This coastal area in Sussex has pretty houses, historic buildings and lots of period charm.

Words Lesley Gillilan

On a blip of a hill that rises from the salty wetlands of the Romney Marshes, the little town of Rye is a one-off. Climb to the top of St Mary’s Church tower and you can see it all: a jumble of red-tiled roofs, a patchwork of picture-perfect gardens, the Ypres Tower (a fourteenth-century mini castle), the cobblestones of Mermaid Street tumbling downhill to the Strand Quay. Below are the fishing boats and marinas on the River Rother and, in the distance, the beaches of Rye Bay.

An ancient Cinque Port, dating from the Norman Conquest, Rye is one of the best preserved medieval towns in England. Inside the gated Citadel – the teeny town centre – it’s a time warp of tipsy timber-framed houses. No wonder it’s so often used as a period film set: for the filming of Hollywood’s The Monuments Men; and also as the fictional Tilling in BBC’s adaptation of Mapp and Lucia (a comic novel written in the 1930s by former Rye resident E F Benson). The latter has proved a magnet for visitors.

Sarah Benton, a resident from Rye, is always asked: ‘Is this is a good place to live?’ The answer, she says, is an emphatic, yes. ‘Rye has been a safe haven for our children, it’s got a big creative community and the town is stunningly beautiful.’

Sarah grew up in Kent but was living in London when she and her husband (the actor Mark Benton) decided to move to Rye with their young son. ‘We didn’t think we’d stay here forever,’ she says. But many years later, with two more children, they are still happy in Rye. ‘A big plus is the location,’ says Sarah.

In ‘1066 Country’, where rural East Sussex meets the Kent border, Rye is two miles from Winchelsea, where more pretty houses are laid out on a medieval grid of wide streets arranged around a giant church square. Inland, there is forest and gentle Sussex farmland. By the sea, the dunes of Camber Sands or Winchelsea Beach are just a short drive away. ‘Rye is a gem,’ says Sarah. ‘And there are so many wonderful landscapes within easy reach.’

Head for the pretty streets inside Rye’s ancient Citadel. Mermaid Street, Church Square and Watchbell Street (the latter offers low-cost parking permits) are the most sought-after with prices starting at around £500,000. Villagey Winchelsea is quieter, greener and more spread out, though it is more expensive. Both towns are big on weatherboarding, half-timbering and Sussex brick, and many of the houses are listed. For homes closer to the sea, look at bungalows and twentieth-century houses on Winchelsea Beach (a straggling seaside community, two miles from the town). Popular local villages include Peasmarsh, Iden and Udimore.

On one side of town lies Camber Sands’ long stretch of yellow dunes, on the other, Winchelsea’s curve of shingle. Rye’s annual events include jazz and maritime festivals in August and an arts festival in September. A Kino Digital Cinema also opened in 2015. Other attractions include E F Benson’s former home, Lamb House in West Street (now owned by the National Trust) and the town is a honeypot of vintage and independent crafts shops: among them Rye Pottery and the Tiny Book Store. For eating out, try fish pie and great chips at The Ship Inn or fresh, local seafood at The Gallivant in Camber. For more information, see

With its growing tourist population, Rye is a great place to begin a new career in catering, retailing or the creative industries, and it’s well connected, too. Trains from Rye or Winchelsea’s branch-line stations take 20 minutes to Ashford International, where you can board a high-speed service to London (Charing Cross or St Pancras in just under 40 minutes). Hastings is a 25-minute drive away (or 20 minutes by train). The nearest airport is Gatwick.

The town’s state-run comprehensive, Rye College, is rated Good by Ofsted. A recent-addition is Rye Studio school, a Crafts Council affiliation for sixth-formers specialising in creative enterprise.

Living in a picture-perfect cottage on well-trodden heritage streets may not suit everyone. In the town centre, houses with parking are rare, damp cellars are common and shopping is limited (plenty of gifts and vintage kitchenware, a deli, greengrocer and butcher, but very few large supermarkets). Big-store shoppers need to head for Ashford or Hastings.

The George in Rye
George Clooney, Matt Damon and Kevin Costner are among the cast of illustrious guests who have stayed at this stylish hotel – a mix of Georgian architecture, antiques, art and contemporary design. The luxury rooms and suites are all different, some featuring copper and zinc bathtubs and sleeping pods for children. Downstairs, The Tap bar and The Grill restaurant serve modern British dishes, Rye Bay seafood and real ale. From around £100 a night.

Click here to explore other coastal towns.

What Sarah likes about… Rye Bay

The two-mile CYCLE RIDE FROM RYE HARBOUR NATURE RESERVE TO WINCHELSEA BEACH. ‘It’s teeming with wildlife and the landscape is incredible – so bleak and yet so friendly – the skies are enormous, and the walk along the beach is a real cobweb blower.’

RYE WATERSPORTS, a family-run lake at Northpoint Water between Rye and Camber Sands. ‘They offer sailing, kayaking, kitesurfing, paddleboarding, picnicking and windsurfing, and it’s only minutes from town. We’re there all the time in the summer.’

THE MERMAID STREET CAFÉ. ‘This café is right at the bottom of Mermaid Street, by the old fishing huts; you can sit on a bench on a cobbled terrace, and they serve the best ice cream ever.’ Sarah’s favourite is the panna cotta.

Rye: £420,152
Winchelsea: £425,603
East Sussex: £410,011
UK: £329,407
Average house prices: [April 2022]. Source: Zoopla

Rye is celebrity central: the filming of Mapp and Lucia brought in Miranda Richardson, Anna Chancellor and Steve Pemberton; George Clooney came to film The Monuments Men; and Paul McCartney is a permanent resident.