had to get used to shifting on the left. At least the pedals weren’t switched too! It took some time to learn the car. The gear box was much smaller than on our manual Jeep. Brandon kept accidentally taking off in third instead of first. But once he worked out this tiny issue, he did great.

Funny thing about renting a car in the UK — they seem very unconcerned with damage to the car. They kept saying, “If something gets damaged, let us know, but don’t worry, you already paid for it!”. Full-coverage insurance was the only option. It’s as if they know foreign drivers on narrow streets (on the wrong side of the road) are bound to hit something so they just factor it into the cost of the rental. We nearly curbed the left tire before we even left the airport!

The highways (or motorways in England) look much like the highways in the states. The narrow roads we were warned about don’t really show up until you get into the countryside. We saw lots of caravans (RVs), making us think about doing a European RV trip some day. I think our RV is far to big for Europe though.

It was about 90 miles to our first destination — The medieval citadel of Rye on the southeastern coast. We knew we wanted to visit Rye as soon as we saw the first images of it on Google. The city is remarkably preserved as it looked in the 1400s. Some buildings date from the 1100s. Plus, the town is small enough that you can easily walk everywhere, exploring the cobbled streets and quaint shops by foot.

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We had initially only planned one night in Rye, but as soon as we arrived we knew that we would need to make some changes to our plan. It was only day one and we already felt like we were moving too fast. One night in each destination was just not going to cut it. By the time we had rented the car, driven to our destination, and checked into our hotel it was already 3:30pm. The shops would all be closed by 5pm. It just didn’t seem right to rush around the city taking as many photos as we could, only to rush out the next morning. Our current hotel was booked for the following evening but luckily we were able to secure a room just a few buildings down the street as well as move and extend our reservation in Bath, our next stop. For what it’s worth, the customer service at both hotels we’ve stayed at in England has been exceptional.

For our first night in Rye we stayed at the famous Mermaid Inn. The Inn originally dates from the 1100s but burned down during the late 1370s during a raid by the French. It was rebuilt as it currently stands in 1420. I still can’t get over how old everything is over here!

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The Inn is on iconic Mermaid Street, supposedly the most photographed street in the world (at least according to the bellhop at The Mermaid). Mermaid Street is a steep, winding, cobbled lane right through the center of town. Wisteria grows across the front of the old Tudor style buildings. Simply lovely.

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Below is a portion of the wall of famous people who have stayed at The Mermaid. My guidebook said the place is also popular with minor royals, not that I would have recognized a “minor royal” had I met one at the bar.

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The hotel is by far the oldest we stayed in while in England. It was an adventure just finding our way into the car park behind the hotel. The road was so narrow I was convinced it was for pedestrians. The hotel is famous as a hangout for smugglers. There are multiple hidden passageways and a hidden ledge inside the bar room chimney to hide goods and people from the authorities. It has also been in continuous operation as a hotel ever since it was built. Incredible!

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Driving our tiny car out of the carpark. 
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The door to the left of the fireplace is a hidden passage-way to the guestroom above.

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We really wanted to stay a second night at the Mermaid but, alas, it was not to be.

Once we were all checked in, had managed to move and extend our stay in Bath, and found accommodation for the following night at Jeake’s House down the street, we went to the bar for a well-deserved beer. At the bar we met a couple from Texas. We chatted for a bit about growing up in Texas, but the woman kept making subtly racist comments, which was making us (and everyone within earshot) very uncomfortable. We finished our drinks and made up an excuse to leave.

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We spent an hour or two just wandering around the streets of Rye. This town is so darn charming that we were immensely glad we decided to stay another night.

Rye was originally a port town, important to merchants and also a point of defense from attacks by the French across the Channel.

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These two cheekily named houses are both on Mermaid Street.

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For dinner we went back to the bar at the Mermaid. The food was fantastic and very reasonably priced. Plus, the bartender made perfect Manhattans for me and whiskey sours for Brandon. We had steamed mussels as an appetizer and this amazing dish made out of bread, cheese, eggs, and garlic for dinner. It was so good that at one point Brandon left to go get another drink and I didn’t even notice he was gone!

Our room at the Mermaid was small but faced out onto Mermaid Street. We opened the windows before bed to let the breeze in, but regretted that decision around 5am when the seagulls began squawking! In the morning Brandon told me that he had been up all night listening to the creaking floorboards from our upstairs neighbors. I slept like a baby. We are really enjoying our stays at old hotels but they all have their quirks. Here we have a toilet that never stops running and a bathtub with no shower. And it seems like we always have to go down a flight of stairs before going up. A little confusing but far more interesting than a Best Western.

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We woke up the next morning and packed our bags before heading downstairs for the complementary breakfast. I had smoked salmon with a poached egg and hollandaise on toast. Brandon had scrambled eggs with fruit. Fish for breakfast is very popular in the UK but Brandon just can’t seem to get behind eating fish that early in the day. After breakfast we loaded up the car and drove a few buildings down Mermaid Street to our new home for the night — Jeake’s House.

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We immediately liked Jeake’s. It is old (1600s) like the Mermaid Inn but has a more elegant vibe. I imagine it would have been the choice of wealthy merchants while the Mermaid was the choice of outlaws. There is also an honor bar and a friendly house cat.

