Stories Set in and Around Rye

Stories Set in and Around Rye

Kindle of KittensThe featured photo is from the cover of The Town That Went South.

by Jean Floyd

Arrangement is roughly in order of reader ages from nursery to adult. The dates are those of first publication. Some have gone through many editions/ revisions/ reprintings since.

Rumer Godden, A KINDLE OF KITTENS. Pan MacMillan Children’s Books 1978.

Both the words and the illustrations by Lynne Byrnes put the streets, roofs, cats and townspeople of Rye between the covers. The Town Hall and Town Crier, the Mermaid Inn, Lamb House, the corner of Market and Pump Streets, a poet in jeans, old ladies and rude boys—they are all endearingly shown as stray garbage-eating tabby She-Cat goes about finding suitable homes for her kindle of kittens.

Beatrix Potter, THE TALE OF THE FAITHFUL DOVE. Warne 1956.

Robin Hill on Mermaid Street forms the basis and front cover design of this story. The tale is of a pigeon trapped in a chimney who is kept company by dancing mice dressed in lace. Devoted mate Mr. Tidler stands by until she is freed with her newly hatched son. Beatrix Potter used to visit artist Mabel Attwell here. Though written in 1907 for her publisher’s children it was not published until many years later.

John Ryan, MURDER IN THE CHURCHYARD: the story of Rye’s most infamous crime retold in pictures. Rye: Gungarden Books, 1997.

The creator of the Captain Pugwash books and films records his impressions in words and his inimitable drawings of how it came about that John Breeds, ‘sanguinary butcher’ murdered Alan Grebell in the Rye churchyard on a dark night, thinking he was Mayor James Lamb. The author lived at Rye’s Gungarden across from the church and used to walk his dog each night around the scene of the murder.

John Ryan, CAPTAIN PUGWASH AND THE HUGE REWARD: a tale of smuggling in the ancient town of Sinkport. . . .. Rye: Gungarden Books, 1991.

Those who know Rye (Sinkport) will recognise its streets and buildings in the charming illustrations though they have acquired wonderfully inventive new names: Barmaid Street, Mutton House., Witchball Street, Baddie’s Tower, the Sand Gate, Soap Walk Least Street, the Gingarden, the Jolly Jailer . . A sheer delight for all ages.

Clive King, THE TOWN THAT WENT SOUTH. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959. Also Puffin Books. While teaching in Rye, Clive King produced two of his best-loved books, the second being his most famous: the children’s classic and TV favourite Stig of the Dump (boy discovers a Stone Age cave-dweller in a disused Kent chalk pit), The earlier Town That Went South is set in Ramsly (Rye) whose people wake one day to find that their town has come adrift and is floating gently across to France – Town Hall, gasworks, Gargoyle the cat, the ladies of Church Square, children of Ropewalk Street, vicar and all. It continues to float south, to Africa and the South Seas, Australia and on, Ramslyers disappearing along the way, except for Gargoyle who becomes the first cat to reach the South Pole.

Richard Church, THE BELLS OF RYE London: Heinemann, 1960. This exciting and colourful adventure story is set in Rye in the 1370s when the French attacked and burned Rye and carried off its church bells and the men (and some boys) of Rye and Winchelsea reciprocated in the following year. John Finch, the boy hero, lives on Watchbell Street. He and a sharp-witted hunchback foil a traitor’s ambush by stowing away on one of the avenging ships. Actual events and characters of the time form the background of the story: a good introduction for youngsters to a key episode in Rye’s history.

Monica Edwards. The Romney Marsh series The series includes 15 titles most of which are in print and others scheduled for reprinting. They appeal to nostalgic adults as well as children.

WISH FOR A PONY is the first book. Set in Westling (Rye Harbour), as well as Dunsford (Rye) and Winkelsea (Winchelsea), the stories feature many real-life characters (with changed names), e.g. Edwards’ father who conducted the mass funeral for those lost in the Mary Stanford disaster, in STORM AHEAD . The author had known all 17 crew members and took part in the attempted rescue. Her storytelling is considered superior to most of the published authors for children of the time because they are ‘stories of real children’; the activities of her family and their friends both young and adult provided much of the realism. Her heroines take cover as bullets fly and patch up an injured fisherman (CARGO OF HORSES), ‘borrow’ a car and drive underage (THE WHITE RIDERS) and get involved in smuggling (THE SUMMER OF THE GREAT SECRET and NO GOING BACK). Other key titles include OPERATION SEABIRD, STRANGERS TO THE MARSH and A WIND IS BLOWING.

Her second series is based on a later residence at PunchBowl Farm, Surrey. Monica Edwards also wrote for BBC Children’s Hour and the story for the Children’s Film Foundation film Dawn Killer, set on Romney Marsh and shown as a serial in cinemas across Britain. The later book version was called KILLER DOG.

More details at the Monica Edwards Appreciation Society website or in the Monica Edwards Romney Marsh. Companion (2006) or the authorised biography (2010), both by Brian Parks and published by Girls Gone By. There is also a magazine, the Martello. Martello Bookshop in Rye stocks many of the titles.

Malcolm Saville. GAY DOLPHIN ADVENTURE and RYE ROYAL are based at the Gay Dolphin hotel which Ryers know as the Hope Anchor. Millions of children have read the 20 Lone Pine books and the Malcolm Saville Society, with well over 1000 members, holds frequent events in the places where the stories are set – Rye, for example. The walks taken by the book characters can be undertaken by readers. The stories feature realistic characters with distinctive personalities moving in real locations and encountering plenty of danger calling for ingenuity and bravery. They grow up during the series. Here are the four set in and around Rye; they have gone through many editions and reprints, with a variety of publishers.

