What kind of a quaint English town would Rye be without a National Trust property on one of its famed cobbled streets? (I still can’t quite get over the idea of cobblestones being a tourist attraction, I guess because I really hate walking on them.) Fortunately, Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady, The Innocents, etc. was once in residence here, in a fine red-brick Georgian house. Despite owning a copy of The Turn of the Screw that I got free in The Times some years ago, I have still never gotten around to reading any of James’s books (shame on me, I should be more interested in fellow American expats I guess). In fact, I probably know more about his brother William, a psychologist, due to Deborah Blum’s fascinating book Ghost Hunters, but that National Trust card has made me more adventurous, as all I have to waste is my time, so I figured why the hell not see Lamb House?!
Although if you’re not a National Trust member, I can think of six very good reasons not to see Lamb House. As in, that’s how many pounds you’ll be wasting to look inside this ridiculously tiny property. Well, the property itself actually seems fairly substantial, the problem is more that you’re not allowed in three quarters of the building, including the entire upstairs. Only three rooms on the ground level of the house are open, plus a garden/cafe, which seems like a lovely place to have a tea, but if you’re not partaking, then it just means all the tea-drinkers stare at you as you try to look ’round the place.
To be fair, they did hand over three long fact sheets when we walked in, which is more than many larger National Trust properties have, so I left knowing more about Henry James than I did when I walked in, which can’t be a bad thing. And about E.F. Benson, who was another writer who lived in the house after James. Benson I knew virtually nothing about, other than his name sounding vaguely familiar. Apparently he wrote Mapp and Lucia novels, though I’m still in the dark as to what those involve. One of the rooms had about a million binders on the table (many of them duplicates) with more information about the property, so I suppose that was a plus too.
We discovered what appeared to be a pet graveyard outside; perhaps it was mentioned in one of those binders, and I missed it. However, that pretty much concludes the list of interesting features of Lamb House. It was way, way too small for the price, and unmemorable. I’d definitely skip this one unless you’re a big Henry James fan AND a National Trust member (I don’t think James fans alone would be too pleased with the admission charge either). It also seems like they have very limited opening hours, so odds are good it might be shut anyway. 1.5/5.
Rye is one of those historic towns that’s meant to be super haunted and all that jazz, with some inn called the Mermaid being a major stop for German tour groups (as far as I could tell); I saw the Mermaid featured on Great British Ghosts a while back, and much as I like Michaela et al on Springwatch, even she couldn’t sell me on what was sure to be a tourist trap. But I am not immune to tourist traps, as proved by my visit to the Rye Heritage Centre. At first glance, the Heritage Centre was nothing more than a glorified souvenir shop, with some kind of (undoubtedly overpriced) “Sound and Light Show” about the history of Rye housed inside, but their website drew me in with the promise of an old-fashioned penny arcade. I LOVE penny arcades, as you may remember from my visit to Tim Hunkin’s superb Under the Pier Show a couple years back.
Though this was nothing like the glorious whimsy of the Under the Pier Show, being a pretty standard collection of old penny machines, it was free, and you got seven plays for a pound (which you have to exchange for giant pre-1971 pennies in a machine in order to play the games). It was the usual mix of fortune telling devices, not-very-exciting games involving variations on dropping marbles through slots, and old mechanical models, but they did have a few machines that were listed as one-offs, including a machine from 1905!
What can I say? It was cheesy, and a bit lame, but I enjoyed myself, and the place was absolutely deserted, which was a bonus (the weird thing about Rye is that it has the feel of a seaside town, without actually being on the sea (though it once was, as I learned at Ypres Tower), which does help to cut down on the crowds a bit. Just wish they’d get some decent ice cream somewhere. Movenpick doesn’t cut it, sorry). Rye was a bit of a mixed bag, but it was fine overall. Not somewhere I’d rush to return to, but if I ended up back here at some point in the future, I wouldn’t mind too much. Anywhere that has a penny arcade can’t be all bad.