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For those of you that have never seen one of these, an honor bar is a bar with no bartender. You pay based on the “honor system”. They come in all levels of sophistication, from a cooler of beer left on the beach to a fully stocked bar with a cash box on the counter. However, the bar at Jeake’s House was the best I’ve ever seen. The room was beautifully decorated and the bar impeccably stocked. There was a price list for all the items and paper and pen to note what you had. The liquors were dispensed in precise quantities by a clever little dispenser. There was even fresh lemon and a pairing knife on the counter. You just write down what you drank and they add it all up when you check out. So classy.

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Best of all was the owner Richard Martin. He was able to offer us a room at the last-minute and is wonderfully funny. He also gave us some excellent suggestions for things to see around Rye, including the room-sized model of the city on display at the Heritage Center.

We spent all day wandering the streets of Rye and by the end of the day really felt like we had a feel for the town.

Believe it or not, this used to be a busy shipping port. Now, it is mostly home to visiting boaters and a few local fishermen. The river has changed course over the centuries and silting has nearly dried up the entire harbor. At low tide the boats are completely grounded.

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These days Rye is primarily a tourist destination. There are dozens of tiny shops full of antiques and quirky souveniers.

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There are also lots of Land Rover Defenders driving around Rye. Brandon fell in love with these cars while we were in England.

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Found in a local antiques shop.

Even though we had a map, we still managed to get lost once or twice. We made a wrong turn at the railroad tracks and found ourselves walking on the outskirts of town, where the locals live.

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It was still very beautiful and I always enjoy finding where the locals live.

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This photo is for Brandon’s dad. He asked us to keep a look out for these blue police boxes. Something about a doctor, though I can’t remember who.

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Our first mission of the day, at the suggestion of Mr. Martin, was to secure a dinner reservation. Apparently, the local restaurants frequently fill up on Saturdays. We were very glad he told us this because he was right. It took a few tries before we even found a place with an opening!

Next stop was the Heritage Center. Small town museums are generally pretty dull but this one was an exception. A local couple spent a good portion of their retirement building this scale model of the town as it would have looked in the 1800s. The model is accompanied by a 20 minute sound and light show telling the 1000 year history of Rye. It would be the perfect way to begin a tour of the city.

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Remember that photo of the boats lying in the mud in the harbour? This is what it might have looked like 150 years ago.

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Mermaid Street

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After leaving the Heritage Center we stopped for tea at Simon the Pieman, a cute coffee shop next to St. Mary’s Church. I love that they serve tea here in England just the way I like it — with milk and a proper tea-pot! I do, however, always have to request honey instead of sugar. The cheese and onion tart was also excellent and cheap too!

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After tea we walked next door to St. Mary’s Church to climb the tower for a bird’s-eye view of Rye. The ancient church is perched on top of the highest hill in town and they actually still let people climb up to the top of the bell tower! In America, this would have been shut down years ago. Someone would get hurt, sue, and the whole thing would be closed to the public.

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The climb up to the tower is very narrow, at one point only as wide as my shoulders. Brandon had to walk sideways.

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A series of ladders pass by the multiple bells. These exact same bells were stolen by the French during a 1370s raid but the people of Rye later stole them back. I was honestly amazed that anyone would even attempt to steal these things. They are enormous and must be incredibly heavy. No idea how they got them out of the tower with that narrow hallway.

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The view from the top is fantastic. You can see all of Rye and the surrounding marsh.

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We went to visit the “castle” next but it was closed for the day. The castle is actually pretty small and was primarily used as the local jail. Because we weren’t able to take the tour, all we really did was take some mildly inappropriate photos with the cannon collection.

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I was trying to take one of those perspective photos where it looks like I’m holding the castle. I’m clearly not doing it right. 

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Having walked all of Rye at least twice by now, we went back to Jeake’s for a pre-dinner drink at the honor bar.

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Dinner at Union Steakhouse was delish and very reasonably priced for being a steakhouse. Honestly, all of the places we’ve eaten in Rye have been wonderful and surprisingly affordable. Maybe the high prices in London have skewed our perspective. Brandon had the rib eye with jacket potato (baked potato) and I had the catch of the day, a local sea beam with fingerling potatoes, all topped with caper butter and some type of plant that grows locally in the river around Rye. It reminded me of a cross between asparagus and seaweed. Sounds odd but was very good.

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We woke up at Jeake’s house after probably the best nights sleep of this trip. The bed was amazingly comfortable. We had breakfast in the formal dining room, served by Mr. Martin’s partner Jenny. He had told us he makes a “sumptuous” breakfast and he was right. We had avocado toast with poached eggs, sausages, croissants, cheese, and fruit. We aren’t normally big breakfast eaters but the complementary breakfasts at British guesthouses just might change that.

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After breakfast we asked Mr. Martin if he would mind directing us towards the scenic route to Bath, and boy did he deliver! He spent at least 20 minutes giving me turn by turn directions (complete with recognizable landmarks to guide us). He gave us a route that almost completely avoided the major highways, took us right along the coast, through a national park, and even included a detour through a pretty town for a lunch stop. This guy is gold. If you ever find yourself in Rye, please tell him hello for us.

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5 thoughts on “The Road Trip Begins: Rye, England

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