If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Trotting through the dark
Brandy for the Parson
‘Baccy’ for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.
~ A Smuggler’s Song, by Rudyard Kipling
Despite it’s French sounding name, the Cinque Ports were five ports along the eastern coast of England which were the most fortified and used in defense of the realm against invaders from France and beyond. Rye was one of those ports, admitted to the ‘fab five’ in 1156.
The oldest portions of the Mermaid Inn date from around this time, making it one of the oldest inns in the country. As Rye was a pretty busy port, not only providing ships for the Cinque Port fleet, but being responsible for maintaining and repairing the King’s Galleys, the Inn saw a lot of business.
In 1377, one of the many French raids was successful and they managed to burn down every building in the town that wasn’t built of stone. The cellar was the only part of the Inn which survived. In 1420, the Inn was rebuilt using timber salvaged from ships as well as Sussex oak. The fireplaces were constructed of French stone ballast pulled from the harbour. It was once again the principle Inn of Rye.
During the Reformation in Europe, Rye harboured fleeing priests from the continent. The letters J.H.S. (Jesus Homnium Salvator) can still be seen carved into the wood in one of the lounges of the Inn.
By 1735 the Mermaid Inn saw it’s most infamous use begin: that of a smuggler’s inn. This is the story shared on the Inn’s website:
In February 1735 a smuggler named Thomas Moore had been released on bail. He went directly to the Mermaid with several cronies, dragged the Bailiff of the Sheriff of Sussex from the Inn and down to a boat in the harbour. He also took the bail-bonds and warrants against the smugglers. However, the Bailiff was rescued by the Commander of the Rye Revenue Sloop ‘Amelia’, who found the Bailiff in the “utmost consternation”.
From then til around 1749, the infamous Hawkhurst Gang – numbering 600 members – used the Mermaid Inn frequently and, according to legend, gang members often sat in the pub drinking and carousing with their pistols on the table displayed for everyone to see.
Whether that legend is true or not, one thing is undeniably true: the Mermaid Inn embraces its otherworldly guests as much as it did those unsavoury characters. There are a number of hauntings listed on the Inn’s site.
In the James Room, a lady in white or grey is reportedly seen in the room sitting in the chair next to the fireplace. Guest staying in the room have told stories of leaving clothes on the chair over night only to wake up to wet clothes.
In the Nutcracker Suite, a lady in white walks through the room pausing at the foot of the bed before continuing on.
In the Fleur de Lys Room, a couple were woken to find a man walk through the bathroom wall and into the centre of their room. They were so frightened they spent the rest of the night downstairs in the lounge.
In the Kingsmill Room, the air gets cold for no reason and a rocking chair will move of its own accord.
In the Hawkhurst Suite , a guest sleeping in the single room was awakened by a man dressed in old fashioned clothing sitting on her bed. When he did not move, she pulled the mattress into the double room where her sons slept.