I’ve found the perfect combination for cosy autumn staycations in the UK this year

The medieval Cinque Port of Rye is a town that is best dressed in autumn. Cobbled lanes, half-timbered houses, brick buildings and plenty of ivy and foliage give the higgledy-piggledy streets in its centre a cosy feel that’s only improved by burnt orange leaves, early sunsets and rosy cheeks from wandering in the cold. Centuries-old inns call out your name for a pint alongside stained glass mirrors and roaring fireplaces.

Rye was once found on the tip of the sea, but over hundreds of years the surrounding tidal salt marshes have been reclaimed, meaning it’s now just over a mile from blustery walks along the beach. There’s also a lovely nature reserve, nearby vineyards that produce some of England’s best sparkling wine, and antiques shops aplenty. As for mealtimes, seafood is unsurprisingly a highlight, but there’s also a series of creative cafés that you will leave wishing they were your own local. As I found on a recent long weekend in the area, this combination of a thriving independent town and alluring outdoor spaces makes it supreme staycation territory. 

This is how to make the most of your weekend in one of Britain’s best towns for autumn and winter escapes.

Stay here

You could easily base yourself in Rye and make a trip or two to the sea via car or bus, but make this a twin-centre break with a couple nights in town and a couple by Camber Sands and you’ll get the best of both.

In Rye, you’ll want to bed down at boutique b&b Whitehouse (doubles from £130) – where six simple yet sweet rooms are paired with an excellent bakery. Breakfasts are, unsurprisingly, a highlight, with creative choices including hangover-curing bacon and chilli jam flatbreads and decadent blueberry pancakes topped with maple-roasted almonds. Rye is a small place so everywhere is within walking distance no matter where you are, but the high street location makes you feel like you’re at the centre of it all.

Six simple and sweet guest rooms await upstairs at Whitehouse, each one named after a bakery treat

matilda delves

Later, decamp to Camber Sands to take things at a slower place. The Gallivant is the place to do exactly that: this restful adults-only hotel is found a few minutes’ from the beach and offers a swished-up California motel vibe. Think cool, coastal style with framed vintage swimming costumes on the wall, colourful headboards and weathered timber and dark oak walls. The price of staying the night (doubles from £295) includes breakfast, morning elevenses, dinner, pre-dinner drinks and complimentary experiences classes. Start the day with a small group yoga class led by a local instructor, and later engage in an English wine tasting.

Cool, coastal style is the name of the game at this luxury motel

Walk here

You can easily explore Rye at your own pace with an illustrated map (£1) from the Rye Tourist Office. Mermaid Street is the most photographed for its dashing good looks and its links to artists, poets and authors who settled here; including Conraid Aiken, but many others are just as charming and with their own stories. Take The Mint, named for the hammered silver coins struck here during the 12th century, where you can spy a jettied medieval building; or Needles Passage where the upper storeys of the buildings were all connected so people could pass from one house to the next in secret; or West Street, where you’ll find American novelist Henry James’s Lamb House, now a National Trust property (although currently closed due to Covid-19). Other highlights include the clocktower, which dates from 1651 and is the oldest still-functioning church turret clock in the country; and Rye Castle and the Ypres Tower, which was built as an extra defence against invaders in 1250 under the reign of Henry III.

Rye’s clocktower dates back to 1651


See this

A 10-minute drive or bus ride from Rye will take you to the dunes of Camber Sands, or the shingle shores of Winchelsea Beach. The former is one of the best beaches in this part of the country, owing to its wide stretches of golden sand and grass-topped dunes that are ideal for picnics on less windy days. With so few people here in autumn and winter, it feels particularly unspoilt. Winchelsea has shallow sand flats at low tide, but is predominantly pebbly. You can walk towards the dramatic cliffs in one direction or wander into the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in the other. The variety of habitats including saltmarsh, saline lagoons, reedbeds and more mean there is a wealth of wildlife. Stop into one of the bird hides (kitted out with information on what to look out for), and sit in the quiet as grey herons and little egrets survey the water, kingfishers flit to and fro, and tufted ducks dive down for shrimp in the mud below.

Time your visit to Camber Sands for when the sun is setting


Try this

East Sussex and neighbouring Kent are both known for their vineyards, and the top-notch English vintages that they produce. Many, including Tillingham, Chapel Down, Charles Palmer and Gusbourne, offer tastings and tours of the estates. This is the best way to get to know the characteristics of our home-grown vines, and to feel comfortable ordering one instead of a classic Old World wine. 

On the Gusbourne estate, you’ll learn about the chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes grown there, and how they are shaped by the weather, position of the land and soil. There are signs with information for self-guided tours, but you’ll really benefit from the stories that come along with the guided option. Fun fact: the roses planted at the end of each row signify the colour of grapes that will eventually appear. The first vines were planted at Gusbourne in 2004, with a debut vintage released in 2010, and many more since then. Like many other English wines, sparkling varieties are a speciality and there’s the opportunity to sample a few, along with red and whites, back at the main building.  

Gusbourne is one of many excellent vineyards in the East Sussex and Kent area

Shop here

If you think the high street is dead, then a stroll along Rye’s and onto its side streets is completely refreshing. There are lots of independents, which run the gamut from sweet shops and concept stores to textile ateliers and antique treasure troves, with friendly faces that are happy to tell you more. Rye Chocolates sells single-origin, handmade bars in delightful flavours (peanut butter and sea salt; fig; honey) with illustrated packaging, and just along from there WiDEYE stocks natural beauty products like bath bombs and shampoos that are all made locally. Cross the road to Puckhaber for decorative antiques, many with a wistful French charm about them, then edge your way to the harbour to pop into Rye Pottery and Wish Barn Antiques.

Drink here

Warming pubs are the order of the day, and you’ll find no shortage of those here. Try The Mermaid Inn (rebuilt in 1420, but with cellars dating back to 1156) for a real old-world feel with beamed ceilings, stained glass windows, wrought-iron chandeliers and all sorts of relics from the past. The Standard Inn is more of a modern update on the theme with lots of exposed wood, roaring fireplaces and sheepskin rugs. Both also serve food, with a mixture of pub classics and more elevated options. 

Hunker down with a pint at The Mermaid Inn

James Ratchford

For something non-alcoholic, Knoops specialises in hot chocolates: choose your preferred percentage of cocoa and they’ll whip one up for you.

Eat here

The best place for lunch is without a doubt The Fig; I ate here twice in two days I liked it so much. It’s one of those independent places with a strong local clientele, and they turn out some superb dishes from a surprisingly tiny kitchen including a delicate fig and parma ham salad with goat’s cheese, walnuts and honey; and a creamy and comforting mushroom gnocchi with a pine nut crumb and courgette ribbons.

One of the salads at The Fig

Dinner at The Gallivant is also really special, with a focus on low food miles and dishes that blend rustic flavours with serious skill and sophistication. I loved the rich earthiness of roast Kent beets atop whipped Graceburn cheese with wood sorrel, before grilled whole Newhaven black bream swimming in dulse butter. They also have the biggest English wine list in the UK, with sommeliers who can expertly guide you through your choices. In town, there are decent seafood supers at Webbe’s at The Fish Cafe or elegant modern menus at Landgate Bistro.

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