When you climb the cobbled streets of Rye you can’t really believe you’re in a living breathing town. It’s so pretty, it’s so old, it’s so perfectly maintained.
First of all I read Mapp and Lucia by EF Benson. My copy of the book says it was re-printed in 1971 so I assume that was when I first discovered the series. I thought the world of Tilling was wonderful – the description of the characters, the telegrammatic utterances of Diva, quaint Irene with her pipe, Lucia’s Italian phrases, and I particularly loved the image of the Rolls Royce of the Wyses transporting its owners the 100 yards to the dinner party or bridge game and then the Roller having to turn round inch by inch, sawing slowly back and forth in the narrow streets.
Then I learned that Tilling as described in the books, was in fact Rye. I knew that EF Benson had lived there. He became the mayor! Then I learned that Henry James had lived there too (wonderfully evoked in The Master by Colm Toibin). In Lamb House – the house that EF Benson later lived in and which became the Mallards in the books.
Unfortunately there is an aspect of real life in Rye – weather and people and cars as well as the seasons, so the photos of Lamb House are rather carefully taken, to avoid the lorries and because sadly Lamb House is not open in February.
Our hotel was just off Traders Way and – they said – is the hotel the Traders Arms that Lucia and Georgie stay in when they first go to Tilling.
But they had an interesting collection of books.
And in the bar, which sold a mean G&T and a very dry sherry, was a wonderful machine that told fortunes for the princely sum of 10p. I was about to make a new friend!
It was Scallop Week when we were there – and scallops with black pudding, bacon and puree of cauliflower, eaten at the Standard pub, was a dish that scallop lovers can only dream of.
Rye is one of the Cinque Ports but is over a mile away from the sea. There is talk of smugglers and several inns boast a history of plots and secret meetings. There is also the quay and views over the salt marshes – many people climbed out of the train wearing sensible footwear and organised backpacks. There is the Kino, housed in the old library, which has a wonderful programme of films showing all day. It is full of indicators of its medieval past – gates, walls, towers.
But it was Mapp and Lucia’s world that I wanted to see, and I was not disappointed.
It was therefore very nice to attend a party the next day where at a given moment there was a short musical entertainment, consisting of two or three ukelele numbers and a duet on the piano. We sat in a semi circle our hostess’ living room and there was polite applause at the end.