Don’t head to The Mermaid Inn in Rye if you’re of a nervous disposition. Because it’s one of the most haunted inns in Britain, with a number of resident ghosts that include everything from some duelling swordsmen in the courtyard to an old lady with a phantom dog. The owner, Judith, used to be reasonably sceptical about such stories: until a medium invited her to pet the dog. And she suddenly felt fur, in the middle of thin air…
But for most of the time, the Mermaid just looks like a picture postcard inn, on one of the most Instagrammable cobbled streets in Britain. These days, Rye is some distance from the sea, but in the past, it used to be one of Sussex’s ‘Cinque Ports”: so-called because they were instrumental to trade and defence in the era of Magna Carta.
With the surrounding landscape subsequently filling up with silt, Rye now stands in the middle of the countryside, but its maritime heritage is key to the haunting, as the Mermaid Inn is where local smugglers once met (there’s still an old metal rack above the fireplace in the lounge where they used to prop their clay pipes to dry). Above that fireplace is a painting of the Mermaid by Beatrix Potter, next to it is a hidden altar where Roman Catholics used to say mass in the days of persecution.
That lounge has been christened “Doctor Syn’s Lounge” after the character in the 1937 film all about smugglers, which unsurprisingly featured The Mermaid Inn. And that’s not the only time that the place has been touched by cinematic greatness. One of the best rooms in the place is “Doctor Syn’s bedchamber”, complete with a secret passage. In 1982, it became the Queen Mother’s bedchamber, yet another of the illustrious visitors to have stopped by.
This celebrity (and spectral) history is just another aspect that makes the Mermaid Inn such a fascinating place. It lives and breathes its heritage, with the five alleged ghosts providing yet another quirk to make it unique. From the moment you drive under the Tudor gateway, where stagecoaches would have arrived centuries ago, you know that this is going to be a special experience.
Unbelievably, there are more than 30 rooms packed into the inn, and the result is the sort of warren that even a rabbit would find confusing. There are plenty of stairs (one of the reasons why the Queen Mother was allocated Dr Syn’s bedchamber was because it was among the most accessible), no shortage of hidden corners and loads of corridors. None of them are straight, with the wattle and daub walls seemingly having a life of their own. It’s all part of the vintage charm.
The rooms themselves are equally variable. I tried three of them: the highlight of which was Room 2 (next door to what’s been described as most haunted room in the place). It’s all dark wood, white walls, leaded windows, and creaky floors. The creakiness of the floors is probably behind many of the supernatural occurrences: rather than a spirit walking the corridor, it’s perhaps more likely to be a guest staggering back to their room.
This wasn’t one of the rooms that had four poster beds, although some of them do: be sure to ask if you want one. It’s also one of the more spacious rooms in the place, although like all of them it still manages to feel rather cosy. That feeling is helped by all the roaring fires, and the sheer snugness of the nooks and crannies. The bar is of course an olde worlde highlight (make sure you sample the Mermaid Ale).
The restaurant is definitely a highlight too, rather than just an afterthought. The menu isn’t extensive, and it doesn’t seem to change that often, but luckily the food is good: you could eat exactly the same dinner a couple of nights in a row and not feel short-changed. Two particular highlights are the pigeon and the lamb.
There’s an emphasis not only on local ingredients but also local staff: Judith – whose own story is remarkable as she started off as a receptionist at the Mermaid when she was 17, before eventually selling everything she owned and raising enough money to buy it – believes in giving back to the community. As a result, she employs local people first and foremost, some of whom have had tough backgrounds. As well as connecting the Mermaid to its community, she’s also keen to reconnect it with its history: work is ongoing to access another network of cellars, which have been bricked up for centuries. Apparently, a policeman is required for the final dig, just in case any bodies are discovered. Say hello to ghost number six…
Although the emphasis is very much on authenticity, giving the Mermaid a genuine period feel, there’s so much history that it almost feels like stepping into a form of Elizabethan Disneyland. It’s everything you imagine an old coaching inn would be, complete with flickering lights and brooding portraits of old men with big, ruffled collars: many of whom were local smugglers, accustomed to drinking and scheming in that very building.
There’s been a lot of emotional as well as financial investment in the Mermaid over the years, which is why the customer is always put first with a can-do attitude towards solving problems. Don’t come to the Mermaid if you’re looking for every modern convenience (although the Wi-Fi works remarkably well) and homogenous décor: the furniture has been assembled from everywhere, and the way the rooms are laid out is very much governed by the constraints of the building. Not all the rooms are especially spacious either; unless you’re lucky. But do come if you’re looking for something that’s a bit different, and a taste of life in the sixteenth century. A weekend in the Mermaid is one of pure historical escapism. Just don’t flinch if something goes bump in the middle of the night…
The Mermaid Inn, Mermaid Street, Rye, East Sussex, TN31 7EY, England.
Tel: +44 (0)1797 223 065
Located in Rye on the A259 east of Hastings and a short drive from the M20 at Ashford on the A2070. If travelling south on the A21, take the B2089 to Rye. The Mermaid Inn has an onsite car park for 25 cars and has a 15 space car park in the middle of the Rye Medieval Citadel, which is for hotel residents only. There are also public car parking spaces close by as well as on street pay parking. The Ringo App will help you find parking and pay.
Type of Hotel: 600 Year Old Inn and 2 AA Rosette Restaurant
Number of Rooms: 31 rooms including complimentary Wi-Fi.
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: Ask for one of the ‘old’ style rooms, in particular Dr Syn’s chamber, with its secret passage, especially if you want to see a ghost! Also, ask ahead about parking as it’s quite limited.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs courtesy of The Mermaid Inn