Monday, June 30, 2008

Rye, Sussex

Rye is one of England’s most beautiful towns, a beguiling collection of tile-hung houses and cobbled streets. Its notable buildings range from a medieval church and fortifications to Georgian houses and it boasts a number of literary associations as the home both of Henry James and the Bensons. It’s easy just to soak in the beauty of it all and wander around in a state of permanent drop-jaw.

But this is to short-change Rye, which exists because it was a port and a working town. Its people were merchants, sailors, fishermen, and smugglers, and the money they made was as likely to be spent on basic needs like fresh water as on the refinements valued by the likes of Henry James.

So in the 1730s, the town invested £600 in an improved water supply. They ran an elm-wood pipeline into the centre of Rye, and built this cistern as a reservoir, completing the building work in 1735. Inside, the oval cistern, with a floor about 3 feet below ground level, is big enough to store 20,000 gallons of water. A pump allowed residents to draw water for their needs.

We’re used to seeing water towers from the 19th century, when piped water became widespread in Britain and water supply was organized on a regional basis. Rye’s cistern was a century ahead of these developments, reminding us that what we think of as this picturesque old town was once at the cutting edge.


Peter Ashley said...

I just love this building. Like everything the Georgians did it is full of simple gusto and civic pride. I will toast it in smuggled claret immediately.

Philip Wilkinson said...

And save a couple of bottles for me...