GAY DOLPHIN ADVENTURE 1945, most popular and best selling of the entire series. it was serialised on BBC Children’s Hour. It begins with Jon and his cousin Penny coming to the Gay Dolphin (Hope Anchor) Hotel in Rye which Jon’s widowed mother will now run. Ingredients are a secret smugglers’ room with an ancient map, clues to treasure, an odd lady artist, a sinister hotel manager, a visiting family including smart young twins who join forces to explore a secret passage, share a lucky escape from a savage storm at Winchelsea Beach and help solve the various mysteries.

RYE ROYAL. 1969. Jon and Penny’s friends the Mortons come to Rye to stay with elderly Mrs Flowerdew who lives next to the Gay Dolphin Hotel There is a secret, a disappearance, an antiquarian bookseller who is not what he at first seems . . . The Lone Piners rescue the impoverished widow from her evil captors and find for her an important treasure.

THE ELUSIVE GRASSHOPPER. 1951. Wicked Miss Ballanger and ‘Slinky’ Grandon are working together again and an adult friend of the Lone Piners is found unconscious in a deserted school house with a crude illustration of a grasshopper. The boys achieve the rescue of their friend and the girls discover the secret of the Bogus Bird Watcher while the youngest, the twins, discover the secret of the elusi9ve grasshopper.

TREASURE AT AMORYS 1964 Amorys is a farmhouse on the Isle of Oxney where Roman artefacts have been found. The old enemy Miss Ballinger must be outwitted once again and there are discoveries — a Roman Mithraic temple for example.

There is much more information on the Malcolm Saville Society website and in Mark O’Hanlon’s The Complete Lone Pine, 2nd ed. 2005.

Wray Hunt, THE MAYOR OF RYE 1932 now a rare collectors’ item. The story takes place at the end of the Middle Ages and tells of Walter, thought to be ‘a witch’s brat’ in a community of fisher folk, who after many advantures among traders and pirates, rogues and vagabonds, merchants and seafarers, and with the help of Philippa, becomes not only a freemanof Rye , but its Mayor.

Russell Thorndike, DOCTOR SYN 1915, republished 1998. It is set around the turn of the 18th century in Dymchurch and Romney Marsh and tells the story of the genial. kindly well-loved Vicar of Dymchurch, who sometimes breaks into the ungodly vavourite song of the notorious pirate Captain Clegg ==though Clegg had been hanged as a pirate ten years before — so it was said. And who is the Scarecrow, leader of the smugglers’ gang? An unusual story with plenty of mystery and ‘atmosphere’.

The author was the actor and writer Russell Thorndike, brother of the actress Dame Sybil Thorndike. While the Thorndikes were touring the USA with a theatrical company, a murder took place outside their hotel. The body was left all night on the street below their window. Unable to sleep, they passed the time by telling stories. The character of Doctor Syn is said to have been created that night. The Thorndikes knew Dymchurch well and were frequent visitors. Russell lived in several different houses in the village, and was often to be found in the Ship Inn, which is featured prominently in the novel. So high was the popularity of the original novel that Thorndike went on to write six others but these had to be prequels as he had killed off Dr Syn in the original book. .

 John Christopher, EMPTY WORLD. 1977. Penguin Books 1990. This post-apocalyptic novel for teenagers is a chilling story, but readers find it compulsive. Neil has lost his family in an accident and comes to Winchelsea to live with his grandmother – but when a virulent plague sweeps the world, dealing death to nearly every one it touches, he must battle alone, not just for physical survival but also to overcome fear and loneliness. A film is currently being produced of the book. Another film version is currently being made of Christopher’s trilogy The Tripods as well. This was partly filmed in Rye near the Paul Nash house at the top of East Street where the author lived at the time.

William Thackeray, DENIS DUVAL 1864. The hero of Thackeray’s last (and unfinished) novel lives in Winchelsea with his Huguenot grandparents and attends a ‘famous good school’ named Pocock in Rye where he lodges with a grocer (and his daughter who is fond of drink) The grocer is part owner of a ‘fishing boat’ and the story contains more than a whiff of smuggling and other unlawful activities. Thackeray’s notebooks show that he did a great deal of research in the British Library on local history of Sussex and the naval service before writing the book. The Weston brothers, highwaymen masked as respectable citizens of Winchelsea, are among the characters developed from this research. The book is a satisfying love story as well. It was being serialised in the Cornhill Magazine )of whih Thackeray was editor) when he died in 1963Russell Thorndike, DOCTOR SYN Romney Bookshop, 1915. Set around the turn of the 18th century this tells the story of the Vicar of Dymchurch, who was once the notorious pirate Captain Clegg and now leads a secret life as the Scarecrow, head of a gang of smugglers. The author was the actor and writer Russell Thorndike, brother of the actress Dame Sybil Thorndike. The story was so popular that Thorndike had to write prequels because he had killed off his hero but readers wanted more!

Coming next:

A.S. Byatt, THE CHILDREN’S STORY. Set on Romney Marsh and based on the life of Edith Nesbitt. Shortlisted for the Booker in 2009

. . . and more

For example, did you know that a garden near Rye was the inspiration for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN? This favourite story may be set in Yorkshire but that is not where the inspiration for the garden came from. From the mid-1890s Burnett lived in England at Great Maytham Hall near Rolvenden. The Hall resembled a feudal manor house and there was a series of walled gardens; she wrote several books in the rose garden. (She needed the income from her writing because she led an extravagant and unconventional lifestyle). THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1905) was one of the books. And here began the idea for THE SECRET GARDEN. It was published in 1911, after she had returned to the United States to live permanently.

Please note that this article is in progress. There is much to add.

First posted in Featured, Literary and Artistic Rye, Local History on 26th December 2013
Last updated: 27th March 2016