It felt like Mike Carver, our guide, was born to do this, as we were taken on a tour of the 'citadel', or walled centre, of Rye. This two-hour tour flew past, filled with revealing insights, anecdotes and architectural surprises. I found myself feeling underneath an exposed brick of an ancient house to prove to me that it wasn't a brick at all but a tile – to avoid the 'brick tax' of 1784-1850. He has a wealth of dates and names at his fingertips which are delivered with such easygoing authority that you soon found yourself feeling rather childlike and enthused with the vitality of this town. Mike has a Masters and has taught history in the area for 20 years, with a special interest in the mediaeval period and his background, and his obvious interest shows. It felt like the ancient streets of Rye were brought back to thriving, smuggling and fighting life as his powerful and enthusiastic voice related the history of the town, which stretches back over 1,000 years.
It's a rip-snorter of a story, and Rye's inhabitants come across as the wiliest bunch of opportunists you're ever likely to meet. The tale begins with William the Conqueror's landing at nearby Pevensey Bay in 1066, and his subsequent building of Rye's church, and heads on to the storm of 1287, which destroyed the old town of Winchelsea and dumped huge banks of shingle on New Romney, damming the course of the River Rother and forcing it westwards so that it exited just south of Rye, thus making the town's fortune. Then on we go through Rye's membership of the 'Cinque Ports' confederation and it's shipbuilding years to the sacking of the town by French raiders in 1387 and the subsequent building of Rye's city walls.
Later on in the story there is of course the smuggling gangs which culminated in the infamous Hawkhurst Gang, who frequented the town and have their own bloody history. The sheer ebb and flow of the town's history is amazing and Mike seems to have all of it at his fingertips. And it's plainly drawn creativity to its streets too. Ghost-story writer Henry James, WWI artist Paul Nash, EF Benson of Mapp and Lucia fame and John Ryan, creator of Captain Pugwash are but a few of the famous residents whose works were inspired by this unique town.
I suspect Mike's route and stories vary depending on who's in his group and his knowledge of who's in in the town (he seemed to know most of the residents and indeed used to live next door to the famous Mermaid Inn). And he had an answer to almost any question we had, whether based on his personal knowledge of the town or his educated conjecture based on his academic studies. Either way, he made the town, which we've now been residents of for almost a year, come alive.
I'll certainly be treating my family to some of his gory, salacious, terrifying and wonderful stories over the next few months. I just hope I can relate them as well as he does. A better history guide I've not come across, and, to be honest, I wouldn't expect to find one.
Walks every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 12pm starting from the Mermaid Inn on Mermaid Street. £9.50 adults, accompanied under-16s go free, ryehistorywalks.co.uk
Pictures courtesy of Rye Museum