Arriving at Rye station on a cold, dark winter's evening can be a little confusing.
Somewhere around here is supposed to be one of England's prettiest little towns, and also, beyond the unprepossessing 1960s station approach, I needed to find the 17th-century guesthouse shoehorned into Mermaid Street, whose historic appearance, I'd read, is beloved by producers of television costume dramas.
Sure enough, a short walk uphill and a right turn and I'd stepped back 400 years, stumbling over dimly lit cobbles and narrow pavements to Jeake's House. The exterior of the bed and breakfast – where five-star levels of comfort await inside – fits beautifully with a street where medieval cross-beamed buildings seem to lean against one another in search of support in their old age; other houses overhang the pavement, as if eavesdropping on conversations across the road.
You are greeted at the tiny reception desk, to the left of which is the parlour, an enchanting secluded retreat from the 21st century with features including ancient cellar shelves. Pianists are invited to play the square piano, which was built in the lifetime of John Broadwood, who rose to piano-making prominence in the late 18th century. To the right on the ground floor is the snug bar, with a granite top and pews from a former Baptist chapel that was once part of the adjacent property. The bar operates on an honesty payment system, and has a good collection of books.
Upstairs, the house is something of a rabbit warren, with steep, narrow staircases that would see Escher nodding in admiration. The galleried, high-ceilinged breakfast room – the former meeting place of the Rye Quakers – is overlooked by a passageway to some of the guest rooms.
The real charm of this hotel is that it feels so genuinely, comfortably ancient. Jeake's House is proof, as the many American visitors who stay here might say, that the Europeans "can do history". Its origins lie in the 17th century, with Samuel Jeake, the son of Rye's town clerk. After marrying a 13-year-old bride, Jeake, a wool merchant, built a storehouse on the site of what is now the B&B. The building was later converted into a Baptist school and, in the 20th century, was owned by novelist and poet Conrad Aiken, a Pulitzer Prize winner, whose guests included TS Eliot and Radclyffe Hall.
Rooms range from tastefully if simply furnished doubles to luxurious suites named after eminent previous house owners and guests including the poet and novelist Malcolm Lowry (the latter boasts a roll-top bath and four-poster bed and is draped in English toile). The Elizabeth Fry room, thought to be where the prison reformer stayed while addressing local Quakers, has an antique four-poster.
The food and drink
Fine wines, spirits and ales are offered on a self-service basis in the snug Jeake's Bar. Breakfasts are traditional English, with most food sourced locally.
Make the considerable effort to drag yourself away from the wonderful snug bar, for a night-time stroll around the ramparts, taking in Ypres castle and St Mary's church. The town is also an excellent base for exploring the surrounding countryside. Romney marshes are nearby, as is Camber Castle, with its distinctive Tudor Rose shape, fortified by Henry VIII in 1539. At that time, the sea lapped around the castle walls – today, thanks to a retreating sea, the castle stands one and a half miles inland. For a more recent addition to the landscape, make for Sissinghurst gardens, which were designed by the writer Vita Sackville-West, and sold to the National Trust in 1967. Further ideas can be found at visitsoutheastengland.com.
Children and families welcome. Stairs are steep and, in the pursuit of authenticity, there are few concessions to modern standards of accessibility. So the property – and indeed Mermaid Street – are difficult for wheelchair users. Owners Jenny Hadfield and Richard Martin ask you to contact them to discuss any needs you may have.
Double rooms from £45-£79 per person, per night, including breakfast.
Jeake's House, Mermaid Street, Rye, East Sussex (01797 222828; jeakeshouse.com).