When my daughter Bea and I were in England, I took her to the picturesque little town of Rye.
Rye was a Cinque Port, charged in 1155 by Royal Charter to provide ships for the royal navy, and rewarded with tax-exempt status and other privileges.
Rye was situated on the coast until The Great Storm of 1287 silted the harbor, and transformed the coastal port into a river port, two miles inland.
The town’s history is colorful, with smuggling, and raids by and against the French, just across the Channel. It’s also said to be the most haunted town in England. There’s the ghost of the girl who fell in love with a smuggler and was murdered by him for her indiscretion. Turkey Cock Lane is haunted by the ghost of the monk bricked up alive behind a wall for trying to elope with a local lass. The mysterious boy wrapped in a shroud, and a pair of duelers reenacting their last fatal sword fight are just a few of the ghosts who frequent The Mermaid Inn. So many stories!
Every house has a story. In Rye, as with everywhere else in England, they like to give their houses a name. White Vine House was very pretty.
On a narrow cobbled lane called Mermaid Street stands The Mermaid Inn, which dates back to 1156.
It was remodeled in anticipation of a visit from Queen Elizabeth I. On a previous trip, I stayed at The Mermaid in a room with a plaque on the door boasting that the Queen Mum had once spent the night in that very room. I think I can truthfully say I have slept in the same bed, looked out the same window and, at least for a little while, sat on the same throne as Queen Elizabeth II’s mum!
The Mermaid Inn was so famous that the house across the street was known simply as “The House Opposite.”
We discovered an unusual house, with two front doors. The owners called it, “The House With Two Front Doors.” (Well, of course, they did!) They even had the name painted on it in shiny gold paint.
The neighbors who lived next to The House With Two Front Doors also had a house with one distinguishing feature, a bench built into one side of the porch. Maybe they thought the neighbors were getting too high and mighty, with their spiffy gold-painted signs and their highfalutin name. In what seems a clear case of one downmanship, they too gave their house a name, and put up their own sign to let passersby know they were looking at “The House With the Seat.”
I want to know all the stories–big ones like The Great Storm that changed the whole coast of England overnight, compelling but heartbreaking ones like the Mary Stanford Lifeboat Disaster, in which the entire heroic rescue crew was drowned in a storm, trying to save survivors of a shipwreck who had already been saved. Some of my favorite tales are the Tempests in the Teapots. Those you won’t find in tour guides or history books, but you might be fortunate enough to stumble upon one. A local told us stories about watching the filming of Cold Comfort Farm in Rye. Afterwards we took afternoon tea in the teahouse where one scene was filmed.
Stories live all around us. Some fall into our lap like ripened fruit from a tree. Others are hiding in nooks and crannies, waiting to be ferreted out. Often we are left to speculate over the missing details–not unlike trying to read tea leaves in the bottom of the tea cup. Who hid in the priest hole over the fireplace at The Mermaid Inn? Who was left to mourn the seventeen lads lost in the Mary Stanford disaster? Do the occupants of The House With Two Front Doors and those of The House With the Seat ever sit down together for a cup of tea?
All images and words c2013 by Naomi Baltuck