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Visiting the Ypres Tower, Rye, England: recalling a violent Medieval past

Updated on August 28, 2012
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Ypres Tower and flowers, Rye
Ypres Tower and flowers, Rye | Source
Gun Garden Steps, Rye
Gun Garden Steps, Rye | Source
Map location of Rye, East Sussex
Map location of Rye, East Sussex | Source

A quaint and somewhat sinister history

Today, Rye, East Sussex, seems to epitomize a quiet and peaceful English town.

It was not always so. In the Middle Ages, it was a violent place: the hub of piracy, the nearby English Channel saw raiders come back and forth, as local people alternatively waged aggression against shipping and coastal towns of France and Flanders, or else defended themselves from similar attacks.

Ypres Tower — often referred to as Rye Castle — was part of the defence efforts against coastal raiders. It is basically square in shape, but with rounded turrets at the angles of the building. Dating from circa 1249, the Tower was built when King Henry III came to an agreement with local traders to contribute to defences.

An inn, adjacent to the Tower, dates from 1640. Access to the Inn is by what are known as the Gun Garden Steps.

Rye is numbered among the Cinque Ports, and was counted among the most prosperous of these towns along the coast of Kent and Sussex. Undoubtedly some of the town's Medieval prosperity sometimes came from illicit practices such as pirating. In later centuries, smuggling continued to be a feature of local life. The word 'quaint' seems almost to have been coined to describe a town such as Rye, and one does not need too much imagination to picture sinister privateers and smugglers wending their way along some of the town's ancient streets.

To my mind, the Tower thus stands in some measure a monument to Medieval ambiguity: as part of defences intended to ward off attacks by alien people who were otherwise rather similar to the pirates of Rye.

It should be noted that the Rother River used to meet the sea close to the town in Medieval times, whereas today its course has long altered; the sea is also about 3 kilometres away.

Visitors should be conscious that Rye is one of the relatively few towns in England where the stereotypical image of cobbled streets and narrow, inclined paths is actually in places a reality and thus all but the bravest of female visitors, when out walking, are kindly requested to leave any stiletto heels at their hotel!

Also worth seeing

In Rye itself, Mermaid Street, with an old Inn formerly associated with local pirates, has a picturesque cobbled road surface, and is often photographed. St Mary's Church is partly Norman in origin. Lamb House, a National Trust museum, is the former residence of American novelist Henry James, naturalized British shortly before his death in 1916.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. There are rail links from London to Rye . Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

For your visit, these items may be of interest


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    • MJFenn profile image

      MJFenn 5 years ago

      eddy4me: Rye really worth a visit. Thank-you for your comment.

    • eddy4me profile image

      Eddy Jones 5 years ago from Wales.

      Another great share ;keep them coming.