Friday, 17 July 2015

Wry Rye literature and a dose of history

Mermaid Street, Rye – genuinely Olde Worlde
As I said in my previous post, our long weekend in Rye was both the best of England and the worst of England.

But the food and the public transport were far from being the only aspects of the break, and there was plenty to relish.

High up in that category came history and, over the four days, we began to gain an understanding not only of the story of Rye itself, but more generally of that part of the south coast and, indeed, all of the medieval confederation of the Cinque Ports.

This included learning just how much the area had changed physically, with what are now the salt marshes adding a stretch of land between the previous coastline and the edge of the sea today.

St Mary's, Rye
The border area between East Sussex and Kent, upon which Rye pretty much sits, has long been associated with the sea, from providing ships for the king in time of war to being involved with smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s only just down the coast to the west that we find Hastings, looked down on by the ruins of one of William I’s first trio of castles in England.

Rebuilt in stone in 1070 on William’s orders, it was slated for demolition by King John, re-fortified by Henry III in 1220 and then battered by the storms of 1287, to the extent that part of it collapsed into the sea with the soft, sandstone cliffs beneath.

It suffered during French attacks in 1339 and 1377, was hardly helped by Henry VIII’s destruction of monasteries, then became overgrown and forgotten as the land around was used for farming, before being hit by the Luftwaffe in WWII.

Finally, in 1951, the Hastings Corporation purchased it and turned it into a tourist site, but this potted history of just one building gives an idea of the area’s story.

Stanton shelter
And it’s even in worse condition than Camber Castle, Henry VIII’s low fortification on the marshes. Walking out to that, we came across a small, concrete building, which turned out to be Stanton shelter, a decoy bombing site that was built in 1942 to deflect Luftwaffe raids.

It was what was known as a ‘starfish decoy’, which operated by lighting a series of controlled fire during an air raid, to replicate an urban area being targeted by bombs.

The hut with the shelf in the photograph is the shelter itself; the wall with three holes is the remains of the generator building.

Back in Rye, and in terms of all things nautical, there’s a reason that local resident, John Ryan, set his cartoon stories of Captain Pugwash in ‘Sinkport’, which was actually a fairly recognisable Rye. Today, you’ll find Pugwash references throughout the little town.

Ryan also penned a short, illustrated book about the notorious 1742 murder of deputy mayor Allen Grebell by local butcher John Breads in St Mary’s churchchard, Rye.

Ready for tea in the garden at Lamb House
Breads had been intending to kill the mayor, James Lamb – who subsequently tried and convicted him – after he had been fined by Lamb for selling short weights.

Readily admitting the killing and his intended victim, Breads was later hanged, and his corpse gibbeted and left on display in an iron cage for some years.

Which cage is now on display in the town’s Ypres Tower, of which more later.

The Lambs of Rye were a particularly wealthy family, who built Lamb House as a statement of their prosperity and power, and then bought out nearby properties to create the biggest garden in the town.

Occupied rather later by American author Henry James, it also provided a home for EF Benson, the prodigious author who remains most famous for his Mapp and Lucia novels.

Flowers in the garden at Lamb House
These delightfully bitchy satires on social one upmanship filled six novels between 1920 and 1939. There have been two television adaptations: first, 10 episodes for Channel 4 in 1985 and 1986, starring Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan as the eponymous battlers, with Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie.

I watched it at the time, but was never quite caught up in it.

However, last Christmas, the BBC screened a three-part version, adapted by Steve Pemberton, with Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor as Mapp and Lucia, and Pemberton himself as Georgie.

This, I adored – and crucially, it made me want to read the books. Indeed, the BBC’s use of Rye itself as the location was what inspired me to suggest we take a break there – and how I came to be carrying a copy of Mapp and Lucia, the third novel in Benson’s series.

Benson set many of the stories in a place he named Tilling, which is a barely-disguised Rye. Mapp’s house, Mallards, is in fact Lamb House.

Town gate, Rye
Now in the care of the National Trust, we pottered along to see it on the Saturday. There’s not a great deal to look at – just three rooms – although they’ve added to the displays with props, costumes and hats from the BBC production, which also used Lamb House itself.

The garden, however, is a joy – as was being able to sit in the shade of the trees and sip elderflower cordial. We had never tasted elderflower cordial before, but it felt appropriately Tilling.

For all the literary clout of James, the locals are far fonder of Mapp, Lucia and Pugwash. And why wouldn’t they be? All are, in effect, set within the town itself and all are typically English in their satire or comedy.

The town also has a volunteer-run museum – a tiny affair, but nonetheless with enough to see that you will learn something. It too includes these literary icons – plus a small, 2D ‘flat’ metal model that was labeled as being German and showing the Kaiser in WWI.

Ypres Tower
This allowed me the joyful opportunity to show off my pedantic credentials (to the Other Half, at least), pointing out that it was actually showing the Kaiser and Bismarck, which put it as 1871 or so, rather than the following century.

On the Sunday, on a rather greyer day, we visited the previously-mentioned Ypres Tower, which offered more insights into the local history, including the chance to view a remarkably large cell that was built for female prisoners after a visit to the area by prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.

I’m not one who is necessarily convinced by ‘interactive’ exhibits, but this had a set up where you could pick up a trio of weapons and feel just how heavy they were, and also try a construction that allowed you to see just how much strength was required to use a longbow.

We managed to get to the aforementioned Hastings, on Monday, in the damp and wind.

Fishing boat, Hastings
At first, I think we were both close to turning back: as mentioned in the previous post, some of the new architecture, for instance, was stultifyingly bland, while the promenade has been damned by running a dual carriageway along it.

But with nothing else in mind to occupy the day, we persisted. And thank goodness we did, because shortly thereafter, reached the fabulously-named Rock-A-Nore Road, while the A259 turns north north east.

This is where the Jerwood Gallery stands – unfortunately closed when we were there. But it’s also where the Fisherman’s Museum has been set up, in an old chapel at the back of the shingle beach.

This is where the biggest fleet of trawlers to still be launched from a beach in the whole of Europe is based. And where the fishermen sell much of their catches in small cabins.

It’s an old area, as the tall net huts near the museum attest.

Net huts, Hastings
And in their unflinching black attire, with old boats, a two-ton Napoleonic anchor and an old harbor light scattered alongside on the shingle, they offer a deeply atmospheric window into the town’s past.

They make a fascinating photographic subject, even in the inclement conditions – perhaps particularly in those conditions – and I got absorbed in the business of trying to capture something of the place.

One over-arching thing did hit us about the trip. Many is the time that, when looking around old places on the Continent, we have bemoaned how little of our own built medieval and Elizabethan past still exists.

It was a great pleasure to find a town where that is still very much a living place, but which actually gives a glimpse of several centuries of English history.

And with that, it’s time to bid you all ‘au reservoir’ from this post, as I raise – in genteel fashion, of course – a glass of elderflower cordial.

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