The man I live with recently turned a sprightly 32, making our ages mirror-numbers of each other. It is unusual for me to be with someone who has lived a lifetime before me. One month after we began, we went to Oxford for my 21st birthday. It was his suggestion; I had never been there in my life, snorting at the very idea of Oxford, but it seemed like he wanted to show something to me. He had led what seemed like a terribly romantic life in Oxford once upon a time, studying Classics and living on a narrowboat shaded by a willow tree.
Anyone can wander in and around the colleges, walk by the canal and look upon the narrowboats, sit down in G&Ds and have banana ice cream, which is precisely what he and I did that day. It was somewhat alienating to occupy the very same physical space as his past self did and be acutely aware of how inaccessible his past is to me–to anyone, really. The banal yet heartening optimism of creating a new memory was simply not a possibility as it seemed that what he was doing was remembering for himself, leaving me to be a spectator only to the stone buildings (some of them appalling, I have to say), to the busy ducks paddling in the Isis. He travelled a different Oxford to me.
This sense of alienation–which I must emphasize was not negative or offensive; it is a boon to love someone who has lived before me, but the alienation was nonetheless present and unusual for me–was lessened on our most recent trip together, his birthday trip to Rye, where one set of his grandparents lived. Quite possibly the difference was due to the fact that his memories of the place are sufficiently faraway, and because his visits to Rye were spent rolling down the slopes of his grandparents’ terraced lawn rather than exploring the town on his own, as he was a kid back then, obvs. (Him! Young! Alive before I was alive! Incomprehensible.)
Rye is a coastal town that is far from the sea as the water deserted it hundreds of years ago. It was, once upon a time, a Cinque Port (pron. ‘sink’), providing ships for the King’s service and receiving exemption from ‘tax and tallage, right of soc and sac, tol and team, blodwit and fledwit, pillory and tumbril, infangentheof and outfangentheof, mundbryce, waifs and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan.’ There are whole streets of charmingly centuries-old houses–still inhabited–which lean on each other, proudly showing their wood beams and whitewashed walls, bearing names such as ‘The First House’ (it’s number 1), ‘The House With The Seat’ (there’s a bench on the porch) and ‘The House Opposite’ (the Mermaid Inn, that is).
You can also get remarkably good breakfast there. I’m not usually one for a cooked English breakfast, most of the time choosing to cook myself a Thai breakfast of broth or omelette with rice, but I had a sudden craving for a fry-up when I got here. Due to our shared cat-like indolence we got up too late for breakfast at our hotel and so walked a mile into town, wandering under an appealing-looking archway with absolutely no idea where to go for food.
Stopping by the neat and friendly-looking Knoops, which specialises in fine chocolate drinks, proved fortuitous: the proprietor directed us, with enthusiasm and precision, to two places which do good breakfasts in Rye–Hayden’s, and The Apothecary, both on the High Street. After we were distracted by Rye Art Gallery (filled with things that are genuinely wonderful and interesting to look at) we chose Hayden’s and it was very fine. I had the lighter breakfast which is just the right amount, so it satisfied without tasting of the smug virtue of going without. The sausage was fine and herby and the bacon crisp and wonderfully smoked, with flavourful tomatoes, buttery, caramelised mushrooms and perfectly cooked eggs. It’s these differences which add depth of flavour and texture, making the fry-up a joy to eat rather than a chore of fat, starch and protein to work on.
Rye is a place which is fortunate enough to have several excellent fruiterers and a deli. I stopped off at the deli to buy mints in a cute cat tin for the girl I babysit and a jar of chilli bacon jam for the Pearents to spread on their sandwiches (they get through as much bread as they do rice, and love mature cheddar–and in the case of my dad, blue cheese). As my ultimate goal was to get myself to the beach, I pictured myself sitting on the sand, refreshed by the seawind and ripe fruit, so we bought a bag of lovely plump doughnut nectarines before we got the bus to Camber Sands. You can find doughnut peaches/nectarines–also flat peaches or saturn peaches–in supermarkets but you’ll often get the same quality for a better price in smaller grocers and/or Asian markets. They’ll be at their best and biggest in August.
The reality was that the seawind was strong and constant and chilling, carrying our voices away. The sand was damp and crumbly and surprised our feet with shells and rocks. Seagulls yelped at us as they stood barely a metre away from our huddle in the sand, eager for our food. How comically British! But my chips were delicious, salty and crisp, and the nectarine’s fragrant juice ran down my arm when I bit into its fine shoulder. The weather was cool and light-filled; my British skin effortlessly deepened to rich brown where it caught in the sun while Mr Pear’s British skin was, to put it mildly, lobster-like. It was more alarming to look upon than it was to actually possess, though.
Our second day in Rye involved a visit to Ypres Tower (pron. ‘wipers’), Rye Castle, made into a small museum. What especially held my attention was the Medieval Garden attached to it, which was being tended to by a person in medieval dress who acted, with seeming effortlessness, as gardener and tour guide. It was wonderful: she gave so much knowledge about the care that went into the garden as it is today, the medieval working gardens it was modelled after, and how the plants were useful to people centuries ago.
Such practicality is necessary, I feel: I notice that people nowadays–even some historians!–speak of the past so wistfully, as The Good Old Days where courtly people had charming speech and fine dress, without noting the well-attested material suffering underwent by those people. Fantasies of knights in shining armour grow less romantic when you understand that these people needed medlars (also known as ‘dog’s bottom’ and ‘open-arse’) as laxatives because of a troubled diet and that general hygiene was, let’s say, out of sync with our own (your knight love’s kiss would be redolent of onions and tartar, their skin scented with old sweat layered with pomanders).
I won’t leave you with those unappetising thoughts; let’s turn instead to Knoops‘ chocolate drinks, which are singularly delicious. We returned to Tower Forge and perched on the stools as we finished our drinks and planned final gift-buying. You choose your drink by cocoa percentage and then, if you like, from a long list of flavours and maybe a topping. I believe the marshmallows are hand-made, big fluffy bouncy sugar-dusted squares lying in a tray on the counter ready to be added to your drink if you so desire. I myself had the special, a chilled bicerin made with 53% cocoa, espresso, and whipped cream, and it was the finest thing I’d had in a long time, exceptionally smooth and rich. Mr. Pear enjoyed his own 53% iced chocolate drink and later said he wished that Knoops wasn’t quite so far away from London as it’d be nice to try different drinks there.
I’m deciding whether it’d be worth going to Rye solely for Knoops. Hmm…