Rye, in East Sussex, is sometimes said to be the most beautiful town in Britain. Any person who has enjoyed its picturesque charm can understand why. Sloping cobblestone streets, 16th-century timbered houses and breathtaking views of the lush countryside all combine to create an archetypal English village. As a result, Rye has a thriving tourist trade woven of quaint tea shops, antiques, museums and the town’s dramatic history.
Rye flourished as a port town before the harbor choked with silt and the sea retreated. It followed that smugglers and pirates played a huge part in the area’s history and its fortunes. It is a matter of fact that by the 18th century, Rye’s prosperity depended as much upon smuggling as it did upon any legitimate trade. When English evangelist John Wesley visited the town in 1773, he found the people “willing to hear the good word,” but “unwilling to part with the accursed smuggling.”
And so the smugglers thrived and shaped the history of the town—including the history of one of its oldest hostelries, the Mermaid Inn.
The Mermaid Inn, as it stands today, dates back to the early 15th century. Its cellar and foundations, though, are thought to be from as early as 1150. During the time when Rye thrived on illegal trade, the inn was a notorious smuggler’s haunt. Today, many believe it is haunted by smugglers…
Those infamous days are evident in certain secret elements of the building’s architecture. The Mermaid Inn has hidden staircases, rooms with moving wall panels and a concealed entrance to a “priest’s hole” through the back of the cupboard above the bar fireplace. Rye’s smugglers left behind more than a few secret passageways, however. They also left ghosts, making the Mermaid Inn one of historic Rye’s most haunted places.
Guests in room 5 at the inn, known as the “Nutcracker Suite,” have frequently been visited by the “Lady in White.” She drifts across the rooms and through the closed door, pausing briefly, only once, at the foot of the bed. She is believed to have been a girl who worked at the Mermaid Inn in the 1700s. She fell in love with a smuggler, they say and was murdered for being too indiscreet about her man’s criminal activities. Today, as she wanders through the inn, she is believed to be searching for her ruthless lover.
The Elizabethan Chamber, room 16, is the scene of one of the inn’s most incredible spectral shows. One night during the 1930s, a guest who was staying in the room awakened to see that a spectacular, silent duel was taking place in her midst. The combatants were dressed in Renaissance-era costumes and were battling with rapiers. The fight raged on until at last, one of the men was run through with a blade. The victor then dragged his opponent’s bleeding body to the corner of the room, pulled open a secret trap door and threw the corpse down the passageway.
According to the inn’s staff, “The body thrown down the stairs of the secret passage would have landed in the bar section. The barman, a few years ago, was tending to his fire when all the bottles on the shelf at the other end of the room fell [to the floor]. He handed his notice in the next day.”
Few could blame the man for not wanting to work in a bar where invisible corpses could come flying into the room at any time, creating a great mess.
A number of other phantoms at the Mermaid Inn are not as obviously associated with any particular era. In room 1, known as “Cadmans,” many guests have reported seeing a lady wearing either white or gray, sitting in the chair by the fireplace. Others, who have not necessarily seen the ghost, have complained that they draped their clothing over the chair at night and found it in the morning to be soaking wet. The staff maintains that “there are no windows or pipe works anywhere near the chair.”
Of course, comfortable chairs—particularly rocking chairs—rarely remain unoccupied at the Mermaid Inn. A chambermaid once frantically told her supervisor, “A rocking chair is moving on its own—quite fast, too—and I didn’t touch it!” When the supervisor first went into the room to investigate, the chair was sitting still. But before she could leave the room, it began to rock again. As the supervisor stared in amazement, she noticed that the cushion on the chair had compressed as though a heavy person was sitting on it.
Although the rocking chair specter was invisible, most of the ghosts at the inn seem quite willing to show their faces. Quite a number of apparitions—usually dressed in old-fashioned garments—have been seen in the rooms. Sometimes they walk the corridors too, as a chambermaid named Kate Davis learned.
Davis was walking down one of the halls one morning when she noticed a woman approaching from the opposite direction. As the two passed each another, Davis offered a cheery “Good morning!” She received no reply. Davis must have been taken aback by the guest’s rudeness and turned around to look at her. All Davis saw, however, was a long, empty hallway and no door through which the woman could have vanished.
Judith Blincow, who purchased the Mermaid Inn in 1993 and has worked there since the mid-1980s, once said, “Although I have not personally seen ghosts, I certainly have met some very convinced and frightened guests.”
They were guests who had no doubt witnessed more than their share of “the living history” in the enchanting and popular town of Rye.