Just back from a day well-spent in the cozy little seaside town of Rye, an hour's train ride from London. Henry James lived and wrote in Rye for a spell, and so would I, anytime, if there were a Henry James Memorial Residency for Writers of Meandering Essays. Rye reminded me of another literary setting—Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, the town of Doctor Doolittle, from which he set off on voyages to the far corners of the world, but was always happy to come home to, So would I.
The narrow curving and climbing streets of Rye, many cobbled with puddingstone, are lined with half-timbered and brick houses and shops of earlier centuries, with shingled roofs and a hearty chorus of chimneys. You can picture the chimney sweeps cavorting from roof to roof, as in Mary Poppins. Rye still looks like that.
We climbed to the highest point in Rye, the bell tower of the church that sits atop Rye's broad hill. It wasn't easy. A series of staircases, ladders, and passageways no wider than your shoulders, past the gears of the clock (we happened to pass it as it whirred and struck the hour of three), past the place where the six huge bells live, past large plaques announcing their feats ("a peal of Grandsire Triples with 5040 changes"), and finally emerging through the inward-sloping wire-screen door—the end of a kind of initiation rite—and out onto the small square, planked, walkway round the top of the steeple (first time I've been at the top of one) to a behold moment to outdo all others: a fantastic view of all the shingled roofs and brick chimney-tops of all the 14th to 19th century houses of Rye, and the river and salt marsh beyond, and the grey ocean beyond that.
After our walkabout, and a fortifying stop for tea and cakes at Simon the Pieman, we remembered the salt marsh, a bird sanctuary a mile or two outside of Rye. We found a very genial cab driver hanging out at a small eatery by the train station who agreed to drive us out to the end of Harbour Rd., where the salt marsh began, and pick us up 45 minutes later.
So we set off on an invigorating walk along the berm that framed the estuary. The wind was blowing in strong and carrying a smattering of rain. We leaned into it and walked for about a half mile along the paved path, passed by the odd bicyclist and passing bright, hardy wildflowers (including stands of Queen Anne's Lace!). It was nearing the turning-around point. A small building, the Lime Kiln House, announced sightings of lapwings, greenshanks, green sandpipers, dunlin, knots, hobbies, and 140 little egrets. Just ahead a boardwalk extended out over the marsh with a small shed at the end—a blind!
We slid the door open and groped our way inside, out of the rain. A pair of birders were there, too, surveying a flock of sandpipers through a spotting scope. (Funny, if I'd been in Boston I would have made no bones about asking what they were looking at or even if I might have a look. But for some reason—because I was in another country, perhaps—the thought didn't occur to me until now.) I hadn't brought binoculars on the trip, not wanting the encumbrance and not thinking I'd be so curious about identifying British birds. But now I wouldn't have minded knowing what that distant flock was, or getting a closer look at a lapwing. But the blind, and a distant colony of rabbits, would do. I was in kilter.
Our affable cab driver was waiting for us. I sat beside her for the experience of sitting in the counterintuitive passenger seat. It was fun swooping along with no power to navigate the onrushing roadway or negotiate the roundabout, even though I seemed to be in a position to do so.
We had thought about eating supper at the Old Bell, Rye's oldest pub, but our cabbie set us straight. The Ship, she told us, had the best food in town. And we had no reason to doubt. Very cozy atmosphere, too. A table strewn with the day's newspapers within reach, interesting music, and food befitting Rye—fish pie, breaded cod, Welsh rarebit—and my first pint of bitter in forty years.
We walked our last Rye roads, past the last chimneytops, back to the train station. Time to begin writing my proposal for the Henry James honorarium.