I never went on a literary pilgrimage before, but then the notion had never been more tempting: the annual Gathering of The Friends of Tilling was going to take place on my birthday this year and I had no excuses left. I joined The Friends a few months ago after immersing myself in the craze that is Mapp and Lucia (I’ve written about the books by E F Benson here) and falling head over heels in love with the witty writing and timeless characters. I had caught a glimpse of Rye last year, and I was determined to go back and enjoy its quaintness to the full. Five days of shameless fangirling – what more could you wish for?
Day 1: Thursday, 3 September
I’m not much of a traveller, and the idea of flying and having to rely on public transport abroad made me slightly uncomfortable (in other words, I was scared to death). When I boarded my plane, the idea of an impending strike of Lufthansa didn’t exactly lift my spirits, but the view of candy floss clouds soon calmed my nerves. I changed planes once and landed safely at London Heathrow, took the underground to St Pancras Station and, changing trains at Ashford International, arrived in Rye on Thursday afternoon, 3 September. My ‘base’ was the Bed & Breakfast Forge House in Wish Street, and Maggie and George welcomed me to their home. The B&B is very conveniently situated, with lovely rooms and wonderful hosts – whenever you think of going to Rye, try Forge House!
I had a first look around Rye and then, in true Diva-fashion, popped into Marino’s at The Mint to get some scrumptious fish ‘n’ chips for dinner. What a dream! After this, I went to bed so early that I actually got 11 hours of sleep. But then, I sorely needed it …
Day 2: Friday, 4 September
It was time to go exploring. After walking around Rye and taking (even more) photos, I visited Lamb House (now owned by the National Trust), the former home of Mapp & Lucia author E F Benson and Henry James before him. Benson immortalised his beloved home as Mallards, property of Elizabeth Mapp who later sells it quite happily to Lucia. Some props of the 2014 BBC series were displayed, along with original items of furniture and photos. The walled garden was by far the most enchanting part of my excursion, with countless hidden corners and a magnificent Mulberry tree. Chris, working for the National Trust, even picked a fruit for me to taste, it was quite extraordinary in every way.
I lunched at The Cobbles Tea Room where I had a lovely piece of quiche and a brownie and tea afterwards. It was such a treat, this little hidden gem is definitely worth a visit! After my fortifying break, I headed off to climb the tower of St Mary’s, just like Mapp does in order to spy on the allegedly invalid Lucia who secretly skips in the garden of Mallards. It was quite an endeavour and I had to go sideways and duck my head at times to fit through the narrow passages. But the fine view rewarded me – and I could look straight into the garden, too! Rye lay beneath my feet and it was beautiful. Also, the fresh air did me good after the amounts of food I had managed to devour. As did the exercise of climbing down again!
Day 3: Saturday, 5 September
The time had come! It was the day of the Gathering and my excitement level had reached unknown heights. Also, it was the first time that a few drops of rain made their way to Rye, but nothing could bother me on this glorious morning. The Friends of Tilling met at Rye Station to walk to Benson’s grave in Rye Cemetery outside of town. The rain stopped as we started, which was very pleasant (and exactly as we had planned, of course). We thought of Fred and made conversation – some of the Friends have known each other for years but I felt welcome right away. Everyone was truly charming and I couldn’t have been happier to be with such lovely people.
We had a Ploughman’s at the Mermaid Inn, dating back to the 12th century (!), where I was seated at ‘The Padre’s Table’ (the tables are always named after Mapp & Lucia characters). I met other Friends and enjoyed a scrumptious meal and many, many laughs. After we finished, Richard Crowest gave a talk titled ‘Never Sing Louder Than Lovely: Olga Bracely – An Appreciation’, the fictional biography of an opera diva featured in the novels, ingeniously written by Darren Reynolds. There were tears of laughter and aching jaws all round, what a success!
Between lunch and dinner, the author and Friend of Tilling Guy Fraser-Sampson was at the lovely Rye Bookshop to sign his new Mapp and Lucia novels. I bought ‘Major Benjy’ (fabulous and different and absolutely worth a read!) and I’m soon to read the follow-ups ‘Lucia on Holiday’ and ‘Au Reservoir’. Then I took some time to clad myself in 20s-inspired attire (a cream dress by Gatsbylady London and heels not fit for Rye’s cobbled streets) and went to meet with the Friends for dinner. This time, I was seated at ‘Mrs Wyse’s Table’ and once again engaged in the most wonderful conversation between courses. The food was sublime! I also tasted guinea fowl for the first time in my life and throughly enjoyed the experience.
I didn’t know I was in for a shock after the petit-four had been served: the Friends’ president, Gyles Brandreth, started his talk with birthday congratulations in the name of all the Friends of Tilling. I was given a wonderful biography of E F Benson with a very kind inscription and a little cupcake with three pink candles I of course blew out, making a (very secret) wish. The Friends even sang ‘Happy Birthday’! I was perfectly flabbergasted and lost for words, and coming from me, that means a lot! An enjoyable Mapp & Lucia-themed quiz followed (terribly ‘diffy’, as Lucia would have said). I was still exhilarated when we said our goodbyes – it was the most beautiful evening I could have ever imagined and I felt like I had made many new friends.
Day 4: Sunday, 6 September
I attempted to walk up to Military Road to see the house that inspired Lucia’s (and later Mapp’s) home Grebe, but on my way there I met two lovely ladies one of whom I had already met at the Gathering. They said they wanted to walk to Winchelsea, a small town (actually rather a small village) between the High Weald and the Romney Marsh and I spontaneously decided to come with them. Of course they invited me first, just so you know. We walked there on a footpath that went by Camber Castle, built by Henry VIII in the 16th century to protect the coast, but when the Camber and its harbours silted up, it became unusable. Now it stands in the middle of the field, a very curious sight.
On our way, we passed many hedgerows heavy with blackberries. We had a very tasty lunch in the giardino segreto of The New Inn in Winchelsea and took photos of the beautiful little place before we decided to walk directly to the coast to take a glimpse at the sea. It was quite a walk, but definitely worthwhile – the sight of the sea, so sublime and spreading as far as one could see, such a calming experience. We went back by way of Rye Harbour and I had dinner in the most beautiful little cottage. Altogether, it was a successful day of strangely relaxing exercise after so much social excitement!
Day 5: Monday, 7 September
On my last day, I once again roamed the streets of Rye and took (still even more!) photos. It was such a wonderful holiday – I met lovely people and learned why the enchanting Rye inspired Fred to create the world of Tilling. I’ll be back!