Cream Of The Country: Rye

Rye made its name in medieval times as a heavily fortified deterrent to invaders, but today its architecturally distinguished properties are attracting a new breed of buyer, discovers Nick Lloyd Jones
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The Independent Online

In the wake of the Norman Conquest the picturesque East Sussex town of Rye was occupied by the French until 1247 when it was reclaimed by Henry III. It was transformed into one of his heavily fortified Cinque Ports - a series of safe harbours ringing this stretch of coastline that repelled further attacks from across the Channel and consolidated England's maritime powers.

The town's compact medieval centre is known as the Citadel, where remnants of Rye's ancient fortifications still stand, including Landgate Arch, the Ypres Tower and a section of the original defence walls on Cinque Port Street. This is the historic heart of Rye - a small, friendly town with a population of scarcely more than 5,000 - where most of the town's shops, pubs and restaurants are to be found. The shopping facilities are a little basic - better to drive to Tenterden just across the Kent border for general groceries - but the Citadel's narrow winding streets do offer a good selection of quirky antique shops, art galleries and potteries.

The town has an impressive cultural pedigree and still hosts an annual festival dedicated to the arts and crafts. The painters Paul Nash and Edward Burra were both former residents as were the writers Henry James, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells. It was Rye's murky history of smuggling and maritime skulduggery, meanwhile, that inspired John Ryan to devise the hilarious exploits of Captain Pugwash and his swashbuckling chums.

Architecturally, Rye is principally famed for its quirky timbered medieval and Tudor townhouses that are concentrated around the brow of a hill just to the south of Cinque Port Street in the Citadel amid an enclave of cobbled lanes and alleyways that skirt the beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin. All the houses lining Mermaid Street, Church Square and Watchbell Street have been protected by conservation orders since the 17th century and each is unique.

However, Rye also offers a good selection of attractive options outside the Citadel. Victorian and Georgian houses on the town's outskirts make ideal family homes while another property hotspot is around Strand Quay, overlooking the salt-water estuary where yachts and fishing boats dock next to the town walls at high tide. This vibrant area, choc-a-bloc with trendy restaurants and bars, hosts a weekly farmers' market, and many of its old Victorian warehouses have been converted into residential use.

Strand Quay used to be the town's main disembarkation point but the sea has since receded. Today's harbour is found a mile-and-a-half out along the estuary where clusters of pretty Sussex stone cottages increasingly attract holiday home buyers. Another popular spot, just to the west of here, is Winchelsea - a coastal village with vast swathes of glorious sandy beaches - where prices are significantly lower than in Rye itself.

To the east, meanwhile, lies Camber Sands - formerly a bucket-and-spade brigade destination but nowadays smartening up and undergoing regeneration with a series of ambitious new-build projects taking place along its seafront.

Local estate agents report that Rye and its environs are attracting second-home buyers. Martin Phillips of Calcutt Maclean Standen says as many as 20 per cent of his clients now fall within this category and they are typically looking for two-bedroom properties around the £250,000 mark. "Rye is a honeypot for those looking for holiday homes," he says. "We are increasingly experiencing a ripple effect of people buying here from more expensive areas like London and Tunbridge Wells.'

Just to the east of Rye, meanwhile, lies the bird-watching paradise of the Romney Marshes and the Kent border. Circular-shaped oast houses - used to prepare hops for beer brewing - are a common sight in this stretch of countryside and many have have been converted into luxury family homes.

Rye's proximity to Ashford with its Eurostar connection has also had an effect on the local property market. "Ashford is booming but many people prefer to live in Rye and instead make the daily 20-minute trek to work," says Phillips. "The town is also attracting a lot of residents who regularly travel to Europe for work. You can be in Paris or Brussels in just two-and-a-half hours from Rye - that's only 15 minutes longer than it takes to get to London."

The lowdown

Cost of living: one-bedroom flats from £100,000; two-bedroom flats in Cinque Port area from £135,000; two-bedroom cottages in Rye Harbour from £220,000; three-bedroom medieval townhouses in the Citadel from £290,000; three- to four-bedroom oasthouses with land in outlying rural locations from £475,000.

Attractions: Excellent network of local state and private schools; golf, sailing and tennis clubs; annual arts festival; a good selection of potteries specialising in distinctive local Hopware designs; sports centre; good pubs including the Mermaid Inn; great bird-watching around Romney Marshes; Rye scallops enjoy the reputation of being the best in the country.

Downsides: Limited shopping facilities and no cinemas or theatres.

How to get there: Trains from Rye run to Hastings and Ashford (both about 20 minutes away) from where there are regular connections to London Charing Cross and Cannon Street (both about 80 minutes). Eurostar operates from Ashford.