Shapes, materials and buildings of Rye

Rye has a unique collection of buildings which have changed and developed over the centuries.  As new materials were introduced, new houses were built in available spaces, or buildings were adapted, making Rye a fascinating mix of architectural styles. The Slide Show below shows a selection Rye’s unique buildings. Place the mouse over the image for information.

The gallery below provides images and information about the different shapes, materials and colours of Rye.


Many streets in Rye have a gentle curve which prevents the eye from seeing the whole street at once.  The curve stimulates interest and entices the visitor to walk further to see what is around the corner.


Several buildings in Rye on corners or at road junctions follow the shape of the road.  Rather than have the usual geometric right angle they have curved or shaped corners or ends.  This was probably to use every square inch for the building.  It produces some interesting building shapes and blends the building into the street.


In several places in Rye there are glimpses, caught between buildings, of the open countryside which surrounds Rye.  In other places there are lookouts with seats, notably Hilder's Cliff and at the end of Watchbell Street where the open countryside forms the view. These views are fundamental to the historic character of the town. 


Several streets in Rye have prominent buildings at right angles to the street which visually close the view at the end.  Notable examples include the Old Grammar School when looking down Lion Street and Rye Church, with its clock and quarter boys when viewed from Lion Street.  Similarly in West Street the view is of the West window of the Church from one direction and of Lamb House from the other.


The rebuilding of the summer house, bombed during the war, where Henry James wrote some of his most notable works, would be of great benefit to the town and restore the focus of the view looking up West Street.


Rye is famous for its cobbles but they need constant attention.  Modern vehicles, especially with power steering, tend to loosen them.  Replacing the cobbles after such damage or following works on underground services tests the skills of the repairer.

Sometimes the result is concrete with a few cobbles pushed in like currants in a bun, or concrete is poured over everything.  There must be sufficient cobbles for the job and they must all be of similar size and colour.

Pavements of Rye

Many pavements in Rye must have been costly to install because there is no local stone.  To make them safer many stones were scored to reduce slipping when walking in the rain in leather soled working boots with nailed studs.

Images and text by John Griffiths, Rye Conservation Society


In 1377 most of the timber houses in Rye were destroyed when the French set fire to the town.  They were rebuilt using timber, notably oak frame construction, because there was a plentiful supply of wood but no good local stone.


The form of construction generally followed that of the "hall house" found in this part of south east England of which there are a number still surviving in Rye whilst small "fishermen's cottages" were crowded into parts of the town nearer the river.


The form of construction was a sturdy timber frame of large section oak, often pre-assembled on the ground and then hoisted into the vertical.  The first floor was frequently cantilevered out beyond the wall of the ground floor.  This spaced out the holes needed to form the joints between the ground floor posts and the first floor posts.  This jetty also left more space between the houses at street level.


Weatherboarding is a simple, easy and economic way to weatherproof a wall without adding much weight.  The boards are normally feathered in profile. A shipbuilding town would have the skills to hand, as well as the tar or white lead paint needed to preserve the timber.  (Plastic as an alternative completely lacks the character of timber and its use is not permitted in the Conservation Areas).


In 1377 most of the timber houses in Rye were destroyed when the French set fire to the town.  They were rebuilt using timber, notably oak frame constructions, because there was a plentiful supply of wood but no good local stone.


Demand for oak, including that for shipbuilding, outstripped supply.  Brick-making started using the plentiful supply of local clay in wood fired clamps.


Variety in the colour and texture of brick comes from the choice of clay, the method of manufacture and the temperature and length of time for the burning - for example dark purplish headers are produced by putting the end of the brick facing the hottest part of the kiln.


There is no good local building stone in south east England.  Canterbury Cathedral was built from imported stone from Caen in northern France.  (At that time Canterbury was almost on the coast).

In Rye, stone was used for religious buildings or for defence - the gateways, Ypres Tower and the town wall.  Later, stone was used for fireproof warehouses on the Strand where it has weathered very badly.

It is said that stone from the redundant town wall was used for the building of the Churchyard wall. 

