Up in the crow’s nest you can spot the foreigner.
The church of St Anthony of Padua has smuggled its Spanish-Romanesque campanile and dome into the Tudor and Jacobean roofscape of Rye, adding a flavour of Tuscan hill town to several centuries of clay-tile, timber-frame Sussex vernacular.
It fits in remarkably well.
Ship-shape Rye sails across the East Sussex marshes, land-locked on a cliff top from which the sea long-ago retreated. I’ve gained my vantage point by climbing the tower of another church, Anglican St Mary’s, which commands the summit.
From here I can observe a good deal of this seaside parish, which stretches to the village of Pett in the east, beyond Camber Sands to the Kent border in the west, and inland to Iden.
It’s a commanding vantage point – even on a day like today, when a brisk easterly is powering horizontal gusts of rain across the marshes and blurring my view of Winchelsea, the village on the next hilltop west.
Rye still has its connection to the sea. At the foot of the cliff is the River Rother, where a line of fishing boats is moored. The Rother snakes out through an industrial belt to the mainly Victorian hamlet of Rye Harbour, where the sea has retreated.
At my feet is Lamb House, once home of Henry James and later E F Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia novels that fictionalised Rye – but only just – as jolly, camp, Edwardian Tilling. From Lamb House I can trace the route along the narrow, pebble-cobbled roads to Watchbell Street and St Anthony’s.
The church is small; slipped into a terrace of old red brick houses on the lip of the cliffs. This is a Franciscan house and beside the church is a little Friary, home to Father Philip Doherty of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual.
The Greyfriars returned to this stretch of coast a century ago, reviving a tradition that was uprooted at the Reformation, and fanning the flames of Catholic revival in an area that still celebrates the Protestant martyrs in bonfire parades each November.
But while the Catholic tradition here might have been forced underground, it had not died. As the church guidebook tells: “Some of St Anthony’s congregation are direct descendents of a handful of people who kept the Old Faith alive here in the early 1800s. During penal times, Rye's fishermen smuggled priests to and from France.”
Fr Philip introduces me to two senior members of his congregation. Miss Audrey Hatter and Mrs Sheila Miller are sisters who have lived in Rye all their lives. Their father was a fisherman and their mother Irish, and a nurse.
“Physically, the town has changed hardly at all,” says Sheila, “but in terms of the people it has changed a great deal. There are so many visitors now – they are here all the year. And the shops; now there are lots of tea shops and gift shops, hardly any ordinary stores.
Audrey recalls Catholic life. “Social life tended to revolve around the big houses of the rich Catholic families,” she says. “They would have fetes and garden parties that all the Catholics would go to.”
In their grandfather’s time, Rye’s now highly prized Norman and Jacobean houses were fisherman’s cottages, and a row of four or five could be bought for a few score pounds.
It was the arrival of artists and writers that made Rye fashionable, and increasingly expensive.
Radclyffe Hall, the lesbian Catholic author of The Well of Loneliness, scandalised Rye when she set up home here in the Thirties with her lover Mabel Batten, a former mistress of Edward VII.
Audrey remembers her: “We thought ‘what an odd couple’. They had to make quite an entrance when they came into Mass. I was only eight or nine and I thought them very odd. She wore a trilby – a man’s hat. She gave a rood cross to the church.”
The Byzantine Rood Cross is magnificent; a blaze of gold and Roman red that strikes a powerful contrast with the cool cream of the church’s simple interior.
The sisters also remember E F Benson. Benson became mayor, and was a great benefactor. His father, Edward White Benson, was archbishop of Canterbury. One brother, Arthur, wrote the words of Land of Hope and Glory and another was a Catholic priest, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson.
Benson gave the beautiful stained glass west window to St Mary's in honour of his parents, and a north window for Arthur. He also paid for the renovation of St Mary’s organ, a gift replicated by his heroine Lucia in one of his novels.
The comedian Spike Milligan, who was periodically troubled by depression, settled in the town in the late Eighties and joined the congregation at St Anthony’s. He was often unable to attend through illness, and Father Philip recalls his predecessor telling him “I’ve taken the sacrament of the sick to that man more than to any other living soul.” He died in 2002, aged 83.
On Spike’s grave stone is a Gaelic inscription that translates as: “I told you I was ill.” Although his funeral was at St Anthony’s, Spike is buried not in the Catholic plot of Rye’s town cemetery but across the marsh at St Thomas’s in Winchelsea.
John Kilroy, another of Fr Philip’s parishioners, tells me Spike wanted to be buried there because he could see the church from Carpenters, his house on the outskirts of Rye.
The Prince of Wales sent a wreath of white roses with a hand-written card that read: "For Dear Spike, in grateful and affectionate memory."
Fr Philip celebrates the Greyfriars’ ancient connection with Winchelsea annually, with a mass in their ruined friary, which now stands in the grounds of a private house in Friars Road.
St Anthony’s was only the second Franciscan house to open in England during the refoundation. Key in this was the wealthy Sedley family, who came to Rye from Malta in 1906, bringing with them a Franciscan, Father Bonaventure Scebberas, as their chaplain. In 1910 Fr Bonaventure accepted the church of St Walburga, Rye. St Anthony’s replaced its Gothic forerunner in 1929, when the first church became too small.
After the Catholic Emancipation Act, the first parish stretched from Margate to Hastings, says Fr Philip, and the priest toured it on horseback. Early Masses were said in the house of a fisherman called James Head in 1847, on a bureau that now stands in the hallway of his Friary, and bears a commemorative plaque.
Father Philip is new to the parish – he has been here a matter of months - but he has known Rye for many years. Before becoming a parish priest in 1976 he taught at the Greyfriars’ school – later a seminary - in Canterbury.
In the early 70s he would co-celebrate mass at the Pontin’s holiday camp at Camber Sands and get a congregation of 300 in high summer. They were allowed to keep the collection, which was considerable. The Franciscans had a house at Winchelsea Beach, another big holiday area, and mass would be celebrated here too. “The place would be packed,” Fr Philip recalls. “People in the kitchen, in the garden, vaguely hearing Mass.”
His earlier parishes were in the industrial north of England – he is from Bradford – and he finds his Rye parishioners friendly, but more reserved. “You can’t cold call people in the south,” he says. “In the north you can just knock on the door and be welcomed in. You can’t do that here.” But, he stresses, Rye parishioners are close-knit, active and supportive.
Not that there aren’t challenges. “There are two problems in Rye – we have no Catholic school and the valuable housing stock means families can’t afford to live in the town.
“We don’t have a meeting hall – just this room. You can’t run a modern parish from a house like this.”
I say farewell to Fr Philip and his parishioners, and head down to Rye Harbour in search of the sea that has left the focal point of this seaside parish high and dry.
If you can see everything from the crows nest, then it follows that Rye itself can be seen from everywhere. And, sure enough, from the trim little docks where the Rother joins the English Channel, you can easily make out St Anthony of Padua, an unshakeable Catholic presence successfully replanted in the town’s silhouette.