Every year the second weekend of february marks the Rye Bay Scallop Festival. A joyous occasion where the whole town’s pubs and restaurants offer Scallop themed menus, demonstrations and evenings of fun and music.
Rye is one of the five medieval Cinq Ports and its catch of herring, mackerel, wiring, cod, plaice and sole used to be reserved for the king’s table. King Charles I mentioned Rye in 1628:
“The cheapest sea-towne for provision of fish for our house.”
Today Rye is situated two miles from the sea with the river Rother, Brede and the Tillingham connecting the port to the sea. In medieval times however Rye was almost entirely surrounded by sea until terrible storms destroyed neighbouring town Old Winchelsea and changed the course from the river Rother in the 13th century. After these events the ships were only able to reach what is now the Strand in Rye.
Rye’s economy as one of the most important of Cinq Port towns declined with the coming of larger ships that needed deepwater ports. Rye turned to fishing and smuggling where the Mermaid pub, which is still a buzzing pub in the town, played a key part. By the end of the 17th century the wool trade became important throughout Kent and Sussex and the Romney Marsh sheep are still favoured today for their juicy lamb and wool.
The last decades the scallops have become a main source of income in the winter for the ‘Scallopers’ of Rye harbour. I met up with retired fisherman John who now does the ‘chucking’ and sorting of the scallops his sons ‘catch’ on their overnight boats.
He claims a scallop only needs some butter and a quick fry on a high heat, the addition of bacon or black pudding is all you need to lift it to one of the most favourable of flavours. I can’t agree more, scallops don’t need a heavy sauce or complicated parings, a quick heating in a scorching hot pan is all they need. John showed me the ropes in chucking (cleaning) scallops but I’m sure it would take me ten years to do it as fast as he can. He took me to the harbour where I met with another fisherman who was sorting his nets for the next trip out to sea. He told me about the dangers at sea and the amount of men who get lost at sea each year. Fishing communities all show solidarity for those families who suffer a loss like that. It’s a hard life, that is a sure thing and I admire these men who brave the often lethal sea.
|John, the master of the scallops|
It was time for some scallop tasting at the fishmonger at the Strand, a simple favourite was prepared with bacon or with black pudding. The freshest of scallops I have ever tasted. I visited the scallop chuckers down by the harbour and stood in awe by the mountain of scallops they cleaned with joy and giving information generously. These scallops had just come in hours before, they were alive and … moving! It looked a bit like a pumping heart. They showed off a huge shell with a diameter of around 20 cm wide and told me this scallop must have been over 25 years of age. The flesh wasn’t suitable to eat but the shell remains in the shop along with the weirdly coloured ones as trofee’s of the trade.
Up in the town there are set scallop lunches and workshops, even a scallop race. The event is spread across one week so the town remains quite calm throughout the week but booking a table is advised not to be disappointed. Next to the festival Rye is a charming little village that holds special meaning especially to me as it is my home away from home and I got married there two years ago.
Plenty of pubs with good food, a few excellent tearooms and a nice stroll around the antique shops makes this a great day out.
Information about the Scallop festival:
The Strand, Rye (by the harbour)
Great places to eat, pubs and restaurants I have tried over the years:
The Mermaid – good food and lodgings
The George – good food and lodgings
Haydens – nice for teatime
Webbe’s fish café – good fish & chips
The ship Inn
The Ypres Castle Inn – great selection of craft ales and good food
Ye Olde Bell – great terrace for a drink outside
Shopping for food
High Street, Rye
Getting to Rye
Trains from Ashford, Brighton and Hastings
With your car? Park at the Pay&Display car park at the train station