Ways of the Weald

Street in Rye
Street in Rye
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Sussex: Great pubs, spectacular views and history. Phil Penfold takes a gentle tour of one of southern England’s most beautiful areas.

In the opening chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s classic story The Wind in the Willows, Ratty tells Mole that there is “absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” He may speak the truth, but for me an equal pleasure is taking a ride on a rural bus, drinking in the scenery as life passes by.

Which is one of the reasons I’m down in the south east. While we in Yorkshire have the Wolds, down there, they have the Weald – they mean much the same thing – a heavily wooded area, or forest.

Ticehurst in East Sussex seemed like an excellent place to start a summertime jaunt. Ticehurst was one of many villages through which, over half a century ago now, my family would pass on the way home from a day out on the beach at Camber Sands.

I never found out why my father was so interested in bell-ringing, but he was, and we’d park up the outside some church somewhere on a Sunday evening, and dad would disappear into a nearby pub, emerging a few minutes later with a tray, on which sat a pint (for him), a half of shandy (for my mother) and two glasses of lemonade, for my sister and me. Then, for at least half an hour, dad would listen to the bells, reciting a quiet litany of the changes being rung.

So, wandering into the neatly kept graveyard of St Mary the Virgin in this little community, memories came flooding back, but Ticehurst is also a fine base from which to go exploring.

For a start, Bewl Water is just a 20 or so minute walk away and is one of the largest inland stretches of water in Britain. If you don’t feel like boating, fishing, water surfing or anything else that is remotely energetic, then there is always plenty of wildlife to spot, and lots of places to sit and take in the view.

If you want to stay overnight The Bell, once just a humble inn but now an “enchanting country pub with guest rooms” is as good a place as any.

Right outside the front door is a bus stop, and (bang on time) transport turned up to take me on, through little villages and under leafy trees, to Battle, the place where the last Saxon King of England was killed, and where William the Conqueror built a great abbey to celebrate his victory. The newly re-opened and replanted walled garden, with historic varieties of fruit trees, and beehives, is a delight.

If you prefer gardens on a grander scale, head to Great Dixter. Here lived legendary plantsman Christopher Lloyd, an inspiration to so many of today’s gardeners, including our own Alan Titchmarsh. Great Dixter is one of those places that once seen is never forgotten, and where you could spend days, never mind hours, exploring.

On a slightly smaller scale, and in the care of The National Trust, is Bateman’s, the house in Burwash that was the home to Rudyard Kipling until his death in 1936.

His wife left the place to the Trust just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and it has had its doors open to the public ever since. It was not always the case. Kipling valued his privacy, and wasn’t that keen on charabancs full of trippers pulling up in the nearby lane to gawp into his property, so he had a high hedge grown around the estate.

Beautiful though it is, this is a place tinged with sadness, for it was through the front door, down the drive and past the gates that the great author’s only son, John, went to join colleagues at the front. He never returned and Kipling never really recovered from his loss.

Another Trust property is the romantic and moated Bodiam Castle, and there’s a further dramatic fortress just along the road at Pevensey. Then, take the coastal route along to Hastings, continue on, and stop in Rye.

Once a thriving port, changing tides and currents silted up its harbour and it now stands several miles inland.

However, it’s still worth a visit just to climb the church tower which offers a panoramic view of the town and its surroundings.

The most central place to stay for a good wander is The George, another former coaching inn which has been lovingly restored. It recently found favour as the base for Matt Damon, George Clooney and Hugh Bonneville while working on the upcoming movie The Monuments Men, shot nearby.

The restaurant is again fabulous and after a being well fed at dinner and breakfast, spend the morning wandering around the antique shops, most of which are in or near Cinque Port Street, where you might find a bargain, but where you will also raise an eyebrow at some of the prices.

There are two excellent galleries along from The George in High Street, where you can find far better value items to bring home as a memento. One belongs to Clive Sawyer, who has travelled the world with his camera, and the other is The Purdie Gallery, and both have well-priced pieces of collectable art.

There’s just a word of caution for the culturally or inquisitively minded in Rye – check all the opening times of just about everything. The museum is only open at the weekend, and Lamb House, in which writers Henry James, EF Benson and Rumer Godden all lived (though not at the same time) although owned by the National Trust, is tenanted and only open at limited times on Tuesdays and Saturdays. But then, in The Weald, you won’t be the slightest bit wanting for things to do – or see.

Getting there

Phil Penfold stayed at The Bell in Ticehurst, (01580 200234, www.thebellinticehurst.com) and at The George in Rye, (01797 2221124, 

For rail information call 08457 484950.