Rye, East Sussex: Rye Castle Museum and Ypres Tower

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Why Rye?  Well, it’s near the seaside, and is within day trip distance from SW London (and takes you right through what I like to call the cherry belt: that glorious part of Kent and East Sussex littered with roadside stands selling bags of Kentish cherries far superior to anything you’ll find in the supermarket).  And, I miss American-style rye bread with caraway seeds; I especially like it toasted, with cinnamon and sugar, because it’s got kind of a sweet-savoury thing going on, so the name may have made me a bit hungry.  But it’s not as though the town of Rye is particularly known for its bread (in fact, I didn’t see a single artisan bakery, just “traditional” British ones producing some awful looking mushy white crap, basically a hot dog bun in loaf form).  What they do have is a castle, known as Ypres Tower.

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First, I should clarify a couple potentially confusing things about the castle.  Coming off the back of so many posts about Belgium, you might be thinking that with a name like Ypres, the castle has some connection to WWI or Belgium.  It turns out it was once owned by a man called John de Ypres, and has nothing to do with Belgium at all.  Also, the actual castle is not the castle museum (as we thought at first); the castle is Ypres Tower; the castle museum is down the road in a nondescript building.  Also, though they’re all part of the same museum, the Rye Castle Museum (the nondescript thing) is free, but Ypres Tower is £3.  Now that I’ve cleared all that up, let’s crack on!

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I could tell almost immediately upon entering Ypres Tower and having a peek around the ground floor, that it was going to be the kind of museum I like.  Old-fashioned, almost exhaustively educational in places (while still playing fast and loose with history, to include legend as “fact”), and above all, charming.  The castle had a number of uses over the years, from private residence, to defence, and finally as a prison, which were all reflected in the museum.  I was greeted by the alleged skeleton of John Breads (great name, especially coming from Rye), who famously murdered a local man in a case of mistaken identity (he was trying to kill someone he had a grudge against, but it was dark and he got the wrong man, which just seems careless), and was executed, then had his corpse hung from a gibbet.  There was also a delightful tapestry thing, made by local women, showing the history of the castle – my favourite bit was the distraught looking prisoner pictured above. In addition, there was an herb room hidden in the corner, with some explanation given of various medicinal herbs.

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The steps leading to the first floor of the tower (and slightly beyond, to a garderobe, as I discovered to my delight) were uneven and a real tripping hazard, as we were warned by the man at the admissions desk (I did stumble on the edges of two of them, so he wasn’t lying), but led up to a room with cases of uniforms, pottery tiles, and some knitting done by those craftsy local women, as well as a large display about the history of smuggling in Rye.

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Yeah, you can see what I mean from that picture about some of the history being exhausting to read.  Anyway, although Rye is now a couple of miles inland, for many centuries it was almost an island, surrounded by the English Channel, as I learned from the old-school lighted relief map in the centre of the room.  So it was a major port throughout the Middle Ages: even after silting occurred and one of the rivers Rye sat on changed course, meaning it was no longer on the sea, it continued to function curiously like a port town, and its economy depended heavily on smuggling, because it no longer had an influx of ships to depend on.  (Rye still has a definite seaside feel to it, as I’ll discuss further in my next post.)

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There were some nice views out the side of the tower, even though we weren’t actually all that high up (as far as towers go, since there were levels above us), because Rye is built on a hill, and Ypres Tower is at the top of it.  After having a good look out the side, it was time to brave those uneven steps again (not as bad on the way down), and head down to see the basement gallery.

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The basement was clearly the child-friendly area; as always, I was overjoyed that none were there, so I could try on ALL the armour.  And play with medieval weapons.

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I clearly rock at firing a longbow (actually, I couldn’t have been an archer, going by the test at the museum.  I think you probably had to start practicing while your bones were still malleable, so your shoulders deformed in a useful way).  Anyway, I enjoyed this overview of medieval history; any time there is stuff to try on, I get way too excited about it.

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Heading back outside, we turned right to walk through the garden, and reached the former women’s prison.  All prisoners were initially held within the tower itself in appalling conditions, but Elizabeth Fry, famed Quaker prison reform campaigner, visited the prison and convinced Rye to open a separate women’s prison, where the women had actual beds, fireplaces, and chamberpots.  It was still pretty grim, and involved eating a gruel-based diet, as the short projection inside the prison shows (keep your eyes peeled for the animated rat), but better than having to sleep in a pool of your own excrement!

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Once we figured out that we hadn’t yet seen the Rye Castle Museum, which to be honest, didn’t happen until after we left Ypres Tower and consulted the free map we grabbed off the admissions desk, we headed down the hill to East Street, to see t’other museum.  This was pretty small, all one room, but hey, it was free.  There was a bit about WWI, and then just loads of glass cases with objects relating to Rye’s history.  I liked the pottery pigs, which are apparently a local thing (though no one seemed to have any for sale, not even a pottery shop we passed that had an array of other animals in the window; although there may have been some inside, they weren’t prominently displayed), because people from Sussex are apparently stubborn and “Wun’t be Druv,” which is to say they won’t be driven where they don’t want to go.

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This was a fairly standard local history museum, and apart from finding some of the objects amusing, nothing particularly stood out to me, but if you’re looking to kill some time, you may as well stop in as it’s free.  I liked Ypres Tower a lot better, and though it was indeed very old-school, that’s kind of what I liked about it, and I don’t think 3 quid was a bad price (especially relative to what the National Trust are charging for their Rye property, more on that coming soon).  3/5 for Ypres Tower.  I wouldn’t make a special trip to Rye for it, but if you’re already here on account of the cobblestones (seriously, why are cobblestones a tourist attraction?!) or all the supposedly haunted stuff (or just because you hadn’t ever been to Rye and are running out of things to blog about, like me), it’s one of the better attractions the town has to offer (though that’s not really saying much), so is worth a look.

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