Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Weekend in Rye

February may seem an odd time of year to head for the beach, particularly in England. But we had a good reason: the annual Rye Bay Scallop Festival. Rye is a small village southeast of London on the south coast of England. Actually, it's not quite on the sea; it's two miles inland now. It was a port city until the sea retreated a few hundred years ago. Rye Bay is full of scallops, hence the festival.

While I was excited about the prospect of scallops, I had done little to no research about the town (or about the cool places we could have stopped on the way). So I was a bit nervous when I read on the car ride that Rye is one of the most popular places in East Sussex and is now very commercialized. I needn't have worried: We rolled in to Rye about 45 minutes before sunset after a 3ish-hour drive from Cambridge and quickly discovered that, although it's clearly a tourist destination, it's still adorable. The pretty little town includes Ypres Tower, once a prison that served as part of the town's 13th century defenses; the gorgeous Church of St. Mary, which has been around for 900 years or so; pretty half-timbered buildings, and charm galore.

Another draw is the nearby coastline and nature reserve. We got a good dose of both on a walk on Saturday. We woke up to find the sun shining that morning, so after a lovely breakfast at our hotel, we drove out to Rye Harbour, a mile or so closer to the sea than Rye, with the intention of spending a few hours walking. Rather suddenly, our blue skies had disappeared and it had started raining. We suited up in our rain gear and walking shoes and headed out anyway. Ten minutes in, the wind kicked up and the rain turned to sleet. It was a bit ridiculous. We considered turning around, but at that point I was willing to continue purely out of spite. We figured we'd at least walk to the sea, then re-evaluate.

When we got to the sea, it had eased back into rain, and we could see signs of clearer skies coming. So, we pressed on and, sure enough, the rain stopped, and later the sun even came out. We mostly stayed on the path, but after a while, we ventured onto the shingle beach -- small, water-worn pebbles are called shingle -- and down near the water. Waves crashed furiously on the beach, warning of the storm that would come the next day. Even so, it was nice to be near water in sunshine. We carried on into the nature preserve, which is, we're told, great for bird watching. I'm afraid we aren't birders so if we saw some interesting birds, we don't know it. We did encounter quite a few people with binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses, though, so there must have been some interesting wildlife about.

The highlight of the walk was Camber Castle, built by Henry VIII in 1536 to defend the area from attack by France and Spain. It's only open on summer weekends, but from the looks of it there's not a whole lot to see on the inside. The outside is much more impressive. It's rather understated, as castles go; it sits in the middle of grazing land, and you have to know where you're going to get there. (Interestingly, sprinkled throughout the area are little "pill boxes" -- concrete structures built during WWII to protect the area from a land invasion. 400 years separate the construction of the structures to serve essentially the same purpose.)

But of course, we came to Rye to eat some scallops. And we did. (I should say now that I'm going to talk about food for quite a few paragraphs. If you don't like reading about food, you should skip ahead. Or maybe stop reading this blog.) Friday night, after reading a great many menus and taking into consideration our mood for more a casual place, we settled on the Ypres Castle Inn for dinner. While it looked like a pretty standard pub with some good choices of real ales, it had a pretty impressive menu that fortunately translated into an excellent meal. Like most places in town, the restaurant was offering a special scallop menu for the festival. I had a starter of scallops wrapped in parma ham, and seafood tagliatelle for my main course. JT had pan-fried scallops in lime and chilli sauce for his starter and his main course was seared scallops on chorizo with crushed new potatoes. All dishes were absolutely excellent. The pub was a friendly place, too; we struck up conversations with both of the guys working that evening and with some of the locals once the TV came on to show the rugby match.

The next night we dined at the Globe Inn, which we had seen advertised in the window of the local deli. Turns out one of the deli owners also runs the restaurant. When we walked in, the bartender questioned how we found out about the place; the Globe is a few minutes' walk outside the town and so doesn't attract many tourists. We were very well cared for and had a delicious meal. JT went the non-scallop route: He had a mezze starter -- tzatziki, hummus, chorizo, and pita bread (a fine starter, but not very strong either), and a black angus steak with mustard mashed potatoes. He said it was easily the best steak he's had in England. Definitely a delicious dish.

I went for the posh scallop menu. The starter was a scallop sampler: one seared with seaweed (delicious), one tempura-battered and fried (the best one -- so delicate), one "drunken" -- pan fried and served floating in a shot of vodka (gimmicky -- but both scallop and vodka were awesome). My main course was scallops poached in champagne served on fried chorizo and pancetta served with a lovely salad. Extremely delicious. I finished with a cheese board with Kentish blue cheese, stinking bishop, and (maybe) Camembert, and JT had the traditional British sticky toffee pudding. We can't say enough about the Globe Inn -- it's well worth the 10 minute walk out of town.

Sunday morning we woke up to the edge of a storm that absolutely pummelled northern France. On our end, it shook the windows of our 400-year old B&B and rain slapped the windows in sheets. We wimped out on braving the elements to watch the second annual scallop race, where people run with a wheelbarrow full of scallops down to the docks and back. By late morning, though, the rain and wind had calmed down a bit, so we walked down to the pub/restaurant where the race finished. Sure enough, the place was packed with racers finishing off their coffees and hot chocolates -- the race had gone on despite the weather. The pub, The Ship Inn, was instantly inviting: Good jazz playing in the background, delightfully mismatched tables and chairs, families crowded around playing Scrabble in the front window, an espresso machine pumping out 'proper coffee' (what it said on the sign), a pile of Sunday papers on the front table, two real ales and four local ciders on draft, a roaring fire. THIS was a place I wanted to spend some time.

We had a coffee over some newspapers, then a pint over more newspaper. Then we wondered what the menu looked like, sure we weren't ready to eat yet after our big breakfast. We got menus; suddenly we were hungry. JT had a smoked haddock and parmesan pot (to spread on toast) -- I stole some of this and can tell you it was excellent. Then he had chicken, ham, and leek pie -- also truly delicious. My entire scallop tasting menu was divine: leek & potato soup with seared scallop; a scallop served in the shell with some potato and a lovely sauce; and seared scallops with smoked prawns and corn fritters. I'm a big fan of the Ship Inn now.

On Friday night we had a drink in The George, a popular Rye bed and breakfast with a posh restaurant and a great bar. We had a drink at a table in front of the enormous fireplace and people-watched as people arrived all dressed up for their evening out. The Ypres Castle Inn, the Ship Inn, and the George set the bar pretty high for us in terms of local pubs.

We very much enjoyed our bed and breakfast -- the White Vine Hotel, a small, family-run business with a lot of attention to detail. We didn't get to spend time in the pretty front tea room, nor did we eat in the restaurant, but truly enjoyed our experience here as hotel guests.

We were sad to leave Rye but also excited at the prospect of not being rushed, of being able to unpack and settle back in, and watching the US-Canada hockey game. But we made one more stop on our way out of East Sussex: Bodiam Castle, built in 1385 and complete with moat. We both forgot our National Trust cards so we didn't go in, but we were very happy to stroll around the grounds and admire the view. It made for a nice end to our Very English Getaway Weekend.

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