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51 Reasons To Visit Rye

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The acclaimed Rye Arts Festival returns in September, for the 51st time, a worthy celebration for this wonderful town

The “Rock of Rye”, as it was known in medieval times, is literally built on a stony outcrop. Once surrounded by sea, this fortified hilltop town played an important role in the defence of the south coast of England. These days, the river no longer harbours warships and is home to the local fishing fleet. From spats with the French, marauders and smugglers, this ancient town is steeped in history. After a three-day stay in 1573, Queen Elizabeth 1 gave Rye the title “Rye Royale”.

A climb up the tower of St Mary’s Church offers wonderful views of the surrounding area: Winchelsea perched on another hill to the west, the meeting of the Rivers Rother and Tillingham, the terracotta roofs of the many timbered houses, cobbled streets and secret passages, once the haunt of smugglers and highwaymen, all regularly attract film crews in search of historic settings for period productions.

The wonderful light and its microclimate have made Rye a haven for artists and writers. Henry James lived in Lamb House, where he wrote several books, and E. F. Benson immortalised Rye in his ‘Mapp and Lucia’ books. Rumer Godden, E Nesbitt and John Fletcher are amongst the many celebrities to have lived in or near Rye. The artist Van Dyck was a frequent visitor as he crossed the channel from his native Flanders, which is why he painted so many pictures of ships tied up on The Strand.

The surrounding area provides many opportunities for different tastes. Sissinghurst and Great Dixter are there for garden enthusiasts. Derek Jarman’s eclectic garden at Dungeness is not far away. The Romney Marsh Churches, Battle Abbey, Bodiam Castle, Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s house in Burwash and Scotney Castle are amongst the many places to visit.

Rye is the perfect backdrop for a cultural celebration. The Rye Arts Festival was started in 1972 and is one of the top ten small festivals in Britain, providing a diverse mixture of musical, literary and theatrical events with an emphasis on quality, intellectual weight, style and fun. The visual arts are equally well provided for with local galleries running shows especially for the festival. Venues include St Mary’s Church, the delightful churches in the neighbouring villages of Iden, Playden and Winchelsea, and The Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place.

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Rye is full of history

Five decades of fun

The Arts Festival is Rye’s principal annual arts event, taking place in September. It has developed over the past 51 years into one of the most successful and respected small festivals of its kind, dedicated to high quality performances in music, literature, theatre and other art forms coupled with a range of activities in heritage and the environment.

In recent years, Rye Arts Festival has featured, among others: Dame Ellen MacArthur, Sandy Gall, Peter Snow, Sir Max Hastings, Henry Blofeld, Tasmin Little, Benjamin Grosvenor, Jane Gardham, Philip Venning, Voces8, Nikolai Demidenko, The Zemlinsky Quartet, The Sitkovetsky Piano Trio, The English Concert, Lord David Owen, Vicky Pryce, Sarah Raven, Adam Nicolson, Frances Spalding, John Julius Norwich, A.N.Wilson, Richard Lester, Professor Robert Winston, Professor David King, Flossie Malavialle, Dervish, “West” Weston, Courtney Pine, The Big Chris Barber Band and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

The festival’s main audiences are from Rye and the surrounding area, although it now attracts increasing numbers from further afield. The team behind the festival always seeks to widen access to its programmes while continuing to deliver excellent events and performances. Many thousands of tickets are sold to those attending approximately 60 events during each festival and many others enjoy events to which there is free access, including all the special exhibitions in and around Rye that are on offer at the time.

As part of their policy to support local educational activities and encourage involvement in the festival by younger generations, they provide specialist workshops, drama and literary events for school-age children and free tickets to local students. In the past they have also offered the chance to attend Committee Meetings and discover how their charity operates.

Robert Harris Portrait © Nick Gregan
Robert Harris stars at the Rye Arts Festival this year, photo by Nick Gregan

The biggest and best ever

The 51st annual Rye Arts Festival, which runs from 9-25 September, promises to take things up a notch: over 70 ticketed events will fill a packed fortnight with high quality performances. The organisers have sought to offer something for everyone with a diverse selection of events including world famous speakers, world class artists, and performers from around the world.

The festival is delighted to welcome best-selling writer Robert Harris to Rye to talk about his thrilling new novel Act of Oblivion, which is literally hot off the press, being published in September.

Lord David Owen will talk about his book, Riddle, Mystery and Enigma, exploring the history of the political relationship between Russia and England over the last 200 years, which was published before the invasion of Ukraine. This event provides a chance to hear the former Foreign Secretary’s views on the Russian aggression.

And the Reverend Richard Coles has turned to crime. But don’t worry, having made his mark in music and then in the church, his debut crime novel Murder Before Evensong is already a best seller, and tickets for his talk will fly out of the door.

For the classical music programme, the festival has the exciting prospect of hearing young talented musicians from City Music Foundation as they begin climb the ladder of success. The Foundation’s mission is to turn exceptional musical talent into professional success by equipping outstanding musicians with tools, skills, experience, and networks to help them make a living from making music.

There will be evening and lunchtime concerts in the atmospheric St Mary’s Church and the programme is varied. The first concert is performed by percussionist James Larter, who will be presenting an eclectic array of music for marimba, percussion and electronics. There will be a wonderful Opera evening, Seasons of Love, packed full of delicious, spine-tingling arias.

The festival will end with at the Musical Pilgrimage by Victoria Consort. The singers will start the pilgrimage at Winchelsea where they will sing religious songs from the Spanish Court at St Thomas’ Church. The singers and audience will then walk to Rye, via Camber Castle, for the second half of the concert at St Mary’s Church.

As well as classical music there will also be traditional and contemporary music gigs – check out The Mountain Firework Company for an amalgam of blues, rock and country. The Fay Hield Trio will play top quality English folk, while Kate Garner and her band will serve up music from the 1920s – get ready to Charleston your night away (with help from professional dancers). And Kadialy Kouyate will offer some of the very best African music you will hear.

Drama will keep you entertained and classic movies, including the original Cabaret starring Liz Minelli, are on the card. And not forgetting the area itself: there will be historic walks held throughout Rye, completing what will be an event to remember for a town like no other.

For more information on these and all the other events at the 2022 Rye Arts Festival, go to ryeartsfestival.org.uk

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