Also missing from Rye is knapped flint.  It is used extensively further east, for example the Pugin buildings in Ramsgate.  There is a little in Rye used with dressed stone for a small extension to the Church.


Exterior stucco or smooth render was used extensively in the early 19th century to simulate dressed stone.  It was particularly popular in parts of the country where it was many times cheaper than stone.  It was used by Nash for his terraces in London, and in Brighton and Hastings where it withstood the effects of sea salt.

It must be kept in good repair and any patching made with compatible materials.

It is best painted using a matt stone coloured paint.

Pebbledash is far cheaper because it is easier to apply and the materials are cheaper.  It is often applied to walls in poor condition to improve their appearance and improve their resistance to weathering.


Tile hanging was popular in the 17th century especially for cottages and small houses.  It was common for the ground floor to be brick built with a simple tile hung wood frame at first floor.

Tile hanging was also popular in the 19th century as a way to both weatherproof and modernise the house.

An ingenious shape of tile had an extended flat semi-circle forming the lower half of the tile.  This had the effect of reducing the weight while maintaining the cover of the gap below.  It also made possible various decorative effects.


Mathematical tiles are clay tiles shaped so that the part of the tile exposed to view is the size and shape of the face of a brick.  They are fixed to a wall which has usually been close boarded. 

No-one knows the origin of the name. They occur in many places in south east England and there are 18 houses with mathematical tiles in Rye.

Corners are always a problem with mathematical tiles.   A similar problem comes with windows.  Here the solution is to bring the window to the front face of the building and use the frame to cover the exposed edges of the tiles.

They perform two functions: to weatherproof the house and for fashion.  With new windows, doorway and a parapet roof, a timber framed medieval house looks like a brick built Georgian house.

They were also used on specific types of buildings designed for their use, notably cheap housing in Brighton in the early 19th century and school buildings in the Midlands in the 1950s where they were no match for footballs.


During the early 1950s an attempt was made to cheer up the appearance of towns, despite the austerity of the post war period, by painting buildings.  The new 'emulsion' paint was cheap and easy to apply and would cover the grime in cities.  Publicised in the Sunday papers' new colour supplements such painting became highly fashionable.

With no planning restrictions at that time many historic buildings, shops, houses and even churches of perfectly good brick or tile hanging were painted, often white, and Rye lost many of its traditional colours and textures with the painting over of mellow red bricks and tile hanging.


Rye roofs were clay tile roofs until the railway came to Rye in 1851.

Trains then carried slates from the Welsh quarries, where the slate was cut to standard sizes, to the large Rye goods station. A new, cheap, lightweight, non-absorbent, frost-proof, long lasting material was now available and used as a cheaper alternative to clay tile.

The use of manufactured slate substitute materials should be avoided.


The use of glass in building depends on its method of production.  This determines the size and strength of the sheets.

Early glass for windows was produced by spinning a lump of molten glass on the end of a metal bar to form a disc of thin glass about three feet in diameter.  This was cut into small lozenges or squares which were then joined with cames of lead to form the familiar 'leaded lights' - the piece in the middle of the disc, where it had been broken off from the metal bar.  The 'bull's eye' was used in unimportant windows.  The window frame is usually metal or the leaded light is fixed into carved stone.

Developments also took place in the composition of the glass including potash from burnt wood, possibly as a result of the early glassworks in Chiddingford and other places on the Weald.

Flat glass was later made by forming molten glass into a cylinder which was then opened up. This enabled the Georgians to produce the familiar timber frame sash windows with the glass held by slender mullions, often six panes of glass to a single sash.

Production improvements enabled larger sheets to be made, hence the Victorian windows with only one or two panes of glass per sash.

Later flat glass was produced by pouring it onto a plate hence 'plate glass'.  For a finer finish it was polished.  This led to the shop windows of the late nineteenth century.

'Float glass' developed by Pilkington's in the 1950s is made by floating molten glass on to molten metal with a low melting point.  Recent developments in improving the strength of glass make it possible to use glass as a building material in its own right.